Here to return to
THE HOME OF FENIMORE COOPER
IN 1785 William Cooper, the novelist’s father, visited the rough, hilly country in Otsego County of central New York. At that time the region contained no trace of any road and not a single white inhabitant. “I was alone,” he says, “three hundred miles from home, without bread, meat, or food of any kind. My horse fed on the grass that grew by the edge of the waters. I laid me down to sleep in my watch-coat, nothing but the melancholy wilderness around me.”
On Cooperstown Street
Yet the pleasant landscape, the fertility of the soil, and the fact that an estate here was his for the taking, made him determine that this should be his abode. At the southern end of Otsego Lake, where for a century the Indian traders had been accustomed to resort, he two years later laid out a village, and to this spot he in 1790 brought his family.
The novelist was the eleventh of twelve children. He was born in 1789, at Burlington, New Jersey, the residence of his mother’s people, and was taken to Cooperstown when he was thirteen months old. There he lived a healthy, natural, country life, surrounded by pioneer out-of-door influences that did much to direct his tastes and shape his character. The house in which he dwelt during his early boyhood was an ordinary farm-house; but in 1798 his father erected the good-sized mansion known to fame as Otsego Hall. This stood on rising ground, facing the lake, with the village clustering about it, and both in its generous proportions and its situation was a fitting home for the town’s founder and chief citizen.
The site of the old Hall is still the heart of the town. The village has grown, but it huddles closest in the narrow southern margin of the lake. Here is a single, broad business street that runs square across valley of the lake-basin, and at either end is a wooded bluff. From this main thoroughfare the houses straggle away on various minor streets and lanes. The place has many characteristics of a country market town, but at the same time it contains numerous hotels, and frequent summer residences of city people are scattered along its waterside suburbs. The lake stretching away to the north is attractive and the environment in general is agreeable, yet nature has not been lavish enough in bestowing its charms to account for the magnetism of the place as a vacation resort, considering its comparative remoteness and inaccessibility. No doubt the magic of Cooper’s name furnishes the real explanation, for the region is everywhere redolent of him and his famous romances. In the case of two of them the scenes are laid immediately about the lake. “The Deerslayer” depicts the neighborhood as it was in 1745, prior to its settlement, when all around was unbroken forest; while “The Pioneers” is the story of the founding of Cooperstown. Topographically the descriptions are very faithful, and spots abound which can be easily identified with incidents of the narratives.
The town was more than ordinarily lively on the morning I arrived, for I chanced to be just in time to witness quite an exodus of the more frothy, sporty, and youthful of the inhabitants on their way to a circus that was holding forth in a neighboring place. The occasion was one of great prospective hilarity, and for some of the crowd it would run into dissipation unless the looks of the celebrators belied them. The situation was most definitely presented by a man riding to the station in a hotel ‘bus. As the vehicle rumbled down the street, he shouted, whenever he happened to see an acquaintance: “You want to meet me at the depot to night with a wagon; and say — you have the sideboards on! Yes, don’t forget the sideboards!”
Looking toward the Town from an Eastern Hillslope
My rambling while I was at Cooperstown was confined to a radius of a few miles. First, of course, it took me to the green borders of the near lake in the immediate vicinity of the village. The turf, dotted with trees, descended unbroken almost to the water’s edge. Numerous wharves reached out from the shore, most of them slight affairs giving access to a rowboat, but two of them much longer and more substantial for the accommodation of the pleasure steamers that make constant trips up and down the lake through the summer. On the eastern verge of the village was the channel where the waters find a way to escape; and they departed so gently and the tree-embowered passage was so narrow it was not easy to realize that here I beheld the source of the Susquehanna.
On this same side of the lake, just outside the town, are pasture slopes, delightful at the time of my visit, with cows grazing in the dandelion-spangled grass. Down below, the shore was fringed with bushes, among which were many “shad-berries” and “pin-cherries” all ablow with white blossoms. The land on this side of the lake as you go on farther rises in steep ridges overgrown with woods; and dwellings and cultivated fields are infrequent. I preferred the other side whenever I chose to take a long walk. It is more pastoral, the slopes milder. I recall one afternoon’s walk on the western highway in particular. The new leafage was getting well started, the grass was beginning, to grow rank in the meadows, and the air was full of bird-songs. Chipmunks and red squirrels chattered among the trees and raced up and down the trunks and through the branches with almost as much ease as if they had wings. The prevalence of the streams, too, contributed to the spring gayety. They were everywhere, varying from tiny tricklings to lusty brooks capable of turning the wheels of a small grist or saw mill. Noise and haste were dominant traits, and they coursed down the hills through channels littered with rocks and pebbles, and made many a shining leap.
THE MARGIN OF THE LAKE
I kept on for several miles. Sometimes the road was close by the lake, sometimes well back up the slopes. Once I made a detour and went down to the water’s edge across a swamp where flourished jungles of poison ivy. At my approach a sandpiper fled with thin-voiced protest in nervous flight along the shore, and a profound-looking kingfisher gave a squeak and adjourned to some nook more secluded. They might have saved themselves the trouble of such exertion on my account, for the wetness of the marsh and the prevalence of the poison vines discouraged me, and I was glad to beat a hasty retreat.
When I at length had gone northward as far as I cared to and had turned back toward the town, I was overtaken by a lumber wagon drawn by a heavy pair of work-horses. The driver pulled up and asked me to ride, and I accepted the invitation. The horses never trotted, but they walked briskly enough to keep the springless wagon constantly jolting, and the ride was not altogether comfortable. Still, the change was welcome, for the road was decidedly muddy.
“They’ve been over it lately with the road-scraper,” explained my companion, “and dragged in the dirt from the sides. It’s dirt that washed off from the road, and it’s all wore out and ain’t fit for a road any more, and the last rain we had just softened it into pudding. This road was a plank road when I was a little shaver. There was a lot of plank roads then.
They was very good when they was new, and we’d rattle along fine — ten miles an hour the stage calculated to make. If you met a team you had to turn off on the ground because the plank wa’n’t only long enough for a single track, but the tops was laid level with the ground, and that didn’t matter. The greatest trouble was that the plank got worn after a while and the knots begun to stick out, and new planks put in here and there helped make it more uneven — kind o’ shook you up then.
“This road was planked twenty-seven miles, all the way to Fort Plain on the New York Central. That was where we had to go whenever we wanted to get to the railroad. It was a hard journey, especially at the break-up of winter, when the stage was sometimes much as two hours getting through-part way on wheels, and part way on runners, perhaps. We was mighty glad, I can tell you, when this little branch railroad that strikes in here from the south was finally built. The plank roads was owned by private companies, and there was toll gates every four or five miles, but it was too costly keepin’ the plank in repair, and by and by they pulled ‘em up and put in gravel turnpikes. Those didn’t pay either, and so the companies went out of business and let the public fix their own roads.”
As the driver finished speaking, we were passing a broad field on the farther side of which I could see three children wandering about and occasionally stooping to pick something.
Putting on a Fresh Coat of Paint
“What are they doing?” I asked.
“Seem to be cutting dandelion greens,” was the reply; “but it’s gettin’ rather past time for dandelions, and they’ll have to boil ‘em in soda-water to take the toughness out. Some use milkweeds for greens. I like cowslops myself better than milkweed or dandelions either. You take a nice mess of cowslop greens in the spring, picked before they get in blossom, while they’re tender, and they’re all-fired good.”
“This is fine farm land we’re driving through now,” I suggested.
“Yes, it’s all right. It don’t pay for itself, though — but then it don’t have to. You see that big house down there in the trees. Belongs to a New York lawyer. He’s only got about twenty acres of land, and yet he keeps three hired men. They raise some crops and take care of a few critters, but mostly they’re busy just makin’ the place look nice. Almost every pretty point of land along the shore here has got an expensive house on it that some city man has put up, so he can amuse himself by making a fad of fancy stock-farming or something of the sort. Now we’re comin’ opposite another handsome place. The grounds front on the road for half a mile, and the whole distance there’s this big stone wall. A stone wall’s a thing a poor man can’t afford. It’s an expensive fence, no matter how you calculate — always tumblin’ down, and brush and vines always growin’ round it. This wall’s as well built as it could be, but the frost will heave it, and every spring a couple of men spend a good many days repairing of it. When it begins to pitch there ain’t nothing can save it, and they have to take the bad places clean down to the foundation and lay ‘em over.”
GETTING READY TO PLANT HIS GARDEN
I continued on the lumber wagon not only as far as the town, but a mile or two beyond, down a broad, fertile farm valley. On the east side of the valley the land rose in high slopes checkered with cultivated fields. “The farther you go up the hills in that direction,” said the driver, “the thinner the soil gets, and an American couldn’t get a livin’ off’n it; but there’s English from across the Atlantic that’ll take that high scrub land and clear it, and do well. That is, they get to own their farms and have money at interest — though they ain’t satisfied no more’n any one else.”
We passed several large hop fields, set full of tall poles, at the foot of which were green outreachings of vines. In one field were two women tying the straggling stems to the poles. “There ain’t only a few got at that job yet,” remarked the driver. “Hops are a great crop in this part of the state, but they ain’t lookin’ first-rate this year — didn’t stand the winter well — and a good many farmers are ploughing ‘em up. They don’t pay as they used to. The price has been goin’ down for a long time. You can’t get a decent crop unless you give up your best medder land to ‘em and put about all the manure your farm makes on ‘em, So folks are givin’ ‘em up and goin’ more into dairying. There’s a cheese factory at the village that they bring their milk to, and that pays ‘em on an average about two cents and a half a quart.
“The time was when we got considerable money out of our woodland, but the best lumber’s pretty near all gone now. Twenty years ago there was a tannery a little below the town. It used a power o’ hemlock bark, and lots o’ farmers would cut their hemlocks and peel ‘em and let the trees lie and rot. They don’t waste any good lumber that way any more. The tannery went out of business long ago, and the building was fixed over into a sawmill. It stands on a crick that comes from the hills to the east. That crick’s about as boisterous a stream of its size as I ever see. When we have a big rain it rises right up and tears everything all to pieces. At first the sawmill was run by water-power, but the crick carried off the dam so often, they finally got tired of rebuilding it and put in steam. They burn the old waste to run their engine — sawdust and everything — and so it don’t cost much gettin’ up their steam.”
Presently I inquired about the town as it was in Cooper’s time. “I wish you could ‘a’ talked with my father,” was the response. “He knew all about it. ‘Twas just an ordinary little country town — a few stores, and a couple o’ churches, and two wooden taverns, and about all the rest of it was farm-houses. ‘Twa’n’t built up the way it is at present. I know father told how a hill that’s now got houses all over it was in them day’s outside the town a hundred rods or so, and it was covered with pines. When a horse died they’d drag the carcass up there and let it lay, and think they’d got it well out of the way. They used to call that hill ‘The Horse Heaven.’
Spring Work in a Farm Field
“I don’t think Cooper left his family in very good circumstances. His daughters was very nice — real ladies, — and they was very charitable, and give away an awful sight, so ‘t I do’ know but they most suffered themselves. They made kind of a hobby out of the orphanage here, for one thing. You’d have an idea that Cooper’s books would bring considerable to the family long after he was dead, but they say he sold a good many of ‘em outright, and after his death there wasn’t much in money ever come in from ‘em.”
Although Cooper’s home town is very closely identified with him, he did not always reside there, and he was a good deal of a rover in his early life. At the age of nine he went to Albany, where he attended school for four years, and then entered Yale, the next to the youngest student in the college. He won no laurels at Yale, for the woods and fields possessed for him a far keener attraction than books, and his poor standing, added to some boyish prank in the third year of his course, led to his dismissal. His father now sent him to sea before the mast on a merchantman. This was intended as a preparation for later going into the navy, which he entered as a midshipman at the age of nineteen. He served until he was twenty-two, when he resigned his commission and married.
Meanwhile his father had died, and in the family home at Cooperstown dwelt his mother and older brother. Cooper himself lived in New York, Philadelphia, and other places, and spent the eight years preceding 1834 abroad. When he returned, Otsego Hall became his permanent residence. The dwelling had hitherto been a simple, commodious village house, but he remodelled it, added a wooden battlement, threw out porches and projections, changed the windows to the Gothic style, and gave the whole structure an air that bore some resemblance to the 'ancestral’ home of an English country gentleman.
THE MONUMENT ON THE SITE OF OTSEGO HALL
Here he kept open house to his friends, cultivated his garden, and wrote. Here also he became involved in that curious series of lawsuits that resulted in many years of bickering. He came back from Europe to our raw, new country, and expressed with great frankness his impressions of his native land, and these were not at all flattering — there was so much pretension, so much that was crude and ungenuine, and he spoke with especial severity of the capricious vulgarity of the newspapers. The public, always oversensitive to criticism, became more and more irritated. Then came the Three Mile Point controversy between Cooper and his fellow-townsmen, which brought on a general storm of denunciation.
The Point which caused the disturbance is an attractive wooded ledge jutting out into the lake from the western shore three miles above Cooperstown. It had long been in common use as a picnic ground, and the townsfolk had begun to feel that it was public property and that no one had any business to interfere with their continued appropriation of it. But the ownership was in the Cooper family, and the novelist, with his aristocratic notions about private estates, absorbed during his long residence abroad, wished to have his ownership recognized. He had no desire to deprive the people of their picnic place. He only wanted them to ask such use as a privilege, not take it as a right. To effect this end he published a card warning the public against trespassing. As a consequence a mass meeting was convened, at which it was resolved to hold Cooper’s threat and his whole conduct “in perfect contempt,” to have his books removed from the village library, and to “denounce any man as a sycophant, who has, or shall, ask permission of James F. Cooper to visit the Point in question.”
Cooper fought with vigor and persistence what he deemed the unreasonableness of his neighbors, but his victory was never complete, and he finally dropped the matter, and the public used Three Mile Point again unconditionally. This was not, however, the end of the trouble. It had been given wide notoriety by the newspapers, and their comments were so personal and offensive that Cooper was stirred to institute many libel suits against them. Such was his independence, his pugnaciousness, and quick temper that he kept up the warfare for years. Yet this interfered but little with the tranquillity of his home life. He was closely bound to his family, and was always warmly affectionate; and though he had his enemies, he was much liked by those who knew him well, and he never failed to win the regard of the men who worked for him. Two miles to the north, on the eastern side of the lake, he bought a farm and built on it a cottage of the Swiss type. He named the place “The Chalet” and entered with great enjoyment into the superintendence of clearing and improving the land, extracting stumps, setting out trees, raising crops, and rearing poultry. He was particularly interested in his live stock, and the animals knew and followed him in recognition of the kindness of his treatment.
It was customary for the family to breakfast at nine, dine at three, and have tea at seven in the evening. The novelist rose two hours before breakfast and began writing, and after the morning meal resumed his pen until eleven. The rest of’ the day was free to other pursuits. For recreation he frequently went out on the lake in his boat — a skiff with a lug sail. This rude little craft went along very well before the breeze, but was of not much use in beating to windward. It was, however, quite to its owner’s liking, and was conducive to leisurely contemplation, and in it he doubtless thought out many a stirring chapter for his books. Cooper never kept a carriage; a horse and buggy sufficed instead and served him when he chose to drive up to “The Chalet.” This was a trip he made nearly every day after he finished his literary work, for a stay of two or three hours.
His habits were methodical, and he seldom allowed anything to keep him from his desk during the morning hours. He composed with ease and never lacked for words or for subjects; yet authorship was in his case purely an accident, and he was thirty when he began his first book. This book, was the outcome of his remarking to his wife one evening as he threw down impatiently a recent novel he had been reading aloud, “I could write you a better book myself.”
She laughed at the absurdity of the idea and challenged him to undertake the task. Hitherto he had disliked even to write a letter, but now he set arduously to work and finished several chapters. Then he would have quit had not his wife become interested and urged him on; and presently “Precaution” was not only finished, but published. It was merely an imitation of the average English story of fashionable life. Yet it revealed to Cooper an unexpected capacity, and he at once began a thoroughly original American story — “The Spy,” which has been called “the first brilliantly successful romance published in this country.
The Graves of J. Fenimore Cooper and his Wife