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NSG Visit August 24, 2002

The Farmers' Museum and
Fenimore Art Museum

Cooperstown, New York

by

Bill Treichler

Just after ten o'clock, on the showery Saturday morning of August 24, 2002, members of the Society gathered in the Stone Barn entrance hall to the Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown, New York. After folding umbrellas, greeting each other and glancing at the brochures received when we bought our tickets, we wandered through an exhibition of hop production in New York. There were displays of equipment in front of old photographs enlarged to life-size showing hop cultivators and harvesters both at work and picnicking. The exhibit took up much of the ground floor.

On the floor above, were many displays of horse vehicles and of farm-related enterprises. In an elevated loft area, above the large room just inside the entrance, was the Carroll Home Room with a scenic wall mural painted by William Price in 1831. This wall had been removed from a house on the Cherry Valley Turnpike. The floor was stenciled with a pattern used in an 1816 house in Cooperstown. Several chairs in the room had been painted by Roy Keeler Bartlett (1906 - 2002) and all around were other examples of wooden ware and tinware that he had decorated with paint, as well as pieces of furniture he had refinished. Mr. Bartlett spent 70 years painting household pieces and instructing others in the art. He received his early training at the Mechanics Institute, now Rochester Institute of Technology.

We returned to the ground floor and stood for a moment in the back door, then hurried down the path through sprinkling raindrops to the building that houses the American Paper-Staining Manufactory, an enterprise of the Farmers' Museum that prints colored designs on hand-made, cotton-fiber paper. Different colors are applied with successive impressions of paint-coated carved wood blocks. Five different documented patterns are printed in true historic colors onto paper used to cover five sizes of oval band boxes that are for sale. The shop also produces exact reproduction wallpapers which are pricey.

Returning to the walkway and avoiding the puddles from the intermittent showers, we went up a path to a large tent covering the half-buried "Cardiff Giant" a popular hoax of the 1860s. The figure had been realistically carved, buried and then "discovered" for the curiosity of many and the profit of showmen.

Passing on we entered the Museum's re-created 19th-century village and visited Todd's General Store built in 1828 in Toddsville, New York, then walked on past the Morey Barn and the Morey Drive Shed to the Middlefield Printing Office where an operating Washington flat-bed press turns out handbills such as the sheet titled Scale of Progress from Temperance to Intemperance. It is taken from a c.1838 pamphlet of "the celebrated Dr. Rush." By observing the scale, you can check your prospects, beginning at the highest level of the scale, 70, from drinking water which is conducive to "Health and Wealth," down through milk and water and small beer-Serenity of Mind, Reputation, Long life and Happiness-then descending through cider and perry at 40, to wine at 30, porter, 20, strong beer at 10, all of which will import "Cheerfulness, Strength and Nourishment, when taken only in small quantities and at meals." Below the zero mid-point where the scale reverses and Intemperance begins, comes punch which causes the vice of Idleness, the disease of Sickness and the punishment of Debt. On down, Toddy and egg rum result in tremors that end in Jail. Brandy and water, 30, flip and water, 40, lead to lying, sore legs and the hospital. Bitters and cordials and Drams, 60, to Drams taken morning and evening and during day and night, 70, will cause burglary and murder and bring life imprisonment or the gallows.

From the print shop, we walked on down Main Street and looked into Dr. Jackson's office that had been built about 1840 in Westford. Next we entered the 1830 cupaloed square brick pharmacy of Dr. Thrall where the druggist makes his own vanilla extract which he had for sale at a nominal price. He also showed us glass tubes that he uses to make gelatin capsules that druggists would have used to encase medicine that was bitter or powdery.

We continued on to Samuel Nelson's Cooperstown law office. Nelson later became a Justice of the Supreme Court. He was owner from 1827 until the 1870s of this very land which he ran as a sheep farm. It came to be known as Fenimore Farm.

The farm was acquired by the Clark family and in 1918 Edward Severin Clark had built a large stone barn with flanking silos, a creamery and a herdsman's cottage for a modern dairy operation. The barn exists today as the main entrance and exhibit hall, the creamery as the Stained-Paper Manufactory, and the cottage as the Herder's Cottage Restaurant.

Beyond the law office and the handsome Cornwallville Church is the group of early 19th-century farm buildings known as the Lippitt Farmstead from the farmhouse moved here from Hinman Hollow that had been the Lippitt family home. Several barns, sheds, a granary and small buildings have been gathered from farms in New York. We saw the Devon cattle that are kept here and talked with the "farmers." I was particularly interested in a structure formed of saplings woven around posts set in the ground in a circle. A farmer my age told us that it is to be a turkey shelter. A conical roof, is to be carried on poles radiating downward from a central pole to the posts of the wall. The farmer said they haven't decided yet what to use for the roof itself-thatch or some other covering. We also admired the down-to-the-knees smocks that the farmers wore. I want a change of these for milking and chore work.

We had very pleasant conversations with the pleasant, forth coming, informed and costumed people at the Museum. I do wish that someone could come up with a better term than "Interpreter"-as though museum visitors are novices, or "Docents"-so ancient and academic, or "Re-enactors"-so artificial.

I had heard that the Museum had a Jacquard loom attachment for weaving detailed coverlets and I asked the women working at looms if I could see it. None knew if the Museum possessed such a device. Beautiful coverlets with intricate designs were woven in many places-we saw in the Fenimore Art Museum a handsome Ira Hadsel coverlet from Palmyra. Where have the Jacquard and barrel patterning devices gone?

The highlight of our day was the group's tour of the More House. Gary Lehmann took us through all of the rooms in this 1818 Federal-style house from Roxbury in Delaware County. The house has classical proportions, large 12 over 12 windows below and 12 over 8 windows above. The newly-painted brownish-red front door has yellow panels matching yellow panels under the sidelights. We entered the front hall and turned into the dining room where a table was already set with imported blue ware dished plates on a white cloth. Through this room we went into the kitchen that runs nearly across the back of the house. There is a doorway through a short pantry at the far end to the outside. In the middle of the inner wall is an immense fireplace backed up against the corner fireplaces in the front rooms.

The upstairs room arrangement is the same as the first floor. The room to the left beyond the landing has ornate trim around the windows and door openings. This room was used as a meeting room for Masons. There is a small doorway opening to a narrow walkway past the massive central chimney to a doorway in the other bedroom. Did this passageway have anything to do with Masonic rituals? Or was it to keep watch on the condition of the chimney above the fireplaces? Or just to let heat from the chimney enter the bedroom and meeting room?

The room to the right, off the top of the stairs, is a bedroom from which a door leads into a long back room above the kitchen. Here restoration work is in progress. Gary explained that work goes slowly because it is so expensive: consulting fees are high and "accurate" reproduction fittings cost tremendously. He told us that a single hand- forged nail to fasten the split lath to the scantlings costs 39. Someone in the group said, "But the nails are covered with plaster."

"Well, you like to know that the whole wall is authentic."

"But modern insulation has been placed in the wall, it isn't the same as the original wall."

Museum consulting became a growth industry as a result of funds available from private foundations and from tax-supported government grants. Restoration "experts" seek this grant money through museum projects. In a local museum high fees were paid for plans that weren't acceptable. So often the galleries and exhibits designed and constructed by volunteers are obviously more appropriate and far more reasonable.

Another local museum is requesting $100,000 in contributions to restore "permanently" a supposedly 1820s log cabin already 50% reconstructed. Embalmed wood isn't authentic. Let the cabin rot down as is the natural process with log construction. That will take some years, then ask some handy local men to locate and fell trees and erect a new cabin to replicate the original, and if the fireplace is in the wrong spot now, place it where the original may have been-all for a small fraction of the proposed restoration.

After lunch together in a downtown eatery some of us returned to the Farmers' Museum and others went to the Fenimore Art Museum, the Baseball Museum and other attractions in Cooperstown.

Several of us had driven to Cooperstown Friday and visited the Fenimore Art Museum across the street from the Farmers' Museum.

We spent Friday afternoon there first studying dutifully all the portraits of the Cooper family, the furniture from their homes and items connected with the lives of the family and James Fenimore Cooper's writing.

Nearby was a room with beautiful genre paintings hanging on the walls and beyond that an exhibit hall with the coverlet made by Ira Hadsel, and many other craft and art items old and new from places in New York state. Isabel Geibel right-off spotted an Uncle Sam figure made by Mr. Sincerbox from Hammondsport! Beyond this gallery was a darkened exhibit hall filled with nineteen illuminated Tiffany lamps.

Upstairs in the Fenimore Art Museum was a small room with 22 bronze portrait busts cast by John H. I. Browere between 1823 and 1833 from molds formed on the faces of living people. There were the busts of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams as very old men. Dolley was there, too. She wore a hat. I wonder if she chose the hat style? Among all the others were portrait busts of Lafayette, DeWitt Clinton, and a young Henry Clay.

On a lower floor we saw the many farmstead scenes of itinerant artist Fritz Vogt. Each one, made for a farm owner, was composed of all the farm buildings placed together, not always as they must have been located actually. Usually each building had its own perspective as though the artist had drawn each building from a position in front of it, often from a different level and angle so there was no overall focal point for the whole picture. The artist sometimes flattened the sides of a building intending to help us see around corners. A precursor of Picasso?

We admired Indian baskets and decorated clay vessels in a large area housing the Thaw Collection. I want to see again the beautiful things in both the Fenimore Art Museum and the Farmers' Museum and steep in the atmosphere of the glory days of American history when so many people lived so well on farms and in small country villages.

© 2002, Bill Treichler
The Farmers' Museum opened in 1944; the Fenimore Art Museum opened in 1945. The New York State Historical Association, chartered in 1899, moved to Cooperstown in 1938. Membership brings two publications: Heritage and New York History quarterly. Members receive free admission and free access to the Research Library and other benefits. For more information, visit the websites of the Historical Assocation and the Farmer's Museum at www.nyha.org and www.farmersmuseum.org
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