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The Sullivan County Catskills was a summer haven in the 1950s, where I and many others in the New York City/northern New Jersey area spent our childhoods. Living within a reasonable driving distance from the Catskills, we drove our tightly packed jalopies over the bumpy old roads. Feeling nostalgic as our 40th wedding anniversary approached, it made perfect sense for my husband and me to travel today’s highways two short hours to arrive back at the old summertime homestead.
Celebrating my anniversary traversing the once-hopping land of bungalows in the famed Borsht Belt was cathartic, yet prompted mixed emotions. Our first stop was on DeBruce Road in Livingston Manor, the stomping grounds of my summertime youth. We snapped a quick photo of the dilapidated barn-turned-bungalow that housed my family back in the 1950s from late June through early September. My father bartered with a cousin for the opportunity to stay the season. In exchange, he toiled at maintenance work on the buildings of the converted farm on weekends and vacations from his job carrying mail for the U.S. Postal Service.
Those bare-bone bungalows hold joyful memories. From the early morning dew, to nature-filled days spent outdoors—including walks to local farms to get basics from the farmers—to the cool night air, the fun never ended.
Eventually my cousin sold the bungalows and moved to Liberty, where we sometimes visited her on Cold Spring Road. Later, throughout my tweens and teens, finances limited our stays in other colonies to a short stretch of a week or two. For one or two summers each, we lodged at Tuttle’s cabin near the creek on Tuttle Hill Road, Alden’s bungalow colony in Parksville, Mundlein’s in White Lake, or Sunny Glade in Swan Lake.
The day of our anniversary, my husband and I headed out after breakfast for our day-long tour of the mountain towns, stopping first at Antique Palace Emporium. In the course of our conversation with the proprietress, she asked us where the old bungalows where we had stayed were located. I answered that they were on DeBruce Road, corner of Tuttle Hill.
Intrigued, she began constructing a roadmap with questions. As she continued to probe, I responded, “Near Decker’s, where we bought our eggs.” She replied, “Oh, you bought eggs from my grandfather.” Her paternal grandfather from whom we had bought our eggs had passed when she was about eight. Her parents built their house next door, and still live there. We knew several of the same families on Tuttle Hill Road, including the Tuttles. She smiled when I recalled Mrs. Tuttle, churning fresh butter in her kitchen, and her husband, the wiry old gentleman dressed in his farming attire, consisting of a long-sleeved flannel shirt, jeans with suspenders and fedora-style straw hat.
Cheerily leaving her shop, we adventured to Narrowsburg, and from there, enjoying the scenic vistas, we circled around the mountainous roads to Bethel. Having toured the museum a few times since its opening, we strolled around the lush grounds instead, admiring the hardy young trees, shrubs and flowers, marveling at the well-aged, beautifully manicured rolling countryside.
I joked with my husband that we met because of the Woodstock Festival. Had that event not occurred at Yasgur’s Farm in Bethel that summer of 1969, my family probably would have been perched down the road at Mundlein’s bungalows in White Lake for another summer vacation, enjoying the great outdoors, boating, dipping in the lake, singing around evening bonfires and seeing shows at Laurel Playhouse. Instead, my father feared the spillover of the revelers would cause un-maneuverable traffic. My mother anticipated horrors from the “hippy dippys,” as she called them, with their drugs, free sex and garbage. I turned 16 that summer. Since we stayed home, I went to a friend’s yard party where I met my future husband.
Doing some more antiquing with my high-school sweetheart, this time in White Lake, we spotted milk bottles. We are drawn to them, since my father-in-law was a milkman for 35 years—the mailman’s daughter married the milkman’s son. Seeing a $650 tag, I questioned it at the register. Laughing, the cashier explained that coming from Yasgur’s Farm, manufactured in 1969, raised its value.
When I recounted my saga to the restaurateur at the Fat Lady Cafe on Kauneonga Lake, telling her about our 40th anniversary and how we return every summer to ride around the familiar territory, she said she hears these stories often. Patrons always ask for pictures of the defunct bungalows. She introduced a man sitting at the next table; he has revisited every summer since his childhood at the bungalows next door. He flew up with his wife from Texarkana, TX. They all viewed the picture of my parents in the ‘50s, stored faithfully on my iPhone.
Thanking my husband for spending our anniversary with me “up the mountains,” the place we traditionally took our children for a yearly overnight, gave me pause. Enjoying the beauty of the terrain, I nevertheless shed a tear over missing the relaxed bungalow life and the old colonies themselves, filled with extended family and summertime friends. Those were the best of times.
[Sharon Mark Cohen lives in South Orange, NJ, but still revisits the Upper Delaware area where she spent many childhood summers.]