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Striking Gold in the Mountains

John Conway - Sullivan County Historian
Posted 4/24/20

It was April 20, 1953, and Sullivan County hotels had already received more than 11,000 inquiries about room reservations, and bookings were running nearly 20 per cent ahead of the year …

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Striking Gold in the Mountains

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It was April 20, 1953, and Sullivan County hotels had already received more than 11,000 inquiries about room reservations, and bookings were running nearly 20 per cent ahead of the year before.

The Golden Age of tourism in the region was in full swing.

As anyone who has read James Eldridge Quinlan's “History of Sullivan County” can attest, summer tourism here dates back to before 1846, and for the next two decades or so, tourism in the county took a back seat to its principal industries, timber and tanning. But as the Civil War ended, things began to change. The railroads arrived, the hemlocks- so vital to the tanning industry- were depleted, and New York City doctors were advising their patients to “go to the mountains” for whatever ailed them.

By 1890, Sullivan County was home to hundreds of hotels catering to thousands of summer tourists looking to escape the oppressive heat of the city. Places like the Wawonda, the Swannanoa, Columbia Farms, the Glenwood and Trout Valley Farm offered guests wide verandas, spacious lawns, even golf and tennis, and were central to a period of prosperity now called the Silver Age.

But as prosperous as that era was, it was dwarfed by the financial excesses of the 25-year Golden Age, which lasted from about 1940 to 1965.

The New York Times reported in a May 10, 1953 story written by Bernard Kalb, that the upcoming season was expected to be the busiest and most profitable ever for the Sullivan County resorts.

Kalb, a Harvard educated journalist who later worked for CBS News, NBC, and CNN, as well as the State Department, wrote that “of the 3,070 counties in the United States, one of the most talked-of, flocked-to and built-up is a 986-square-mile diamond of Catskill territory by the name of Sullivan County, ninety miles from New York City. Summer after summer, millions - vacationists as well as greenbacks - have descended on the county. Now, in contrast to the old farmhouse days, the vacationists have quite a choice of stopovers - 538 hotels, 50,000 bungalows, and 1,000 rooming houses, to be exact.

“The average rate during the summer is $65 a week, American plan,” Kalb continued. “Some of the smaller places operate on a $40 basis, while others - only one or two - have a tariff schedule that runs up to about $165.”

Kalb also reported that bungalows rented for anywhere from $300 to $850 for the season, while the “average priced apartment in a rooming house is going for $175 to $250. A final statistic: the bungalow and rooming house people say they have spent $500,000 on refinements since the close of last season.”

Local hotelmen, on the other hand, reported they had “spent $8,000,000 on improvements since Labor Day last year,” according to Kalb.

Sullivan County was a Goliath among resort areas, Kalb reported. “Not only does it have more hotels, more pools, more golf courses, and more recreational facilities per square inch, but it is expanding, improving, and rehabilitating incessantly, as though driven by some secret intelligence that the United States will run out of lumber next Wednesday.”

Kalb went on to point out that there is no such thing as a typical Sullivan County resort.

“Its diversity is remarkable,” he notes. “Stucco and clapboard hotels accommodating about seventy-five persons each line the same country road as the California redwood and Allegheny stone resorts accommodating 400 or 500. In recreation, there are places that haven't much more than a pool and a casino, just as there are places that have an outdoor pool, an indoor pool, a lake, a casino, an indoor theater, an outdoor theater, a night club, a bridle path, a nine-hole golf course, an eighteen hole golf course, and an indoor skating rink. The biggest hotels feature a Saturday night program built around entertainers like Milton Berle, Sophie Tucker, Sam Levenson, and Tony Martin; the smaller feature the Washington Heights Jazz Combo and a bellhop turned baritone.”

The summer of 1953 may have been the most profitable for local hotels up to that point, but the resorts continued to prosper in the succeeding years, as well. By June of 1955, the Times was reporting that the hotel industry had spent more than $4.1 million in new construction in the past year and that the previous summer, 750,000 hotel guests in the county had dropped an estimated $55,000,000 here. Some large hotels were spending nearly $250,000 a summer just on entertainment, they said.

Of course, not all of the hotels in the county had that kind of budget to spend on entertainers. Some of the small to medium size resorts contracted with the Stanley Woolf Players, a group of traveling professional entertainers founded in 1937, to perform a new show each week for ten weeks. The group, which one summer featured a neophyte actor named Tony Curtis, charged about $3,000 for the season.

Even that was too rich for some of the smaller resorts, the Times noted.

“A resort in Parksville devotes many of its nights to showing old Theda Bara and Douglas Fairbanks movies. A hotel in Woodbourne specializes in the arts, giving instruction in music, painting, and writing. A hotel in Monticello concentrates on the ‘finer things in life,' like talks on current events and recitals.”

The Sullivan County of the Golden Age, it seems, offered something for everyone.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. E-mail him at jconway52@hotmail.com and ask how to purchase his new book, “In Further Retrospect.”

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