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January 3, 2011

I Was Just Thinking: Yager Museum a treasure trove of history and art


Daily Star

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So, what does the brown sign out on I-88 reading "Yager Museum" mean anyway?

Who was Yager? What kind of a museum is it? Why, once you have followed the brown sign off the highway, do you find yourself wandering around looking for it?

I've lived here for decades and have never been to it, so I figured it was about time I headed up West Street to Hartwick College to see what the Yager Museum was all about.

Donna Anderson, the museum director, met me at the front door and ushered me into a serene series of rooms carrying the museum's collection. I'll admit I don't know much about Willard Yager (1855-1929).

I know he was a journalist who catalogued virtually everything he came into contact with, built a replica Native American longhouse in downtown Oneonta and taught himself the language of the Mohawk to fully immerse himself in the culture. Yes, this was a guy with whom I would have loved to have had a cup of coffee.

And as for his museum, all I can say is, "Wow."

"Mr. Yager gave us the beginning of what is now a top-notch, multi-faceted collection," Anderson told me. "He blessed this college with his generosity and sense of history. About 3,000 visit here each year, not counting the students, of course."

The Yager Museum hosts clay pipes, pottery, arrowheads and too many Indian baskets, necklaces and objets d'art to count. This guy was a real pack rat. But it is beyond the original Yager donation that this museum really blossoms. In 1960, Hartwick President Henry Arnold decided to expand the museum's scope to include major national and international art acquisitions. The collection, though small, is superb.

"We have Hudson River School of Art paintings, sculptures and rarities from around the globe, an exquisite collection of American Impressionism and some pretty well-known names on our walls, " Donna told me.

And indeed they do. A painting by Childe Hassam, whose works have been collected by aficionados around the world, is over on that wall. And here on this one is a beautiful Rockwell Kent winter scene. And on the far wall are a number of awesome Hudson River landscapes. And don't even ask me who Emily Hatch is, but her 1928 life-size painting titled "The Spangled Scarf" will haunt you.

And they even have an original El Greco! The last time I viewed an El Greco was in 2007 at the Louvre in Paris.

I asked about one large, eerie statue.

"This is Saint Nepomuk. It dates from around 1700," the director told me. "He is the patron saint of drowning victims. You can only guess how he died," she smiled.

I inquired about a series of intricate metal icons arranged in shiny frames along one wall. "Now, here is a real story," she whispered. "These are priceless religious icons. They were smuggled out of Communist Russia during the Cold War by a man of the cloth from right here in Oneonta."

I won't divulge the name of this cloak-and-dagger Oneonta minister. I'll let you go explore this great story yourself at the Yager Museum.

Before leaving, I asked Donna what her favorite item in the museum was. She walked me over to an exhibit of 1800-era coverlets (bed coverings).

"It would have to be this one, right here," she said with a sigh. We stood in front of an astonishing large, blue-and-white fancily embroidered covering.

"It was made by a woman in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It is signed (Catherine Eschenauer) and dated 1844. The amazing thing is that we also have her diary, which chronicles her long life, which was filled with both joys and tribulations. This coverlet really speaks to me. It is a great example of how the past can sometimes seem so anonymous, and then all of a sudden the personal aspects of an object reach out and touch you. I just love it," she said.

It truly is a stunning piece of work.

The museum (431-4480) is free, has easy access (in fact there are no stairs to it at all) and features a wonderful gift shop brimming with local handmade items and objects relating to the museum's exhibits.

So, if you think Guido Reni, Giovanni Bellini, Andrea Prevital and Poppo Pordenone are names of "lower deckers" who worked long ago in the D&H roundhouse, think again! They are 15th-century European Renaissance masters, and they're hanging around up on Oyaron Hill just waiting for you to come and check them out.

I'll catch you in two …'Big Chuck' D'Imperio can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his "Oldies Jukebox Show." You can find "Big Chuck" on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.