Copyrighted excerpt from Sullivan County: A Bicentennial History in Images by John Conway (The History Press 2009).
TIMBER, TANNING AND TOURISM
When Sullivan County was officially formed from Ulster County on March 27, 1809, it was a heavily forested, rocky and rugged region largely inaccessible to the rest of the world. But the natural beauty of its many lakes and streams and rivers had already made it a very special place to a group of Native Americans who revered such features.
Some archaeologists believe the Lenape (their name is pronounced len-ahh’-pay and is most often translated “original people”) first arrived in this area over 11,000 years ago. While there is no indication exactly what the place was like at that time, oral tradition (the Lenape had no written language) holds that the tribe ultimately controlled a land mass that encompassed from what is today upstate New York to the state of Delaware. They called this land Lenapehoking, or “land of the Lenape.”
The tribe spent the warm weather months in this heavily forested region, particularly along the major rivers, which they used for transportation. Here they hunted, fished, and farmed, growing corn, squash and beans. They held great council fires in the Mamakating valley and annual corn harvest festivals along the Delaware River at what is today Cochecton.
With the arrival of the Europeans—Swedish, Dutch and then British settlers—beginning in the middle of the 17th century, visits by the dwindling Lenape population became fewer and farther between. War and disease had severely diminished their numbers, and friction with the Europeans anxious to purchase land, a concept totally alien to the Lenape, prompted the tribe to look elsewhere to live. By 1730, the Lenape people had left the region for good.
Soon the area was abuzz with industry. Timber was abundant and in great demand. As early as 1764, a man named Daniel Skinner conceived the idea of floating the tall, sturdy pine trees that grew along the banks of the Delaware River to Philadelphia for use in the burgeoning ship building industry in that city. Timber rafting, the first of the county’s three great industries—historians today call them the three Ts-- was born.
Brothers Samuel F. and John P. Jones founded the village of Monticello in 1804 and Samuel was instrumental in the construction of the Newburgh-Cochecton Turnpike, the first improved road through the county, and in the erection of the county itself. John P. Jones built the initial homein Monticello, cutting down the first tree himself in September of 1804. When the new county was finally chiseled out of the southwestern corner of Ulster County and chartered in 1809, it was named for General John Sullivan, the Revolutionary War officer who had been directed by George Washington to drive the Mohawks and Tories who had been raiding the settlements along the frontier out of the region.
The construction of the Delaware & Hudson Canal, which opened in 1828 and was initially conceived to carry coal from the Moosic Mountains of Pennsylvania to the Hudson River for shipment to New York City, provided the first great population boom in the county. In fact, in the first 20 years of the canal’s operation, the population of Sullivan County more than doubled, to more than 25,000 by 1850.
The canal was also instrumental in the growth of the county’s second great industry: tanning, which began in the 1830s, and peaked during the Civil War.
Sullivan County hemlocks produced a peculiar, reddish hued leather, which was stronger and suppler than that tanned elsewhere. At their height, the county’s tanneries employed thousands of men, and Sullivan produced more leather than any other county. Entire communities grew up around these tanning operations, and many immigrants, especially from Ireland, came specifically to work in the trade.
The tanning industry thrived until the hemlock stands were depleted. By the end of the 1880s, all but one of the forty tanneries in the county had vanished, as had the massive fortunes amassed by those who owned them.
When the landscape of Sullivan County had been drastically altered by the timber and tanning industries, the area turned to tourism (the third “T”) as its principal industry. Beginning in the 1840s, entrepreneurs were building summer hotels to accommodate visitors who, having learned of the great recreational opportunities here from writers such as Alfred B. Street, Charles Fenno Hoffman, and Frank Forrester, and painters such as Henry Inman, came here to fish and hunt. As the end of the 19th century approached, these small resorts replaced logging camps and farmhouses became boarding houses. With the railroads providing easy access to the county for the first time, the tourism industry really began to grow.
The western side of the county along the Delaware River began to develop first, with the completion of the Erie Railroad in 1850. The railroad embarked on an aggressive promotional campaign touting the upper Delaware region as “a sportsmen’s paradise” and small hotels played host to those looking for recreation and an escape from the oppressive summer heat of the cities.
The Erie also provided a boost to the burgeoning bluestone industry in the river valley, which had until then been utilizing the canal to ship stone to New York City for curbs, sidewalks and foundations.
When the center of the county got rail service with the completion of the Monticello & Port Jervis Railroad in 1871, and the New York & Oswego Midland Railroad (later the Ontario & Western) in 1872, resorts began to spring up there, as well. Soon thousands of visitors a year were spending their summers in the cool and health-restoring mountains.
From 1890 to about 1915, the county enjoyed an unparalleled prosperity as approximately 200 hotels such as the Wawonda and Ye Lancashire Inn in Liberty, the White Sulphur Springs House, the Columbia Farms and Brophy’s Mountain House in Hurleyville, and the Mansion House and the Kenmore in White Lake, thrived.
These hotels were largely wood frame buildings of Victorian architecture, and were all Gentile owned. While at first they offered their guests simply fresh air, clean water, farm fresh vegetables and milk, and plenty of shade, by 1895 lawn tennis had become an attraction, and by 1897 golf was offered. The county’s first golf course was opened that year at the Trout Valley Farm on the Beaverkill, and several more, including three official nine-hole courses, followed by 1901.
Vacationers who flocked to Sullivan County during this Silver Age came for the same reasons the Lenape first visited the area centuries before—they came to enjoy the fresh air, the clean water, and the magnificent scenery.
The railroads had long promoted the fresh mountain air of Sullivan County as a cure for people suffering from tuberculosis, or consumption, as it was widely known at the time, and a number of treatment facilities were built in the county, most notably the Loomis Sanitarium. Hotel owners blamed the county’s budding reputation as a haven for those afflicted with tuberculosis for destroying their business, and by 1915 many of the once magnificent hotels had closed. A number burned to the ground.
The county had already begun a radical change. A seasonal influx of New York City-based Jewish immigrants began with a boardinghouse built by John Gerson in Glen Wild in 1899. Soon other Jewish families had purchased struggling hotels. Still others came to farm, but soon found that they could make more by entertaining friends and relatives in the spare rooms than from the soil. This provided Jewish vacationers, unwelcome in many other resort areas, a place to spend their free time in the company of other Jews. Most notable among these early Jewish hoteliers were Selig and Malke Grossinger in Liberty, the Kutsher family near Monticello, and Fleischer and Morganstern, who purchased the Flagler House in Fallsburg.
Another type of resort was created by wealthy urban sportsmen with Chester W. Chapin owning more than 20,000 acres covering several towns, and William Howe Crane forming the Hartwood Club in Forestburgh. Economist Henry George founded what became a mecca for artists at Merriewold Park in 1889. Meanwhile, the Willowemoc and Beaverkill remained major fly-fishing destinations.
The Jewish immigrants built large hotels in places like Fallsburg, Liberty and Livingston Manor. Inspired by Fleischer and Morganstern’s Flagler, the area’s preeminent resort at the time, hotel owners soon popularized a new style of architecture, featuring stucco exteriors, palladium windows, multiple facades, and prominent parapets, that became known as Sullivan County Mission. By the 1940s, over 300 hotels were in operation in Sullivan County. The Golden Age had begun, and would last for about 25 very prosperous years.
By 1953, the New York Times reported there were 538 hotels in the county, including two of the most famous resorts in the world: Grossinger’s in Liberty and the Concord in Kiamesha Lake. At the same time, the paper noted the county’s accommodations also included 1,000 rooming houses and 50,000 bungalows.
By this time, the major resorts were offering their guests modern amenities such as golf, tennis, indoor and outdoor swimming pools and skating rinks, professional entertainment, and three hearty meals a day instead of merely the fresh air and clean water of days gone by. Still, hardly an afternoon would pass that thousands of summer tourists wouldn’t take to the country roads for a stroll in the magnificent countryside.
This era of prosperity lasted until about 1965. Many factors played a role in the decline of the Catskill resorts. The growth of suburbia and the proliferation of air conditioning made summers in the city more bearable. Inexpensive air travel opened up new horizons to middle and working class vacationers, and Jewish families became assimilated. Sullivan County resorts, which had survived for decades by constantly evolving—adding tennis, golf, swimming pools, indoor swimming pools, night clubs, harness racing—suddenly failed to adjust. Sullivan County had fallen on hard economic times by the 1970s, and no simple solution was at hand.
Meanwhile, in August of 1969, approximately 500,000 people from all over the country converged on a field in Bethel for a three-day event that was planned for a fraction of that number. Heavy rains and inadequate facilities did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd, which enjoyed "three days of peace and music." This event, the Woodstock Music Festival, helped define a generation but, despite a number of half-hearted attempts, the county was mostly unable to commercially capitalize on this claim to fame. In fact, for many years after the festival, it seemed as if county officials, as well as many residents, would have preferred that the concert had never taken place. The traffic jams that paralyzed the region, destruction of private property, and garbage left in the festival's aftermath resulted in a bad taste in the mouths of many residents. The county Board of Supervisors enacted a strict mass gathering law to prevent a recurrence.
But now, as Sullivan County celebrates its 200th birthday, its landscape continuing to evolve with the disappearance of the large hotels of the Golden Age, vacationers continue to flock to the area to enjoy its rich natural beauty, and a renewed appreciation for the significance of Woodstock.
Tourism continues to be the county’s primary industry, and while a few hotels, resembling, superficially at least, the resorts of the past, remain in operation, many visitors today own or rent second homes here. These visitors, who come all year around, play golf, ski, look for the bald eagles that inhabit the county, and enjoy new tourist attractions.
The concert venue at Bethel Woods, the site of the original Woodstock music festival, is world class, and improves with each year of operation. The newly created Museum at Bethel Woods commemorates not just the music festival, but the decade of the 1960s, and the changes its events brought to the country. Local billionaire Alan Gerry has spared no expense in painstakingly creating these complimentary venues.
A new concept in tourism, the Monticello Motor Club began operation in 2008. The facility, which is expected to eventually include an elaborate clubhouse and other luxurious amenities, features a state-of-the-art road racing course open only to club members. A six-figure initiation fee and pricey annual dues insure an exclusive membership.
Harkening back to the environmental stewardship of the Lenape, and true to its historical development, in which the appreciation of nature played a significant role, Sullivan County has begun to tout itself as a center of “green” technology. Plans have been developed for a “green technology industrial park” and local start-ups include a company that specializes in electric and other alternative fuel vehicles.
Many residents hold on to the hope for casino gaming, and Empire Resorts, which has been operating the Monticello Gaming and Raceway facility has partnered with developer Louis Cappelli to propose an extravagant entertainment complex at the site of the fabled Concord hotel.
Time marches on, but past, present and future, Sullivan County remains a very special place.
Copyrighted excerpt from Sullivan County: A Bicentennial History in Images by John Conway (The History Press 2009).