Chapter 7. From Farm to Hotel

Mountaindale, "A Shtetl in America," on the southern tier of the Catskill mountains in Sullivan County, was not created from a vacuum. A number of disparate factors contributed to the title. When they came together at the end, a new twentieth century Mountaindale was born.

During the era of the post civil war railroad construction and expansion boom, the Ontario and Western Railroad was instrumental in the success of the tourist business in Sullivan County. The Ontario and Western Railroad was built to send manufactured goods freight from the New York City area to the western part of New York State and Canada. The railroad trains would return with agricultural products and raw materials. On the way back, eggs and milk would be picked up from the farmers' co-operatives in Sullivan County.

At the start of the tourist industry the railroads saw that they could make additional revenue by catering to the tourist trade. The initial money had been spent to build the railroad and all they had to do was add several passenger cars. Before automobiles had been invented (The first American made cars were sold to the public in 1895), there was no other convenient way to get to Sullivan County in the Catskill Mountains. The railroads started an advertising campaign, offered special fare inducements, improved passenger cars, increased the number of trips and made the scheduled times of departure from Weehawken, New Jersey (the closest station to New York City) more convenient for passengers. For example, there was a train that left Weehawken after 5:00 P.M. on Friday and arrived in Mountaindale before 9:00 P.M. on Friday evening. Also, Ontario and Western made money by carrying building materials needed for expanding boarding houses and new hotels.

Another factor that contributed to the growth of the tourist industry was the group of Jewish entrepreneurs that stepped up to make it a success. There were real estate salesmen in New York City as well as in Sullivan County (at a time when there was no real estate licenses). They formed co-operatives that sold insurance and mortgages because the existing co-ops wouldn't accept applications from Jews. At first, HIAS provided money for mortgages for farms only. They later relented and lent money to change farms to boarding houses.

There were also Jewish builders, lumber companies and other service companies that supplied labor and building material. Jews also started their own farm co-operatives (dairy, eggs, etc.), which earned more money for its members than the non-Jewish co-operatives. No one from the other co-ops ever joined the Jewish farm co-operatives.

Originally, villages and hamlets were named for their physical characteristics or for the names of their founders. Then, when there was real estate to be sold or summer guests to be enticed to vacation in these same places, better sounding names became important. The entrepreneurs went to the politicians to ask that the post office names officially be changed. O and W was happy to make these name changes on the train schedules. For example, Sandburg, named after the Sandbar Creek, which ran through the hamlet was changed to Mountaindale. Centreville, a nondescript name, was changed to Woodridge. Divine Corners, named for Silas Divine, was changed to Loch Sheldrake which sounds like an exotic Scottish lake. Stevensville, named for Ozias Stevens, was changed to Swan Lake, which was a fantasy. And, in Rockland County, Muddy Creek, named for a creek that ran through town, was changed to Pearl River.

Then, there were those Jews who purchased the farms. Some wanted only a farm. Others, wanting a small business, bought a farm with a large house to accommodate boarders. And, the few, who, like Jenny Grossinger, sought to build an empire.

And, of course, the final group of people who made the tourist business a success were the boarders and summer vacationers. Where did they come from? Originally, this group came from Eastern Europe. Between 1880 and 1922 more than 2,000,000 Jews came to the United States. Most men had no saleable skills with which to earn a living.

They went to work in the garment industry at subsistence wages. Traditionally, Jewish women did not work when families lived in Europe. In time, the men's skills improved and so did their wages. When the husband earned more money, they moved from a tenement in lower Manhattan to an apartment in the Bronx or Brooklyn. (In 1930, 600,000 people lived in the South Bronx: 360,000 Jewish and 240,000 non-Jewish.) While they lived there, they saved some money each year for summer vacations.

Families went to the "country" for a variety of reasons. It was hot and humid in the city. The third decade of the twentieth century was the hottest of the first half of the hundred years. At night, people slept on the flat roofs of the apartment houses. Some even slept on the cooler fire escapes. There was no air conditioning except in movie theaters and department stores. Factories were hot places (literally sweatshops). Streets were crowded, busy and, at times, dangerous for children. Families of the immigrants were large. Population density in New York City was the largest in the Jewish areas. (in fact, it was probably the highest in the city.) School was out for the summer.

Depending on the amount of discretionary funds they had they could take various kinds of vacations. In some places, women would cook their own food in a communal kitchen. If, they had more money they could go to a hotel like ours, where food was included, for two weeks. Or, the wife and children could stay for the summer with the husband coming up weekends.

Families traveled to the country by long distant taxis (hacks). Few people

who worked in the garment industry could afford a car. (There was no overnight parking on the streets of New York City.) Couples came by train or bus. A trip to the country could take from 3 to 5 hours, depending on when you traveled 'and where you are coming from (Brooklyn or the Bronx). Time was not as important until more people owned autos and the cars went faster. Super highways weren't built until much later. One of the reasons for the success of the tourist industry in Sullivan County was its proximity to the city.

There were 2,000,000 Jews living in New York City in 1930. Not all of them went to the Jewish Catskills. Enough people went to support a whole Jewish tourist industry.

I don't know the statistics for the other villages and hamlets of Sullivan County, but Mountaindale had, in the time I was there, more than 50 merchants and businessmen. There were only two who were not Jewish. There was a joke going around at that time about a summer vacationer, who asked, "How did the Jewish merchants get to Mountaindale ?" The answer was "Yiddle by Yiddle."