Hawaii comes to Cooperstown

By Jon Arakaki

It all started with the December 2006 issue of Memories and Dreams, the official magazine of the Baseball Hall of Fame .

Curator Lenny DiFranza’s article on the first artifacts donated to the Museum featured a 1938 photo of the Honolulu Conservatory of Music building on Main Street in Cooperstown, which was demolished to make way for the Hall of Fame and Museum. Being that I was born and raised in Hawaii, I wondered how in the world a conservatory from back home ended up in Cooperstown, let alone on the site of the Hall.  

Recently, with the assistance of local historians in Cooperstown, and Museum and library staffs in Flint, Michigan and Cleveland, I was able to piece together a part of the story – although a few mysteries remain. 

The Oahu Publishing Company/Honolulu Conservatory of Music was established in Flint, Michigan in the mid-1920s by half brothers Harry G. Stanley and George A. Bronson. Why Flint? Because of the auto industry, Flint attracted workers from across the U.S., including Hawaii (a territory at the time). By all indications, the Hawaiians brought their music with them, and this provided the impetus for the brothers to capitalize on the nationwide craze for this music by publishing sheet music and providing guitar instruction. Eventually, they opened 1,200 studios across the U.S., Canada, and other foreign countries. 

Interestingly, one of these studios found its way to Cooperstown. In the Feb. 11, 1938 issue of The Otsego Farmer, an ad announced that Philip J. Colwell opened a Honolulu Conservatory of Music location on 29 Pioneer Street. It also invited residents to learn the “slides, slurs, variations and trick playing that puts the Hawaiian guitar in first place today.” 

Business must have been brisk – on April 20, 1938, an article in The Freeman’s Journal stated that Colwell moved to a larger location at 33 Main Street, the site of the current Museum. This takes us back to the photo in Lenny’s article. By the time of the Museum’s dedication on June 12, 1939, the Conservatory building was long gone. Colwell’s business was listed in the 1938 Cooperstown Village Directory, but was nowhere to be found when the next directory was published in 1940. 

So what happened? There are no indications that Colwell moved to a new location, or opened other studios in the area. Why did he fold up a business that seemed to be thriving and riding the wave of Hawaiian music’s popularity? These are questions I will continue to pursue. 

Ultimately, while there wasn’t the direct connection between Cooperstown and my home state that I had hoped for, I was glad to learn about the spread of the islands’ music across the country. And I know that once Hawaiian natives Sid Fernandez, Benny Agbayani and Shane Victorino are inducted into the Hall – or so I hope – the Hawaiian connection will truly be complete!

Jon Arakaki is a Library volunteer at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and a professor at SUNY Oneonta.

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