A Catskill Catalog: Jan. 28, 2009
In 1883, one of the richest men in America bought 60 Catskill Mountain acres to build a summer colony for his extended family. Charles Fleischmann was a 32-year-old master distiller and yeast production superintendent on the estate of an Austrian nobleman when he first visited the United States in 1866. He came to New York City to attend the wedding of his sister Josephine.
The story goes that Fleischmann was aghast at the poor quality of the baked goods served at the wedding. Austrian yeast-risen breads and pastries were much better. French scientist Louis Pasteur had recently discovered the role of the one-celled yeast fungus in fermentation, and Charles had become expert in the process in carrying out his duties: producing spirits and yeast for his aristocratic employer.
Opportunity knocked. American bakers had long relied on sour dough, or malted and sugared potato flour, or brewers’ yeast skimmed off fermenting ale. No commercial yeast production existed in the United States. The door was open for a new American industry.
Charles and his brother Max immigrated to the United States, first working in a distillery in New York, then moving to Cincinnati, Ohio, where they found a financial backer to establish a yeast production plant on the banks of the Ohio River. To promote their product, they opened Viennese-style bakeries in New York and Philadelphia.
The 1876 American Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia provided a breakthrough. Fleischmann’s Yeast created a sensation. Bread and cakes were lighter, smoother, more flavorful. The brothers developed an efficient distribution system, getting their product both to commercial bakeries and the home kitchen. Fleischmann’s packaged yeast helped make home bread-baking a staple of American life. The alcohol produced as a byproduct gave the brothers a second product: Fleischmann’s Gin.
The family prospered. Yeast quickly became a product everybody bought, used, and bought again, and Fleischmann’s Yeast was so much the best and most widely-distributed yeast that it became the only yeast. Think Bill Gates and software and you get an idea of the Fleischmann brothers and yeast.
Charles developed respiratory problems and his doctors recommended a mountain climate to avoid the humid heat of the Ohio Valley in summer. In 1883, the family discovered the Catskills and the little hamlet of Griffin’s Corners on the Ulster & Delaware Railroad. From local farmer John Blish, Charles bought 60 acres on a hill just west of the village. There, he established his summer colony.
Perhaps, Charles had a second motive for establishing a new summer resort for his family rather than seeking a summer home in an already established community. In 1877, Joseph Seligman, a wealthy Jewish banker from New York, was rudely and unceremoniously turned away from the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga, a hotel he and his family had frequented in the past. A new wave of anti-Semitism spread through the resort and spa areas of the time, and one could never be sure what indignities might await. I’ll bet Charles Fleischmann was determined that not happen to him.
When he arrived in Griffin’s Corners, the little village sat at the base of a hill on its east end, Armstrong Park, the August retreat of the Hudson-Valley-Rokeby-Farm Armstrong branch of the patrician Livingston family. I have visions of the immigrant Jewish Fleischmann seeing the wealthy old-family estate sitting on a hill east of the village and saying, “I’ll take the hill on the west side!”
And quite a colony he built. The family compound was on top of the hill, four or five houses that provided a 10-week summer home for Charles and his family as well as the families of a variety of relatives. He surrounded his home with a deer park, well-stocked trout pond, spring-fed heated swimming pool, baseball field, and riding stable. The baseball field is today’s Fleischmanns Park and the stables are visible behind today’s West Wind Motel.
The family built a railroad station to serve their colony, a station called “Fleischmann’s.” Friends, cousins, and business associates of the Fleischmann family flocked to Griffin’s Corners. Soon, other Jewish immigrants from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire came. Wagner Avenue was built as a grand boulevard of summer mansions, and hotels and boarding houses sprang up. A thriving Jewish summer trade made the little village a hub of activity every summer.
In the early 1900s, the Fleischmann family withdrew from the village, donating the ball field for a park, accepting the renaming of Griffin’s Corners in their honor.
The Village of Fleischmanns remained a vibrant resort, attracting a large Jewish clientele, right into the 1960s and ’70s. Gradually, that clientele died off, and, in an era of air-conditioning and cheap airfares, few came to take their place.
But, ahh, what Fleischmanns once was!