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July 21, 2012

James Fenimore Cooper wasn't always liked in Cooperstown


Daily Star

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It might be a slight stretch of the historical imagination, but back in the 1830s, Cooperstown had a situation involving "Occupiers" and the "One Percent."

Village residents, the former, had a run-in with the world-famous novelist James Fenimore Cooper about a stretch of land we know today as Three Mile Point on Otsego Lake.

According to "The Story of Cooperstown," by Ralph Birdsall, Three Mile Point had become a favorite area for local residents as a resort for picnics and other outings.

Ever since the 1820s, the locals had enjoyed unrestricted access to the area.

In 1834, however, James Fenimore Cooper had returned from Europe to take up residence in Cooperstown.

Three Mile Point had been owned by the Cooper family since being acquired by Judge William Cooper.

While Cooper had no problems with the locals enjoying the grounds, he made it abundantly clear that this was his property.

Sometime during those years before his return there had been a notion that the land was owned by the community.

Cooper was quite defiant in his claim to the property, and the way he went about making his point annoyed the local residents.

After a tree was destroyed at Three Mile Point, Cooper gave a published warning in The Freeman's Journal in 1837.

"The public is warned against trespassing on the Three Mile Point, it being the intention of the subscriber rigidly to enforce the title of the estate, of which he is the representative, to the same. The public has not, nor has it ever had any right to the same beyond what has been conceded by the liberality of the owners. J. Fenimore Cooper."

A handbill was soon seen circulating around the community, which in sarcastic terms called for a meeting of public protest.

It was held on Saturday, July 22, at the Inn of Isaac Lewis. The intent was "to defend against the arrogant pretensions of one James Fenimore Cooper."

Stirring speeches and a series of resolutions were passed at the meeting, basically to ignore Cooper's threat to hold title to the land.

One resolution read "to denounce any man as sycophant, who has, or shall, ask permission of James F. Cooper to visit the Point in question."

Another requested that the trustees of what was then called the Franklin Library in the village to remove all books of which Cooper was the author.

Although it wasn't written, there had been a verbal resolution to remove Cooper's books from the library and burn them in a public bonfire. That event never took place.

Cooper continued to defend his position, and according to Birdsall, the controversy between Cooper and his critics "had now reached a degree of violence that was grotesque." While some might have given up, Cooper seemed to enjoy the battle.

Cooper even brought the Three Mile Point controversy into some of his written work, giving rise to a book called "Home as Found."

This led to even more controversies and a long series of libel suits. Cooper argued the cases in court as his own lawyer, and in nearly every case, he won.

Birdsall wrote, "Cooper's reputation as an author suffered from his success as a litigant in an unpopular cause, and his prosecution of the libel suits injured the sale of his books, not only then but for some years after his death."

Visitors to Cooperstown, when looking to buy Cooper's books, were sometimes told by booksellers that they had never heard of the book.

Three Mile Point was owned by William Cooper of Baltimore in the late 1890s, and a sale was arranged at a moderate price for the village of Cooperstown for use of its citizens.

It was a peaceful ending to what had caused near riots several decades earlier.

On Monday: Oneontans enthusiastically supported a U.S. Olympic fund drive in 1952 that went well beyond athletics.

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.