A Catskill Catalog: Sept. 16, 2009

A quiz. Where in the Catskills will you find an astronomical observatory, equipped with a high-powered, computer-controlled telescope? Where in our mountains is a fully-equipped pediatric dialysis unit, able to provide kidney dialysis to eight children at a time? Where in the Catskills will you find demonstration forests, the wood harvested in a variety of methods to test which method leads to the most successful forest regeneration?
The answer to all three questions is Frost Valley YMCA.
Frost Valley YMCA is a gem, a beautifully conceived and lovingly built outpost of the best of civilization in the wilderness of the Upper Neversink Valley. My good friend T and I had a tour of the place last week. It blew me away.
I’ve driven past the Y camp countless times on the Big Indian-Claryville Road, county Route 47, the scenic shortcut to Sullivan County, Route 17, Pennsylvania, and points south. The camp has always looked inviting, a new stone sugar-shack along the roadway and large sign reading “Build Strong” announcing its presence.
Soon, heading south, a pasture of horses opens on the left and an imposing stone and stucco castle dominates the hill on your right. You are at Frost Valley.
Frost Valley YMCA is a freestanding YMCA, not a Y camp. Frost Valley operates summer camp, but it does so much more, as well. Frost Valley is a destination not just for children and teens to sleep away at camp, but for school groups for environmental education, families for recreational bonding, workplace associates for conferences and retreats, folks of a certain age for Elderhostel adventures.
It all started on the upper Neversink in 1956, when New Jersey-based Camp Wawayanda was looking for a home. The summer camp had been located in a number of locales in New Jersey and New York since its founding as a camp for boys in 1901, a cooperative endeavor of several YMCAs, including those in Montclair, Ridgewood, and Passaic, New Jersey.
Suburbia closed-in on Camp Wawayanda’s longtime home near Newton, New Jersey, and, for several years in the early ’50s, the camp rented a rural outpost owned by Stevens Institute of Technology. Then, the Forstmann Estate came on the market.
In 1914, Julius Forstmann, a leading woolens manufacturer, bought 2,200 acres on the West Branch of the Neversink River, and hired over 200 men to build a 22-room house, barns and outbuildings, where Forstmann established his baronial country estate. He fenced-in 700 acres for his private deer park, stocked with large Michigan deer. He hired farmers to maintain a working dairy farm. His wife and five children made his estate a home, one of several the family maintained, in addition to Mr. Forstmann’s 330-foot, ocean-going yacht, Orion.
Julius Forstmann died in 1939, his oldest surviving son Curt died in 1950, and Julius Jr. decided it was time to liquidate in the mid-’50s, putting both the business and the Catskills estate on the block.
Influential citizens, active in YMCA charitable affairs, got wind of the sale, and, on Christmas Eve 1956, finalized a deal to buy the property, including the furnished house, 12 farm buildings, and a registered dairy herd. The $130,000 price seemed to include some element of charitable giving on the part of the Forstmanns.
What began as a new home for an established boys’ camp has grown and developed into a multi-dimensional service organization with world-class recreational, lodging and educational facilities. Today, Frost Valley is comprised of several parcels in addition to the main camp.
The Straus Center is a warm and attractive small-group conference and Elderhostel center on the Neversink’s East Branch. The food and ambiance there are exceptional: rustic sophistication.
Up the road, a working farm provides farm camp opportunities for young people who often have no real idea where food comes from. The farm helps preserve our region’s agricultural heritage, with hands-on experience provided in the five-acre garden and in the barn full of goats, sheep, donkeys, calves, a horse, and a pig or two.
Each summer, Frost Valley brings 50 quality saddle horses to the Catskills from their winter board in Castleton, Vermont. The Equestrian Program provides Summer Camp, Spring Break Camp and weekend opportunities for young people to bond with horses, learning all the skills of horsemanship as they do. The programs are over-booked, with girls predominating the attendance.
Fifty is also the number of campers who used the gleaming new dialysis center this summer, children and teens in need of thrice-weekly kidney dialysis. Since 1975, Frost Valley has provided summer camp experiences to kids usually tethered to home because of their condition. The new Wellness Center continues that 35-year practice. Children with developmental disabilities are also mainstreamed into camp.
The Hayden Observatory on Wildcat Mountain, features a rotating rotunda that opens to extend its telescope toward the night sky. By day, the view of Slide Mountain from the observatory site is unparalleled, I think, in the mountains.
Just down the hill from there, the Howard E. Quirk Lodge uses state-of-the-art solar panels on the roof and front awning to produce off-the-grid electricity stored in 18 batteries that power all the lights in the building. In that building is an equally state-of-the-art GPS/computer software mapping office, capable of producing accurate maps for the entire operation.
Frost Valley is an environmental monitoring research partner with Cornell University, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, the U.S. Geological Survey, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and the U.S. Forest Service, among others. A series of forest study plots are fenced off from each other to provide the Forest Service data on the cutting edge of forestry science.
Frost Valley YMCA is an amazing place. For families, for school groups and classes, for business organizations, for people, it is a place to experience the outdoors, to learn, to build trust and teamwork, to grow.
Check it out.