COOPERSTOWN — It’s sacrilege, visiting this mecca to the American pastime without a stop at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, like seeing Washington without the White House or Miami without the beach.
In more than a dozen trips here, I’ve been to the Hall only once.
See it if you must. Buy a “Red Sox Parking Only” sign from the shop decorated with a wax sculpture of George Costanza in a Yankee jersey. Get it out of your system.
But don’t be distracted from Cooperstown’s real charms: one of the clearest lakes in the Northeast, a stunning opera house, hiking paths through rolling hills, museums, a Belgian-style farmhouse brewery immersed in auburn fields, a hand-carved carousel that depicts the entire history of New York State, and a century-old lakefront hotel.
It’s amazing really, that a village of about 2,000 full-time residents has so much to offer. And baseball has quite a bit to do with that vitality, along with the Clark family, benefactors who have bestowed the community with everything from its cultural institutions to its outsized fleet of fire trucks.
Even if you’re just tagging along with a baseball fan, Cooperstown is well worth the 4½-hour drive from Boston.
I first came here in 2005, when my wife and I became engaged and we decided to spend Christmas with her mother, a resident. I grew up in Miami, when there was no baseball team, so I lacked the emotional attachment many lifelong fans have to the Hall. I was amazed at how much more there was to do here.
Though I’ve spent weeks in the village, the following is what I would do if I had just one day, and a lot of ambition.
For breakfast, I’d stroll down to the Doubleday Cafe. I know, I promised no baseball, and I’m already breaking my rule by getting fried eggs and potatoes at a placed named for Abner Doubleday, sometimes credited as the game’s founder. But the food is good, the coffee cups bottomless, and the staff down-to-earth. This is Cooperstown’s version of the Cheers bar, a spot for locals and visitors, complete with a slogan on the waiters’ T-shirts: “A Drinking Town With a Baseball Problem.”
Next, it’s time to see Otsego Lake, the visual and spiritual center of the community. There are several places to rent kayaks, which is the best way to view both the lake and the green hills surrounding it. You can ride toward Glimmerglass State Park, past some lakefront mansions, and around the handful of motorboats towing tubes. But I’d also recommend taking a look at the miniature castle built just offshore. Kingfisher Tower, a 60-foot gray structure that looks like a prop for a Harry Potter movie, is one of those curiosities erected by the town’s benefactors that serves little apparent purpose other than to amuse.
By midmorning head to the Farmers’ Museum, my 3- and 5-year-olds’ favorite place. It was built on land that has been farmed since the early 19th century, when it was owned by James Fenimore Cooper, whose father founded the village. The farm is still worked as it was 200 years ago. There’s an old apothecary, a one-room schoolhouse, and a place to shear the sheep.
I like to go to the kitchen, where they are usually cooking some piece of mutton butt or goat shoulder on an open flame. They explain how the meat gets salted and stored in the basement for months and then, when it’s time to eat, soaked in a bowl of water to release some, but not all, of the salt. I ask as many questions as I can in hopes that they’ll offer me a morsel of whatever they’re making for the staff. For some reason, even salty old mutton butt smells delicious when it’s cooking over a fire pit. Alas, they’ve never let me test that theory.
The kids head straight for the Empire State Carousel. It’s a museum in itself. The animals are beautifully carved and colorfully rendered, including a skunk, horses, and my favorite, Benny the Brook Trout. Teddy Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, Jackie Robinson, Grandma Moses, and other figures of state history are carved into the walls, along with murals showing state history.
Before you know it, everyone will be hungry again. I suggest going to Alex & Ika, back on Main Street. It’s fairly upscale — though you can get moderately priced fish tacos and sandwiches for lunch — with just enough quirkiness in the menu and decor. The walls are covered in mirrors of every shape and size. The bar is cozy. And there are no baseball pennants. Try the fingerling potato fries, a salty specialty.
Save dessert for the bakery next door, Schneider’s. This is the type of bakery that every town used to have, with great big black and white cookies (they call them half-moons here), homemade cake doughnuts, and Linzer cookies that would make my late grandma jealous.
Then take a drive to absorb some more scenery, and stock up on provisions for later. About 12 miles away, in Roseboom, there’s a place I like to go that’s definitely off the trail: Rosebrook Elk Farm. It’s not exactly a tourist attraction. But the farmer will let the kids wander right across from some beautiful fenced bucks before taking you back to the freezer to sell you some prime cuts. Thankfully, the kids haven’t yet made the connection.
If you’re not out of energy, head back to town for the Fenimore Art Museum. It’s another small gem, with American landscape paintings, Native American works, and folk art. Pastoral paintings are not my favorite, but they feel appropriate for the venue. Like so much in Cooperstown, the setting is more impressive than what’s inside. It overlooks the lake and the museum takes full advantage, letting visitors have drinks on a large porch and then wander onto the vast lawn, where my kids enjoy seeing a pair of authentic Native American tribal homes.
Later you have earned a trip to the Otesaga Resort Hotel. This century-old establishment conjures the Gilded Age, when grand dames like this were the province of the leisure class. It’s off-limits to regular folks during Hall of Fame weekend. But the rest of the year, we can eat in its restaurants or stay in its well-appointed rooms.
But I suggest skipping the golf course and the pool and the food. Instead, head for the veranda, grab a rocking chair, and order an Ommegang Hennepin, a farmhouse saison brewed a few miles down the road. Stare out at Otsego Lake as the clouds, the hills, and the early moon reflect off the water. Then close your eyes and think about Cooper . . . or Costanza in a Yankee jersey.