The Catskills, Farming the Jewish Alps

Hospitality and Kosher Chickens

Original Grossinger Farm at Ferndale, Library of Congress, John Margolies, photographer

In 1913, Selig and Malke Grossinger, aided by the Baron Hirsch Fund’s Jewish Agricultural Society (JAS), bought a farm in the Catskills Mountains in Ferndale, New York, 100 miles north of Manhattan. They began to take in paying guests who were fleeing New York City’s heat and humidity each summer. 1

The Grossingers were among the close to two thousand other Jewish immigrant families who bought farms in the foothills of the Catskills mountains in the 1890s or during the first decades of the twentieth century, many with JAS assistance. Like these other farmers, the Grossingers found that the rocky Catskills soil, which had allowed them to buy the land cheaply, did not respond well to crop raising. 

Grossingers Front View, Liberty, NY, Library of Congress, John Margolies, photographer

But summer guests seeking cool air and kosher food were indeed profitable. The Grossingers’ enterprise became extremely profitable, with 150,000 guests each year, served in a property of over 1200 acres that boasted its own airfield and performers as famous as Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis. Grossingers was also the first resort in the country to use artificial snow on its ski slopes. And Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher were married at Grossingers.

A Jewish Vacationland

Though not all these Jewish farmers/hoteliers were as successful as the Grossingers, by the 1940s and 50s the southern Catskills (principally Sullivan and Ulster counties) welcomed over 2 million Jewish visitors a year in hundreds of hotels, over a 1,000 boarding house rooms and close to 60,000 bungalows, many owned by Jews and many offering Kosher kitchens and Sabbath practices. 2


Congregation B’nai Israel Synagogue, Fleischmann’s NY, built 1920, Daniel Case, Photographer

So, the Catskills became ” a place where Jews could partake in the distinctly American concepts of leisure and consumption while still maintaining their religious practices. ” And there were lots of synagogues. One of the first was built in South Fallsburg in 1901. Information on some others can be found on the Kerhonkson synagogue’s website.

These summer influxes from the steaming city streets began almost as soon as the first Jewish farmer to settle permanently in the Catskills, John Gerson, arrived. Gerson bought his farm in 1892 and by 1899 was advertising his boarding house that followed “Jewish faith and customs throughout.”3

And Gerson was not alone. The 1890s saw hundreds of Jewish families buying farms in the Catskills and by 1912 there were well over a thousand.4 So many of these farmers were concentrating more on their “resorts” rather than their farming, that the JAS who financed about half of these farms wondered if they should continue to support them. After all the society was formed to stimulate Jewish agriculture.5

1897 Advertisement offering list of summer boarding opportunities in the Catskills, Library of Congress

But later on, the JAS realized that the “resort” operations greatly expanded the markets for the farms’ products. So in 1920, the JAS declared that in the Catskills “its general aim…was to dovetail resort and agricultural activities.”6


Ellenville, in the center of the Catskills’ Jewish farming communities

These resort farms were so successful that by 1920, the Catskill region received one -third of all the loans the JAS financed in the U.S.

Just a year earlier, in 1919, the JAS chose the Catskill town of Ellenville for the site of its second branch office. ( The first opened in Chicago in 1913.) It made sense. “The Catskills ended up with the largest population of Jewish farmers in the United States.

Why the Catskills?

What drew Jewish immigrants to become farmers in the Catskills? During the 1880s the Jewish population of New York City almost tripled with the arrival of over 200,000 refugees from Czarist Russia and Romania. In the 1890s almost half a million more arrived and by 1913 there were 1.3 million Jews in New York City, 7 the largest Jewish population of any city in the world. 8


The Mary Powell Steamship bringing New York City residents  up the Hudson River, 1903. Donald C. Ringwald Collection, Hudson River Maritime Museum

Crowded into tiny tenement lodgings, quite a few Jewish families adopted a delightful American custom: vacations. It was easy. The steamships on the Hudson River and a newly built railroad line were offering bargain rate tickets to the nearby Catskill hills and farmers there were offering accessible accommodations for paying guests. In 2-3 hours the broiling city streets were just a bad memory.

View from a Catskill farm. Library of Congress

A few weeks on a bucolic farm, away from the dirt and stress of New York City, inspired some of these Jewish paying guests to become farmers themselves. They were joined by other Jews who had peddling routes in the Catskills and decided to stay and settle down. Land was cheap and a large family could provide the labor for the building of houses and barns. Materials were reasonable as the railroad offered “free freight for building materials… [for ] a summer resort or farm.”9

Most of these new farmers had no farming experience. Their lack of skills, combined with the rocky, infertile soil drove them to concentrate their agricultural efforts on chickens, eggs and milk. All these products could be sold locally and the milk could be transported by rail to New York City via the “world’s first milk line” .10 These farm products could also be sold to the new hotels that were beginning to sprout up and even to the boarders, many of whom were on the cook-it-yourself plan.

The real boom started in the early years of the 20th century, often supported by the availability of financing, mostly second mortgages, that began in 1900 with the establishment of the JAS. But many of these farmers found that dairying and summer guests brought so much income that JAS financial support was not needed. As the JAS stated in 1906 ” in New York, there is a large number of Jewish farmers of whom we never hear…. They do not need our aid and do not ask for it.” 11

Life on the Farm

Old Farm in the Catskills, Arthur Parton

But life could be tough. For many years there was often no electricity and necessities were accomplished in out-houses. Even in the 1930s families like the Resnicks, whose son Joseph was to become a U.S. Congressman, lived on such unpassable roads that their children had to board with families in town in order to attend school. 12

And incomes needed to stretch to cover quite large families. Some farmers subsidized their incomes with winter jobs in nearby towns or even New York City itself. And the great majority gained a large proportion of their cash income from the boarders. The farmers’ children were sent to spend their summer nights in the barn and taking care of the guests was added to the top of their list of daily chores. A delightful story of life on one of these resort farms can be found here and a story of summer adventures on a Catskill Jewish farm can be found here.

Baron Hirsch Fund/ Jewish Agricultural Society (JAS) Support

The JAS didn’t only provide financial assistance. The society helped the farmers set up credit unions and insurance coops. It provided agricultural knowledge and technical assistance. It helped the farmers install modern methods of sanitation and it mitigated the loneliness felt by many farm wives.

Credit Unions.13

Like farmers everywhere, these Catskill agriculturists needed short term loans to finance production until the crops could be sold. But interest rates at banks were high. How about a credit union formed by the farmers themselves?

The credit union concept was invented in Germany in the mid-1800s. But the idea wasn’t legally implemented in the United States until 1909 when Massachusetts became the first state to pass a law allowing the incorporation of these lending institutions. But the first farmers’ credit unions in the United States were established by Jewish farmers with JSA assistance. At first, they were unincorporated. Seven were founded in Ulster and Sullivan Counties before New York State passed a credit union law in 1913.

Under President Taft (1909-1913), Washington was investigating the possibility of copying the German model of rural credit unions with a federal law. (That law wasn’t passed until 1934.) But meanwhile, the Jewish farmers’ credit unions drew notice across the country. As the Indianapolis News editorialized in 1912 :

While there are two bills now in Congress calling for a commission to go abroad and study the question of cooperative credit for farmers, the Jews in New York have organized such a society and are aiding the Jewish farmers…. We do not need commissions to hunt knowledge. We need simply to follow the lead of these Jews and set to work to provide credit…. These practical people have started a credit system that all American farmers could start for themselves14.

The Jews were willing to show the way. In 1914, the JAS, in cooperation with the Russell Sage Foundation, published A Credit Union Primer,

Insurance Coops

Fire was a constant worry. Houses and farm buildings were all made of wood and building codes were seldom followed if they even existed. But the cost of insurance was high, $4 for every $100 of insurance. So in 1913, the Catskill Jewish farmers halved the cost by forming the Cooperative Fire Insurance Company of Sullivan and Adjoining Counties15 which is still doing business as the Associated Mutual Insurance Cooperative

Farmer’s Associations

Prior to 1908, there were four local Jewish farmers’ associations in the United States. In 1909 the local groups were incorporated into the Federation of Jewish Farmers and by the end of that year there were 25 associations. The JAS supplied an itinerant instructor to assist in the organization of these groups and by 1910 there were 35 local associations, with a total membership of 3300 farmers. Over a third of these associations were located in New York State.16 

The federation allowed for joint purchasing of supplies and machines and because the associations bought in bulk they could buy on credit. The federation sponsored picnics, festivals and other social gatherings and even literary societies. Local associations built synagogues and put up their members as political candidates, often successfully.17

In 1909 the Federation sponsored a major exhibit in New York City. The speakers included the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Agriculture. 

Technical Assistance

May 1912 The Jewish Farmer

A lack of agricultural experience was common among the Jewish farmers in the Catskills. In 1910 the JAS noted that ” most of our applicants… are obliged to establish themselves upon their farms first and acquire their agricultural experience afterwards.” 18 As it did across the United States, the JAS worked to fill this void. And smartly they often offered technical assistance in Yiddish, both in- person and through the JAS magazine, The Jewish Farmer.

An innovative example in the Catskills was the 1914 educational train with “stops at every important Jewish farming settlement,” with “two [ Yiddish speaking] Jewish students of Cornell University [one of the best agricultural schools in the country] explaining the charts and exhibits. 19

In 1917 the New York State State College of Agriculture named a special county agent to conduct extension work among the Jewish farmers. The College paid the salary and the JAS paid the agent’s traveling expenses.20

The Jewish Agricultural Society office in Ellenville, NY

Once the Ellenville office of the JAS opened in 1919 it centralized technical assistance, offering advice on the “growing and marketing of crops, chlorination, irrigation and sanitation, the breeding and raising of livestock and poultry,” etc. 21

Sanitation

In 1916, following a major outbreak of polio, the New York State Department of Health published a report deploring the sanitary conditions in Sullivan and Ulster counties, exacerbated by the then 250,000 annual summer visitors visiting this lovely area. In response, working with the health department, the JAS established a program of sanitation education, becoming the first private organization to become involved in these efforts. The program concentrated on sewage and garbage disposal, water supplies and the fly menace.22

Did the JAS become involved in sanitation only because of health concerns? Probably not. The fear of increased antisemitism was most likely a strong motivator as well.

Immigrants on the Lower East Side, New York City 1913 George Bellows – secondat.blogspot.de, Public Domain,

The JAS Board was comprised principally of German Jews or their descendants. German Jewish immigrants, who began to arrive in the U.S. in the 1830s and 40s, usually had received Western educations and were often members of the middle class before they emigrated. In the US they achieved considerable economic and social success. When the less educated and more religiously traditional Eastern European Jewish immigrants, who only spoke a peasant dialect, Yiddish, and usually had only been taught to read the Talmud, began to arrive en masse ( over 2 million in the period 1880-1920) these German Jews were worried.

Would their acceptance as Americans be jeopardized by the arrival of these backward cousins who now were facing high-level official criticism for their lack of sanitary habits? Could this inadequate sanitation support the racist perception of the ‘dirty Jew’?

The Baron Hirsch Fund/JAS Response

So the JAS jumped into action, creating the Society’s Rural Sanitation Department. 23 JAS efforts included personal outreach to farmers and the boarders themselves, with slide illustrated lectures, on the lawns of the boarding houses. In the first year of operation the program reached 10,000 boarders and roomers. They also carried out programs in the schools, distributed pamphlets, including 10,000 copies a of pamphlet in Yiddish on the fly menace, and hosted a large exhibit at the Ulster County Fair in 1919. 24 And a portable “motion picture machine ” was purchased so that lectures could be given to large groups. 25.

A 1918 ad. Milk was a major product for Jewish farmers in the Catskills and cleaning the cans was a woman’s responsibility. Sour milk meant lower profits

Inspections and reinspections were also carried out. “Wells were safe-guarded, springs protected, dry toilets repaired, cesspools improved and sewage systems installed. Garbage cans were placed and … windows and doors were screened. ”26

In 1920 a permanent sanitation exhibit was installed in the new JAS office in Ellenville. Planned with the assistance of hte New York State Sanitary Engineer, the exhibit was only one of two of its kind in New York State. (The other one was at West Point.)

The Ellenville exhibit included ” a protected well, an incinerator, a septic tank, leeching cesspools, a sub-soil irrigation system,a scientific dry privy and a Lumsden [sanitary] toilet….” 27

The Ladies

As noted by the long-term director of the JAS’ Ellenville office, ” settling on a farm [was] a family affair. [When approving mortgages} he interviewed wives as well as husbands. He used to say he looked at the woman’s hands to see if they would be good for milking and her nails to see if they had to be manicured. He believed that a woman’s attitude, her readiness to work hard, endure hardships, and live far away from family in new surroundings greatly influenced the family’s success on the farm. ” 28

In the second and third decades of the 20th Century, the attitudes and the work of these Jewish farmwives played crucial roles.

Who in a farm family was best placed to provide proper sanitation? The wife. So educating the farmwives became an important task.

Old High School, Ellenville NY. Many students had to board with Ellenville families as the roads home weren’t cleared of snow in the winter.

But farmwives had an even bigger role, keeping the family on the farm. Farm work was hard, especially for the women whose work did not cease with the setting sun. And added to the typical agricultural chores were the hospitality chores. It was the women who ran the summer boarding businesses. Then, weather and distances made social life difficult and even the joy of children was compromised. Many women had to let their children live with other families who were located closer to the sparsely placed schools that winter weather made difficult to access.

Unhappy wives could cause farmers to desert agriculture and return to the city, thereby undermining the chief goal of the JAS: The Americanization of Jewish immigrants through farming. And, in addition, with the outbreak of WWI in Europe, leaving the farm meant losing a golden opportunity to show off Jewish patriotism.

Be a Patriot, Stay on the Farm
The Library Company, Philadelphia

Before WWI, the United States was a food importer. But once WWI broke out imported supplies diminished. Even worse, lack of food affected the military efforts of our allies as European farmers went off to become soldiers and then, following the U.S. entry into the war in April, 1917, food shortages affected our own military campaigns. So the U.S. desperately needed to increase food production and conserve as much of that food as possible. Even fat was valuable. It supplied the glycerin needed for ammunition. Food Will Win the War became the battle cry and farmers became the true patriots.

Who could ensure that the Jewish farmer didn’t desert for a more comfortable life in the city, Who could make sure each Jewish farm family conserved as much food as possible? The Jewish farmwife.

There were even posters in Yiddish. In 1917 the U.S. Food Administration published this one. It reads ” You came here seeking freedom, now you must help to preserve it – Wheat is needed for the allies – waste nothing.” Library of Congress

So, In December, 1917. the Federation of Jewish Farmers, resolved : ” “Whereas, It is of the utmost importance that we make life more interesting for the wives and daughters of farmers in order that they may be willing to remain on the farms, be it Resolved, That the Board of Directors be urged to get in touch with the Council of Jewish Women and other kindred organizations, requesting them to study the life of Jewish women and girls on farms, and ways and means of improving their condition.” 29

The National Council of Jewish Women

The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) was founded in 1893 ,as part of the American progressive movement, by members of the German Jewish community. They were well educated (many had college degrees) members of the upper middle classes.30 Still active today, the NCJW works to improve social conditions within both the Jewish community and the community at large.

The NCJW welcomed the Federation’s tasking. The Council believed that working with farmwives would help combat anti-Semitism, which is fed on such conditions as are too often maintained by Jewish farmers”. 31

Available on amazon.com

But the NCJW couldn’t find support for this project until the JAS offered funds in 1919 to start a project in Ulster and Sullivan counties, the Catskills. 32 Even though the war emergency had passed, the project was still very much needed. Sanitary conditions among Jewish farmers were still unacceptable and food supplies were still threatened. Prices for farm commodities dropped almost 30 – 40 % following WWI due to the overproduction during the war and farmers were deserting their lands for factory jobs.33.

The NCJW project was all encompassing. Their field workers were required to “nurse the sick, teach English, give lessons in Jewish history and Bible stories…teach health and sanitation, nursing and cleanliness, … adjust family difficulties, … secure entrance into hospitals and institutions, …guide in dressmaking and millinery instruction, … show the need of labor saving devices, [and] how to beautify the home, awaken interest in all civic matters, [and offer demonstrations] in canning … and the planting of gardens.” 34.

In 1923, a Federal Department of Agriculture official addressed the NCJW, praising the Council’s work among farmwives “because of the strategic place that the American farm woman holds in the struggle for agriculture today….” This work is desperate she continued because “New York is always within two days of a meat famine, within three days of a vegetable famine, within ten days of a bread famine. That is true of every city.35

Anti-Semitism and the Ku Klux Klan

Although the Jews flourished in the Catskills, there was anti-semitism. In fact anti-semitism was one of the sparks that kindled the Jewish boarding house and hotel industry.

During the 19th Century Christian farmers and hotel owners had housed both Jewish and Christian visitors to the Catskills. But during the last twenty-five years of the century signs saying ” No Jews, No Dogs” began appearing more frequently. So many Jews looked for accomodations with Jewish families or hoteliers.

After a while hotels and farms were known as either Jewish or Christian and folks sought their own kind even if they would have been accepted at a lodging owned by a member of the other faith. For the most part, peaceful co-existence ensued even though “there were signs along Route 17 and other roads which read ‘Christian community’ or ‘Restricted'”. 36.

The Klan

But in the second and third decades of the 20th Century a somewhat more violent form of anti-semitism arose with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. “In its second resurgence, the Klan moved beyond just targeting blacks, and broadened its message of hate to include Catholics, Jews and foreigners.” By 1925 estimates for country-wide membership ranged from 3 to 8 million. In fact the Klan was so mainstream in some parts of the country, that local KKK groups “sponsored, in public, baseball teams, father-son outings, beautiful baby contests, weddings, baby christenings, junior leagues, road rallies, [and] festivals.”

A 1923 Klan funeral in upstate New York , New York Public Library

The New York Times reported in 1926, that in Ulster County, NY alone, there were 15,000 Klan members. That was approximately 20% of the total county population. In his memoirs of growing up on a Jewish boarding house farm during the early 1920s in Ulster County, H. Charles Bluming writes ” All of our Christian neighbors belonged to the Ku Klux Klan.” 37.

The Klan was so strong that Bluming notes, “They were, for all intents and purposes, the governing power in the area.” 38 When Bluming’s father’s car was seriously vandalized the State trooper told them to talk to the Klan as the “Klan is the only law in these parts.” 39

The Legacy

Through fires, not so friendly neighbors and falling farm prices, the Jewish community in the Catskills not only survived, it thrived. By supporting the farm/boarding house model, the JAS spurred a Jewish hospitality industry that dominated tourism in these lovely hills.

By the pool in The Catskills, 1950s

But the impact was much more widespread. 40. First, the Catskills literally fueled the growth of the Jewish population in the United States. Many of the annual 2 million Jewish visitors went to the Catskills to seek their mates and it must have worked because Jewish singles kept coming.

Then, the Catskills hotels gave generations of Jewish comics their start including Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Phyllis Diller, Carl Reiner, Joan Rivers and Jerry Seinfeld.

Through these comedians and the non-Jewish staff of the Catskill hotels, Yiddish words such as bagel, chutzpah, klutz and schmooze entered the mainstream American vocabulary. 41

In addition, the Catskills experience empowered Jewish women. The farmwife frequently became the chief breadwinner in the family as hospitality activities often brought in more than farming. As can be seen in this tale of summers on a Catskill farm, it was definitely the Mrs. who made the decisions.

But most importantly, the Catskills provided a real boost to Jewish self esteem. It gave Jews a place to be Jewish, without fear of discrimination or ridicule. It was a place where being from Russia or Romania was a plus. It was a place where being Jewish was definitely “in”.

By the 1970s Jews began to go further afield for their vacations. Discrimination had died down and cheap air fares allowed for trips to Miami, the Caribbean and even Europe. But today, as the New York Times reports, the Catskills are once again attracting tourists of all backgrounds. These mountains are just too beautiful.

  1. Lavender, Abraham, and Steinberg, Clarence, Jewish farmers of the Catskills, In the Catskills, A Century of the Jewish Experience in The Mountains. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. p. 33. []
  2. for a fuller discussion of the Grossinger’s experience and the development of Jewish accomodations in the Catskills see Silverman, Stephen M. and Silver, Raphael, D. The Catskills, Its History and How it Changed America, New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2015. pp. 239-259. []
  3. Gold, David M. Jewish Agriculture in the Catskills, 1900-1920, Agricultural History, Vol. 55 No. 1 ( Jan., 1981) p. 34. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3742724?seq=1. []
  4. Gold, p. 36 []
  5. Gold, p. 38. []
  6. Gold, p. 39. []
  7. Oppenheim, Samson. Jewish Population of the United States, American Jewish Yearbook, 1918-1919. New York: Jewish Publication Society. https://www.census.gov/history/pdf/jewishpop-ajc.pdf. []
  8. Ripley, William Z. Recently Published Statistics Concerning Our Population…. New York Times, June 22, 1913, The Magazine, p. 14. l []
  9. Lavender and Steinberg, p. 23. []
  10. Lavender and Steinberg, p. 23. []
  11. Lavender and Steinberg, p. 34. []
  12. Frankenstein, Ruth J. Herman J. Levine, Manager of the Jewish Agricultural Society. American Jewish Archives. 1990, p. 176. []
  13. for more on credit unions and other Jewish lending institutions in the Catskills see Gold, pp. 40-44 []
  14. Gold, p. 43. []
  15. Gold, pp. 44 – 45 []
  16. Joseph, Samuel. History of the Baron de Hirsch Fund, the Americanization of the Jewish Immigrant, Fairfield: Augustus M. Kelley Publisher, 1978. p. 142.. originally published in 1935 by the Jewish Publication Society []
  17.  Jewish Agricultural and Industrial AId Society Annual Report for the Year 1910, p. 36.   []
  18. Lavender and Steinberg, p. 32. []
  19. Gold, p. 47 []
  20. Joseph, pp. 151-152. []
  21. Frankenstein, p. 169. []
  22. Joseph, p. 156. []
  23. Gold, p. 47. []
  24. Joseph, pp. 156-157 []
  25. Joseph, p. 164.. []
  26. Joseph, p. 164 []
  27. Joseph, p. 164. []
  28. Frankenstein p. 178. []
  29. National Council of Jewish Women. 1923. REPORT OF SPECIAL COMMITTEE ON WORK AMONG JEWISH WOMEN ON FARMS, Official report of the triennial convention. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, p. 88. available free as an ebook in google books. []
  30. Rogow, Faith. Gone to Another Meeting, Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1993. []
  31. Ninth Triennial, REPORT OF EXECUTIVE SECRETARY. Mrs. Leo H. Herz., p. 78. []
  32. Ninth Triennial, REPORT OF SPECIAL COMMITTEE ON WORK AMONG JEWISH WOMEN ON FARMS, pp. 90-91 []
  33. egg prices, milk prices, chicken prices. []
  34. Tenth Triennal Tenth Triennal. COMMITTEE ON WORK AMONG JEWISH WOMEN ON FARMS National Council of Jewish Women, Official report of the triennial convention. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1923 p. 244. available free as an ebook in google books. []
  35. Tenth Triennale. WHAT EXTENSION WORK IS DOING FOR THE AMERICAN FARM HOME p. 197. []
  36. Frankenstien, p. 179 []
  37. Bluming, Charles H. and Mildred, Jew Boy in Goy Town.” Xlibris Corporation, 2000, p. 67. []
  38. Bluming, p. 67. []
  39. Bluming, Chapter 21 []
  40. for a thorough discussion of the effects of Catskill resorts on the Jewish-American community and the United States at large see Fick, Annabella. New York Hotel Experience, Cultural and Social Impacts of an American Invention. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017. pp. 262-282. []
  41. Fick, p. 276. []

One thought on “The Catskills, Farming the Jewish Alps

  1. Dear Merrie, I think the book review and this introductory piece are wonderfully informative, in addition to being so well presented. The story “flows” like clear water, the reader wants to read on and on…
    Bravo my dear, I am looking forward to a few more such well written pieces from you.

    Getting a favorable review is always the best!
    Ayşe

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.