The third floor of The Smithy Gallery & Clay Studio doubles this summer as a time tunnel back to the era of the Great Depression with the magnificent exhibition American Ideals: Picturing Otsego County in 1937, on display through September 3 at 55 Pioneer Street in Cooperstown.
It’s a project that began in 2016 when Dr. Cynthia Falk and students from the Cooperstown Graduate Program, Lynds Jones, Kim McCleary, Kimberly Rose, and Alex Sniffen, researched pictures from September 1937, when the federal Farm Security Administration sent young photographer Arthur Rothstein to Otsego County to document the construction of a new lumber mill under construction in Phoenix Mills. Mr. Rothstein was at the beginning of a decades-long career as a photojournalist – one best remembered, perhaps, for his stirring images of the Dust Bowl – but it’s his work from a brief stay in Otsego County that make up the images now on display at The Smithy.
“This is 1937 Otsego County,” Dr. Falk said. “The Farm Security Administration sent Arthur Rothstein up here to document the Phoenix Mills project that many saw as the thing that would save farmers in Otsego County during the Great Depression. Hops were not doing so well and there were a lot of people in need.”
“They sent this young, enthusiastic photographer to document the construction,” she said. “He did do that – some of the construction images are pretty good and have that 1930s vibe.”
“But two other things he did that are fantastic and what the FSA would become known for – he took pictures of people and he took pictures of small towns,” Dr. Falk continued. “He visited the families of some of the workers who he’s meeting at the sawmill and he photographs them at home.”
“The people add so much to the story he was sent to tell,” she said. “He could’ve just taken pictures of the construction and been on his way. He did more than that.”
The exhibition’s images indeed tell more than construction – photographs of Otsego County families in 1937 in Depression-era kitchens and living rooms, outside at work with their horses and cattle, headed to work and working.
“He has this story he has to tell,” Dr. Falk says of Mr. Rothstein. “There are all these lumbering resources here in the county. The FSA’s initial thing was to take farmers off bad land and relocate them somewhere else – that’s where his Dust Bowl pictures begin. By 1937, though, it’s not to take them anywhere else. It’s to show them to recognize what’s here, then figure out how to use it.”
A captivating corner of the gallery’s display shows Cooperstown’s Main Street as it existed on one early autumn day in 1937.
“It looks to me like one day he decides to take a walk down Main Street,” Dr. Falk said. “He captures what Cooperstown was like in the late 1930s – Smalley’s, the gas station on the curb, the Cooper Inn sign. He was really interested in these small institutions like the bank, the Masonic Lodge, the Mohican Club. He captures Doubleday Field two years before the big bleachers project.”
“It’s Cooperstown on the brink of change,” she said. “We don’t yet have the Hall of Fame, that’s still in 22 Main Street. There’s a sign noting Cooper’s grave.”
Dr. Falk’s students tracked down photos from an almost randomly-labeled archive available through the Library of Congress, researching the project, framing, and hanging the photographs now on display.
It’s an exhilarating walk through a single moment in time for Otsego County and for Cooperstown, on display through September 3 at The Smithy, Cooperstown’s oldest building. Located at 55 Main Street in Cooperstown, find more information about the Gallery and its work at www.smithyarts.org or by calling 607-547-8671.