To most, Irving Jaffee will best be remembered for the two gold medals he won in the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid. To others, he will forever be the man over whom two legendary Catskill hotels went to court one winter.
Jaffee was among the greatest speed skaters of his generation. He turned in the fastest time in the 10,000 meters at the 1928 Olympics in St. Moritz, only to have the event canceled without an official winner because unseasonably warm temperatures had thawed the ice. Four years later, in Lake Placid, Jaffe won gold medals in both the 5,000 and 10,000-meter races as American men swept all four speed skating events. Continue reading
On a bitter cold Sunday morning in December of 1880, Jacob Gerhardt struck his sister-in-law over the head with a crowbar, crushing her skull and setting the stage for one of the most sensational murder trials in Sullivan County history.
The proceedings, held at a special term of the Sullivan County Oyer and Terminer Court beginning on June 13, 1881, featured District Attorney James I. Curtis and former D.A. John F. Anderson for the prosecution and Monticello law partners Arthur C. Butts and Joseph Merritt and former county judge Timothy Bush for the defense. People came from far and wide to view each day of the trial, and major newspapers from New York City, as well as the local weeklies, reported on the case. Continue reading
Jacob Gerhardt was a quiet Cochecton Center farmer who was quick to help his neighbors until a fateful day in December of 1880, when his life changed forever over a case of unrequited love.
Gerhardt worked in the fields every day to support his wife, while his brother Adam and his wife, Mena farmed nearby. When Adam Gerhardt died suddenly in 1879, Jacob went to live with Mena, “to work her farm on shares.” Continue reading
While the tourism industry has prospered in Sullivan County, New York for more than 150 years now, the concept of fall foliage as a tourism tool is relatively new.
The idea of promoting the changing colors of the leaves on the trees to encourage tourists to visit an area did not exist much at all before the late 1930s, and although both the Berkshires in Massachusetts and the Poconos in Pennsylvania were promoting fall foliage tours as far back as the 1940s, the Catskills did not begin to cash in on the idea until the 1950s. Continue reading
As the summer of 1936 faded into fall, New York State Police and local authorities in Sullivan County were trying desperately to uncover new leads in what had turned out to be a particularly perplexing murder investigation.
It had begun just before six o’clock in the morning on Saturday, September 5, when a young milkman from Hurleyville was making a delivery to the Paramount Manor hotel, just a short distance from the hamlet on the road to Liberty. As Dave Margolin neared the main gate, he came upon a stopped car, blocking the long driveway to the main house. Even in the faint early morning light he could make out that the driver’s side door was open. As he left his truck and approached the car, he noted it was a taxi, a dark-colored Lincoln sedan, New York license plate number 034-657. And then he saw something that he would never forget. Continue reading
Many of the participants at the 14th Annual Catskills Preservation and History Conference at the Liberty Museum & Arts Center in Liberty, NY last month were quite surprised to see and hear about the magnitude of Sullivan County’s resort industry during its heyday.
The opening presentation featured an in depth retrospective of the Delano Hotel in Monticello by Marvin Rappaport, grandson of the founder. Continue reading
Loch Sheldrake, or Sheldrake Pond, as it was known before many of the ponds in Sullivan County became lakes overnight as part of the late 19th century tourism boom, is one of the deepest bodies of water in the region.
It was a favorite dumping ground for Murder, Inc. when the enforcement arm of organized crime plied its trade in the mountains, and it is believed that at least one of the bodies deposited there has never been found. Continue reading
From 1812 – when the New York state legislature authorized the formation of common schools to provide basic educational needs to a community’s students – through the early part of the 20th century, one room school houses made up the greatest part of the education system in Sullivan County.
In 1870, when the county had a population of 34,557, of which 13,635 were of school age, there were 198 school districts here. Those 198 districts employed 196 teachers, handling an average daily attendance of 4091 students. Most of those teachers were women. By 1939, there were 98 school districts in the county, and most had grown beyond the one room school-house. Still, women made up a significant part of the workforce needed to keep these districts running efficiently. Continue reading
James Eldridge Quinlan’s History of Sullivan County is generally regarded as one of the most thorough and entertainingly written local histories. Published in 1873, Quinlan’s history is the undisputed bible of Sullivan County’s past, and yet it is not without its shortcomings. Some have criticized what they view as his selective exclusion of material – he does not, for instance, write much about the Civil War, and it has been said that this was because he was a Copperhead, or a southern sympathizer. And each year in March, Women’s History Month, we are reminded that he afforded minimal space in his writings to the women of the era.
That makes the few women he does write about stand out even more than they might otherwise, and no woman receives greater praise from Quinlan than Phebe Reynolds Drake. Continue reading
When Harvey Griffin became a member of the Monticello Fire Department in 1875, he was the only African-American living in the village, and one of just a handful in all of Sullivan County.
In 1930, when the population of the county was just over 35,000, and the area stood poised on the brink of its Golden Age, census figures reveal there were 91 African-Americans living here. That’s just over one-quarter of one percent of the population. Continue reading
During the night of April 26, 1874, fire broke out in the livery stables of LeGrand Morris’ Exchange Hotel in Monticello, NY. Village residents were roused from their beds to form a bucket brigade to battle the blaze, but were unable to keep it from spreading to, and destroying, the hotel itself. A number of other businesses, including George Hindley’s saloon, Kent’s Barber Shop, Billing’s Flour and Feed Store, and the printing plant of the George M. Beebe’s Republican Watchman newspaper, were also consumed.
Largely because of that fire, the third major blaze in three years to rock the small village of about 900 residents, Monticello organized its first fire department less than a year later. Continue reading
Nearly 400 years ago, in 1626, a ship carrying eleven slaves was unloaded in New Amsterdam by the Dutch West Indies Company. Those eleven men are believed to be among the first African-Americans brought to what is today New York State.
Attempting to pinpoint when the first African-Americans arrived in Sullivan County, NY is considerably more difficult. There are a number of plausible scenarios, and the evidence supporting any one of them is sketchy at best. A stronger case can be made for the first man of African-American descent to own property there. It was almost certainly Phineas Booth of the town of Neversink. Continue reading
It was Saturday, January 26, 1895, and throngs of mourners were gathered at the Church of the Incarnation in Manhattan for the funeral of one of America’s most prominent doctors.
Dr. Alfred Lebbeus Loomis, who had revolutionized the way tuberculosis was treated in this country, had died on January 23rd, just two days after his own personal physician had ordered him confined to bed because of a spiking fever. Dr. Loomis, diagnosed with tuberculosis some thirty years earlier, had contracted pneumonia, and would never recover. Continue reading
On March 25, 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King delivered the keynote address at the annual Rabbinical Assembly Convention at the renowned Concord Hotel in Kiamesha Lake in the Sullivan County Catskills. Ten days later he was dead.
King had come to the Concord to address the gathering of conservative rabbis to honor his long-time friend, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who had accompanied King and others in the historic 1961 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and who was being feted that might by his colleagues as a belated 60th birthday celebration. As he took the podium following his introduction, King was greeted warmly by those in attendance, who sang the civil rights song, “We Shall Overcome” in Hebrew. Continue reading
There have long been stories – most of them unsubstantiated – about the activities of the German American Bund in Sullivan County in the years leading up to World War II.
While the activities of that particular pro-Nazi organization in the region may be debatable, there is no question that a small group of men charged with plotting to overthrow the U.S. government and replacing it with a Nazi style dictatorship spent much of the summer of 1939 in Sullivan County. Continue reading
During the summer of 1939, a small group of men from out of the area rented a camp just outside Narrowsburg, a small community on the Delaware River in Sullivan County, where they spent most of their time shooting rifles. Their need for such extensive practice was understandable; locals who observed the target practice described the men’s aim as “plumb awful.” Continue reading
The hamlet of Long Eddy has a rich and colorful history, including a few years in the 19th century when it was known as Douglas City, the only incorporated city ever in Sullivan County. It also has a captivating link to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt White House – a connection made even more fascinating in that it was kept secret for more than forty years. Continue reading
Time was that the Sullivan County Catskills were as popular as any summer tourist destination in the country. And as far back as the 19th century, some enterprising hotel owners attempted to translate that popularity into year around success.
Boosted by the patronage of those seeking a cure from tuberculosis, in the 1880s the Ontario and Western Railway began advertising the area as a winter health resort, publishing its annual “Winter Homes” brochure in addition to the popular “Summer Homes” booklet. Continue reading
Of all the fascinating races in Sullivan County’s colorful political history, none has had a greater statewide impact than the 1931 contest for the New York State Assembly.
And the significance of the election had only a little to do with its outcome.
William Whittaker, a South Fallsburg (Sullivan County) Democrat, was the Assembly incumbent in 1931, having won the seat the year before in a contest decided by fewer than 200 votes. His opponent in both races was John T. Curtis of Monticello, owner and editor of the Sullivan County Republican newspaper. As Election Day approached, Republican party officials in the county became suspicious of an unusually large number of absentee ballots, and asked for an investigation. Continue reading
It was once without question the best known ghost story set in Sullivan County, written by one of America’s most respected writers, and yet it is largely unknown today.
It combines detailed descriptions of the rich and bountiful beauty of this area in the 19th century with cleverly conceived ghouls as hideous as any in American literature.
It is Washington Irving’s 1838 short story “Hans Swartz: A Marvelous Tale of Mamakating Hollow” and it is still appropriate reading this Halloween season, more than 170 years after it was penned. Continue reading