Thirty-three years ago, my family was on our way upstate to look at a bungalow for sale in a co-op near White Lake, New York. Many of the “borscht belt” hotels had closed, but the Catskill Mountains still had natural beauty and there was still life in the nearby towns. Our kids were restless: What’s a bungalow, our 10-year-old daughter asked? Ever the academic, I tried to place bungalows in context. They were, I said, little cottages where city folk used to spend their summers before air flights became popular and vacations became global. They were, I continued, sort of extinct now. Without missing a beat, our daughter said, “Like the buffalo?”
The co-op near White Lake wasn’t quite right, but within a week we decided to look at other options and met with a Sullivan County real-estate broker who had two large binders full of bungalow colonies for sale. When my husband asked to see colonies that were not on main roads, had more than 60 acres, and had a natural body of water, the broker only had three. The only one that we considered was Jacoby’s in Woodbourne. We bought the whole colony, turned it into a co-op, and named it The Buffalo Colony.
By now, The Buffalo Colony has its own history dating back three decades. But this place has a 73-year-long history that predates our arrival—going back to its founding in 1941 when Nathan Jacoby started to build the colony. So, when a request arrived recently from Nathan’s granddaughters Annice and Isa Jacoby asking to hold a reunion at the colony, we said yes, eager to meet our bungalow forebears.
This year, on a cool, sunny Sunday Sept. 14, about 50 people from Michigan, California, Pennsylvania, Florida, Georgia, and the New York metropolitan area—most of whom were in their 50s and 60s, but had not seen each other since they were children—drove the 2.5 miles up the hill from Woodbourne, where they saw the old Jacoby’s sign with the additional message, “Welcome Back.”
Currently the center of Hasidic life in the Catskills, back in the 1800s Woodbourne was a thriving farming community comprising people who were largely of Dutch descent. The opening of the Delaware and Hudson Canal in 1828 transformed the region, allowing increased trade and communication with other areas. What followed were several momentous events for the town: its first leather tannery in 1831, the road to Ellenville in 1838, and a bridge over the Neversink River in 1846. For 35 years, the tannery was the center of life in Woodbourne, with Irish and German immigrants arriving to work there. When the tannery burned down in 1866, the supply of local hemlock used for tanning was already depleted and the industry was no longer profitable.
The arrival of the New York and Oswego Midland Railroad in 1873 saved Woodbourne. Farmers, many of them Jewish immigrants, discovered that they could now make more money from summer guests from New York City than from farming the land, and they began to take in boarders.
This was the case of Abraham Isaac Globerman, a dairy farmer on a 106-acre property up Michigan Road. Globerman first came to Woodbourne when his father Morris bought a home there. In 1930, one year before Abraham married, he purchased the property with an old farmhouse and extraordinary views of the Catskills. He remained there for nearly 10 years, taking in boarders to supplement his income. “In the summer we lived in the attic,” said Globerman’s daughter Rowena Lachant, explaining that the farmhouse, known as Globerman’s Top of the Globe, was a traditional kuchelein, with her family sharing the kitchen with the summer boarders. When his barn burned down in the late 1930s, Globerman moved to town.
At a tax sale in 1941, the farm property up the mountain was sold to Nathan Jacoby, who was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1894, and arrived in America in 1921. According to his first grandchild, Annice, he was an ardent Yiddishist who was determined to separate the word camp from the grim images of the concentration camps that dominated the news post-WWII.
Jacoby was a talented capitalist and a natural businessman. Through a family connection, he got into the bakery business in Brooklyn, starting Jay Bakers, which was to become one of the largest Jewish wholesale bakeries in Bensonhurst, famous for its signature Torah cake for bar mitzvahs—ironic, considering that Jacoby said he wanted to get away from what he thought of as small-minded religion and never bar mitzvahed his own two sons.
In the summer, he operated the bungalow colony as a second business, renting the units for the season. Jacoby wanted the colony to be a destination for Jews who had worked their way up into the middle class—light manufacturers and lawyers, many from the Midwood neighborhood in Brooklyn, with good businesses and good cars. The parking lot was filled with Cadillacs and Lincolns. These were families who loved parties and balls, and Jacoby was determined to entertain them, building a stage in his casino building for traveling comics, singers, magicians, and musicians, and for bungalow talent shows, too. From the 1940s to the late 1960s, Jacoby’s would be a place for folks who liked to gamble, went to the races at the nearby Monticello Raceway, and, occasionally, even met up in Miami to continue their partying during the winter season.
Jacoby hired Pierce Gillette, a local who had been born in the farmhouse on the property, to teach him the rudiments of plumbing and milling. Annice described Gillette to me as a “wry and pale man who had lost a few fingers in rough timbering.” Together, the two men began the transformation of the Top of the Globe, first dividing the farmhouse into apartments to accommodate families, rebuilding a casino on the foundation of the Globerman barn that had burned down, and then building the bungalows, a few each year, according to Nathan Jacoby’s grand design: a tree-lined horseshoe. It was wartime, and lumber was scarce but Jacoby solved the problem by buying another nearby property where he milled the wood for lumber.
They bought a barn for $50 from a valley in Grahamsville that was about to be flooded by a dam to build the Roundout Reservoir; they had it moved to the top of the mountain to serve as a day camp. Jacoby envisioned a swimming hole for his guests and, with financial help from a public land grant, he dug a little “lake” on the property, naming it Lake Annice. It was not, he soon discovered, as popular as he thought it would be with his campers. “Nathan had a vision that people would go swimming in a lake,” said Arline Jacoby, an artist and former art teacher who was married to Harry Jacoby, one of Nathan’s two sons. “That lasted for two years,” she said, until 1950, when he gave in to popular demand, heightened by competition from the new pool at Lansman’s Bungalow Colony, and built a large swimming pool (30’ x 70’), deck, and changing room with a sun deck on top.”
Arline Jacoby’s memories of summers at the colony are vivid: mah jongg, canasta, gin rummy, and pinochle in the card room (now a recycling shed), competitive handball, and baseball (both day-campers and fathers had teams). “When the kids would win, beating other colonies such as Lansman’s, the mothers would all come out on their front porches and bang pots together,” she told me. There were movies on Wednesday and Sunday nights in the casino, and a terrific day camp run by Clarence Wegman, a local school principal who taught the city kids about nature and life in the country. There was a riding academy on the next road where campers took lessons and Gulkow’s, a neighboring farm where urban teenagers like Jay Friedman could work as farm hands, raking, cutting, and baling hay and milking cows. “I can still tell the different breeds of cows,” said Friedman, who later served in the Peace Corps in Sierre Leone and spent 37 years working for the Centers for Disease Control.
On Saturday nights, the adults got dressed up for an evening in the casino. The women put on cocktail dresses (many purchased at Loehmann’s) and wore their jewelry and mink stoles. Jacoby, who was famous for serving his specialty whiskey sours, always cooked a full dinner—deli, hot dogs and baked beans, pot roast. (Although the crowd was not religious, the food was kosher.)
They were a very creative group, and every Saturday night had a theme. Sometimes they played This Is Your Life, selecting someone to surprise from the audience. There was a band for dancing with Harry Jacoby serving as the emcee and crooner. And there were comedians, who were up in the Catskills playing the hotels and were happy to fill out their dance cards by earning extra money at the larger bungalow colonies. Arline Jacoby recalled that Rodney Dangerfield, Henny Youngman, and Lenny Bruce appeared at Jacoby’s. There were elaborate costume balls: Vivian Steinberg Dwyer told me about her art-director father Jerry, who made a stained-glass-window costume out of colored paper on fabric; Rachelle Wajchman Zegen’s mother dressed up as a wind-up doll, in a costume made of crepe paper.
All day long vendors would arrive, announcing themselves on the colony loudspeaker: the ice cream vendor who appeared twice daily, the dairy man who would deliver buckets of sour cream and put them inside your fridge if you were not home, the bakery truck, the jelly apple man, and, of course, the blouse man. Isa Jacoby, who is today a professional chef in Sonoma County, remembers that there were even jelly lollipops, made with the candy coating and no apple.
Sociologist Irwin Richman, author of Borscht Belt Bungalows and the grandson of the founder of Richman’s Bungalow Colony in Woodbourne (down the mountain from Jacoby’s), told me after a recent conference on the Catskills at the Liberty Museum and Arts Center that he always wished that his grandfather had bought the property that became Jacoby’s, seeing it as the property that “got away.” Richman argued against the classic myth that rich people went to the hotels and poor people to the bungalow colonies, but he noted that there were differences in the atmosphere. “At the bungalows,” Richman said, “you could get a nice laid-back vacation. At the hotels, women changed their outfits at least three times a day.”
It’s hard to imagine today, given the empty stores, burnt out buildings, and ruins that line Route 42 and that scar the Main Streets of Monticello, Ellenville, and Liberty, but in 1953—the heyday of the Catskills—the New York Times reported that there were some 50,000 bungalows and well over 500 hotels in Sullivan County. Today, none of the hotels survive, and although there are still many bungalow colonies, almost all of them are occupied by Orthodox, largely Hasidic, Jews.
At Jacoby’s, where 60 families spent each summer, a single bungalow building housed two to four units, depending on its configuration, with a typical unit consisting of a kitchen, two small bedrooms, and a bathroom, with the ubiquitous front porch. For $800 a season (roughly 10 times as much in today’s money), middle-class families could flee their non-air-conditioned apartments in Brooklyn and the Bronx for fresh air and mosquitoes in the Catskills.
For $75 a season for the first child in a family and with a discount for the second and third, the kids could spend their summers in Jacoby’s Day Camp, where they put on shows on the knotty-pine casino stage, made coiled ceramic baskets by baking them in the kiln under the casino, went hiking in the woods, played catch-the-greased-watermelon in the pool, and even learned to ride at the nearby horse farm. At 3 p.m., the campers were served iconic Sealtest half chocolate-half vanilla dixie cups, with little wooden spoons.
Rachelle Wajchman Zegen’s family started coming to Woodbourne in the late 1950s, renting first at Gulkow’s. When she turned 14 and received her working papers, she got a job as a counselor at Jacoby’s, a larger colony with many more activities and more kids her age. Her family summered there from 1961 to 1964, escaping an apartment in a middle-income housing project in the Bronx where she lived with her parents and three brothers. She remembers Jacoby’s as a “roomy and wonderful place,” despite their spending the summer in a crowded two-bedroom bungalow. “We spent much of our time outdoors,” she said, “picking blueberries and collecting salamanders on rainy days.”
Annice Jacoby, an innovative producer of public art events and a writer, remembers hiding a copy of Marjorie Morningstar under her pillow. “The kind of freedom that we had there is very rare now,” she said.
“It was paradise with a Good Humor truck,” said fellow camper Jeff Kiehl.
“The rocks have gotten way smaller,” said Isa Jacoby, at the reunion. “The stage has shrunk. But the trees have grown.”
All agreed, though, that Jacoby’s was a place of freedom. “What my grandfather created,” said Annice, “was not only a business. “He created a sense of place. This was the good life.”
Over time, though, Jacoby’s changed. The clientele shifted to a more Orthodox demographic as middle-class secular Jews and their children flew off to Europe instead of trekking up to the Catskills. Harry and Ben Jacoby decided to sell the colony, much to Annice and Isa’s dismay. Although the first buyer defaulted on the mortgage, they did manage finally to sell it to Werner Markel, who rented the colony to observant Jews for a couple of years but who found it too much work.
In 1981, Markel sold it to Shael Shapiro—my husband—and his cousins Roy Poretzky and Henri Elkaim, who turned it into a co-op, with the Jacobys holding the mortgage and insisting that the colony hold on to all of the metal trundle beds and cribs in case it defaulted and the property had to be rented again. But The Buffalo Colony did not default. Instead the colony became a diverse co-op community, with 30 families buying units that they transformed over the years—some leaving the knotty-pine paneling; others opting for white walls. Some built a second level and a few even heated their units.
The co-op redid the infrastructure with new electric lines replacing the threadbare ones, winterized water pipes buried below ground by dynamiting into the rocky mountain, and repaving the circular loop around the colony. Just before one wall of the concrete pool completely collapsed, the pool was repaired and resurfaced. The co-op installed new pipes, filter, pump, and, most important, a heater.
New families, traditional and non-traditional, occupy the bungalows along the tree-lined horseshoe. New children—black, white, Asian, and Hispanic—still perform on the stage under the tiny pleated valence left by Jacoby’s: card tricks, songs, dances, and skits. Weekly entertainment and Saturday night dinners are a thing of the past, but folks gather for potlucks on Memorial Day, July 4, and Labor Day, when there is sometimes a band or a DJ.
About a dozen current Buffalo Colony owners attended the Jacoby’s reunion. To Betty Mackintosh, being there gave her “a sense of continuity with The Buffalo Colony’s history.” She was surprised to learn of the kiln in the casino basement, the risqué shows for adults only, and the fact that one family “left the city a week before school ended to get to Jacoby’s. I learned how important coming to the mountains was for a city child,” she said. Sue Young, president of Buffalo Colony Co-op, told me that she loved the story of Nathan Jacoby mixing whiskey sours in the casino kitchen (long since demolished), but she was struck especially by a comment made by many Jacoby speakers: “I hadn’t realized until I heard them how close the time was to the Holocaust and how desperately important this kind of carefree normality must have felt,” she said.
The Jacoby reunion attendees could not believe the transformation. The day camp was gone, the collapsing building having been burned down by the fire department, although the “Jacoby’s Day Camp” sign was saved and relocated above the pool cabana. Some things, however, remained unchanged. There was the same profound sense of freedom: children running out the door in the morning and returning home in the dark; adults walking to the meadow to look at the purple mountains. Patches of soft green moss everywhere and tiny red efts after the rain. Tree frogs mating, snakes slithering, deer eating the flowers, and beavers damming up Lake Annice.
Nathan Jacoby would have approved.
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