A Catskill Catalog: March 19, 2008
One summer in the mid '70s, I had a job teaching English to Japanese kids at Camp Forusato in Fleischmanns. In the '70s, the Japanese economy was cooking, globalism was in its infancy, and many Japanese people were living and working in the New York metropolitan area. The Japanese educational system is rigorous, so many of the children of these international executives, skilled artisans, and entrepreneurs attended special Saturday sessions in Japanese during the regular school year, and educational sleep-away camps like Camp Furosato in the summer. The camp was run by Mr. and Mrs. Lynch at the old Breezy Hill Hotel, about a mile up Breezy Hill Road, above the old Fleischmanns Firehall.
English classes were in the morning, so my day ended a little before noon, and I would drive home through Fleischmanns to New Kingston, where I lived at the time. I remember distinctly creeping down Fleischmanns' Main Street in my '65 Plymouth Valiant at about five miles per hour because the street was full of, literally, hundreds of people. Even so, the town elders were saying, then, that Fleischmanns was dying.
That's because they remembered when those hundreds were thousands. Take a drive through Fleischmanns, my home village now for the past 16 years. You'll notice, tucked away behind many houses and commercial buildings, a little bungalow or cottage or converted garage that once was rented-out to summer guests when space to stay was at a premium, and local folks could supplement their income by taking in boarders.
Of course, for many people in our region, providing hospitality to summer visitors was their income. Hotels thrived in the mountains from the time the railroad made transportation from New York City to the mountains affordable, until the time air-conditioning and cheap airfares made the trip unnecessary.
Fleischmanns, particularly, was "one of the major summer resort centers of the Catskill region," to quote from the 1940 travel guide to New York State, compiled by the Writers' Program of the Works Project Administration. The WPA was a New Deal program of President Franklin Roosevelt, and its Writers Program was designed as much to put writers back to work, as it was to put together what is probably the greatest series of travel guides published in America, one for each state. The WPA also financed the construction of many of our local schools, including the old Fleischmanns High School, Margaretville Central, Downsville Central, and many others.
My late Aunt Lillian, recalled when I moved to Fleischmanns, a childhood visit years before. Lots of people had such memories. With fewer than 500 full-time residents, Fleischmanns' population swelled every summer to approximately 10,000. Tell somebody, today, that little old Fleischmanns once boasted a summer population of 10,000 and they'll tell you, "Yeah, sure, right," so that number really needs to be footnoted, don't you think?
The newspaper of record, The New York Times, in 1976, sent reporter Richard Severo to Fleischmanns to investigate a rash of fires, which had destroyed a significant number of unoccupied hotels, camps, private homes, and boarding houses in the preceding five years. "Thirty years ago," Severo wrote, "this community had a population of under 500, that rose to 10,000 from the Fourth of July to Labor Day."
The reporter called Fleischmanns schnitzel-belt, not borscht-belt, because its mostly Jewish clientele was from Germany, Austria, and Hungary, and, at the time of his visit, "one can still hear German and Hungarian spoken on Main Street," although, "the tourists are old and there probably aren't more than 1,000 of them."
When those older guests died, their adult children found affordable vacation opportunities in Europe and the Caribbean. Besides, the rationale for summering in the mountains had always been the sweltering heat and humidity of city summers, a problem nicely corrected by air conditioning. Fleischmanns fell into decline. At one point in the late '80s or early '90s, the Catskill Mountain News published a story on the closing of what was, then, the last store in Fleischmanns. As I recall, the headline read something like "You Can't Buy a Loaf of Bread in Fleischmanns Anymore."
You can today. The little village boasts a terrific Mexican restaurant; two groceries, one specializing in Mexican products; a convenience mart/gas station; two taverns; a couple of art galleries; a publishing house; a bank; a mini-fitness center; several motels; a vintage baseball team; and a soon-to-be-opened pizzeria.
Of course, Fleischmanns' modest gains of the past decade are a long way from its heady heyday. Back in '76, local resident John Hoeko cataloged for reporter Severo what Fleischmanns had had back in the '50s and '60s: "‚Ä¶four butchers, three barber shops, a bowling alley, three produce markets, three bakeries, an A&P, three doctors, and as many dentists."
Fleischmanns, then, was glitteringly alive! A good friend of mine, who grew up in Margaretville, recalls fondly how he used to accompany his father when he had business in Fleischmanns. How they loved to watch the parade of elegantly dressed visitors down Main Street. Fleischmanns was, then, a great attraction.