An oasis on 97
The Ten Mile River Motel has rolled with the tide of Sullivan County’s tourism industry—now it’s ready to change again
If you’ve driven down Route 97 toward Port Jervis in the last few months, you may have noticed some activity on the left-hand side of the road just outside of Narrowsburg.
Assorted machinery stands guard over piles of dirt, discarded lumber and two goats, contentedly munching on the grass around wood cabins. A fading “Kayak Café” sign hung until only very recently from the main building.
Locals will remember the previous iteration of this site as Bob's Ten Mile River Lodge—a mainstay destination that welcomed thousands of tourists and Boy Scouts for more than 40 years. But newcomers to the area will know it as something else: The Blue Fox Motel—a retro-style motel, bar and restaurant, set to open this June.
The Blue Fox’s new owners, Jorge Neves, Meg Sullivan and Paul Clarke, want to offer a modern Catskills lodging experience with a design focus reminiscent of the good old days—of which the Ten Mile River property has had plenty.
Built by O.E. Vannetta, or “Doc,” in 1936 and later operated by three men, Nick Dale, Mort Hyman and Cody Barnes, the Ten Mile River Colony in the ‘40s and early ‘50s was situated on the recently completed New York State Highway 97, along the well-stocked Ten Mile River.
This was a sportsmen’s getaway, catering to fishermen, hunters and Boy Scouts and with heated accommodations for those who liked to recreate in the winter.
There were four wooden cabins neatly next to each other and a main building, with a Coca Cola machine and an ESSO gas pump out front. A sign that read, “Newspapers, magazines and sundries” was pasted next to the door. On any given summer day, Nick Dale might be inside.
A state trooper who drove a motorcycle, and lost one of his legs in an accident on the machine, Dale is a character. Inside his shop, you can buy beer, if you’ve got a draft card, and sandwiches. If you’re smart, you’ll get a BLT. There are a few pinball machines and photos along the right wall, a tradition Dale started that would continue past his ownership.
On top of a piano is a fish bowl containing gravel, plants and water. A sign propped in front reads: “invisible fish.”
“The reaction to that was a classic,” remembers Morty Fink, who was a Boy Scout from 1946 to 1969 and recalls hiking down to Dale’s and later Lander’s place. Fink was one of scads of boys who would come from the surrounding Ten Mile River Camps by Rim and Pig trails—so named by the Scouts. After a necessary stop at the Doughnut Farm—a blue house on the side of 97 where doughnuts were two for a nickel—the boys would make their way to Dale’s.
“Every time I would go in there when I was like, 15, 16 years old, I’d try to buy a beer and [Dale] wouldn’t let me,” Fink said. “Finally, I turned 18 on June 3… and he comes out and hands me my first beer.”
Sometimes, Dale would make his way up to Fink’s campfires and tell stories about the American Tom Quick and his adventures with the Indians. The area was so beloved by the pair that they even discussed buying a private camp nearby, though that never came to fruition.
In 1955, Dale sold the property to former Scout Bob Lander, who would raise his family in the little house on the hill.
Brooklyn-born electrician Bob Lander bought was was then the Ten Mile River Colony in 1955, after “falling in love” with the Delaware—according to the family’s history on their website—as a Ten Mile River Boy Scout himself.
Fink remembers the year Dale transferred the property over to Lander, because it was a rainy season like this one's been, and the Boy Scouts watched as the river flooded and washed away trestles on the Erie Railroad.
Lander spruced up the place a bit and put in a pool. and a few more units. A small “pony barn” in the back was home to Bob’s son Rick’s two horses.
In 1960, the lodging at Lander’s remained rustic. Camp-style bunk beds filled the cabins. The bathrooms were plastic. The most expensive meal you could get was a broiled porterhouse steak with French fries and a salad for $3.50. The Boy Scouts were still coming.
“In the old days, it was mostly centered around the Boy Scouts,” Rick Lander said, from his Lander's Family River Trip office in Narrowsburg. That's how his family initially got into the canoe industry. In 1964, a Boy Scout takes out an ad in the New York Times with the message that a group of Scouts are going to meet at Bob Lander’s at a particular date—if you’re in the area stop off.
Nineteen Scouts gathered at Lander’s that day, in a group that would become known as the Brooklyn Arrowhead. The last two remaining members of the original group will meet this summer for the 64th time.
The Lander family lived in what was a brown, and then white, house at the top of the property. “You worked in the business, you know, my mother cooked… my dad basically did all the maintenance,” Lander said about growing up at the motel. “You actually grew up doing dishes and… mowing the lawns and stuff like that. And you'd actually get the people that stay there, their kids helping you.”
Lander is not particularly sentimental about his childhood at the lodge, but he does have an inclination to reminisce on the nature of tourism in those days. There was more “camping and killing” then, he says, as in, people coming to the Catskills on hunting trips, which floated the motel in the off season. “We used to have 60, 70 [hunters a season],” Lander said. “And then, at the very end, when we stopped doing hunting season, you’d be lucky to get 14. The real avid hunters would go out west.”
Eventually, the Lander family also stopped hosting winter weekends with the Boy Scouts.
“We were busy in April, in September and October. And now it’s basically end of June, July, August. And I’d say, the average customer… they don’t like cold weather. They don’t like rain,” Lander said. “Any business has to change with the times.”
By the ‘80s, the nature of tourism in Sullivan County had, in fact, already changed.
At what was by then Bob and Rick Lander’s Ten Mile River Lodge, the old ESSO gas pumps are gone, as is the pay phone, and undoubtedly, the invisible fish. Woodstock has come and gone. The canoe craze of the ‘70s, which brought thousands of tourists to the river, has been reeled in slightly by the arrival of the National Park Service. Boating on the Delaware is still a popular enterprise, but the availability of cross-country and even international travel, to destinations like Disneyland, has lessened the industry in Narrowsburg.
From 2002 to 2010, Rick Lander rented the restaurant out twice, to two groups who were meant to serve a la carte to big groups. “They both flopped,” Lander said. The property was finally sold in 2010 to a group of foreigners who never ended up opening shop.
“The problem with the motel and the buildings, there are no records of where anything is, so the only one that had information as to where the stuff was, was me,” former maitanence man Skip Laizure said. “[The owners] were talking about bringing it back online completely as far as a restaurant and all the outbuildings. I don’t think they really knew what they were getting involved with.” Laizure turned out to be right.
The property belonged to Jeff Bank after that, and the once-beloved motel awaited another transformation.
In 2019, the Ten Mile River property is bustling again—this time from the work of three friends who hope to turn the motel into something fit for the modern age, with an eye on the past.
There’s a certain irony in that, said co-owner Meg Sullivan, who noted that a lot of work has gone into making the place resemble what it once was.
The bar is not far from how the Lander family would remember it—built with wood found on the property. The lights in the bar are reclaimed and the neon has been removed, but the new owners are keeping the stained glass in the arch windows. They’ve also removed the old AC units and a display refrigerator for pies and cakes.
Rather than getting everything from a generic brand like Ikea, the crew searched thrift stores and similar vendors for time-appropriate pieces. What used to be red and gray tiled floors have been replaced by wood made from old bleachers, brought in from a school in Brooklyn.
“We don’t want to keep it almost like a museum, but what we’re trying to do is be sympathetic to the original period,” said co-owner Paul Clarke. Clarke, who is from London, has only been coming to Sullivan County for about four years. Sullivan and Jorge Neves have been in the area about 20. They live in Barryville. “We must’ve passed by and looked at [the property] a million times,” Sullivan said, “[and thought] ‘Oh that would be a fun project, for someone else.’”
The most renovation has gone on inside the cabins, to accomodate the modern visitor: bunk beds replaced with queens, each with accommodations for a couple or one person. The crew has had to weatherproof the cabins, reinsulate and redo roofs. The Lander’s house will be rentable for families, with a space out back for events. Parking spots, which were once in front of each cabin, motel style, are now in a parking lot along 97. And, of course, there has to be reliable wifi. Laizure stops by now and then to offer guidance and advice.
The kitchen in the restaurant needed the most renovation. It’s now completely stainless steel, ready to go for Chef Honorio Anguisca, who has been with Neves at all of his previous restaurants. The menu will be “creature comforts,” said Clarke.
Neves is confident he can make the Blue Fox work. A restaurateur, Neves has owned cafes in Brooklyn and a successful Portuguese restaurant in Soho.
As Neves walks around the property surveying the work still to be done, it's clear that the Blue Fox is his passion project.
All of the owners, Clarke said, see this is as a way to embed themselves in the fabric of the community.
They want it to be most accessible to locals, who will be able to use the pool for a small fee and visit the restaurant and bar, as well as rent out event space.
Rick Lander isn’t sure what to think of the renovations just yet. Both he and Laizure have seen others try to operate the property year round to little success.
But when the Blue Fox opens, Lander said, he’ll stop in and have a drink.
The Ten Mile River Scout Museum archives provided substantial research and photos for this story.