Author Archives: John Conway

John Conway

About John Conway

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and teaches a class on Sullivan County history at SUNY-Sullivan.

Boxing History And The Catskills


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Frank_Moran_cropHundreds of fighters, champions and also-rans alike, have come to the verdant Sullivan County countryside over the years to train for upcoming fights, providing the Catskills with a permanent link to the sport.  And that link transcends the fact that heavyweight contender Ed “Gunboat” Smith grew up in Obernberg, heavyweight champ Jimmy Braddock owned a home in North Branch, and featherweight champ Abe Attell, generally regarded as one of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters in history, is buried in Beaverkill.

It has not been recorded when the first professional fighter came to the county to train, but there is lots of information from which to make an educated guess.  While it isn’t clear whether or not he ever actually trained in the county, Robert Prometheus Fitzsimmons, the undersized British fighter who wrested the heavyweight crown from Gentlemen Jim Corbett in 1897, is known to have frequented many of the Silver Age resorts in the region, primarily those favored by New York City’s policemen and firemen. That probably meant Brophy’s Mountain House in Hurleyville, which was so closely associated with New York’s Finest and New York’s Bravest prior to its demise in a fire in 1910 that is was often referred to as Brophy’s Mad House, due to the unrestrained antics of the off-duty officers. Continue reading

Sullivan County’s ‘White Christmas’ Connection


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WhiteRoeAerialThe Columbia Inn in Pine Tree, Vermont did not bear much of a resemblance to a Catskills’ hotel of that era, and Dean Jagger’s General Tom Waverly was definitely not much like a Sullivan County hotel owner, but the movie “White Christmas” has a strong local flavor nonetheless.

The titular tune of the top grossing film of 1954, of course, was conceived and written right here in Lew Beach, and the movie’s thin plot line was really little more than a vehicle for county resident Irving Berlin’s music. And then there is Danny Kaye, sharing the lead with the inimitable Bing Crosby –  who sings Berlin’s most memorable song for the third time on screen– as well as Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Ellen.

But except for two separate twists of fate, Kaye may not have been part of “White Christmas” at all.  Continue reading

A New Book About Catskills History


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catskillshistoryStephen M. Silverman grew up in Los Angeles and admits he knew nothing about the Catskills before coming to New York to attend college. And yet, despite that rather late introduction to the area, he has managed to write what promises to become one of the most important books about the region, released last month by Knopf.

In fact, from the first glimpse of its colorful dust jacket to the final profound phrase on the last page of text, The Catskills: Its History and How it Changed America is about as impressive a book as you are likely to find on this or any subject.  The history is comprehensive, covering virtually everything from the Hardenbergh Patent to Washington Irving to hydraulic fracturing to casinos; the illustrations are magnificent, including some of the most breathtaking renderings of Asher Durand and Thomas Cole; and the sources are impeccable, most notably hours and hours of videotaped interviews with respected modern authorities. Continue reading

1932 Olympics: Speed Skater Spawned Suit


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JaffeeTo 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

Murder In Western Sullivan County (Part II)


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TheodoreRooseveltOn 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

Crime And Justice In Sullivan County


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arthur c butts(1)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

Alfred B. Street And The Rise of Foliage Tourism


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StreetWhile 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

Sullivan County: The Milkman and Murder, Inc.


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AshkenasNewsAs 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

Knapp’s Folly: Sullivan County’s Columbia Hotel


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ColumbiaAerial1940Many 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

Sullivan County’s Honeymoon Murder


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PittsburghPhilLoch 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

A Salute To Teachers


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RoyceFrom 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

Phebe Reynolds Thwarts The Tories


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phebeJames 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

African-American History: Seeking Fortune In The North


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BrickmanAerial[1]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

Sullivan County’s First African American Firefighter


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MontMansionHouse2During 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

Early Black Landowners In Sullivan County


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Custom_House,_New_York,_1799-1815(2)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

One of America’s Most Prominent Doctors


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Alfred Loomis Oval (1)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

Martin Luther King In The Catskills, 1968


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king-concordOn 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

1939: Nazi Saboteurs In Sullivan County


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NarrowsburgNazis[1]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

The Fuehrer In Sullivan County


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NarrowsburgNazis[1]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