The Golden Age of The Catskills
SULLIVAN COUNTY, N.Y. -- During the 1940s and 1950s, the Catskills was one of the top tourist destinations in the world. In the summer months, it was home to more than one million visitors.
“On a weekend, any night was busy, but on the weekends the sidewalks were packed, packed with people,” said Allen Frishman, Catskill Mountain preservationist. “It was paradise. Coming out of the city was paradise.”
“Sullivan County during that time would have a year-round population of probably between 40,000 - 50,000," said John Conway, Sullivan County Historian. "We’ve seen estimates in terms of number of visitors throughout the summer from 750,000 to 2.5 million.”
The era was known as the Golden Age.
“The bungalow colonies came about with the influx of Jewish Immigrants in the early 1900s through the teens and the 20s primarily,” Conway said.
“It seemed like everybody from the city wanted to come up and visit these little farms because they had fresh milk and they had eggs and fresh air,” Frishman said.
That's what many Jewish immigrants did, purchasing inexpensive land in Sullivan County to reside on during the warmer months. While some used that land to build a hotel, others turned it into a bungalow colony.
“Every road, every place had some resort, and it’s interesting, you can drive around and you can see reminents of that,” Frishman said.
“According to the New York Times, in 1953 we had 538 hotels and 1,000 rooming houses and 50,000 bungalows in Sullivan County,” Conway said.
Among the millions visiting the Catskill included entertainers like Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, and Woody Allen.
“Virtually anybody who was an early television star had gotten their start here in the Catskills,” Conway said.
Just like anything else, all good things must come to an end. The end of the Golden Era began in the 1960s and Conway says there were many reasons for that.
“There were financial reasons to do with fires and fire codes," Conway said. "The assimilation of the Jewish families who were vacationing here. Low airfares, air conditioning, the automobile.”
“They really didn’t have the money to put back into these places so slowly, they declined,” Frishman said.
Today, some of the old bungalows are owned by orthodox groups, who occupy the buildings during the summer months.
“There are still a lot of visitors that come up every summer and stay in their own home or homes that they rent, and some of those bungalow colonies have become co-ops,” Conway said.
With a casino on the way, many are hoping some of that Golden Age will return.
“It’s going to help, but it’ll never be what it was. It can’t be what it was, but it can’t hurt,” Frishman said.