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Room in the manger

Catskills lodging, from barns to boarding to bungalows to bnbs

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“You aren’t fully formed as a person until you visit the Long Eddy Hotel,” says Basket Historical Society President Shaun Sensiba as we pull into the narrow lot beside the building in Long Eddy. 

We’re taking an informal tour of historic boarding houses in the area, ending with the hotel and saloon, which was built around 1850 as a blacksmith’s barn. 

The Long Eddy Hotel and Saloon is a vestige of Long Eddy’s historic past as Sullivan County’s first (and only) “city.” “It was Douglas City,” Sensiba says, “but really, it was a village.”

Long Eddy is a sufficient microcosm of what Sullivan County once was—not in the heyday of the 1950s, but more like the heyday of the 1850s. It's also where Shaun Sensiba happened to bring me. 

The Sullivan Catskills is a place specifically defined by its tourist industry. Though there are robust local communities here that have and will always shape their surroundings, on a national scale the area has been foremost known as Vacation Land—a great irony to some of its towns today. The history of tourism in Sullivan County, says historian John Conway, who has spent 30 years reconstructing its evolution, fluctuates in roughly 25-year time periods between economic prosperity and its opposite. Through every rush the Catskills has welcomed, we've come up with new ways to accomodate visitors.

History is not as neat as we might like, but for our purposes, let’s say the history of lodging in Sullivan County follows this timeline: From the 1800s to the 1940s or thereabouts, the county is home to a number of rooming and boarding houses. In the 1950s, the Catskills exploded with bungalow colonies, hotels and lavish resorts up until the end of the ‘60s, followed by a sluggish period as tourism fell off, bringing us to the present, which we might playfully dub "The Era of Airbnb. "

Let’s start by visiting the Long Eddy of the 19th century. Just for fun, let’s also pretend you’re a logger coming down the Delaware River.

 A group gathers at Brandt's Hotel in the 1850s. | Photo contributed by Annemarie Schuetz

The guests 


Long Eddy is a corner of a place, one of many little villages stitched between Hancock and Callicoon along Route 97. It's also a significant river stop-off for log rafters and men working in the blue stone quarries, both of which are big industries in the mid-to-late 1800s. Route 97 won't exist until 1939, and there are no paved roads. Transportation between towns is easiest on the river, and from the big city, via the railroad. 

“Everything kind of grew around 1850,” Sensiba says. “There were people around but the railroad is really what made everything.” In places that lacked hotels, boarding and rooming houses cropped up. 

The grand hotels of the time, including the massive Catskill Mountain House, are expensive, and cater to a "better sort,” as Irwin Richman describes it in his book, "Catskills Hotels."

Suffice it to say, as a logger, you are not considered of that sort. You stop where you disembark. In Long Eddy, your options include the Hankins House, Long Eddy or Porter House hotels, or the Douglas City boarding house.

The Douglas City Boarding House was then, and is now, a chunky three-story Greek-Revival-style building with arched detailing over its porches. The house was most likely built sometime between 1850 and 1860 and is conveniently located right alongside the railroad tracks, at a docking station for bluestone. Your quarrymen friends can hop off and on right behind the boarding house and then head into town for a drink—perhaps even at the saloon. 

Nearby, the Kellam family owns the Hankins House as well as Betsy Kellam’s Ice Cream Parlor. Elvira Kellam bought a giant two and a half story L-shaped house in 1878 and continued to run it as a boarding house for bluestone workers and tourists. The building, called Kellam’s Hall, includes a theatre. Traveling shows, school exhibitions and political gatherings are frequently held in its main hall.

The Kellams also own a blacksmith shop, two sawmills and a store—“See how it’s all connected?” Sensiba notes. Money never truly leaves the family’s enterprise. 

Throughout Long Eddy, and most towns in Sullivan County along the railroad, homeowners have opened their doors. “A lot of these big houses you see all over the place were boarding houses,” says historian Alan Barrish. In 2019 Lordville, a mannequin of an old woman stands hauntingly in the top window of a massive white building with a boarding sign still tacked to its front.

Sensiba’s home, a shotgun-style second-floor apartment next to the Long Eddy Hotel, is, in the 1800s, a rooming house—meaning a stay there probably doesn't include meals.

“The boarding house phenomenon actually is an urban phenomenon,” Conway says. Boarding houses in the city are inexpensive, short-term living for clientele including single women. They are not tourist lodgings. “For our purposes in Sullivan County, the notion of a boarding house takes on kind of a different connotation," Conway says. 

Formerly Kellam's Hall, the L-shaped building built in the 1860s still stands today in Long Eddy. | Photo by Elizabeth Lepro

The boarders

“It all started with fishing,” Conway says, recalling the beginning of tourism in Sullivan County. Fishermen flocked to White Lake in the 1800s to take advantage of its world-record trout. 

In the 1900s, the county began to develop primarily along the New York, Western and Ontario Railway and around the river to its far eastern and northeastern parts. The central part of the county is where the major hotels went up later—places like Grossinger’s and the Concord’s. 
Prior to the end of the 19th century, many of the hotels in the Catskills were Christian only, and weren't shy about saying so. Around this same time, many hotels and boarding houses also began to restrict another group of guests, when a tuberculosis epidemic in the city sent people to the mountains, where it was believed that fresh air could cure the disease. "You had to escape the city to prolong your life," says Conway. At first, these TB patients, who came year round, were a boon to hotel and boarding house owners, but this soon ended, once it was learned that the disease was communicable. Thus, a common early 1900s railway advertisement might have said something like, “No Hebrews or consumptives accommodated."

"‘This is the future, it’s not farming, but we can expand on this idea of taking in boarders.'”

An 1897 advertisement in The Journal’s summer resort supplement promotes summer boarding in the mountains by way of the New York, Ontario and Western Railway. | Ad from the Library of Congress historic newspaper archive

Vacations aside, before the turn of the century, Jews from New York City began settling in Sullivan County. The Grossinger family, Conway notes, typifed a boarding house family in the late 1800s to early 1900s. Jewish immigrants living in squalor in New York City, the Grossingers were “barely scraping by,” Conway says. When its patriarch fell ill, the family got together $450 and bought an old farmhouse in 1914, with the intention of starting a farm. Then, as now, farming was not an easy venture in Sullivan County. The family found another way to make a few bucks: they took in boarders.

The first summer the Grossingers lived in the county, they took in nine people and made $81. That was a windfall.

“They had a little meeting,” Conway imagines, “and they said ‘this is the future, it’s not farming, but we can expand on this idea of taking in boarders.'” And, boy, did they. 

By 1919, the Grossinger family had established what would eventually develop into the famous Grossinger’s Resort —a playground for the rich and famous. That’s a familiar story for many of the region’s hotels. Eddy Farm in Sparrowbush had a similar start, as did Columbia Hotel in Hurleyville.
You likely already know what happened next: the fabulous ‘40s and ‘50s in the Catskills. The Borscht Belt. The Golden Age. [Visit this story online to find multimedia content about the golden age of the Catskills].

For those visitors who weren’t quite as upscale as, say, Bob Hope, there was another option: bungalow colonies. 

 

 

 

A postcard from Bardow’s Cottages in the 1950s, in Monticello | Postcard from the Catskills Institute “Hotels and Bungalows” collection,
created by Hannau, H. W. 

Little Hollywood

 


“Bungalow colonies were something I kind of took for granted [as a kid in Rock Hill],” Conway remembers. “I go away to college as a freshman… and I’m talking to my friends and say you know ‘We’d play ball against the bungalow colony,’ and they’d look at me like, 'What are you talking about? What’s a bungalow colony?'” 

If the Grossinger’s typified boarding house families, the Rados were their equivalent in the bungalow sphere. 

Helen Rados’ parents met in a displaced persons’ camp in post-World War II Europe, she says in a Story Corps interview with Alan Barrish. They already had family living here in Sullivan County, and joined them in the late ‘40s to set up a bungalow colony—in which families could rent cottages for themselves. Early bungalow colonies, or kuchaleins—meaning “cook for yourself”—might have had shared kitchens or outhouses, but by the time their popularity peaked, most cottages had their own kitchens and bathrooms.  [See page 21 for the history of the Ten Mile River Colony]. 

Bungalow colonies were a largely Jewish phenomenon, Conway noted.  

As the years went by, and Jewish tourism in the Catskills began in earnest, discrimination against them “became a little more subtle” at the hotels and resorts, Conway said. “So instead of saying no Hebrews accommodated, the gentile resorts would say ‘conveniently located to Catholic and Protestant churches.’ The Jewish places would say ‘dietary laws observed.’” 

“There was no secular world,” Barrish added. “You were Kosher, so you stayed with Jews and it had to be that way.”

Many now-grown Jewish children who grew up in New York City have many memories of Catskills bungalows, though, as Irwin Rich notes in his book on the subject, few of them evaluated the importance of those experiences as a place to celebrate their culture until later in life.  
In May, 1953, The New York Times cited 538 hotels and 1,000 boarding houses in the area. Far surpassing their lodging counterparts, however, were the 50,000 bungalows in the Catskills region. Around that time, says Conway, hotel owners started to shift their focus from nature to luxury. “So the hotels became not about rowing on the lake or fishing in the river or walking in the woods,” he said, “[but] about sumptuous meals, entertainment... Sullivan County, it was like a massive Hollywood set.”

Then, something shifted.

“People always want to know ‘How did it end? Why did it end? What happened?’” Conway said. 

When discussing the fluctuation of tourism as he observed it growing up and eventually taking over his family’s motel and canoe livery, Rick Lander of Lander’s River Trips points to the stiff competition of Disney World. “In the old days… the biggest thing [tourists from the city] had was Coney Island.” 
The airplane as a practical method of travel. The dissolution of the nuclear family. The transformed concept of the American Vacation. The economy, the internet, the decline of train transport—“There are literally hundreds of reasons we could point to,” Conway said. “The most prevalent reason [for the end of the Golden Age] is because that’s what happened and that’s what always happens.”
 

A retro Villa Roma billboard fades in the sun. | Photo by Elizabeth Lepro

'What always happens'


Recently, I was scrolling through Instagram and saw a sponsored ad produced by a real estate company in the Catskills. “Outgrown the city?” the video prompted, “time to move to the mountains.” 
The Golden Age of the Catskills is over. But a new era of tourism is certainly blossoming here—one that is certainly not dominated by immigrants, sick people, or poverty-stricken tenement dwellers looking to start farms. 
Beginning in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, second homes began to crop up around Sullivan County, an industry that is just now beginning to take hold. 

The New York Times Real Estate section has published two stories about Sullivan County in just the last six months. 

At the same time, Airbnb is exploding in the region. Nearly 24,000 guests came to Sullivan County through the website in the last year at an average daily rate of $106. There are currently 540 active Airbnb listings in the county, said a company spokesperson. 
The clientele in these cases may not be coming to catch award-winning trout, but they are certainly coming for an escape of some kind, and their interests in the area—music festivals, trendy shopping, eclectic art scenes and, yes, the clean, fresh air—reflect another era in vacation land. 

Information on boarding houses in this story was provided by the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.

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