The summer of 1914 was one of the most significant in Sullivan County's history. The Hotel Wawonda in Liberty, the grand dame of the county's Silver Age resorts, burned to the ground that June, while …
The summer of 1914 was one of the most significant in Sullivan County's history. The Hotel Wawonda in Liberty, the grand dame of the county's Silver Age resorts, burned to the ground that June, while a short distance away in Ferndale, the Grossinger boardinghouse entertained nine guests and grossed a total of 81 dollars.
By 1918, that family business had outgrown the original seven-room farmhouse, a six-room addition and the neighboring parcel, purchased in 1916. In February of 1919, the family purchased the much larger Terrace Hill House from the Nichols estate and the Grossinger legend had begun.
Much of that early success was due to the hard work-- and home cooking-- of Malke Grossinger.
With her old-world work ethic, a passion for cleanliness, and a knack for cooking hearty, tasty meals, Malke was as much the heart and soul of the growing resort as her daughter Jennie would become the face.
Born and raised in Galicia, Malke Grossinger came to America in 1900 with her husband, Selig, and two young daughters, Jennie and Lottie. Selig had been a farmer in Europe and knew nothing of the hotel business before coming to the mountains. Malke, however, had the business in her blood.
“Malke Grumet was lovely to behold and intensely religious,” Joel Pomerantz wrote in his 1970 book, “Jennie and the Story of Grossinger's.” “The daughter of a country innkeeper, she had been well trained in cooking and in the management of the inn. In every sense she was a fine catch.”
When Selig Grossinger brought his family to the run down Longbrook Farm in 1914, he had no intention of running a boardinghouse, let alone a famous hotel. He had purchased a farm and had expected to make his living from the soil. This proved to be a difficult task, and the family discussed, but was divided over, the prospect of adding to their meager income by taking in boarders. It was Jennie's husband, Harry Grossinger, who made the decision that the family should become hoteliers, and it was Malke, the one with the inn keeping experience, who made that decision a wise one.
Malke said, “This will be good, I know. It is meant to be,” Pomerantz wrote. “We must have faith. God will help us.”
Even after the hotel had become successful, and the Grossinger family wealthy and well-known, Malke could be seen in the village of Liberty, dressed in her working clothes and an old scarf, purchasing kitchen utensils or food, seemingly unaffected by the fact that the Grossingers had become among the most famous families in America.
In fact, despite the notoriety eventually gained by daughter Jennie, and the rest of the family, Malke remained a mystery, a person seen but not heard, and not seen very often, at that. Little has been written about Mom, as she was popularly known, save for a brief description in Harold Jaediker Taub's 1952 book “Waldorf-in-the-Catskills,” written before, but published just after Malke's death.
“Physically one of the littlest people you've ever seen, Mom Grossinger lives her life with a courage that might well be the envy of giants,” Taub writes. “[H]ave you ever heard of another person who has given to the needy every penny of cash he possessed? That's Mom. She has no money in the bank. Every month she gets a large check, her income from the hotel, and immediately sits down and writes checks in her turn until it is all gone. Asked about it, she shrugs. “My family doesn't need my money. A roof over my head and three meals a day I'm sure of. What else do I need?”
John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.