Anyone who spent summers in the Catskill Mountains as a child or teenager remembers this vacation area as a virtual paradise. That was in the late 1940s to 1960s.
My earliest memory of this sacred summer retreat takes me back to a room in a large clapboard boarding house with no air conditioning, no TV, no telephone, and a bathroom in the hall that we shared with other guests. I was very excited about being crammed into a small room with my mother, sister, and brother. At the time, I thought it very cozy. And we made room for my father on weekends, when he traveled from the steamy city streets of Brooklyn to enjoy our country vacation.
Those early boarding houses were called kuchalayns, meaning to “cook alone” because guests cooked their own food, usually on a coal stove in a communal kitchen. They also shared the ice box or refrigerator with others, and took turns eating in the dining room. If your family could afford this Jewish commune, you could have a little piece of this Catskill paradise for the entire summer for about $40, according to the book, It Happened in the Catskills.1
By today’s standards, this vacation would be deemed worse than hell. But there were so many benefits. As children, we not only had cool fresh mountain air to breathe, but there was a nearby lake or river to splash in for hours, acres of grassy fields to run in and play games, and so many new friends. If we couldn’t spend the summer in the mountains, we would have to endure Brooklyn, where our only escape from the suffocating heat and smelly streets was sitting on the fire escape outside our apartment window or turning on a fire hydrant and jumping through the cold spray.
Over time, some of the early Catskill boarding houses expanded into hotels.1 Others became bungalow colonies, where each family rented an entire cottage with a kitchen and bathroom, as Phil Brown explains in his book, In the Catskills: A Century of the Jewish Experience in “The Mountains.”2
My family’s bungalow in the Catskills can best be described as a shack, but it was our shack. Like the boarding house, there was no air conditioning, no TV, and no telephone. Even though our bungalow was small and cramped, we always made room for weekend and weeklong guests who fled the sweltering city for a slice of our summer Shangri-la.
In my novel, The Last Victim, the Rothman family spends summers in a kuchalayn in the Catskills and then builds a bungalow colony of their own. That’s how the Rothman’s real estate venture begins. The story takes readers back to the heyday of summer vacations in the Catskills.
The Last Victim also recreates the torturous trip to the Catskills on old Route 17. Cars, hacks, and buses ferried their human cargo and everything they needed for the summer—linens, pots and pans, dishes, silverware, clothing, and more. Baggage was jammed into car trunks and tied on top of car roofs for the interminable exodus from the sweltering streets of Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and other parts of New York City. It could take six hours2 or more to reach your destination in Monticello, South Fallsburg, Mountaindale, Ellenville, and others Catskill towns.
We endured the crawling pace of traffic and the insufferable heat (no air conditioning in cars or buses) by singing and playing endless games of geography and tic-tac-toe. A stop at The Red Apple Rest, where we were treated to a hot dog, a cold soda, or a Popsicle, was all we had to look forward to on our trying journey. But if we made it to The Red Apple Rest, we knew that heaven in the Catskills was not far away.
1. Myrna Katz Frommer & Harvey Frommer, It Happened in the Catskills, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991.
2. Phil Brown, ed., In the Catskills: A Century of the Jewish Experience in “The Mountains,” New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.