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Cultural integrity

Cultural integrity

  • By Joel Dunn on January 01, 2013
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The Village of Cooperstown, NY, is at the south end of Lake Otsego, the headwater lake for the Suquehanna River. (Joel Dunn)

Glimmerglass, the name that James Fenimore Cooper gave to Otsego Lake, captures the essence of this pretty, 9-mile long lake well. Lying between two ridges of steep hills, the lake was sparkling and calm on the day I visited this fall.

Otsego is the headwater lake for the Susquehanna River. The Village of Cooperstown, NY, is at the south end of the lake, and I was lucky to be here to work with the Otsego Land Trust to create some access sites on the Susquehanna that connect to the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.

And in some ways, the lake is at the headwaters of the nation's conservation movement.

Cooperstown is a little village with a lot of history, and a lot of that history revolves around families — and the land.

The town was founded in the late 1700s by William Cooper. He was a congressman, judge and father of James Fenimore Cooper, the novelist known for his Leatherstocking Tales series of novels.

Cooper's novels capture the beauty of this region of central New York. But the true nature writer in the family was Susan Fenimore Cooper, James' daughter.

Susan was an amateur naturalist. She made her home in Cooperstown, and there founded a well-regarded orphanage. She wrote "Rural Hours," a collection of nature essays that has come to be recognized as one of the classics in that genre. In the preface, she describes her book as "the simple record of those little events which make up the course of the seasons in rural life…In wandering about the fields, during a long, unbroken residence in the country, one naturally gleans many trifling observations on rustic matters." Henry David Thoreau read Cooper's book and took inspiration from it as he was writing "Walden," or "Life in the Woods."

But relatively few people know about Cooperstown and Lake Otsego because of her, or her father's, books. They know about it because of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, founded here in 1939 by Stephen Carlton Clark.

Clark was a member of another remarkable Cooperstown family, and he founded the museum to honor Abner Doubleday, a Cooperstown resident credited with nurturing the game of baseball. Over the last century and a half, the Clark family has purchased and protected parcels of land all around the village, shielding a long arm of the lake shore from development, as well as the Susquehanna's banks just downstream and the entrances to the village. They have established a hospital and created other cultural institutions in Cooperstown.

One of the things I like best about this little village is the family stories. I also love the way the village has kept a kind of cultural integrity. Main street shops may be primarily oriented to the visitor, but they still retain the feel of a small rural village. And the place has always been a mecca for visitors and summer residents.

There is a deeper history here, too, that is thousands of years old. The Susquehanna River is integral to the origin of the Iroquois and it remains their cultural landscape. The river was an American Indian trade route for thousands of years, connecting the Iroquois Nations to the various peoples of the Chesapeake. The Chesapeake Conservancy has a growing working relationship with the Iroquois — also known as the Haudenosaunee— and the Otsego Land Trust to protect more of the Susquehanna's banks just downstream from the town. We are working with them to create access points to this, the northernmost reach of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.

It's worth visiting this farthest reach of the Chesapeake watershed, to discover the river's headwaters and its history and to witness how conservation can benefit both a village and a river.

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About Joel Dunn
Joel Dunn is the executive director of the Chesapeake Conservancy.
Read more articles by Joel Dunn

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