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Was bungalow project a del fungo con?

John Conway
Posted 2/10/23

In 1930, when the population of Sullivan County was just over 35 thousand, Census figures reveal there were just 91 African-Americans living here. That’s slightly more than one-quarter of one …

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Was bungalow project a del fungo con?


In 1930, when the population of Sullivan County was just over 35 thousand, Census figures reveal there were just 91 African-Americans living here. That’s slightly more than one-quarter of one percent of the population. 

However, even when one considers that it is likely that there were large pockets of people in Sullivan County back then who had never actually seen an African American, it is still difficult to entirely understand an incident that took place in Mongaup Valley in June of 1936.  

The incident created a considerable stir in the county, and the fact that it eventually involved three of the most controversial personalities of their time made it especially appealing to the newspapers of the day. Looking back, however, it seems likely that the entire incident was conceived by a noted local conman. Whether that was the case or not, it was not our proudest moment as a county. 

The Liberty Register inadvertently started a bit of a media frenzy when it announced in its June 11, 1936 edition that “four negroes” had been arrested near Mongaup Valley on May 30. The men, two of whom were described in the Register article as being “prominent figures in Harlem” had committed the egregious act of showing their faces on a roadway in the private confines of the highly restricted Smallwood development.  

The Register reported that the aftermath of the arrests “disclosed plans for an extensive Negro summer colony on land in Bethel township near Mongaup Valley.”  

Furthermore, the Register article pointed out, “the Negro bungalow colony project, backed by William H. Davis, president of a Beach colony at Rockaway and former head of the Amsterdam News, a Harlem weekly, will be established, it was said, on a 300-acre tract, purchase of which was negotiated by Davis and associates from Captain Philip Giera.” 

Giera, of course, was the enigmatic inventor, spy, and/or swindler better known as Del Fungo. He owned thousands of acres of land in Mongaup Valley, much of it adjacent to the private and restricted Smallwood development. The announcement that there were plans to create the “negro bungalow colony” so close to his development apparently caught the attention of Arthur N. Smallwood, the hidebound developer of the Mountain Lakes Community that eventually bore his name. Threatened with the possibility that he might soon have new neighbors, Smallwood promptly expressed an interest in purchasing that same property—and a lot more—from Giera.  

What no doubt prodded Smallwood into such swift action was the claim in at least one newspaper article that the African Americans arrested in Mongaup Valley “were said to be friends of the Negro cult leader, Father Devine [sic].” The article was referring to the controversial spiritual leader Father M.J. Divine, who, by the time of the 1936 incident, had amassed a huge following throughout the country, many of whom believed his often-repeated proclamation that he was God reincarnated.

While the developer Smallwood no doubt felt he could not tolerate a “negro bungalow colony” so close to the homesites he was still actively marketing, he certainly could not afford the publicity that any affiliation to a figure like Father Divine would generate. So, on June 19, the Times Herald newspaper reported that “purchase by A.N. Smallwood of 1,800 acres of land adjoining his bungalow development in Bethel Township, this week removed the threat that a Negro bungalow colony would be started nearby.”

In retrospect, the entire incident has an air of contrivance about it, especially knowing the extravagant lengths Giera was known to go to enrich himself.  

He was, after all, the one who hired two African American laborers from South Fallsburg to clear the land where the bungalow colony was to be located. And when the arrests were made by two members of the private Smallwood security force merely for traveling on a road that belonged to the development, Giera and his attorney, Hyman Mintz, accompanied the men as the private cops tried to find a magistrate to issue an arrest warrant, which took four attempts—the first three judges they approached refused. All the while, Mintz was urging the security officers that instead of seeking a charge of trespassing against the four men, they would be better off asking the judge for an injunction against the construction of the bungalow colony.    

The evidence would seem to suggest that the conman Giera, perhaps in need of some cash, scripted the entire incident, cooking up a scenario that would frighten Smallwood into purchasing a tract of land in order to protect his existing project from encroachment by not just any “Negro bungalow colony,” but one connected with Father Divine himself.  

Such a possibility is certainly not difficult to imagine for those even just a bit familiar with Giera’s past.  

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and a founder and president of The Delaware Company. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.  


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