A Catskill Catalog: January 25, 2012

Seventy-five years ago this month, federal agents raided a farm in the Town of Halcott, where they discovered an operating still.

It all started with complaints that someone was jacking deer at night with a light. Game protectors went to investigate. While on farmland in Townsend Hollow belonging to Fred Matthews, the officers smelled alcohol: a still.

They called revenue agents from Poughkeepsie who raided the house. The kitchen was filled with a still so large it took up the whole room. With a capacity of 500 gallons a day, the still had been producing illegal liquor for two months. Neighbors reported trucks coming to the farm laden with sugar, and covered vans leaving the place at night, but no one noticed anything unusual, nothing out of the ordinary.

Landlord Matthews was arrested, and arraigned before federal Judge Platt in Poughkeepsie. The owner of several area farms, Fred Matthews pled ignorance of the goings-on at his rented-out Townsend Hollow place. Two strangers had leased the farm for the winter. He didn’t know what they were doing there.

Rumors began to circulate throughout town about big Buick automobiles and slick-looking dark-haired gangsters, about high rollers in Fleischmanns the previous summer-season.

There was nothing more than rumors to go on. Fred Matthews operated his own farm in Fleischmanns, and made a strong case that he knew nothing of the still. At his hearing, Judge Platt seemed to believe Matthews’ protestations of innocence. He released him on $1,000 bail.

Turns out, the investigation was much bigger than the deer jacking cover story. Large quantities of illegal, untaxed booze were pouring down the Hudson River Valley. Federal agents made arrests in the valley. The booze kept running. They traced the source into the mountains.

For two weeks, undercover federal agents hunkered down in Pine Hill, winter tourists, hikers. They snooped around. They listened. Talk was of Townsend Hollow, above Pine Hill, behind Fleischmanns, in Greene County, Town of Halcott. They drove up there one night, pretended to be lost, asked a couple teenagers in a truck for the Fred Matthews farm, and found the place.
Fred Matthews was the only one there. He claimed the tenants had fled, tipped-off.

Doesn’t seem like much happened to him, other than the trouble and expense and embarrassment and all of being hauled into federal court. Leland Kelly took care of Fred Matthews’ own farm while court proceedings kept him away.

The following December, another large still was discovered down in Shinhopple and destroyed by federal agents. Newspaper accounts reminded readers of the Fred Matthews case from months before. But nothing else.

Seventy-five years ago this month, locals were crying about the winter that wasn’t. “Catskill Mountain winter sports centers are awaiting only the arrival of cold weather and a goodly supply of snow to open up miles of ski trails, skating ponds, and ski runs. Thus far the warm weather has been a decided setback,” one local editor complained.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

As the depression years wore on, hotel and boarding house owners in Phoenicia, Pine Hill, Fleischmanns, and Halcott had invested heavily in efforts aimed to expand their summer-trade business into year-round enterprise.

Hoteliers had banded together to prepare ski slopes in Fleischmanns, runs that would complement those already cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Phoenicia Ski Club created ski trails in that town, in addition to those at the privately-owned Simpson Memorial.
The club hired former Dartmouth College ski coach, Otto Schneib, an internationally known skier in his own right, to give lessons in February. All that was needed was snow.

Snow trains were scheduled to bring skiers and revelers from Grand Central to the Catskills. They’d run every Saturday and Sunday of the busy ski season. Winter sports enthusiasts ready to spend would be delivered to our trackside door. To get those trains rolling, all that was needed was snow.
Thousands of color brochures had been printed and circulated, extolling to New Yorkers the joys of Phoenicia’s ski runs, the wholesome winter hospitality and comfortable rooms of hotels and boarding houses in Fleischmanns and Halcott Center. To get those rooms full, all that was needed was snow.

By early February, 75 years ago, cold had set in, enough to thicken the ice on Perch lake, “thick enough to harvest.” Excellent skating on ponds all around. Still no snow.
Then. “The first snow train of the winter brought a thousand ski enthusiasts to Phoenicia, Shandaken, Big Indian, and Pine Hill on Sunday,” February 7, 1937. Snow had arrived, as it must, every year, as it will, in heavy winters and light, year in and year out.
That’s what was happening here, 75 years ago.
billbirns@gmail.com