ABOVE PHOTO: Gehrig, Robinson and Clemente in the Basebal Hall of Fame.
By Renée S. Gordon
“History, like love, is so apt to surround her heroes with an atmosphere of imaginary brightness.”
–James Fenimore Cooper
Archeologists have shown that the beauty and bounty of Central New York has attracted travelers since prehistoric times. Native Americans knew Lake Ostego, in the heart of the region, as the “meeting place by the water” because the various tribes gathered there to camp and fish. The lake, the source of the Susquehanna River, is part of a 72-mile watershed that empties into Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Surrounding the lake are areas of farmland, primeval forest and gentle slopes that appear unchanged for hundreds of years. Cooperstown is a focal point in the region.
“Have we, the first holders of this prosperous region, no longer a share in your history!” –Cayuga Chief Peter Wilson 1847
The earliest documented non-indigenous explorers were Dutchmen who made the journey to the lake in 1612. Traders and trappers soon followed using established Indian trails to reach deep into the interior. Nearly 150 years later, the Rev. J. Hartwick established the first settlement in 1761. He soon vacated the area and in 1770 George Croghan moved into a home he built on the lake and also abandoned his home because of the threat of Indian raids.
Judge William Cooper founded the current village in 1786 at the southern end of the lake after moving from Burlington, New Jersey. He selected land that had been both a meeting place and a burial mound. Bones were subsequently found near Council Rock, a boulder that can still be seen in Cooperstown, and were reinterred respectfully. William built a Federal-style home, Ostego Hall, in the village and proceeded to sell lakeside lots. He almost singlehandedly created a rural community based on the splendor of the pristine “first frontier.” Cooperstown was named in his honor. www.thisiscooperstown.com
William’s son, James Fenimore, was born in New Jersey in 1789 but spent most of his youth in Cooperstown. He would go on to become one of the first, most prolific and most popular American authors using what came to be known as the Leatherstocking region as the backdrop for his novels. His most famous works are The Last of the Mohicans and The Deerslayer. His most memorable characters are Natty Bumppo, also known as Hawkeye and Chingachgook. The popularity of his novels brought tourists to the area in the mid-1800s because then, as today, places in the novels are visible and little changed. Cooper’s 9-mile long Glimmerglass Lake is Lake Ostega and it plays a significant role in his books, as does the land on both shores. Bumppo’s hut and his cave and the gravesite of Chingachgook are located there and boat tours are offered that allow modern tourists to view book locations not easily seen from shore. A seated statue of the author is on the grounds of Cooper Park. The bronze sculpture, dedicated in 1940, depicts Cooper seated on a boulder clad in the attire of a 19th-century gentleman.
The neo-Georgian Fenimore Art Museum is on the site of James’ farm. The collection is outstanding and features more than 80,000 rotating artworks with an emphasis on American art. Highlights of the permanent collection are 23 paintings by Winslow Homer, the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection consisting of approximately 850 indigenous American objects and the Cooper Room honoring James Fenimore. The building has been showcased in Architectural Digest. www.fenimoreartmuseum.org
George Clarke’s Hyde Hall, a New York State Historic Site and National Historic Landmark, is an exemplary Neoclassical mansion that is one of the earliest examples of adaption of the English country manor architectural style in America. It is believed to be the largest private residence built between the Revolution and the Civil War. The 1835, 50-room house, was approached via a mile long driveway designed to awe visitors. Unique interior elements include vapor light chandeliers, the only ones in the world still in their original position, an elaborate frieze and original family furniture. Hyde Hall is believed to be haunted and has been the subject of a “Ghost Hunters” episode. www.hydehall.org
“A hot dog at the ballgame beats roast beef at the Ritz.” Humphrey Bogart
Seventy-five years ago, on June 12, 1939, baseball fans swarmed into Cooperstown to celebrate a century of America’s favorite sport and to attend the opening of the nation’s first sports hall of fame, the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum (NBHFM). To the strains of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” a ribbon was cut and the one-room museum was opened. Doubleday Field, the land on which Doubleday played the first game, was purchased on September 29, 1923 by the village. The hall is located two blocks away.
Historians disagree on who invented the game but the theory is that it was solely an American creation of Major General Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown. It is widely held that it was played largely in the North and northern Civil War POWs played it in prison camps and southerners learned it from them. African Americans can trace their introduction to the game to 1862 when blacks were among 40,000 spectators who watched “baseballists” play the game at a Union encampment on Hilton Head, SC.
The museum’s mission is to honor, preserve, educate and present all things baseball. It is filled with memorabilia, photographs and artifacts and you can easily spend the day here. The museum’s galleries are spread throughout three floors and it is recommended that you begin your visit on the second level with the Cooperstown Room and “The Baseball Experience,” a 13-minute multimedia presentation. The museum’s galleries celebrate diversity with women’s contributions being featured in “Diamond Dreams.” The African American experience is explored, both pre and post segregation, in “Pride and Passion.” The Hank Aaron Gallery of Records, and “Chasing the Dream,” recounts his career from the Negro Leagues to his ongoing philanthropic efforts.
“We lived with anger and we played with pride.” the Rev. William Greason, Negro League Player
What brings most people to the NBHFM is a chance to enter the Hall of Fame Gallery and see the bronze plaques honoring a mere 1 percent of all the Major League players. Nine Negro League players are among the 300 inductees. Plaques contain an etched picture of the player, a bio and his stats.
Recently the museum has partnered with the Google Cultural Institute in an effort to use technology to expand the offerings and the audience of the NBHFM. Exhibits will now be accessible globally through digitization. www.baseballhall.org
The jewel known as Sylvan Beach is located on the eastern shore of the 22-mile Lake Oneida, the state’s largest lake. Prior to the completion of the Erie Canal the area was referred to as Fish Creek and an early settler was George Haskins. James Spencer established a community in the area he renamed Spencer’s Grove in the late 1870s and in 1886 the village officially became Sylvan Beach because of the newly constructed railroad depot. It quickly became a resort town that was renowned for its entertainment venues, amusement park, 2.5-mile beach and some of the best bass fishing in the country. Vacationers arrived by boat and train and among them were A-list entertainers of the day. www.sylvanbeachny.com
Sylvan Beach is much quieter now, but it is still a wonderful place to visit. This quaint community continues to be rated one of the top 100 places in the country for bass fishing and the beach is groomed daily. The Sylvan Beach Amusement Park has more than 25 amusements including the Galaxi Coaster, Kiddieland and Bumper Cars and Boats. The amusement park has been the scene of numerous hauntings and has been featured on “Ghost Hunters.” www.sylvanbeachamusementpark.com
Carello’s Carousel Arcade is a must. The arcade was constructed to showcase the historic 1896 carousel with wooden, handpainted, animals. You must have your photo taken in the booth here. It is original, uses old-fashioned chemicals and produces a strip of photos that do not fade. Carello’s is the home of “Zoltar the Fortune Teller” that appears in the movie Big. The arcade also has numerous traditional games.
Sylvan Beach Union Chapel is a short walk from the park. It was constructed in 1887 for nondenominational worship. The chapel is original with architecturally unique doors along the sides that swing out and up. It was the setting for Liza Minnelli’s first kiss in the movie Sterile Cuckoo.
Sylvan Beach presents a number of special events throughout the year. From July 17th -20th will be Pirate’s Weekend. This family friendly event promises to be lots of fun and I guarantee an appearance by Sylvan Beach’s own Jack Sparrow. www.sylvanbeachny.com/things-to-do/pirates-weekend
A quick stop is warranted at the nearby Verona Beach Lighthouse, one of only three built on Lake Oneida.
Although there were settlers in the area as early as the 1780s the village of Canastota was established at the time of the Erie Canal and was incorporated in 1835. The town is most famous for being the home of two World Boxing Champions, Carmen Basilio and Billy Backus. www.canastota.com
“Now, whoever has courage and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forward, lace on the gloves and put up his hands.” Virgil
Ring Magazine founded the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954 and supported it until 1987. During that period they inducted nearly 200 members. In 1989 the International Hall of Fame (IBHOF) moved to Canastota, New York. The IBHOF preserves, commemorates and honors the career and legacy of those who had the most significant impact on the field of boxing. This is the only boxing hall of Fame in the world. Tours of the main building include showcases that interpret boxing history, displays on individual boxers, historic documents and posters and memorabilia.
There is a wonderful display of fist castings taken by Walter Jacobs. Jacobs was a dentist who advanced the art of making custom rubberized mouthpieces for boxers. He began asking them to allow him to make a mold of their fists and eventually had a collection of more than 40 bronze sets that included Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey. He died in 1992 and the IBHOF now holds the collection.
The real jewel in the IBHOF’s crown is in an annex adjacent to the main building. Visitors step inside and there it is, the original boxing ring from Madison Square Garden, only the canvas has been changed. The 18.6-ft. square ring was retired on September 19, 2007 after an 82-year career. The first fight took place in 1925 and a trail of champions, Ali, Bowe, Dempsey, Frazier, Holyfield, LaMotta, Louis, Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Toney, and Walcott fought in that ring until 2007. The ring’s framework weighs more than a ton and is made up of 132 linking pieces. Attention should be paid to the ropes and poles and special notice should be taken of the posts because the Garden’s posts are the only ones equipped with lights on top. Don’t miss this experience. www.IBHOF.com
Binghamton is located in the center of the state a few miles north of the Pennsylvania line where the Susquehanna and Chenango Rivers meet. It was known as Chenango Point until Philadelphian William Bingham, at one point the wealthiest man in the nation, purchased 10,000-acres to establish the town that was named in his honor. Binghamton benefitted from the canal and was incorporated in 1867. www.visitbinghamton.org
The historic Roberson Museum and Science Center is probably the most unique venue in the city. It is a combination Binghamton Visitors Center, historic home, history museum, and Digital Planetarium and Science Center in a single complex.
Architect Edward Vosbury designed the Italian Renaissance Roberson Mansion with interior designs by a NY firm. Completed in 1907 for $107,500, the house incorporated all the cutting edge technology including central heating, a wrought iron elevator, electric lighting and an intercom system. There were 26 rooms, each of the six bedrooms in the mansion had a private bath and there was a ballroom and billiard room. Seven servants lived and worked in a three story wing at the rear of the home. Because the house lacks furnishings visitors are able to fully admire the architectural and decorative elements that set the house apart. Guided tours are available and yes, the house is reputedly haunted. www.roberson.org
The museum focuses on regional history and currently has “Journey From Our Prehistoric Past” on loan. The premiere exhibit for the commemoration of the Civil War is an exhibition titled “The Civil War.” The exhibit presents a holistic story of the conflict by telling the stories of 12 individuals from the region.
All of the attractions I have presented in these articles are within driving distance of one another and the trip to the area from Philadelphia can be accomplished in a little over three hours or on the train. Central New York is so near and so unique that you must experience it for yourself.
I wish you smooth travels!