MONTICELLO — The Borscht Belt Historical Marker Project held their first historic marker dedication and unveiling, Thursday, May 25 at the Ethelbert B. Crawford Public Library in …
MONTICELLO — The Borscht Belt Historical Marker Project held their first historic marker dedication and unveiling, Thursday, May 25 at the Ethelbert B. Crawford Public Library in Monticello. The goal of the project is to commemorate important places to the Borscht Belt’s history.
They have a total of 20 markers planned for placement in towns and villages across Sullivan and Ulster Counties. There are two dedications scheduled for August - one in the Town of Fallsburg on August 13 and one in the Hamlet of Swan Lake on August 20.
Louis Inghilterra, co-founder of the Marker Project, gave the opening speech at the dedication ceremony and introduced five speakers. The five speakers who all gave their thoughts on the Project were Lynn Skolnick - the former Board President of Ethelbert B. Crawford Public Library; Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther; county historian John Conway; Zach Kutsher - grandson of Helen and Milton Kutsher; and founder and director of the Project, Marisa Scheinfeld.
“I am so honored and thrilled to be a part of this amazing project,” Inghilterra said. “I am so excited to finally have it leave its much needed mark on these important communities that served as legacies to the important history of the Borscht Belt.”
Photographer Isaac Jeffreys helped to unveil the marker in Monticello as he unmasked it from its cover. The project’s featured markers are all going to be double-sided. They will have a synopsis of the Borscht Belt on one side and the history of each town on the other.
“Today marks the first historic marker to commemorate the renowned era known as the Borscht Belt,” Scheinfeld said. “Which for about 50 years, and for countless numbers of people, was truly the center of the world.”
The backside of this first marker, which describes the Borscht Belt history to Monticello, reads: “During the heyday of the Borscht Belt, Monticello had about 65 hotels and 133 bungalow colonies. Kutsher’s Country Club was known for its sports and entertainment scene. It hosted Muhammad Ali, while additional boxers trained at other hotels. Wilt Chamberlain worked as a bellhop while playing on the hotel’s basketball team before rising to NBA fame.
“Kutsher’s also presented famous entertainers on its stage such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Crystal and Joan Rivers. Kutsher’s was the longest running resort in the Borscht Belt, closing in 2013. The Laurel’s Hotel and Country Club was for a time, the largest hotel in Sullivan County. It was a popular spot for singles and held the world’s record for the largest steel swimming pool.
“The hotel was operated by the Novack family who also built the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. Other notable Monticello destinations were Esther Manor, Lewinters Bungalow Colony, Ideal Bungalow Colony, and the Delano Hotel.”
Skolnick said that the dedication of the marker in Monticello is “definitely” her last official act as Board President of the library. She said Scheinfeld had come to her about the idea to put a marker at the library when she was still on the Board, and the current President, Maureen O’Meara, was kind enough to allow her to speak at the unveiling.
“A young woman named Marissa Scheinfeld had a vision of preserving the Borscht Belt history and using it as a spearhead to reinvent tourism in the area,” Skolnick said. “Her tenacity, caring and willingness to knock on doors while following through on everything she promised is why we are here today.”
Remembering the Belt
“As we reflect upon the past, it is vital that we recognize the enduring impact of the Borscht Belt hotels and the importance of preserving their memory,” Assemblywoman Gunther said.
Conway said that in the early days, they didn’t want to be called the Borscht Belt, but said it certainly was preferable to some of the other names that were used in the early days, such as the Sour Cream Sierras or the Jewish Alps.
“I think the challenge will be to remain accurate in depicting the history and not to give in to fanciful stories and other inaccurate depictions that are out there,” Conway said. “This marker project will be a good way to ensure that everyone has [stayed] honest about what the Borscht Belt was and what it wasn’t.”
Kutsher is one of the remaining members of the family who is keeping their legacy alive from their famous Kutsher’s County Club. You can learn a lot more about Kutsher’s in the documentary Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort, which involves three generations of the family.
After the marker unveiling, they held a screening of the film and also had a Q&A with the Directors, Caroline Laskow & Ian Rosenberg.
“Anyone that I’ve come across who has some connection to the area, [this project] touches upon a part of their life that they really remember fondly,” Kutsher said. “No matter what walk of life that person might come from, just the connection that you have with that part of your life is something that’s really worth preserving.”
Scheinfeld remembers fondly the days when she grew up in the mountains and takes that with her as she comes back.
“I grew up in the mountains, or as others called it, the country,” she said. “As if no other mountains or country existed any place else on Earth. Driving up Route 17 through those mountains today, I felt that same reflective and magical feeling of being home.”
The project also has plans to create an app for a self-guided audio driving tour to all 20 markers. It will help to bring back tourism to the area and allow visitors to look back at the vast history.
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