Early in the year I began researching the Alfred Corning Clark Gymnasium, a building in Cooperstown where I spent many happy hours as a youth. In 1986, the new Clark Sports Center, located on the outskirts of town, opened and replaced my beloved gym. The old building was converted to offices for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I went in once for a meeting with a Hall of Fame person. He saw me looking around, trying to orient myself to where I was in the old building.
“I think we’re sitting in the girls’ locker room,” he said.
I think he was right.
But I digress.
Research, I have discovered, is like wandering through an extensive cave system with people waiting at various junctures throughout. Each person has a story. If I listen, and follow their story, I may not end up where I was originally headed, but I always end up somewhere interesting.
I started researching Alfred Corning Clark. It seemed the logical first step.
Research today is a far cry from research when I was in college. While I still miss the old card catalog at the library, where my fingers walked through names and topics, now I often sit in the comfort of my living room, while my father is reading out loud or doing a word-find, and type search terms in various sites. It’s pretty amazing how much is available.
Well, Alfred Corning Clark led me to Mrs. Alfred Corning Clark. In the old newspapers, that’s how they refer to her. Even as a widow. When she remarried, her new name was Mrs. Henry Codman Potter.
Somewhere along the line, though, in the vast web of local history, I ran across a man named Strong Comstock. I confess, I liked his name. I could picture a young mother giving birth to a sickly child and naming him Strong, willing him to live up to that name. Or a woman giving birth to such a robust baby that the name was obvious — Strong. However, neither of those theories was correct. Strong Comstock’s first name was a family name. It had been passed down through generations, mostly as a middle name. “Strong” became a family name when Nathan Comstock married Bethiah Strong in the early 18th century.
I jotted down his name, just like I’ve jotted down other names that I find interesting.
Once I encountered a young woman named Orchestra Stevens, born in 1800, died in 1822. I really want to know why her parents, Josiah and Mary, named her Orchestra. Did they love music? Did they dream of hearing an orchestra? She was the fifth of nine children, the rest of whom have more mundane names — Lucy, Betsey, Catharine, Josiah, etc. Some day I’ll pursue her story.
She died in Cooperstown in 1894. Two weeks later Strong Comstock moved from Cooperstown to Danbury, Connecticut.
I didn’t learn Mrs. Strong Comstock’s name until I searched her husband on Ancestry. She was Mary Jane Atwood.
Ah, the opaque cloak of a husband’s name.
Which brings me back to Mrs. Alfred Corning Clark.
As I researched, I found places where she had signed her name — Mrs. Alfred Corning Clark. I read any number of accounts of good, generous things she had done — all credited to Mrs. Alfred Corning Clark.
It wasn’t really a question of knowing her name. I already knew it. I’ve walked past this plaque a thousand times:
She did indeed build the building for the people of Cooperstown.
Her son, Robert, gave it to the village in a purge of all things Cooperstown. I don’t think that negates the generosity of the gift, though. It certainly doesn’t explain the plaque.
Nicholas Fox Weber, author of The Clarks of Cooperstown, made Robert Sterling Clark seem almost spiteful in the wording of the plaque, “Sterling saw to it that the … library would be named for their mother, while making it clear which of her sons had funded it.”
I prefer to think better of him, and of the plaque. I think he gave the village a building — a generous act — and he gave his mother her name. The greater gift was to her.
Thomas Merton wrote an essay called “Ishi: A Meditation” about the Yahi tribe in California, a tribe that was totally wiped out by white people. The last surviving member of the tribe, a member referred to as Ishi, died without ever revealing his true name.
In the end, no one ever found a single name of the vanished community. Not even Ishi’s. For Ishi simply means MAN.
Blessed are the Nameless
for they shall receive names
and they shall be known.