by Ron Bernthal
Jonas Bronck was born in Sweden, in 1600, but went to live in the Netherlands as a young man. When he was 38 years old he traveled to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam where he purchased land across the river from Manhattan, eventually becoming known as Bronck’s land, or, as we call it, the Bronx.
Jonas’ cousin, Pieter, 16 years younger, also sailed into New Amsterdam’s harbor, but settled further north than his cousin, in an area the Dutch called the Katskills. In 1662 he bought a tract of beautiful land from the Mahican Indians (not to be confused with the Mohegan tribe), near the present village of Coxsackie, New York, in Greene County.
In 1664 the Dutch handed over Manhattan to the British under threat of war, and English settlers began moving north in greater numbers. The Hudson River towns and mountain villages on the East Bank of the river were busy places during the Revolutionary War, with colonial and British soldiers skirmishing with each other throughout the period. The county is named after the Revolutionary War general Nathanael (often misspelled Nathaniel) Greene, one of General Washington’s most trusted battlefield leaders.
“Tourism to the county really began in the early 1800’s,” said David Dorpfeld, the Greene County historian, who may know more about the history of this part of the Catskills than anyone in the country. Dorpfeld maintains an office in the Bronck Museum, part of the Greene County Historical Society (www.gchistory.org). “The Susquehanna Turnpike was a major stage coach and supply wagon route running from Catskill to Unadilla and, like many of the early-New York “turnpikes” of the early 1800’s, it provided access to travelers who wanted to visit the area for business or leisure purposes.” Today’s visitors to the Bronck Museum can see Pieter Bronck’s single room stone house, built in 1663, the oldest surviving house in the Hudson Valley.
By the mid-1800’s Greene County towns such as Athens, Cairo, Catskill, Coxsackie, Durham, and Windham were busy summer destinations for well-to-do families from the New York City area who could afford to take summer vacations, and the tourist trade continued to flourish until the 1970′-1980’s.
Even with its stunning scenery, however, including the celebrated Catskill Mountains, Hudson River, and Kaaterskill Falls, the northern Catskills’ Greene County suffered a similar fate as its counterparts in the southern Catskills, a loss of tourism revenue to newer, trendier, and more modern destinations.
Although skiing facilities at Hunter Mountain and Windham Ski Resort keep visitors coming to the region, many of the large, country-style hotels and inns have closed, and several big tourist attractions, including the once venerable Catskill Game Farm, have shut down. Winter Clove Resort, however, a family run business since the 1800’s, remains open year-round, still serving full board to its guests, and offering traditional tractor hay rides and front porch sitting on comfortable Adirondack chairs.
The original owners were the Slater family, who built a small farmhouse on land originally given to them in the 1700’s, possibly by George Washington. In the late 1800’s Mary Slater, who had married Henry Barber Whitcomb, expanded one of the family farmhouses to accommodate naturalists, who visited Greene County to paint and sketch the surrounding mountains and streams.
Buddy Whitcomb, who now owns and runs Winter Clove, along with his wife Lenore, is a descendant of the original Whitcombs, and grew up at Winter Clove. His father, Merton Whitcomb, is 95 years old, and still entertains guests with stories about the “old” days in the mountains. On most weekends Buddy will take guests on hay rides, or on hikes to see the nearby waterfalls and explore some of the property’s 300-plus acres. During the past several decades most family-run hotels in Greene County have called it quits, unable to keep up with expenses as former guests sought more exotic destinations.
“I think that part of what keeps Winter Clove going is that Buddy and I haven’t really changed much around the property,” Lenore Whitcomb says as she sits in the hotel’s dining room, surrounded by simple wood tables and chairs, with guest names inscribed on white cards, and set on each table. “We still treat every guest like family, and we love children, so families have been coming here for generations. We feed them, give them fun things to do, and maintain a friendly atmosphere. Everyone likes to sit on the front porch, or walk over to our historic bowling alley, or jump into the pool on hot days.”
Lenore and Buddy insist on keeping up the old traditions of their country inn, mostly because this is why their guests still come back. The 35 rooms in the main house do not have televisions, clock radios, or IPod docking stations. Entertainment comes from swimming in the small pool across from the house, which the Whitcombs built themselves in 1922, or walking along the creek that runs through the property. During the winter Buddy and Lenore lend out snow shoes or cross country skis. There is a piano and communal TV in the downstairs living room. And the Whitcombs were somewhat forced to install high-speed Wi-Fi access for guests who were not quite ready to give up all the modern conveniences.
Letting go of the traditional, labor intensive, three meals a day offering, included in the room rate, is something the owners considered, but not for very long. “We’ve discussed it, talked about going down to two meals, breakfast and dinner, or cutting back on the quality, or the large portions. Last summer our egg bill alone was about $700 a month,” Lenore says, laughing at the rising cost of food and other services that hit small, family-owned hotels hard each year. “But this is what our guests like, and we’ve been doing it this way since we opened.”
Certainly, Greene County, New York has lots of attractions for today’s upscale visitor, including zip lines, high speed ski lifts and gourmet restaurants with months-long waiting lists. There are a still a few traditional, family-owned, country inns open in the Catskills, but not many, and every guest that comes through the 100 year-old front door of Winter Clove wonders if this season will be the last. Buddy and Lenore wonder about that too, especially when the skyrocketing food and repair bills become, well, laughable.
“We haven’t changed, and the property hasn’t changed,” Lenore says, looking out the window on a crisp, sunny fall afternoon as Buddy gets ready to take a new group of guests on an afternoon hay ride. “Coming to Winter Clove is like you stepped back in time, and we don’t want to deprive anyone of that pleasure, especially the kids who come here. They will understand, in time, why their parents kept bringing them back.”
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