Autumn comes early to fading Catskills resorts

Region lacks sea beaches, major tourist attraction, viable plans for casino

August 30, 2002|By Dan Barry | Dan Barry,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

GREENVILLE, N.Y. - People around here can recite the names as though they were family. There was the Dellwood, down in Roundtop. The Mohican House, over in Acra. The Pleasant View, not to be confused with the Pleasant Acres, and the Pine Crest, not to be confused with the Pine Springs. There was the Breezy Knoll and the Alberta Lodge and, of course, the Jolly House.

With brochures featuring swimming pools that looked larger than Lake George, these resorts lured the sweat-glistened of downstate to the cool mountains of Greene County, the less-familiar Catskills.

While Jewish vacationers flocked to the borscht belt to the southwest, the Italians and Germans and Irish created their own enclaves here, where the staples were ziti and sauerbraten, not borscht. They offered cheap escape - hayrides and boccie, shuffleboard and step dances - and, as the people here say, they did some business in their day.

But dusk has fallen on their day. Now, a meandering drive through the Greene County hills in midsummer, once the height of the resort season, becomes a kind of archaeological expedition into the recreational habits of a distant civilization.

Rusted neon signs in deserted, weed-strewn lots promise nightly entertainment. Wildflowers sprout from the cracks of abandoned, bone-dry pools. Some resorts have been converted into cheap apartments; others have become retreat centers for religious organizations.

Then there are the ones that have simply vanished, leaving former guests to wonder whether the good times they remember were real or imagined.

Some resorts remain

Some family-run ethnic resorts continue to operate. German-Americans gather in Roundtop, Irish-Americans frequent East Durham, and here and there are resorts catering to Italian-Americans.

But for every resort still ringing a dinner bell, there is a Pleasant Acres. In 1927, the Sausto family opened a modest boardinghouse in Leeds that by the early 1970s had become a 160-room resort, with a loyal clientele of working-class families from Long Island, New Jersey and the five boroughs of New York City. Many Italian-American families passed along the Pleasant Acres experience - a week in July, two in August - like some cherished heirloom.

Last summer, though, was the last for Pleasant Acres. Joseph Sausto, the founders' grandson, said factors known in the resort industry as the three A's - air conditioning, airlines and assimilation - mortally wounded his business. Air conditioners replicated the cool of the mountains, airline deregulation made trips to Disney World more affordable, and time blurred ethnic distinctions.

There is also the setting, he said. Greene County, two hours north of New York City with no traffic, offers verdant mountains, bracing creeks and the Rip Van Winkle legend. But beyond the tired look of its villages, it has no ocean, no major tourist attraction - other than a 69-year-old game farm - and no viable plans for a casino.

The administration of Gov. George E. Pataki and the state Legislature hopscotched the county last year when they announced plans for casinos in western New York and the Catskill counties of Sullivan and Ulster.

So, Sausto said, he sold the 90-acre property - everything from its Boccie Tavern to the map of Italy hanging on its main building's wall - to the operator of a Jewish boys' camp. And for the first time in his 41 years, his summer nights do not ring with the sounds of others on vacation.

"We talk about it all the time," he said of the extended Sausto family. "But tastes change."

The stories behind many of Greene County's blue-collar resorts follow the Sausto paradigm: immigrant grandparents moved to the country, built a cabin or two, invited acquaintances to escape the sweltering city - and a family business was born. The Italians gravitated toward Cairo, the Scandinavians gathered in Greenville and the Jews who didn't go to the borscht belt headed to Tannersville.

The resorts advertised in the ethnic newspapers of New York City and churned out postcards by the thousands.

Raymond Beecher, the 86-year-old county historian, flipped through old postcards kept in the county archives the other day, pausing occasionally to ponder some long-gone resort's attempt at distinction. The Mountain Spring Farm boasted that it was "the nearest thing to Ireland," while Mannell Acres bragged, "Our German-American table is well supplied."

Although there were certain constants, like swimming pools, the resorts had distinct personalities. The Pine Springs in Freehold had a kind of finger-snapping swagger, with nightclub acts and house bands. The Shepard Farm in Greenville, though, frowned on alcohol consumption. ("Those depending on stimulants for their fun should select a hotel where beer and liquors are sold," advised one of its brochures. "We do not have a bar and cater only to guests who do not require it.")

These personalities were not always pleasant. Up until the 1930s, a few resorts circulated brochures expressing a preference for Gentiles.

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