A Catskill Catalog: April 15, 2009
The Catskills have always been a haven for immigrants. Something about the Catskills reminds people of home: the rounded mountain slopes, wide green valleys, narrow hollows, rushing creeks, and small lived-in villages. People from all over the world have long seen the familiar here.
The Borscht Belt of Sullivan County is, of course, the most well-known ethnic resort area in mountain history, perhaps in American history. Many of the famous Catskill summer hotels, there, began as boarding houses, designed to supplement the income of immigrant farmers. Lots of immigrant Jews came to the Catskills in the first years of the 20th century to farm.
In the late 1800s, Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a German Jewish philanthropist, established an international movement to provide persecuted Russian Jews the wherewithal to emigrate and establish themselves as farmers. In 1900, The Jewish Agricultural Society was established in the United States as part of this movement. At that time, only 200 Jews farmed in the U.S. By 1938 there were 100,000.
Selig Grossinger was one of them. With his wife, Melke, Selig had come to Sullivan County to make a living as a farmer but, like many Catskill Mountain farmers, soon discovered that taking in summer boarders was more lucrative than selling eggs and vegetables, and a lot more predictable. The boom of the ’20s put money in the pockets of immigrant Jewish workers seeking a vacation. Selig and Melke put their entrepreneurial daughter, Jennie, in charge of their boarding business. Plentiful kosher food, fresh air, and organized activities attracted summer visitors to their large farmhouse and 100 acres which soon transformed into a major resort.
Grossingers, of course, was only one of the famous Jewish resorts of the Catskills. Brown’s Hotel, The Raleigh, Kutsher’s Country Club, The Concord – the list is long. Bungalow colonies provided a lower cost alternative. A resort at every economic level welcomed immigrant vacationers, and their American-born children, to the Catskills.
And they weren’t the only ones. It seems every immigrant and ethnic group in America has found a part of the Catskills to call their own. The Villa Roma in Callicoon and Villa Vosilla in Tannersville today cater to all kinds of people, but began as self-consciously Italian-American resorts. Villa Vosilla still advertises itself as being “nestled in the Italian Catskill Mountains.”
The Oliverea Valley was long a German-American vacation stronghold, the narrow valley, steep hillsides, and mature forest, perhaps, reminiscent of the Black Forest or of Bavaria. One can still get wonderful German food at the Slide Mountain Forest House at the head of that valley.
Friendship Manor was a 1960s-era resort catering to African-Americans. The manor was located on the site of today’s Belleayre Beach at Pine Hill Lake, in what had been the old Funcrest Hotel. Mr. Reed ran a bustling ethnic resort, attracting busloads of folks who’d come up from the city on weekends, where friends recall a lively music scene.
Down in Kerhonkson on the edge of the Catskills, Peg Leg Bates operated the Peg Leg Bates Country Club, a resort catering to African-Americans, from 1951 to 1987. Peg Leg lost a leg at the age of 12 to a South Carolina cotton gin, but went on to become an amazing tap dancer, showman, and entertainer who, it was said “danced better with one leg than anyone else could with two.”
The Irish Catskills, up in East Durham along Route 145, are “the nearest thing to the old sod.” In a former life, when my children were small, we spent a few days every summer at Mullen’s Irish Spring Hotel, now the Blackthorne Resort. I remember talking with a nun there who ran a parochial school in the Bronx. She told me, “We have so many illegal aliens coming to register their children at our school, that we don’t even ask for documentation anymore.”
This was back in the ’80s when wars and atrocities in Central America were on the front page every day. “Where are they coming from, Sister,” I asked, “Nicaragua? El Salvador?”
“Oh, no, no,” Sister replied, “Ireland.”
She and other guests at the hotel always maintained that the mountains reminded them of home.
It is not surprising, then, that participants in America’s most recent wave of immigration have found a home in the Catskills, as well. Beginning in the 1980s, immigrants from Mexico began to come to the United States to find a better life for their families. Many, from the state of Peubla, came directly to Newburgh where they settled and found work. But Newburgh is a tough town, and the Puebla migrants were essentially country people. In 1986, Arturo Garcia bought a house outside Fleischmanns, and brought his family to live and grow in the mountains.
Others followed. Today, about 20 percent of Fleischmanns’ 328 residents are Mexican-Americans. They own houses and operate businesses, pay taxes and send their children to the public school. They work hard.
Jessica Vecchione of Hamden has made a one-hour video documentary about the Mexican-American community of Fleischmanns. It is very good. (I should say that I am in it – my least favorite part of the film.) When you get the chance, go see “Beinvenidos a Fleischmanns - An Immigrant Community in Rural America.”
It is history we are living through right now.
© William Birns