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Sullivan County's Golden Age

John Conway - Sullivan County Historian
Posted 4/23/21

It was April 1953, and Sullivan County hotels had already received more than 11,000 inquiries about room reservations, with bookings running nearly 20 percent ahead of the year before, which had been …

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Sullivan County's Golden Age

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It was April 1953, and Sullivan County hotels had already received more than 11,000 inquiries about room reservations, with bookings running nearly 20 percent ahead of the year before, which had been the greatest of many great years for tourism here, with hotel occupancy in the county for the summer of 1952 between 25 and 30 percent higher than in 1951.

The Golden Age was in full swing.

As anyone who has read James Eldridge Quinlan's “History of Sullivan County” knows, summer tourism here dates back to before 1846.

“For many years, a few summer boarders frequented the place,” Quinlan writes in his chapter on the town of Bethel. “In 1846, J.B. Finlay put up the first hotel for the special benefit of this class of people. But the business was not remunerative until the Mansion House was built (in 1848).”

For the next two decades or so, tourism in the county took a back seat to 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 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 Farm, 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 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 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 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 Golden Age, obviously, had something for everyone.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. E-mail him at jconway52@hotmail.com., and join him tomorrow (Saturday, April 24) at 2 p.m. for the Hurleyville History Hike, starting from the west side parking lot behind the post office.

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