A Catskill Catalog: May 30, 2012

Lately, I’ve been investigating Lehman. Not the Wall Street firm that famously collapsed in 2008, but the family that both created that firm and produced a New York State Governor, Senator, and Chief Judge of the State Court of Appeals. They used to have a house in Fleischmanns.

It should be noted that the Lehman family had no connection to the firm that failed. The Lehman family ceased participation in Lehman Brothers in 1969, with the death of Robert Lehman, the Governor’s cousin, the last Lehman in the firm.

The Governor, and Senator, was Herbert Lehman, 45th Governor of the State of New York, who served from 1933 to 1942, and then was elected to the Senate, representing the state in Washington from 1950 to 1957. Meanwhile, his older brother, Irving, sat on the state’s highest court from 1923 until his death, as Chief Judge, in 1945.

Until the election of Eliot Spitzer (who didn’t really work out) Herbert Lehman was the only Jewish governor in the state’s history. (Maybe we should continue to think of him that way?)
Sullivan County’s Borscht Belt may have made the Catskills famous as a Jewish resort, but the Catskills-as-Jewish-resort began in Delaware County’s Fleischmanns!

Griffin’s Corners, it was called then, a crossroads kind of spot where the roads out of Halcott and Red Kill converged on the Bushkill and a rail stop. The rail stop could be reached in one direct trip from Cincinnati, Ohio, where the private rail car of Charles Fleischmann stopped one day, in 1883, and agents of the yeast magnate, one of the richest men in America, bought 60 acres on a hill west of the village from John Blish.

John Blish’s descendent and namesake continues to live and do business in and around the village created by this sale. No member of the Fleischmanns family does.
There was a Livingston presence, at that time, in Griffin’s Corners. Armstrong Park was the sometime estate of the descendants of Alida Livingston and her husband, General John Armstrong, who served with Washington in the Revolutionary War.

Armstrong Park straddled a hill on the east side of Griffin’s Corners. Mr. Fleischmanns’ new Fleischmanns’ Park would straddle the hill on the west side, above the newly renovated railroad depot that soon bore his name.

The Governor’s father, Mayer Lehman, was the youngest of three brothers who emigrated from Bavaria, in the 1850s, settling in Montgomery, Alabama. There, they established a store, seeking to provide cotton growers all the provisions and supplies needed on their plantations. One thing growers needed was wider markets and better prices, so the Lehman brothers started brokering cotton, opening a New York office, and gradually moving from making cotton deals to brokering securities.

Lehman Brothers was born.

In 1876, Joseph Seligman, another prominent Wall Street banker, was insulted and turned-away from a Saratoga Hotel that had suddenly decided to exclude Jews. Anti-Semitism revealed its nasty face, and American hotels began to segregate. Gentiles Only became an all-too-common sign.
So, Charles Fleischmann established a resort colony, which would be fashionable, sophisticated, elegant, and Jewish. No one need worry they would be turned away.

Mayer Lehman responded to the call of the Catskills. He established a hunting lodge in the Big Indian Valley, a sprawling place along the upper Esopus Creek. Today, Mr. Lehman’s hunting lodge is the Big Indian Springs Resort up Cruickshank Road toward Oliverea.

The Lehman family also established a more proper home in Fleischmanns. It was here that young Herbert Lehman, future Governor and Senator, spent parts of 17 formative summers.
Now, picture Fleischmanns before today’s Route 28. The state highway winds down Highmount from Pine Hill, curving with the contour of the hill. You can follow it with your eye by noting the position of once-roadside utility poles. Today’s Moran Road was that highway as it made its sweeping-turn entrance into Fleischmanns.

The railroad traveled in a straighter line, up on the rise just north of the village. Depot Street connected the state highway to the rail line, two-tenths of a mile from Main Street to the depot. At the depot, turn right, just over the tracks, and you climb the long drive up-hill to the Fleischmanns’ mansion. Turn left, under the tracks, and you wind uphill to the Lehman mansion.

The Lehman’s didn’t need their name on the train depot. But, turn right or turn left: you found yourself in Edwardian elegance among the gilded age mega rich. Fleischmanns or Lehman, either way, these were wealthy and powerful Americans, at the very center of American financial, industrial, and commercial life. Very big time.

Yet, they might have had trouble getting a room in Saratoga Springs or Haine’s Falls or Pine Hill. They built their mansions around the Fleischmanns Train Depot because there no officious tavern-owner could deny them a meal or a bed. No, the Viennese-style cafes and kosher hotels that sprang up around that rail depot would turn away no one, and would celebrate their clientele’s success with luxurious abundance.

By the time the Lehmans sold their home in 1927, Fleischmanns had subsumed Griffin Corners, the train-depot name eclipsing that of the post office, the family asking for the honor in return for a park. Mr. and Mrs. Sugar turned the home into the Arlington Hotel, adding to it a much larger addition that dwarfed the old mansion.

Herbert Lehman was elected Lieutenant Governor, running with Franklin Roosevelt, in 1928. He succeeded FDR as Governor. When in 1935, Fleischmanns Mayor A.H. Todd issued a call to the Governor for a state takeover of some then New York City-maintained portions of Route 28. He invited Governor Lehman to “visit Fleischmanns to obtain first-hand knowledge of the importance of the road.”

For Herbert Lehman, like for so many who spent youthful summers in Fleischmanns, it would have been like coming home.
wbirns@catskill.net