Sullivan County: Doctors Say ‘Go to the Mountains!’

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adWhile Sullivan County was not officially formed until 1809, the region’s history as a popular healing environment dates back considerably before that.

From the earliest visits of the Lenape, who constructed their sweat lodges among the willow trees on the banks of the Delaware to the tuberculosis sufferers who searched for a cure in the cool mountain climate, hundreds of thousands of people have visited the area because of its clean air and pure water.

From about 1890 to 1915, the county enjoyed a prosperous period of tourism—today called the Silver Age— based almost entirely on those concepts of fresh air and pure water. In fact, for decades the Ontario & Western Railway’s promotional campaign for the area was based on the slogan, “Doctors Say ‘Go to the Mountains!’” This was often followed by the trident reminder ‘pure air, pure water, pure milk.”

The role of the area’s reputation as a healing environment in the development of its Golden Age, which lasted from about 1940 to around 1965, is much less understood. And yet the area’s great hotels, in fact, hundreds of them, flourished as tourist destinations in spite of the national trend toward making the trip itself– specifically driving in an automobile– the vacation.   Surely, there were many reasons for this, perhaps most importantly the demographics of the vacationers themselves, but health reasons played an important role, too.

Some insight into this phenomenon is found in a 2011 book with an unlikely title, Weeds: An Environmental History of Metropolitan America.

Written by Zachary J.S. Falck, and published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, the book is touted as “a comprehensive history of ‘happenstance plants’ in American urban environments.” It is not at all about Sullivan County, nor is it about tourism, per se, but it posits a theory of why many New Yorkers may have traveled to the Catskills for vacations in the years leading up to the Golden Age and beyond.

“By the 1920s, Route 4, which ran from New York City to Buffalo through the Sullivan County towns of Liberty, Middletown [the fact that Middletown is actually in Orange County does not detract from the point] and Monticello, swelled with bumper-to-bumper traffic on summer weekends,” Falck writes. “In the postwar years, resort owners sought additional improvements to increase the area’s accessibility to vacationers from East Coast cities like Boston. The highway was expanded into the four-lane ‘Quickway.’ Promoting the area’s resorts as sanctuaries for hay fever was another way to attract more tourists.”

Falck notes that Ulster County tourist areas, such as Pine Hill, attracted visitors by aggressively promoting their efforts to control ragweed, including a roadside spraying program that decreased the region’s pollen index from 6 to 2 between 1946 and 1950.

The perceived success of this spraying program, he writes, “may have inspired the Sullivan County Hotel Association to propose a countywide ragweed-spraying program. Although the county’s resort owners relied primarily on family traditions and celebrity entertainers to bring summer visitors, they recognized that ragweed eradication could help to retain and attract New Yorkers.”

The spraying program was deemed necessary because the pollen index in Sullivan County often exceeded that of the any of the five boroughs of New York City, making it especially difficult to publicize the region as a haven for hay fever sufferers. Enter a company called McMahon Brothers, distributors of products manufactured by Dow Chemical.

Raymond and Robert McMahon met with the Sullivan County Board of Supervisors and members of the Hotel Association in June of 1954, and convinced them of the efficacy of an aggressive spraying program, “in the best interest and health” of county residents and vacationers. The Supervisors, no matter how well intentioned, were no doubt also influenced by the company’s proposal that the program would cost the county just a single dollar in 1954, and then $25,000 in 1955 and again in 1956. The county reserved the right to cancel the program after the second year.

Falck writes that Sullivan County’s ragweed spraying program was to be “the largest of its kind ever attempted” anywhere, and just for good measure, the Hay Fever Prevention Society declared July 28, 1954 “Ragweed Day.” Supervisors and Hotel Association officials encouraged everyone, from Boy Scouts to service groups to assist in eradicating the dangerous weeds from county roadways. Ragweed elimination became a regional obsession.

Not everyone was as enthusiastic as the McMahon brothers about the aggressive spraying of toxic chemicals throughout the countryside, however. The blanket spraying was typically indiscriminate, killing all the plants it contacted, and left masses of brown, dead vegetation in its wake. Ultimately, it proved more effective against other, less offensive plants than against the ragweed itself, and the county decided not to continue the spraying program after 1955.

The story of the battle this spraying program initiated, not just between whatever environmentalists existed at the time and those promoting the effectiveness of the chemicals, but within the scientific community itself, is not only interesting, but unsettling in light of similar more recent controversies that have developed over such topics as global warming and natural gas drilling.

Of course, much of Falck’s book does not pertain directly to Sullivan County, or even New York, and the ragweed story is but one of many it dissects, but the dynamic that developed around the universal issue of whether to eliminate weeds and how to best do that, provides a unique insight into how tourism in “the mountains” has been impacted by the ongoing search for perfect health.

Photo: O&W Railway ad for Sullivan County resorts circa 1900.

One thought on “Sullivan County: Doctors Say ‘Go to the Mountains!’

  1. Bob Ulrich

    Until the Croton Reservoir was built to bring CLEAN drinking water to NYC, (mid 1800’s) , drinking the local waters in the City was a source of much disease spread. Lack of sanitation codes, outhouses near wells, etc. Rich people moved their families out (Van Cortlandt built his estate in Croton, right on the river that would eventually be damed up to build that reservoir). Also, smoke from factories and steam trains was creating very unhealthy air pollution. Yes – “go to the mountains to be healthier” was true Also, in the summers pre-air conditioning, it was more comfortable to sleep at night “in the mountains” , for sure.


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