Cooperstown is a destination rooted in myth. Abner Doubleday did not, most certainly, invent baseball on a grassy area while he was a military school cadet.
And yet, it is that myth anchoring the village’s notoriety as the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Indeed, Cooperstown is synonymous with baseball. Its beauty, charm, and allure derives from an old-fashioned aura allowing for a leisurely walk on Main Street, which, of course, is dotted with baseball memorabilia shops. There is no hurry in Cooperstown, no need to be anywhere. One feels as if time is longer, so a quickened step need not be employed. This pace continues when visitors to the Hall of Fame look at the inductees’ plaques boasting short biographies and summaries of statistics. They look with reverence, sometimes awe, at plaques, artwork, and exhibits honoring people, events, and artifacts of the National Pastime.
Cooperstown’s name derives from William Cooper, the patriarch who fathered novelist James Fenimore Cooper, he of an outstanding body of work including The Last of the Mohicans, The Deerslayer, and The Pathfinder.
William Cooper established Cooperstown in 1786, during the period when the colonies took their first steps toward independence from Great Britain. “He bought a huge tract of wilderness from a bankrupt Tory sympathizer, George Croghan, and sold part of it to anyone who wished to buy, given them seven to 10 years to pay off the debt but not exacting any other commitments,” states the Hall of Fame web site. “This was a marked contrast to the prevalent practice of indentured servitude. In effect, Cooper conceived of the first planned community and did all he could to make it succeed. Knowing that life was incredibly hard on the frontier, he generously used his own funds to buy food for the winter and the means for establishing maple sugar and potash works to help the early settlers survive.”
Cooper’s Town, as it was originally called, borders Lake Otsego. Naturally, Cooper was the first judge in Otsego County. Hugh C. MacDougall of the James Fenimore Cooper Society authored Making a Place Historic: The Coopers and Cooperstown, reproduced on the society’s web site, which indicates that MacDougall first wrote it for a meeting of Central New York Municipal Historians and then provided to several local groups as a lecture.
“In A Guide in the Wildneress, William Cooper outlined three basic principles for successful settlement projects: Land should be sold outright, rather than leased, so that settlers would be working for themselves and not for others,” recounted MacDougall. “Developers should, as he did, live among their settlers, to aid and encourage them by deed and by example. And villages should be compact, so that merchants and craftsmen would stick to their trades, and be available when farmers from the surrounding countryside needed them.
“Though William Cooper was unable to repeat his Cooperstown success elsewhere, in part because he sometimes failed to follow his own advice, and though his political star fell with the rise of the Jeffersonians, Cooperstown itself remained loyal to him. He repaid that loyalty by working to give the new village an academy, several churches, a library, and even a water supply.”
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 17, 2016.