Thursday, January 29, 2009

Cooperstown Pursuit #1

By: Kate Betz, Manager of Public Programs
Though many people may think of the current Fenimore Art Museum building as the only building that has ever stood on this property, this is actually far from true. One of the first people to live on this property was none other than novelist James Fenimore Cooper.

This lovely cottage became the home of James and his family during their early days in Cooperstown. While living in the small cottage, Cooper was in the process of constructing a new stone manor house. If you’re familiar with the area, it would have been located on the lake side of the Leatherstocking Golf Course across from where the Schoolhouse now stands at The Farmers’ Museum.

Susan Cooper, James’ daughter, remembered the building process in a story meant for her children: “I remember distinctly going with them to the new stone house, then building. In that house they expected to pass their lives. But in fact it was never inhabited. Your grandfather one day chose an even stone, to be placed in the wall, and carved on it his own name and that of your grandmother, with the date—1816.”

Indeed, the family never lived in the house. As it turns out, economic recessions are nothing new in this country, and because of declining Cooper finances and the recent death of James’ mother, the family moved to Westchester County and the house stood empty.

In 1823, the stone house—likely the original structure to be given the name “Fenimore”—was badly damaged by a fire. As it turns out, arsonists are also nothing new in this country either.

In spite of this spate of bad luck, the stone manor’s building materials were not wasted. In 1826, the stones from the manor house were used in the construction of the twin stone buildings that can still be seen today at 51 and 53 Pioneer Street in the village of Cooperstown. An early example of recycling at its finest!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Sledding in Cooperstown

By: Michelle Murdock, Curator of Exhibitions
When’s the last time you went sledding? I’m fortunate to have a terrific sledding hill at my house, which my family and I use as much as possible. We especially like to sled by moonlight with our friends.

Kids in Cooperstown have sledded at today’s Bassett Hall since the late 19th century. This treasured tradition is just one of many elements that make up the community’s shared memory. Susan Fenimore Cooper, daughter of the novelist James Fenimore Cooper, founded the Orphanage in 1870. Over the years it underwent a name change, fire, and renovations, and finally closed in 1942. Since then, the building at the corner of Beaver Street and Susquehanna Avenue has been a part of the Bassett Healthcare complex, serving as a nurses’ residence, office space, and meeting place. A sledding weathervane atop the building is an all-season reminder of a continuing tradition.

Maybe there’s a park near you with a little hill you could sled down? Bundle up, gather your friends, and make a few snow angels while you’re at it!

Sledding at the Orphanage, 1913
Smith & Telfer Collection, 5-1676

Monday, January 12, 2009

What the Barley Fork Reaped…"Let’s Buy Thirteen"

By: Paul D'Ambrosio, Vice President & Chief Curator
When the New York State Historical Association Board Chairman and chief patron Stephen C. Clark hired Dr. Louis C. Jones in 1947 to lead the Association that he had brought to Cooperstown, the two of them made an unlikely team. Clark was a scion of the Singer Manufacturing Company fortune and a great collector of Post-Impressionist and Early Modern art, while Jones was an academic who was teaching English at the State College for Teachers in Albany. Jones initially did not want the job; his interests were local history and folklore. He was actually a member of a group that called itself The Society for Connoisseurship in Murder. It says a lot about Lou Jones’s personality that he was once quoted as saying “I personally like murders much better than riots. They have a kind of intimacy that the larger gatherings lack.”

Yet Jones and Clark made an effective team, with Clark providing resources and collections and Jones developing innovative educational programs and advocating for the folk arts on a national level.

Their foray into American folk art began shortly after Jones was hired, when he and his curator Janet MacFarlane were discussing a barley fork that was in The Farmers’ Museum collection. They both felt that the barley fork showed the creative side of rural folk, an appropriate adjunct to the story of folk life told at The Farmers’ Museum. It gave them the idea of mounting an exhibition of this and other hand tools that were noteworthy by virtue of their design.

Jones recalled that Mr. Clark was enthusiastic about their idea and showed an immediate understanding of what constituted American folk art. Before the tool exhibit could even be mounted, Clark asked Jones to meet him at the Riverdale estate of Elie Nadelman, the Polish-born modernist sculptor who had been collecting folk art since the 1920s. Nadelman had opened one of the first museums devoted to this material at his home. From a house overflowing with all kinds of folk art, Clark asked Jones to pick out twelve pieces for the museum. After reviewing Jones’ selections, Clark said “I agree with you on eleven of them; let’s buy thirteen.” Their choices, national in scope and of the highest quality, foresaw the future character of the NYSHA folk art collection now housed at the Fenimore Art Museum.
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