by Bryan Thompson
|There is probably no one building more important in the early history of the township of De Kalb than Cooper's Hotel. William Cooper built his hotel in 1805 on the hill above the current village of De Kalb (Everts 1878). It was by far the largest structure in the township at the time and for many years to come. It was 60 feet square with a curbed roof. It was 3 stories high with the entire third floor occupied by the ballroom.
Coopers Hotel was designated by the NYS legislature as the location of the first town meeting held on March 18, 1806. All subsequent town meeting were held at Cooper's Hotel until 1835.
When the War of 1812 broke out, General Brown instructed Col. Benedict to raise 43 men and to be held ready at a minutes warning. These were to be stationed in the village of Williamstown at or near Cooper's Hotel. They were joined there by Col. Stone of Herkimer County with his men. Together they amassed a force of some 80 soldiers. (This must have been some sight for a small rural frontier settlement of 500 people.) By the 26th of May, 1812 they marched on to Ogdensburg.
All this paints quite a grand picture of the Hotel but was it really? Or was it another one of William Cooper's grand schemes that didn't quite make it? The first person to operate the Hotel was Isaac Stacy but in less than a year he abandoned the post and built his own house farther up the hill. This house later went on to become a competing establishment. He was replace by William Cleghorn, June first 1806, who managed Coopers Hotel until March 6, 1813 when the lease was signed over to Potter Goff. The tenants of the hotel were to pay $50 per year rent and do all necessary repairs including keeping the garden on Garden Alley fenced.
This hotel was 60 feet square and 3 stories high in an early frontier settlement where most people were living in houses 16 by 20 feet or less. Being built on a hill the massive 3 story Federalist style building would have been visible for miles around. The mason’s contract called for four stacks of chimney’s with sixteen fireplaces and a complete plastered kitchen in the cellar! A veritable mansion in the wilderness. It seems that Mr. Cooper was trying to establish the prestige of his new settlement by sheer bulk. Even 34 years later, when the Methodist Meeting House was built at East De Kalb, it was only 36 by 48 feet.
Was Mr. Cooper successful? If letters to Mr. Cooper and his family from Thomas B. Benedict (his storekeeper) and others now in the archives at Hartwick College in Oneonta are to be believed he was not.
On June 29 1806 he wrote: "Whitmarsh drives on his work very fast. Woodhouse has (quit) working with Campbell. He has hired several hands & is going on with Mr. Stacy's house immediately. I fear Campbell will not prepare the (hotel) as fast as Whitmarsh will want. In case he shouId not shall I hire more hands? From present appearances there will be a deficit of lathe. Shall I get in some logs if your brother (James Cooper) does not get lath fast enough?"
This is 3 months after the first town meeting was held in the Hotel. Obviously it wasn't finished yet. Could they have held the first meeting in a building shell? On July 18th 1806 Benedict writes again "Whitmarsh has finished the chimneys. He has lathed the lower part of the (hotel) and is lathing the Ball room.
He will however be obliged to quit the (hotel) entirely in two or three days for want of joiner work. Not a floor is laid, not a stroke of your work is done to the upper stories. Campbell worked a few days and after you left us, he then went to finish the Doctor's Office (Dr. John Seeley). The doctor would not release him any longer.
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Above: Contract between William Cooper and Wm. Cleghorn to operate Cooper's Hotel. Original in Cooper Family Papers, Harwick College, Oneonta, NY
Woodhouse is at work at Mr. Stacy's house; He cannot be got. Whitmarsh says it will ruin his summer's work if he cannot go on [plastering] and there is not a possibility of his proceeding without the floors and the other work is first done. Your Brother (James Cooper) has provided sufficient stuff I believe. Campbell says he will work at the Hotel when he has completed the doctor's office, but cannot before. There is help to be got (by the day) but I dare not hire without your orders.
I am willing to do anything for you I possibly can. Whitmarsh wishes. to know whether he must lose his summer's work or not. A few days work would put the Hotel in a situation that he could lath it. The Cooks have got in their logs. I reserved a cash of lath nails for you but the (hotel) will take so many that I fear I have not (together with the cask reserved) got nearly enough.
I sincerely wish you would write immediately as convenient and direct me how to proceed with the hotel for Whitmarsh is so cross that I cannot live many days if he scolds me much more."
On July 31, 1806 Forsythe & Richardson & fl. of Montreal write: "We have lately been favored with your letter of 14th June, containing an order for sundries, which (excepting the Gin and window glass) we have forwarded to Mr. Benedict for your establishment in De Kalb. We could find no genuine gin in Town, nor more than a box of 8 by 10 glass, a size not commonly imported worth sending.”
It is evident from these correspondence that Mr. Cooper's grand hotel was far from completed in the summer of 1806. The walls were not plastered and there was no glass for the windows. The carpenters and other workers were in a foul mood. The project was not going well. And it was probably not just because there was no gin !
Mr. Cooper was greatly in debt at this time and distracted by other issues in Cooperstown. Was he sending orders? The record does not tell us. Two years later in March 1808 Benedict writes again: "As your brick are all done, and not hearing that you had contracted with a mason to do your work. I wish, if you want that I should get it done, that you would give very particular orders to me, and I will endeavor that they shall be obeyed faithfully."
It is unclear whether the hotel was ever completely finished. William Cooper died in 1809 and his estate was handled by various of his heirs. In November 1814 Henry M. Fine was handling affairs in De Kalb for Isaac Cooper. He wrote to Cooper about selling the Bow lot adjacent to the Hotel to J. Griffen a tailor. He also mentions "From Alexander I have received $225 falling short in my pocket from my long attention and little repairs to the Hotel." It appears that the hotel again was in need of extensive repairs as $225 was a lot of money in 1814.
In December 1816 Seth Pomeroy arrived in De Kalb to handle the Cooper's affairs. He immediately wrote: "the work at the Hotel still goes forward in which considerable alterations have been made & am still making. If I mistake not your brother James (Fenimore Cooper) has told me that the hotel & premises belonged to your family exclusively. If this is true I should like to know it." The Hotel was still under some kind of construction 12 years after it was built. It is unclear whether it was ever truly finished as massive as the building project was.
In 1823 the Hotel along with all of the rest of the Cooper estate in De Kalb was sold at bankruptcy auction to William Holt Averill. He was a Cooperstown Banker and Lawyer. An absentee landlord Averill managed his De Kalb properties with a minimum of cash input. By 1835 the Hotel was in great disrepair. The hotel was removed and a smaller building built on the site. Ignobly thus ended the story of William Coopers Hotel.
Paul F. Cooper Jr. Archives Letters to William Cooper, Oneonta, NY: Hartwick College. Town of De Kalb Clerk (ND.) Meeting Book One De Kalb Town Clerks office. Everts, L.H. (1878) A History of St. Lawrence County New York Philadelphia: L.H. Everts & Co. Hough, Franklin (1853) A History of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties, New York Albany, Little & Co.