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.

Skiing in Sullivan County in the 1940s


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A publicity shot of the Christmas Hills ski area in Livingston Manor from circa 1950.It was in October of 1948 that what local newspapers called “Sullivan County’s first commercial ski slope” began to take shape.

It was Christmas Hills on DeBruce Road in Livingston Manor, and despite the claims, it was not the first ski operation in the county, as Liberty Winter Sports, Inc. had operated the Walnut Mountain ski hill in Liberty more than a decade before. Continue reading

Skiing Comes to the Sullivan County Catskills


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walnut mountainLong before the opening of Davos in Woodridge ushered in a new era in skiing in Sullivan County, before the Concord and Grossinger’s pioneered snowmaking techniques to service their rudimentary ski hills, and even before the Miller brothers operated Christmas Hills in Livingston Manor, skiing made its local debut at Walnut Mountain in Liberty.

In October of 1936, a corporation known as Liberty Winter Sports, Inc. purchased most of Walnut Mountain from Frank H. Mauer with plans to create a skiing facility at the site of the old Walnut Mountain House. Dr. S.W. Wells was president of the group, which also included B.K.J. Eenberg, Thomas P. McNamara, Albert T. Decker, Joseph E. Fersch, Paul H. Allen, and Gunnar Bjorgstrom. Joseph G. Dowling handled the publicity. Continue reading

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