05 January 2009

Connecticut's 'borscht belt'

Long ago, I was an active member of USY and Atid, both connected to the famous Brooklyn Jewish Center on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights. Let's hear it for METNY - although my loyalities later switched to FarWest!

At any rate, one of the New York groups organized a weekend shabbaton to some small hotel in Connecticut (sorry I don't remember its name). This event reposed in a dusty corner of my mind until this story recently appeared in the Middletown Press on East Haddam, once home to more than 100 resorts - a New England version of the Catskills.

In the early part of this century, they thrived as immigrants from throughout Europe crowded into cities to work in factories and sweatshops. Living and working in cramped and often unsanitary conditions and making low wages, they felt that getting away for a week in the country was an affordable luxury. Resorts, many started by Jewish immigrants after fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe, also flourished in Colchester and other nearby towns.

The resorts were so popular that a special railroad line was built to provide nonstop service from New York City to Colchester and East Haddam.

In much the same way as the Catskills declined, the era of these resorts declined after World War II. Travel to other places became less expensive and "going to the country" with the whole family lost appeal, as more affluent families moved from crowded cities to suburban peace and quiet and sought other vacation destinations. Some resorts closed, while others changed.

Some resorts managed to survive by changing. Grand Lakes Resort in Lebanon transformed itself into an affordable spa. Banner Resort, which featured a golf course and a large entertainment hall, is now filled with new condominiums. And Chabad, a Jewish group, has plans to make Klar Crest, a small resort, into a camp for girls.

Sunrise Resort had its modest beginnings in 1916 as Elm Camp when Henry Engle completed the main bungalow at his boat rental business by installing electric lights, telephone and a water system. In the early 1920s, Ted Hilton partnered with Engle. Beginning in 1925, the owners began to expand the camp, adding two bungalows and more sleeping and dining areas.

In 1927, the Hilton family bought the property from Engle and over the next several decades expanded it under a number of names. Cabins were built to accommodate as many as 500 overnight guests. More land was acquired, followed by construction of a horse barn, tennis courts and a handball court.

The story continues to track the resort after longtime employees bought the place in 1965 and continues to run the resort, which continues to prosper by hosting group events such as reunions and music events. Many families visited one or more times each year - at least until August 31, when Sunrise closed.

From all outward appearances, the last weekend at Sunrise Resort was business as usual. The swimming pool was still full of water and the tennis courts were well-maintained. Families paddled canoes on the water and parents watched their kids play ping-pong, fish and play miniature golf. Boccie and volleyball, crafts and scavenger hunts, the Grand March parade and hikes at the Echo Farm Nature Preserve also went on as planned. Evenings included magic shows and movies.

There were also special activities just for grown-ups, such as the spa, evening concerts, Pampered Chef demos and the staff-versus-guests softball games. In fact, the only sign the resort would be closing was a small notice in the weekly newsletter thanking the customers for their years of support.

Those of us who were the children of many Catskills summers - either visitors or family of bungalow and hotel owners - remember the good times. I can understand how the Sunrise visitors and staff felt on that last Labor Day weekend as they said goodbye for good.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9:44 PM

    My grandfather was good friends with the Jack Banner family who owned and operated Banner Lodge! Did you know they were related to Zero Mostel and he used to spend lots of time there? Also, another Jewish resort was Bill Hahn's in Westbook which is now called Water's Edge but is no longer really very Jewish!