In September 2010, the main building at the Blackthorne Resort in East Durham burned to the ground. The resort lost its office, dining hall, and bar in the fire, but Kevin Ferguson gained an epiphany.
Ferguson, 55, is a journalist in Arlington, Massachusetts. He grew up in Northern New Jersey. But much of his heart and soul resided at that lost building in the Catskills. As a child, he spent nearly every summer there among a clan of Irish immigrants and first-generation natives in what was known as the Irish Alps.
What the Borscht Belt was to Jews, the area around East Durham was to the Irish. It was far less well known, and Ferguson had wanted to write about it for years, but the words never came. The pictures of the fire showed him a better way. He has produced Dancing at the Crossroads: The Irish Catskills, an independent film that aired last March on WMHT, the PBS affiliate in Troy.
“It was such a bizarre place,” Ferguson recalls. “The town was completely transformed into an Irish town in summers. It’s where my parents met, and where many Irish couples met, on the dance floor. It’s where I learned to dance. It was charming and odd in so many ways, and hard to describe in words, and the fire prompted me to go into film. It needs moving images and sound, because it is so imbued with music and dance. It’s obvious, really.”
When Ferguson’s mother emigrated from County Cavan to America in 1950, her first address was a small boarding house, owned by her sister, called Mullan’s Mountain Spring Farm in East Durham. Ferguson says that Irish immigrants had been visiting the area, which was previously predominantly German, since the late 1800s. The landscape reminded many of them of the old sod, what with its lush, soft, rolling green hills. In the 1930s and ’40s, with the Depression and then war in Europe, many Germans sold their boarding houses and businesses to those of Irish descent, and the Irish Alps were truly born.
The towns of Leeds, South Cairo, Oak Hill, and East Durham offered boarding and sustenance at places with evocative names like the Shamrock House, the Weldon House, O’Neill’s Cozy Corner, O’Neill’s Tavern, Kelly’s Brookside Inn, and McKenna’s Irish House. In the summer, city dwellers looking to escape the heat and dirt headed upstate for the clean mountain air. As with the Borscht Belt, the Irish Alps hit its heyday after World War II, from the 1950s through the early 1970s. In 1960 there were upwards of 40 Irish-run hotels or boarding houses in the area, Ferguson says, filled each summer with Irish families singing, dancing, and playing music. “Leeds reminds me of a village in Ireland, with one main road, a few storefronts. It’s only a block long, but in the day there was a street car,” he says. “That’s how much activity there was.”
The union organizer, Michael Quill, played a big role in that. As one of the founders of the Transport Workers Union of America, established in the 1930s in New York City, he helped Irish workers earn better pay and more time off. Many had been spending any free time in the Rockaways, a smorgasbord of Irish, Jewish, and Italian retreats. Now, they could travel farther, for longer periods, and be with their own.
“It was an opportunity to be among themselves, without judgment,” says Ferguson. “There was a lot of prejudice in New York and upstate, and like every ethnic group they created their own community. You could go there and the conversation had already started. You didn’t have to explain yourself. You don’t ask ‘How are you?’ You ask ‘What county are you from?’ ”
Ferguson’s parents met in 1955. His mother was working at the hotel. “As family, you work,” he says. “If you are remotely related, you work. Everybody pitched in.” His father was an Irish American on vacation. They met on the dance floor, a tradition that was carried from Ireland to New York City and up to the Catskills. “Many marriages were made up there on the dance floor,” he says. “It was a known thing.” If new arrivals happened on the scene, the bandleader might announce their presence, what county they were from, and if any parent had a child who’d like to meet a nice Irish lad or lass. Ferguson says that almost any Irish couple of a certain age probably hooked up in this chaste, old world-sanctioned way.
Every summer, Ferguson’s mother would wait tables, his father would tend bar and sing, and other family members would chip in wherever needed. As a child, Ferguson helped with small tasks like picking up trash. In his teens, in the mid-1970s, he worked six days a week, washing dishes, mowing lawns, painting fences, carrying luggage. “It was a lot of work,” he says, “and a lot of play.” In those free-range days, kids could roam about the woods and fields with nary a parent, helicopter or otherwise, in sight, while the community kept a watchful eye on everything.
Ferguson stopped going upstate in the 1980s when he went to college. By then, lots of others had stopped going as well. Discrimination had lessened, air travel had cheapened, other options had arisen. Just as the Borscht Belt lost its Yiddish, the Irish Alps lost its Gaelic. Ferguson’s old haunt became the Blackthorne, one of a handful of resorts that still thrive as vacation spots but now serve a much more diversified clientele. “The Blackthorne has a strong Irish following during Irish Arts Week, and a few other weeks, but back in the day it was all Irish,” he says. “Now they have a motorcycle rally and spaghetti wrestling. That wasn’t happening when my aunt was alive.”
Which is why he made his film — to record a bit of history that is in danger of slipping away. The Borscht Belt has been immortalized in countless movies, plays, and songs; why not the Irish Alps? “The Borscht Belt had better PR,” he says. “We had no Jerry Lewis. The closest thing we had was, maybe, the Clancy Brothers.”
Now, though, the recollections of those who made the area sing will have some PR of its own. In the process, Ferguson says he learned more about his own history, too. “I danced as a kid, Ceili [a traditional form of Irish social dancing, similar to square dance], it was just what you did. But I now see how important music and dance was,” he says. “We all did it. We were part of this thing.”
“It was such a bizarre place. The town was completely transformed into an Irish town in summers.”