Many of the 75 or so people at the recent 13th Annual Catskills History and Preservation Conference at the Liberty Museum & Arts Center were shocked to hear that the Sullivan County’s heralded resort industry has been in decline since 1965.
That’s not unusual. Most newcomers– and even some old timers who should know better– find it hard to believe that the county’s heyday was over by the mid-1960s. Many cite the existence of dozens of hotels in the 1970s as proof that it couldn’t possibly be so.
And yet these days most historians who have done any research at all agree that the Golden Age of Sullivan County’s tourism industry, which began around 1940, came to an end around 1965, and they cite a number of reasons for choosing that particular year.
For one thing, a fire at the Prospect Inn in Parksville on August 11, 1965 resulted in the death of five people, and caused a clamor to tighten up fire codes for resorts, many of which could not afford to make the necessary improvements. Smaller resorts – the bulk of Sullivan County’s 538 hotels during that golden era – began to close down. Those that could make the necessary upgrades found themselves hopelessly in debt.
Many establishments had already invested capital they didn’t have in trying to keep up with the larger hotels in the increasingly competitive Catskills tourism market. In fact, by 1966, this disturbing trend had become so obvious that it caught the attention of the New York Times.
Reporter Homer Bigart outlined the phenomenon in a September 5, 1966 article with a Loch Sheldrake dateline, entitled “Keeping Up With the Grossingers Strains Many Catskills Hotels,” using the occasion of the Labor Day weekend – traditionally one of the busiest of the year for Sullivan County resorts – to visit a number that had closed down or seemed on the verge of doing so.
“A singular hush, betrayed only by the occasional romping of crickets or the stomping of a stray hen on the greensward, fell this Labor Day weekend on the rococo precincts of the New Roxy Hotel,” Bigart wrote.
“Gone were the glamorous, fun-loving vacationing crowds of former seasons. A rancid smell of decaying food filtered down the carpeted corridors from the kitchen. An eerie silence ruled the lobby, mocking a notice forbidding card-playing and another that urged, ‘Sign Up Now for Talent Night.’”
The New Roxy had closed in mid-August that summer, “the latest in a long list of casualties among the medium-sized hotels in the Catskills, hotels accommodating 200 to 700 guests,” Bigart noted. The end had actually come the previous year when the hotel’s owners were forced to sell to a group of orthodox Jews who changed the entire complexion of the place.
The Fleischers, the hotel’s owners, had borrowed over $700,000 in an effort to successfully draw vacationers to their resort. At the time of the sale, the Fleischers were in debt to their laundry for $28,000, their butcher for $26,000, and their grocer for $11,000.
“Trying to keep up with the prosperous giants like Grossinger’s and the Concord, they have gone heavily into debt for Olympic swimming pools, indoors and outdoors, ornate lobbies and glittering nightclubs,” Bigart wrote.
He quoted an unnamed South Fallsburg banker and lawyer who pointed out that “many of the smaller hotels are in trouble because they are obsolete,” and could not afford to modernize to “meet today’s more luxurious standards, like baths in every room.” Also, he said, the lure of more glamorous places like Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Europe, were attracting more and more of the traditional Sullivan County vacationer.
Bigart also reported that in Loch Sheldrake, where there had been 42 hotels “ten years ago,” there were now only 12. He visited the Loch Sheldrake Inn, Goldberg’s, and the Overlook, each of which had recently closed. In Swan Lake, he stopped by Paul’s, once one of the county’s premier resorts, “which last year advertised ‘An Unforgettable Family Vacation,’ (and) is now Daytop Village, a private institution for the rehabilitation of narcotics addicts.”
Some larger resorts, such as the Waldemere in Livingston Manor and the Flagler in Fallsburg, had filed for bankruptcy protection. Abe Rosenthal, manager of the Waldemere, specifically blamed the hotel’s financial problems on the “new fireproof building costing $2 million” built after a fire three years before had killed three guests.
And former Flagler owner Jack Barsky cited debts incurred for his new Empire Room nightclub, a new indoor pool and a new lobby for putting that hotel– once the most prominent of the Sullivan County resorts– into receivership.
Although the Sullivan County Hotel Association maintained that “despite some attrition among ‘obsolete’ hotels, the resort industry was in excellent shape,” it was apparent that the heyday had passed. In 1967, the Youngs Gap in Parksville, once one of the county’s largest and most innovative hotels, closed, and by 1968 the Times was reporting that a number of smaller hotels, “unable to keep pace with the large establishments and their newer, plush accommodations,” had begun taking in campers. One such hotel, Sokolow’s Mount Vernon in Summitville, had torn down walls in some of its outer buildings in order to provide large recreation rooms for visitors to use on rainy days and had added roadways, electrical connections, and plumbing hook-ups to campsites.
“If the plan at the Mount Vernon works out,” the county’s Director of Parks and Recreation, Joe Purcell, was quoted as saying, “there is no doubt that owners of some of our smaller hotels will enter the camping business.”
Evidence enough that the Golden Age had come to an end.
Photo: The New Roxy Hotel was one of several Sullivan County resorts that closed during the 1966 season, signaling an end to the regions Golden Age of Torusim.