Preserving Otsego History

The Greater Oneonta Historical Society displays a wide variety of historical artifacts.

Otsego was the last of the five counties to join the Community Foundation’s service area. We added it in 2007 because a potential donor there wanted to start a fund, and Otsego had no community foundation to serve that need.

Since then, we’ve supported a broad range of projects in Otsego County, focused on history, human services, the arts and education. They include several grants to small town libraries, which are important in all kinds of ways to local residents.

On the history front, one of our recent grants helps the Greater Oneonta Historical Society (GOHS) in its ongoing work to make the oldest brick building on the city’s Main Street into a substantial cultural resource.

Formed in 1939 and officially chartered in 1999, GOHS moved from one temporary home to another until it purchased 183 Main Street. Over the years, that building had housed a hardware store, a restaurant and soda fountain, an upscale dress shop and a jewelry store.

GOHS has restored the building’s façade to the way it looked in the days of the Laskaris restaurant, which closed in 1948, says Bob Brzozowski, the organization’s executive director. “We uncovered a fluted column and leaded glass, found the doors that used to be on the restaurant and changed the window display back to the way it was.” Inside, GOHS uncovered a ceramic tile floor and removed a dropped ceiling to reveal a metal one.

The first floor now houses exhibitions, holiday displays, a shop and office space. One flight up, renovations have created storage for the GOHS collection, a library, office space for the collection team and a public research room.

With $2,500 from the Community Foundation, GOHS has bought furnishings for the second floor. They include shelving, work tables, a storage locker for visitors’ personal belongings, and window shades and blinds to protect the collection from damaging sunlight.

In Cooperstown, a small grant of $500 gave a big boost to a local exhibit marking 100 years of women’s suffrage in New York State. The exhibit at the Fenimore Art Museum capped a year-long celebration that also encompassed dozens of other events, including lectures, panel discussions, a book club and a film series.

“New York State was three years ahead of the country in approving women’s suffrage. It was the first state east of the Mississippi to allow for complete suffrage, not just in certain elections,” says Cindy Falk, professor of material culture at SUNY Oneonta’s Cooperstown Graduate Program. Falk is also a member of the League of Women Voters of the Cooperstown Area, which received the Foundation’s grant.

In addition to the League, the Cooperstown Graduate Program and the Fenimore Art Museum, the Cooperstown Central School District and several area churches also collaborated on the series of events.

The exhibit, held in November 2017, focused on the women’s movement in Otsego County 100 years ago and today. Displays featured historic buttons, newspaper articles and pamphlets, both for and against women’s suffrage. There were also pink knit “pussy hats” and candles used in recent marches and vigils.

Some historical postcards were particularly striking. “The pro-suffrage cards usually depicted strong women,” Falk says. “The anti-suffrage ones depict cross-dressing men, and men at home with children who have no idea what to do. Some depict women who would have looked much like prostitutes, going out to vote.”

The Community Foundation’s grant paid for ink and large-format paper for printing exhibit materials, and for interactive features, such as “I’m a Voter” buttons that visitors could take home, and sticky notes for posting slogans that visitors composed.

Part of the exhibit’s power was the way it highlighted how quickly we have entered a world where women not only vote, but also run for office, Falk says. “One of the things that is most astonishing is how short a period of time it has been since things that women take for granted today were just out of the question.”

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