The New York State Historical Association
Cooperstown, located in Otsego County, some 23 miles to the southwest of Sharon Springs (not the way the crow flies!), is known far and wide for various attractions. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is located there, drawing many tourists. In an earlier blog we wrote about the successful Glimmerglass Festival, located eight miles north of the town at the other end of Otsego Lake. And of course there is Cooperstown’s historical connection to the Cooper family.
Judge William Cooper moved to the region in 1790 from New Jersey and founded the Village of Otsego at the foot of Otsego Lake, part of the Cooper Patent. (Judge William Beekman, his contemporary in the neighboring county of Schoharie built the Beekman Farm.) His son James Fenimore Cooper, aged one at the time, grew up to be the novelist famous for the Leatherstocking Tales. William Cooper died in 1809; in 1812, the village of Otsego was named Cooperstown in his honor. In 1813, James Fenimore Cooper, who had been living in Westchester County since his marriage two years before, returned to Cooperstown to live at Fenimore Farm. On the site of his former farmhouse – now situated along State Highway 80, on the west side of lake, one mile north of the Village of Cooperstown – stands the Fenimore Art Museum. The museum is part of the New York State Historical Association (NYSHA), a private, non-governmental organization serving as a wonderful resource for any of us interested in history.
The New York State Historical Association was founded in 1899 by group of New Yorkers, the first meeting held in the village of Lake George at the southeastern base of the Adirondack Mountains. NYSHA’s mission was to create a center of historical studies including a museum and library, provide lectures and publications, and to locate markers at places of historic interest.
For two decades and a half, NYSHA was without a permanent home. In 1926, the industrialist and philanthropist Horace Moses donated the Hancock House in Ticonderoga, New York to NYSHA – the structure a replica of John Hancock’s house in Boston – along with an endowment to help cover the organization’s operating costs. In 1939, Stephen Carlton Clark, Sr., offered NYSHA a new home – one of his family’s properties, a neo-Georgian structure built in 1932 on the site of the former Cooper farmhouse and named the Fenimore House for the historical connection. Clark, the grandson of Edward Clark, a founding partner of the sewing machine makers I.M. Singer & Co. (now known as the Singer Company), was a renowned art collector and a founding trustee of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. His vision was that the Fenimore House be used as both an administrative headquarters for NYSHA and as a museum and library. Stephen Clark also contributed to Cooperstown as a tourist and cultural center through his involvement with the building of the Otesaga Resort Hotel and the founding of National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
NYSHA’s Fenimore House Museum – renamed the Fenimore Art Museum in 1999 – is known for its American folk art collection, including paintings, carvings, decorated wares, trade signs, quilts, ship figureheads, weathervanes, and cigar-store figures. Its fine art collection is also extensive, including many works by painters of the Hudson River School. The Smith and Telfer Photographic Collection consists of 60,000 photos documenting the history of Cooperstown and its people. The museum also has a collection of life masks of famous Americans, such as Thomas Jefferson.
In 1995, a 18,000-square-foot wing was added to the Fenimore House for the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection, works from many Native North American peoples, including those of the Northwest Coast, Southwest, Woodlands, Plains, Southwest, California, Great Basin, and Arctic. The Thaws assembled the pieces with an eye for their powerful aesthetic and to prove that Native American artworks are equivalent to those of any culture. The collection has been part of touring exhibitions and programs sponsored by the museum, in many instances with the involvement of Native peoples.
Earlier, in 1968, a separate structure was built next to the Fenimore House for the NYSHA Research Library. Over the years, since 1899, the library has assembled extensive collections, relating especially to New York State and colonial history and culture, folklore, Native American studies, 19th-century American art history, and museum studies. The Special Collections Department has a wide variety of materials, including rare books, manuscripts, archival collections, maps, broadsides, and ephemera. The Research Library has also been a genealogical source for many regional inhabitants. Wayne Wright, the Head Librarian at NYSHA, states: “The library’s local history and genealogical resources are extensive for a number of New York counties, especially Otsego, Schoharie, Montgomery, Herkimer, and Chenango.”
In 1919, NYSHA began its publication of The Quarterly Journal of the New York State Historical Association, with scholarly articles on the history of New York State. The name was changed to New York History in 1932. In 1984, NYSHA also began publication of a popular history magazine, Heritage, in order to reach a broader audience.
With so much to offer, NYSHA has been a perfect location as an educational center. In 1964, NYSHA and the State University of New York College at Oneonta formed a partnership to create the Cooperstown Graduate Program, offering a two-year course of study for a Master of Arts degree in History Museum Studies (until 1979, also offering a degree in American Folk Culture, and, until 1987, also offering a degree in Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works). The Research Library has kept a collection of the student theses about local history in the Archive of New York State Folklife.
Across the road from the Fenimore Art Museum and Research Library – on the grounds of what was once James Fenimore Cooper’s farmstead and redeveloped as a farm in the 20th century by Stephen Carlton Clark’s brother Edward Severin Clark – is NYSHA’s sister organization, The Farmers’ Museum. It includes the Main Barn, housing offices and exhibits; the working Empire State Carousel and accompanying Country Fair; the Historic Village, comprising 23 buildings of the late 18th and early 19th centuries gathered from around New York State, such as a blacksmith shop and smokehouse; and the Lippitt Farmstead, a living example of how a farm would have operated in the mid-19th-century. The Farmer’s Museum has some 23,000 artifacts relating to early farming.
The region – and beyond! – is lucky to have this center of historical activity, the New York State Historical Association. For any of you visiting Sharon Springs with an eye for history, take in what Cooperstown and NYSHA have to offer as well. Wayne Wright, NYSHA’s Head Librarian, further states: “During my three-and-a-half decades at the Historical Association, I’ve witnessed firsthand its importance to the community at large in the dissemination of knowledge, the preservation of artifacts, and the education of individuals pursuing careers in museum studies. I’m happy to report that the pursuit of history endures!”
The History Boys are
Chris Campbell has made his permanent home in Cherry Valley, NY. The Campbell family dates back to 1739 in this town, situated about eight miles from Sharon Springs. Some family members were captured by Tories and Iroquois allies in the Cherry Valley Massacre of 1778 during the American Revolution and taken to Canada, released two years later in Albany as part of a prisoner exchange. Chris is a rare book and map collector and has had a lifelong interest in history, especially relating to upstate New York and colonial land patents. He was the founder and first chairman of the Cherry Valley Planning Board and has worked as a surveyor and realtor as well as a researcher for the Otsego County map department. His hobbies include Ham radio.
Carl Waldman, also living in Cherry Valley, is a former archivist for the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown. He is he author of a number of reference books published by Facts On File, including Atlas of the North American Indian and Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, both originally published in the 1980s and both in their third editions. He is the co-author of Encyclopedia of Exploration (2005) and Encyclopedia of European Peoples (2006). Carl has also done screenwriting about Native Americans, including an episode of Miami Vice entitled “Indian Wars” and the Legend of Two-Path, a drama about the Native American side of Raleigh’s Lost Colony, shown at Festival Park on Roanoke Island in North Carolina. His hobbies include music and he works with young people in the Performance and Production Workshops at the Cherry Valley Old School.
Carl has recently published an ebook through Alva Press, Streetscape: A Jake Soho Mystery