Every summer, a small village in upstate New York swells to several times its size as thousands of visitors descend upon it, eager to pay respects to their baseball heroes. Located approximately an hour half from the state capitol in Albany or five + driving hours from New York City, most agree that for baseball players and visitors alike, it’s a long road to Cooperstown.
It’s an even longer road in winter but the payoff comes in having the town practically to one’s self. The Hall of Fame, shops, and readily available parking are all there for the leisurely traveler willing to put up with the occasional icy sidewalks and snow drifts.
For the more scholarly-inclined, winter is a great time to visit the Cooper family plot at Christ Church where literary genius and Victorian churchyard cemetery gazing can be had with few interruptions.
At this time of year, the Christ Church grounds are well insulated with snow, except for the path from the old-fashioned vicarage through the Cooper family plot and to the church itself.
Founded by William Cooper in 1786, a mere 10 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Cooperstown was initially only a raw outpost on the colonial western frontier. Dense forests, pioneer struggles and the very real threat of politically aligned Tory/Indian massacres, belie the pleasant village setting seen today. According to church historical records:
“In 1806, Judge Cooper set aside a tract of land..and construction of the Episcopalian church began in 1807. It was consecrated by the Rt. Rev. Benjamin Moore, Bishop of New York on July 8, 1810. On January 1, 1811, the Parish of Christ Church Cooperstown was legally organized, and the Rev. Daniel Nash was installed as its first rector.”
However, the village cemetery existed before the actual church.
The first known grave was for 4 year-old Sam Griffin who died in 1792. The cemetery also became a place for those people who couldn’t get into the other sites, namely, the African-American servants. These gravesites are mostly found along the River Street side of Christ Church.
However, the Cooper plot is not part of the regular cemetery even though the church maintains it. The family plot is privately owned and in fact, is still in use today.
But don’t let this one famous family distract from the other treasures here. Take some time to find the 18th century death heads, double weeping willows or a few of those old-styled carvings using the letter ‘f’ instead of ‘s’, scattered throughout the compact site.
As Ralph Birdsall tantalizingly explains in his book, Fenimore Cooper’s Grave and Christ Churchyard, there’s even something for the intrepid mystery hunter:
“On the extreme southern border of the church-yard, about fifty feet from the street, there is a tombstone that seems to shudder away from human sight, shrinking behind the shelter of a tree, and clinging to the ragged skirts of the hedge. Whoever searches out this tomb cannot fail to be obsessed with the feeling that it is connected with some mystery, to which the inscription darkly alludes:
…In memory o’ Abraham Spafard who died at 8 o’clock P.M., 3d. Sep’ 1827 in the 49th year of his age. The trump shall sound and the dead shall be raised…
Why eight o’clock? What is the significance of this concern to perpetuate the memory of the exact hour of death? The truth is that at just eight o’clock in the evening of September the 3rd , in the year of Our Lord 1827, Abraham Spafard was brutally murdered. He was killed by Levi Kelly, a farmer of the town of Otsego, a man noted for his violent temper, from the effects of which Spafard was attempting to shield a boy when Kelly shot him dead. Kelly was executed at a public hanging on a lot not far from the site of the present High School, December 28, 1827.”
Note: We were not aware of this story before our visit, otherwise we would have planned to include a photo of this headstone in the article. Unfortunately, Google and Find-A-Grave searches came up empty. If readers have any other suggestions on how to find a photo of this particular headstone, would you please share them?
Ralph Birdsall. Fenimore Cooper’s Grave and Christ Churchyard. New York © 1911
New York Times: Echoes of an Earlier Time on a Glimmering Lake
Haunted History of Cooperstown, NY (includes a section on the Christ Church graveyard)
Alan Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town