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March 27, 2013

Historic Cooperstown cottage got a new address in 1988

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The Daily Star

---- — To unknowing tourists seeking information from the tourism information center at 31 Chestnut St. in Cooperstown, they would probably believe that the mid-19th century cottage had always been on that site. It blends in well with some of the grand old houses along that street, and the same tourists might think it has an interesting history behind it. 

They would be correct about the history of the building, but some longtime village residents can probably remember watching the Higgins Cottage being moved by truck from its original Lake Street site to 31 Chestnut St. in December 1988. 

The Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce had received a state grant in March 1988 to preserve the cottage, then found at 131 Lake St., near today’s Farmers’ Museum and the Otsego County Cornell Cooperative Extension office. The plan was to move the cottage to Chestnut Street, to replace a modern building that didn’t blend in especially well with the landscape and had become too small. 

The cottage almost met its demise in mid-1980s, when the owners, the Leatherstocking Corp. had gotten permission from the Cooperstown Village Planning Board to demolish it. The Village Board, however, rejected the plan, so the cottage survived and remained vacant for a time. 

Otto and Florence Higgins had passed away in 1985 after nearly 30 years of occupying the cottage, believed to be one of the few remaining tenant buildings in Otsego County. Structures of its kind were common for use by farm laborers in the 19th century. 

The cottage dates back to 1856, built by William McGhay, a stonemason who had moved to the U.S. from Ireland and brought his family to the area at the same time. McGhay built the home for his wife Jane and five children.

McGhay built the cottage on what was then a major highway, a plank road, built by a group of investors in 1850. It connected Cooperstown with Fort Plain, where connections could be made to Albany. By 1855 the highway boasted a thriving stagecoach business operated by A.A. Kendall and Co.

McGhay died in January 1887. Family survivors finally sold their home to Edward Clark in 1925 for $5.26. Employees of Edward Clark then occupied the house beginning in 1928. Clark transferred the home and land to his building company, Leatherstocking Corp. in 1930.

Ben Pierce, a dairyman at the nearby Fenimore Farm, found on today’s Farmers’ Museum grounds, lived in the cottage with his wife and daughter until 1957. Otto Higgins, also a Fenimore Farm employee, lived there from 1957-1985.

The Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce knew about the cottage and the stalemate between the village and Leatherstocking Corp., and suggested moving the cottage to their visitor site. The Chamber’s modern building had been erected on Chestnut Street in 1976 for the U.S. Bicentennial, but had since remained very active for tourists seeking information.

The Chamber’s suggestion was welcomed by both the Village Board and Leatherstocking Corp., with the latter agreeing to move the cottage from 131 Lake St. The Chamber sought funds to restore the cottage and received $47,000 to do so from a 1986 Enviro nmental Quality Bond Act.

The Clark Foundation, members of the Cooperstown Chamber and volunteers also supported the effort to save and restore the cottage.

Moving the cottage became a spectator event for some Monday, Dec. 12, 1988. Coordinating the move was Gary Van Buiten and employees of his moving firm from Oxford.

Van Buiten moved the cottage in two pieces. The roof section went first, lifted by a crane onto a flatbed truck. The main body of the cottage was then lifted and placed on a separate flatbed truck. Cooperstown village police and state police diverted traffic along the route.

The cottage was placed on a new foundation close to the sidewalk of Chestnut Street. The existing tourist information building remained in back of the cottage and the two buildings were joined by a breezeway. Plans were to have the cottage ready by March 1, 1989, for the upcoming tourist season, which featured the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

This weekend: Edward H. Pardee builds a retirement home on Oneonta’s Southside.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.