In September of 2010 the Blackthorne Resort in East Durham lost its main building housing its hotel office, dining hall and bar in a massive explosion and fire where a lot of history was burned to cinders within hours.
Had the owners, the Handel family, not built a new state of the art facility on the footprint of the old structure, some would have said it was the final nail in the coffin of the Irish Catskills if the resort formerly known as Mullan’s Mountain Spring House went out of business.
Too often the premature obituary of the Irish Catskills centered around East Durham has been written. This lit a fire under writer Kevin Ferguson, who harbored a long-time vision that the tale of the Irish Catskills needed not only to be written about but shown visually as well before it was too late.
Ferguson is the son of an Irish-born mother from Co. Cavan and an Irish American father who spent his summers at Mullan’s with his family like thousands of other Irish families in the Irish Catskills, the slice of the legendary mountain range that veers to the northeast towards Albany as opposed to the Borscht Belt Catskills that catered to Jewish vacationers.
Since the 1930s Irish families sought the cooler mountain fresh air especially from New York City just 125 miles away, but also around the northeast because it was where the Irish vacationed when they couldn’t afford to go back to Ireland.
The lush green hills of the Catskills reminded them of the Emerald Isle. Music and dance were the social elixirs that brought young men and women from the Old Country out to dance halls in the cities, and they were also the allure to the Catskills where in the summertime music could be heard seven nights a week in the resorts and roadhouses.
In the heyday from the 1930s to the 1960s up to 17 resorts catered to the Irish filling every night with a variety of dance music and musicians. And then came the jet airplane and cheaper travel to Ireland, and growth and expansion in the Catskills wasn’t happening any longer.
But there is a resiliency in the area and a fierce attachment for many who experienced the good old days of East Durham where matches were made, families vacationed and memories galore were fashioned.
For three years Ferguson has been intensely collecting old photos, movie footage, recordings and all kinds of recollections from primary sources for the film he is making called The Irish Catskills: Dancing at the Crossroads.
The film will convey the importance of the Irish Catskills to the history of Irish America from a personal perspective nostalgically shared by a number of people who hold the Catskills very dear to their hearts.
Ferguson is in the midst of a fundraising effort to produce the film through Kickstarter with a goal of raising almost $100,000 with three weeks to go in the campaign. The rules of Kickstarter demand that he must reach his stated goal or else lose all funding through its program.
Ferguson is hopeful that anyone who spent time in the Catskills and loves the area like he does will pony up and help produce a proper visual history that could make its way to PBS and beyond.
Visit kickstarter.com and search for The Irish Catskills: Dancing at the Crossroads and be a part of an amazing story.