“In the summer my grandfather slept on a featherbed on top of the grand piano in the dining room.”
That’s a line from an interview I taped with my mother back in 1987. She was talking about her childhood living in a farm/boardinghouse in Sullivan County, New York in the 1920s. At the time of the interview, I was thinking of writing a novel for middle-grade readers using that setting. In fact, I did write one, but it wasn’t very good and it didn’t sell. What I ended up with, though, was a treasure trove of details about my family and about early tourism in rural New York State.
In my last post I talked about the grand hotels of the Catskills and elsewhere. In the 1920s there were over 200 hotels in Sullivan County. When there was “overflow” from the Columbia Hotel in Hurleyville (shown above), guests were referred to local farm/boardinghouses, including the Hornbeck farm.
Pictured above is that farm in its original incarnation, with Lawrence Hornbeck and his family posing in front. The Hornbecks first arrived in Hurleyville when Matthew Hornbeck moved there from Samsonville in Ulster County shortly after the turn of the nineteenth century. Matthew had run a store in Samsonville where the local Indians came to melt lead for arrows. Family legend claims that Matthew had a map to an Indian lead mine but that map conveniently disappeared before anyone could prove it one way or the other.
Matthew had thirteen children, including Lawrence, who was born in Hurleyville in 1811. It was Lawrence who built the house on Columbia Hill, AKA “the farm.” The property was 75 acres in size and was listed as having a value of $1000 in the 1860 census. Lawrence married late in life and had only two children, Myron Gonzales and Constantia Elizabeth. No one knows where the Spanish names came from, since their mother is supposed to have been Irish. That will probably remain one of the unsolved mysteries of genealogy!
M. G. Hornbeck (he never went by either Myron or Gonzales) married Ella May Applebee. She came from a family with an established interest in the summer tourist trade. Pictured below is the Applebee House, a small hotel. It was run by her parents, Isaac and Mary Applebee.
M. G. and Ella Hornbeck had six children. Two of them were my grandmothers. Yes, two. My grandfather married Tressa Estelle first. She died giving birth to my mother. Then, much later, he married her sister Catherine May. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In the 1920s Gurney’s Hotel bought their water from the Hornbeck farm pond. Gurney’s had a “casino” where they held dances. In those days, casinos at hotels were separate buildings for dancing and entertainments by summer staff and bands. They had nothing to do with gambling. The Hornbeck farm pond, which was spring fed, was also used to water livestock and for recreation by the Hornbecks’ guests.
Mom recalled that they had guests on Decoration Day weekend and then from the last of June/1st of July through the summer. On July 4th they had sparklers and firecrackers. In order to take in more boarders, they built an addition onto the back of the original farmhouse—six bedrooms upstairs and a big dining room downstairs with a kitchen as long as the dining room. From the house, one went through the “writing room” to get to the dining room. There was one bathroom, upstairs, but chamberpots were still in use. The boarders cleaned their own or left a tip. The family cleaned rooms and made beds.
At the height of the season, the Hornbecks even rented out their own rooms. The women and girls slept in the attic, where there was a big bed on one side and mattresses on the other. M.G., as I’ve already mentioned, slept on top of the piano, and Mother’s uncles had an apartment in the barn. Sometimes there were as many as forty people in the house. Most rooms had two beds, some full-size, and some also added a cot so the whole family could stay together. Often the same people took the same room year after year.
At first all the food was prepared by Ella Hornbeck, my mother’s grandmother. She’d slide it through a hole in the wall to the waitresses who served it to guests seated at long tables. The older children waited tables while the younger children washed dishes. There were big drying racks for the dishes—no wiping. Sometimes they hired summer cooks. Mom recalled one Irishwoman from New York City who left because it was “too damn lonely in the country.”
Breakfast included cereal, juice, eggs, bacon, toast, sometimes pancakes but no choices. A typical midday meal was chicken with biscuits, veg, salad, soup, pickles, homemade ice cream, and a choice of pies and cakes, served family style. Certain days equaled certain things so you could plan ahead. A typical evening meal was lighter: salmon, cold cukes, and potato salad. Many things, like milk and eggs, came from the farm itself and they made their own bread. They also made their own wine and white lightning, since Prohibition was pretty much ignored in rural New York state (and in Maine).
Luxuries included a crank telephone on the wall and electricity. There was a water tower to supply running water and a big ice house to provide ice for the iceboxes and keep food from spoiling. The Hornbecks also sold ice, using first a wagon and later a truck to make deliveries. At one point they also acquired a Model T touring car to use as a taxi. Mom remembers her uncles having gamblers as passengers, and that some of them had Mafia connections. This is very likely true, considering that she was living close to the area where the original “Murder Incorporated” dumped its bodies.
The family socialized with guests after chores were done. There were dances in the winter dining room with bands. There were swings and other activities included swimming, boating, and climbing the hill in back of the pond.
Shortly before World War II, the Hornbecks put in a rental apartment over the garage and also made a change in the cooking arrangements. The kitchen off the dining room was converted into four small kitchens so that guests could prepare their own meals. Since by then many of the guests kept kosher, this was a sensible change to make. Although everyone still called the farm a boardinghouse, technically they were now taking in roomers. That’s how I remember it from when I was a child. My grandmother (technically my stepgrandmother/great aunt) continued to raise chickens and sell eggs and open up the rooms every summer until her death in 1958 when I was ten years old. After that, the farm was sold. It burned down several years later and the only thing left now is a cellar hole and you have to hunt to find that. The photograph below shows the house as I remember it in the 1950s.
For those who may be wondering, although I did not have any success with my 1920 novel for young readers, I did use some of this material (as Kathy Lynn Emerson) in one of my historical mysteries, No Mortal Reason, set in 1888, and also in a romance novel, Tried and True, which takes place at a farm/boardinghouse in the process of being turned into a living history center. And, of course, The Spruces in the Liss MacCrimmon mysteries owes something to this background, too. Like most “grand hotels” it started out on a much smaller scale.