Rupert Cornwell: Go on, take a trip to the Cockroach Hall of Fame

Out of America: Some are majestic, others weird, but halls of fame in the US are a great excuse to get off the freeway

Share
Related Topics

Americans love their halls of fame. That realisation struck me for the umpteenth time the other day, as I read the review of a book called Cooperstown Confidential. The Cooperstown in question is a small and otherwise unremarkable town in rural upstate New York, but which just happens to be the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The player who is elected to the hall has achieved sporting immortality. Only two or three are honoured in this way each year at a summer ceremony to which baseball lovers flock, in the same way the faithful gather in Rome for the beatification of a saint. The parallels do not end there. As with the Vatican, baseball's aura of tradition and timelessness is tinged with scandal, and this community of 2,000 souls is right in the thick of things. For years now the sport has been embroiled in a complicated controversy over the use of steroids. But for fans, the dispute comes down to a simple question: should players who took performance-enhancing drugs while setting their records be admitted to the hall? Such is the enduring mystique of Cooperstown.

In truth, however, baseball's is merely the most celebrated hall of fame in a country that has hundreds, if not thousands of them. America didn't invent these institutions: credit for that is generally given to King Ludwig I of Bavaria who built a couple of them in the mid-19th century to honour great Germans and great Bavarians. But as it has demonstrated with pizza and countless other foreign imports, America's genius is to take a good idea from anywhere, and conceive so many variations and embellishments on the original theme that finally the idea becomes its own.

Thus it is with halls of fame. Some are majestic, some are sappy, some are earnest, some are tongue-in-cheek stupid. They can be tacky, weird, or crassly commercial. Some sound numbingly dull – any takers for the Accountants Hall of Fame in Columbus, Ohio? Others, though, can be absolutely riveting, even for non-devotees. In a few cases, like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, they alone can be reason enough for visiting America. And if you're here already and behind the wheel, they are one of the best reasons to leave the featureless interstates and explore.

A few years ago I went to Abilene, Kansas, with the intention of writing about Dwight Eisenhower, who was born there. Little did I know that Abilene was the self-proclaimed "Greyhound Capital of the World", boasting the Greyhound Hall of Fame, a grey porticoed building that felt like a temple. Why Abilene? Apparently because the early white settlers used greyhounds to hunt jack rabbits on the prairie, and then started racing them for sport. Today, Abilene is greyhound racing's Cooperstown and Vatican rolled into one.

Many have less lofty aspirations. In Plano, Texas, there's the Cockroach Hall of Fame, run by an enterprising pest exterminator who's tacked it on to the back of his shop. Seymour in Wisconsin has the Hamburger Hall of Fame. In Jackson, Mississippi, there's the Agricultural Aviation Hall of Fame, dedicated to crop-dusters. If farming's your thing, Columbus also boasts the International Drainage Hall of Fame, honouring pioneers in agricultural drainage techniques, while outside Plain City in Ohio there's the Select Sires' Bull Hall of Fame, with photos of a dozen of the local livestock industry's most virile performers over the years.

Many of the biggest and most established, of course, are devoted to sports, both mainstream and less mainstream. They range from the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, where the NFL was founded in 1920, to the Professional Rodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colorado. And if sports stars have them, why not police, farmers, clowns, astronauts, strippers and everyone else, even Barbie dolls? Fame, after all, is in the eye of the beholder. The bottom line is, wherever you happen to be in the US, you're never far from a hall of fame.

Oddly and sadly though, there's one hall Americans are not so mad about – and it's the father of them all. The Hall of Fame for Great Americans, which opened in 1901, is to be found in the grounds of the Bronx Community College, part of the City University of New York. It was the brainchild of Henry Mitchell MacCracken, a former chancellor of New York University, and inspired by King Ludwig's creations in Bavaria.

This was no quick-fix frivolity, celebrating fame in the transient, often ill-earned modern sense. MacCracken intended his hall to be a national pantheon of its greatest citizens, individuals who had truly shaped the country as it entered what would become "The American Century". The setting is stunning, a large circular colonnade in the classical style, at one of the city's highest points. The honoured number a mere 100, each commemorated by a marble bust. There is not a sports star among them.

Today, the place might as well not exist. A century ago, its membership was as fiercely debated as that of Cooperstown today. Now the Hall of Fame for Great Americans languishes, mostly forgotten, and so broke that it took nine years to raise the $25,000 for the bust of Franklin D Roosevelt, one of the penultimate batch of inductees in 1973. And that, perhaps, explains its downfall.

Before he can be considered for election, a potential Great American must have been dead for 25 years; indeed FDR, one of the greatest of them all, died 28 years earlier. But in an age of 15-minute celebrity, that is not a generation but an eternity. Americans are, simply, not that patient. When you get into Cooperstown's hall of fame you're very much alive, and only retired for five years.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Read Next
Former N-Dubz singer Tulisa Contostavlos gives a statement outside Southwark Crown Court after her trial  

It would be wrong to compare brave Tulisa’s ordeal with phone hacking. It’s much worse than that

Matthew Norman
The Big Society Network was assessed as  

What became of Cameron's Big Society Network?

Oliver Wright
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary