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Borscht Belt Historical Marker Project formally commemorates the Borscht Belt’s vibrant history

August 2023

An enthusiastic crowd gathered in a parkette across from the Post Office in the Hamlet of Mountain Dale, New York, on 13 August, for the dedication of a historical marker commemorating the Borscht Belt. This was the second of several historical marker dedications scheduled to take place this year and in 2024, in this iconic area of eastern New York State.

The Borscht Belt, is the colloquial name of the Catskills area of eastern New York State, that was once populated with resorts and bungalow colonies that served as a summer refuge for Jewish clients from New York City, in an era when Jewish people still faced discrimination elsewhere.  Many prominent comedians of the day got their start performing at the Borscht Belt hotels and bungalow colonies, like Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Red Buttons, Sid Caesar, Totie Fields, George Burns, Rodney Dangerfield, Henny Youngman and Joan Rivers.

By the late 1960s, cheap airfare, a decline in passenger rail service, more integration and a desire of the younger crowd to travel elsewhere are some of the factors that led to a decline in the popularity for the over 500 hotel resorts and thousands of bungalow colonies that once populated the area.

The Borscht Belt Historical Marker Project is an initiative meant to formally commemorate and tell the story of the Borscht Belt, including its importance in American Jewish history and its impact on things like architecture, music, comedy and sports. As the Borscht Belt Historical Marker Project web site notes, “Our goal is to create a comprehensive marker system and self-guided audio driving tour that traverses the region along with an array of public programming and educational materials.”

The Hamlet of Mountain Dale, a part of the Town of Fallsburg, was chosen as one of the locations for a historical marker due to the town’s distinction of being the geographic centre of the Borscht Belt. During its peak years, from the 1920s to the 1960s, there were 54 hotels and 75 bungalow colonies in the Mountain Dale area.

Today, Mountain Dale is a pastoral small-town that is slowly seeing a revitalization, with new businesses like Forage and Gather, an upscale market and café, Archer & Fern, a jewelry store, High Voltage Catskills restaurant and the Grocery Store Gallery, popping out amongst the once dilapidated buildings and empty storefronts that had dominated the hamlet for many years.

The Borscht Belt Historical Marker Project is headed up by Marisa Scheinfeld, a Brooklyn, NY-born photographer and author, who was raised in the Catskills during the last two decades of the 20th Century, when it was all fading away. The goal is to create a self-guided audio driving tour, using historical markers in selected locations throughout Sullivan County, along with an assortment of related exhibitions, film screenings, comedic and musical events.

After the dedication ceremony, all were invited to the nearby Grocery Store Gallery, to take in a photo exhibition of photographs by Scheinfeld and Isaac Jeffreys, a New York City-based photographer and the project’s visual coordinator. Called “Day and Night: Return to the Borscht Belt,” the exhibition featured photos taken by Scheinfeld that appeared in her book, all of which were taken during the day, and photos by Jefferys, all of which were taken at night, using creative lighting to create the illusion that the abandoned hotels were still open and serving guests.

Though these historical markers, Scheinfeld is hoping to provide insight into the history and impact of the resorts on the county and country by highlighting the resorts, hotels, and bungalow colonies that once populated this region. Each marker is 30 inches high and 42 inches wide, and features a QR code that links to further information about the site and guides visitors to other nearby attractions.

The goal right now is to have 20 markers set up on public land at various locations throughout Sullivan and Ulster Counties. Scheinfeld hopes by having the historical markers on public lands will make them easily accessible and attract foot traffic from residents and tourists, who will not only take in the markers, but also support the local business, shopping and restaurants.

At this time, the only one that will be on the actual site of a former hotel will be the marker dedicated to the Concord Hotel and Breezy Corners Bungalow Colony. The current property owner, Resorts World Catskills, which occupies a portion of the former Concord property, enthusiastically gave permission for the marker will be mounted on-site.

Two other dedication ceremonies held this summer

A dedication ceremony of the first historic marker took place on 25 May 2023, in the courtyard beside the at the Ethelbert B. Crawford Public Library in Monticello. During the ceremony, Scheinfeld noted, “Today marks the first historic marker to commemorate the renowned era known as the Borscht Belt, which for about 50 years, and for countless numbers of people, was truly the center of the world.”

The third was dedicated 20 August in Swan Lake, near the site of the former Stevensville Hotel and the Commodore Hotel. The Stevensville still stands today, operating as a retreat for Orthodox Jews, but the Commodore is long-gone. Only the crumbling nightclub building, the outdoor pool and the stone wall lining the road remain of the Commodore Hotel today.

Dedications of historical markers at Resorts World Casino and Fallsburg/Route 42, also known as “Hotel Row,” will be held this fall, with the dates to be announced. Historical markers in Woodridge, Hurleyville, South Fallsburg, and Kauneonga Lake will follow next year, with the eleven other locations to be announced.

The Jewish Historical Society, an organization run by Jerry Klinger that funds historic markers across America, is fully funding the markers. The respective towns are paying for the installation and a team of volunteers will be tasked with maintaining the once they are installed.

Scheinfeld’s partners in this project include Louis Inghilterra, an avid Borscht Belt historian, recent graduate of Colorado State University and co-founder of the Marker Project, the aforementioned Isaac Jeffreys, Kelli Huggins, a historian, museum professional, and amateur artist, Jerry Klinger, the president and founder of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, the aforementioned Isaac Jeffreys, and Scott Eckers, an author, educator and entertainer.

For more information about the Borscht Belt Historical Marker Project, upcoming marker dedications and special events, go to www.borschtbelthistoricalmarkerproject.org or www.maytheborschtbewithyou.com.

Some of the other historical markers that have been erected so far:

For more information, visit: Borscht Belt Historical Marker Project – Home.

To hear an interview with Marisa Scheinfeld on the Borscht Belt Tattler podcase, visit: May the Borscht Be With you: Borscht Belt Historical Marker Project (buzzsprout.com)

Also see: The crumbling remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland – The rise and fall of the Borscht Belt – Canadian Military History (militarybruce.com)

Interesting Fact: Mountain Dale came within hours of becoming the site of a music festival in July 1970, that would have rivaled the Woodstock Festival the previous summer. The Bach to Rock Festival was to feature acts such as The Kinks, Kathy Smith, Grateful Dead, Van Morrison, The Band, and others. A court order issued just one day before the festival was to begin brought everything to a screeching halt.


Sources: Borscht Belt Historical Marker Project, A sign of history – Sullivan County Democrat (scdemocratonline.com), Photographer Isaac Jeffreys Brings Borscht Belt Resorts Back to Life (hvmag.com)Borscht Belt Historical Marker Project unveils first in series – Sullivan County Democrat (scdemocratonline.com), Here’s how you can tour abandoned Borscht Belt hotspots – The Forward, Mountain Dale, New York – Wikipedia, Here’s how you can tour abandoned Borscht Belt hotspots – The Forward, MUSIC FESTIVAL TO OPEN UPSTATE – The New York Times (nytimes.com), Can You Curate a Town? – The New York Times (nytimes.com), Unveiling History: Borscht Belt Era Captured in Mountaindale – Sullivan County Democrat (scdemocratonline.com), Here’s how you can tour abandoned Borscht Belt hotspots – The Forward.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/borscht-belt-historical-marker-project-formally-commemorates-the-borscht-belts-vibrant-history/

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