Stephen M. Silverman, author of The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America, published by Knopf in 2015, spoke at the Erpf Center in Arkville, Saturday, April 2 in front of an audience of about forty animated Catskills fans. Co-written with Raphael D. Silver, who passed away in 2013, the book covers all the turning points that shaped the region and made it into a popular attraction. The Catskills have been known as America’s First Wilderness, First Vacation Land, and also the place where American Art was born. The event, organized in partnership with the Woodchuck Lodge Foundation, also celebrated John Burroughs’ 179th birthday: the beloved naturalist was born on April 3, 1837 in Roxbury, Delaware County. Also Washington Irving, who helped popularized the Catskills, was born on April 3, 1783.
Silverman spoke about the history of the region going back to Henry Hudson’s discovery in 1609. He talked about the Hardenbergh Patent, signed on April 20, 1708, and how that changed the region. And then he talked about the naissance of an authentic American art movement, which took place in the Catskills in the early 1800s, and manifested both in literature and visual arts.
Washington Irving, who wrote from an urban perspective (he was born in Manhattan, but spent quite a bit of time in Tarrytown), and James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote from a rural perspective (growing up on the shores of the Otsego Lake in Cooperstown), both helped shape a narrative that was genuinely American, a narrative that dealt with American realities, American customs, and American social mores.
Likewise, Thomas Cole, who was born in England, but moved to America with his family when he was a teenager, started the first authentic American art movement after visiting the Catskills in the 1820s. Catskill Mountain House, the first major hotel, opened in 1824 when hotels were rare even in New York City. That was a game changer for the area: visitors would come by steamboats on the Hudson River, and then take a local stagecoach from the town of Catskill to the Catskill Mountain House. The expansion of the railroad system supported a growing tourism industry: the Catskills became the model for what was to become the typical American resort town.
Grossinger’s Hotel opened in 1919, thus marking the beginning of a Golden Age for tourism in the Catskills. That ended in the 1970s for several reasons: the expansion of air conditioning, cheap flights, and suburban lifestyle – all these factors changed not just how people lived but also how they chose to vacation.
Silverman spoke about the region’s potential to keep re-inventing itself. He then talked about the Woodstock Music Festival which took place in 1969, and what the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts has to offer today. He mentioned places like The Roxbury Motel, which have become international destinations in and of themselves, and new businesses, retreat centers, so forth and so on.
I asked Silverman what surprised him most when he sat down to research and write this book. What surprised him most was the extent of gang criminal activity in the Catskills throughout the 1920s and the 1930s.
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