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A Century Of Cooperstown

July 2024
4min read

For a village of only 2,700 souls, peaceful Cooperstown, on Lake Otsego, New York, has enjoyed a modest fame. Most people know it as the home of novelist James Fenimore Cooper, a beautiful resort, and as the place where baseball was supposedly invented by Abner Doubleday. Less well-known, but of increasing interest to regional historians and lovers of the American scene, is the record left by the two Cooperstown photographers shown above—Washington G. Smith and Arthur J. (Putt) Telfer.

From 1850, when Smith set up shop as the town’s first photographer, until 1954 when his successor, Telfer, died at the age of 95, the partners spent a century at their trade, recording just about every aspect of village life and making portraits of almost everyone in town. Their work, unlike most such collections, has not been lost. Some 60,000 negatives, almost all on glass, have been preserved through the efforts of the New York State Historical Association at Cooperstown, their Tvresent owner.

Smith’s and Telfer’s visual social history will be poignantly familiar to many who have never set foot in Cooperstown itself. For thousands of such towns dot the face of the American landscape, and the look of the people living in them and the things they did for their amusement have a universal quality in the national folk-memory.

The Town and Its Lake

Cooperstown cannot merely be described as a small town. It is a small town and a lake. Cooper called the lake “The Glimmerglass” and the people of the town live within the reaches of its beauty. The town has always been simple, as these two early views of its Main Street indicate. In 1862 a fire destroyed a third of the business section, and people used to play croquet in this open lot (below). Haywains would sometimes crowd the streets before autos and trolleys came. And it was so very pleasant to drive a few miles to one’s cottage on the lake shore (left) and enjoy the view from the veranda.

Beards for The Men

After a clean-shaven beginning, America turned suddenly to a wide variety of hirsute appendages around 1859 and 1860, no one remembers why. The change can be seen in Brady’s portraits, and it can be seen in Cooperstown; of the 60,000 negatives in this collection, almost 90 per cent are portraits of the town’s citizens over the years, and the variety of Vandykes, imperials, mutton chops, goatees, sideburns, and assorted mustaches is awe-inspiring.

Bonnets for The Ladies

The Ladies (God bless them) took second place to no man in their own efforts to appear distinctive in front of the lens. Hats, large, floral, and florid, were de rigueur for a formal portrait, and it is comforting to see that high, if not absolutely towering, fashion did not pass Cooperstown by. The majority of these portraits were taken around the turn of the century when feathers (with the exception of the lone male fedora) ruled supreme on each high-crowned roost.

Fauntleroys and Little Women

When Putt TeIfer was offered a job by Smith, there was some doubt in his mind whether photography would be a permanent business or just a passing fad. Smith told the younger man that as long as there were babies being born there was no need to worry, and the thousands of pictures of Cooperstown children taken by the two men prove that Smith knew his parent psychology. Mothers outfitted their daughters in their best finery, but they really outdid themselves, and Frances Hodgson Burnett as well, when it came to portraits of their golden-ringleted sons (right). Only boys safe in the orphanage (below) escaped the Fauntleroy fad in their annual picture.

The Busches, the brewing family from St.Louis, were attracted to Cooperstown in the 1890 ‘s by the fine hopproducing areas surrounding it. Like the Clarks, heirs to part of the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, they have long been prominent summer residents. In 1926, August A. Busch with his two grandchildren placed a heavy burden on the family goat cart.

Fairs, Friends and Festivals

Smith’s and Telfer’s were called upon to photograph pretty nearly everything that went on in and around town. They snapped the bride at the Bundy-Tennant wedding in 1908, and a tableau at the girls’ orphanage in 1918 (far left). They covered Fourth of July parades and made a nice candid shot of Teddy Roosevelt when he visited Cooperstown in 1914 (left). And, of course, they recorded the Otsego County fairs, with their snappy chorus lines and the fearless birdman, “Professor” Myers (right).

Sporting Life: on land, on sea, in the air

Doubleday Field (right) is named after the Civil War general whom some researchers claim invented baseball. (Others disagree and Abner Doubleday himself made no claims.) It is situated right in the center of town, near the National Baseball Museum.

Because of the lake, baseball, and two fine golf courses, Cooperstown has been much more active in sports than most villages of its size. In addition, “Professor” W. H. Martin (low man at right in the three-man stand), for years the gym instructor at the Clark Gymnasium, coached many boys in the town in the arts of tumbling and trapeze work. Guy Palmer (upper left), who joined a circus, was one of his pupils. TeIfer took annual posed pictures of the high school football team (above) as well as such random and charming shots as the single sculler on the lake and two precariously perched bicyclists of the early eighties.

In The Good Old Summertime

The lake served this lady aquaplaner well, but serious fishermen disdained it and took off northward by trolley.

With beautiful Lake Otsego at their front door, Cooperstonians have always enjoyed a ready-made summer playground. Group swimming parties and picnics by Leatherstocking Falls (left) were favorite pastimes in 1903 when these pictures were taken. But the girls’ camp known as Pathfinder Lodge, which inspired its campers to such posturing as that at right, has given way to one run by the Baptist Church—and now the ghost of the Deerslayer, who trod these shores, can once again rest quietly in the grave.

Capers and Characters

To a good half of humanity, the very sight of a camera does odd things: They primp, they preen, they put on funny hats, they “mug.” From the cut-ups above to the girls below, Cooperstown has been no exception to the rules which require fire chiefs (far right) to show off and little boys caught knitting to look embarrassed (patriotic fervor trapped them during World War I). A sadder note, however, is struck by Crazy Kate (right), who did not know her picture was being taken. Every town used to have its village eccentric ; and every town accepted and understood.

A Biginning and an End

Putt Telfer stands more than a few notches above the good country photographer that he was. He had imagination, an awareness of the dramatic, and an excellent sense of composition. Back in 1913 when Telfer was 54, he snapped the fine picture (above) of an “aeroplane” piloted by E. V. Fritts at the Fair Grounds. A quarter of a century (and many thousand pictures) later, Telfer at 79 climbed up a flight of stairs and took the picture at right from the second floor window of a building on Main Street. It was the funeral of Joel White, Cooperstown’s last Civil War veteran, who died in 1938. While State Trooper Jack Cunningham saluted the riderless horse, Telfer captured the end of an era.

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