10. Sharon Springs

 

Sharon Springs is a leafy summer resort nestled in hills overlooking upstate New York’s Mohawk Valley. The Village features mineral springs and hot sulfur water baths. The resort was quite the high society place in the 1800’s, but is no longer that fashionable. In the early 20th century a foreign-born Jewish clientele increasingly favors it. By the 1920’s there are a dozen large kosher hotels, numerous smaller kosher establishments, and a small synagogue, most in aged buildings dating to the village’s nineteenth century heyday. By 1940 the clientele is exclusively Jewish.

In the 1920’s, during Prohibition, it was a stopover for Jewish rumrunners. Typically, they smuggled liquor in from Toronto or Montreal, passed through Sharon Springs on the way to New York City, and sold some of the hooch to hotel owners. Morris, who always liked a fast buck, was involved in this at times and so discovered the Village.

On Morris’s recommendation, Hinda and her husband Jack visited Sharon Springs in the 1930’s. They found a bustling village brimming with guests, thousands of Yiddish speaking immigrants whose modest prosperity allowed them to come for the baths, a health cure European-born believe in. The atmosphere was outgoing and the hotels offered regular entertainment; it was a place a religious Jew with special dietary needs could be comfortable. The couple liked what they saw and become regular guests.

Hinda and Jack stay each summer at the Wellington Hotel on Washington Street and become friendly with the proprietors, Mae and Norbert Wachman. The season runs from May to October and Hinda decides a living could be made here. Hinda suggests Dora might want to buy a rooming house in Sharon Springs.

In October 1944 Dora comes for the first time to see the village and its possibilities. On this visit she spots a private home for sale at the foot of Union Street, feels she can turn it into a modest rooming house, and buys it. She names it “The Brustman House.”

The following spring Dora hires local workmen to prepare the house for its first season. They are working the day President Roosevelt dies. It is drizzling, and a genuinely sad Dora notes to one, a roofer, “See, even the skies are crying!” The unexpected, sharp reply is: “He should have died sooner!” This illustrates in a small way the sharp contrast in outlooks of the two cultures sharing the village. One is Christian, rural and Republican, the other is Jewish, urban and Democrat. The year-round people and the Jewish hotel owners economically depend on each other, yet are suspicious of each other. They do not mingle except to do business.

Within a couple of years Dora is doing quite well with the rooming house and Hinda decides to get into this business too. With a partner, Hinda purchases the New Brighton Hotel on Union Street. Later she breaks up the partnership and buys a place on Division Street that she names Helen’s Cozy Cottages.

As in New York, when in Sharon Springs Hinda and Dora spend evenings together, talking and playing cards. The evenings are pleasantly cool compared to the often stultifying summer heat of New York City. When Morris, Hinda’s father, is in town, he drops by to see his sister Dora and everyone likes to greet him. Everyone means Louis, three daughters, and a growing number of grandchildren who spend summers at the Brustman House.

Following the 1945 season, some months after the war’s end, Dora and Louis throw a big party to celebrate the safe return of their soldier sons. The party is in the lobby of their apartment house in Brooklyn, where the couple moved the previous year. They invite the extended family, all the boys’ friends, and the entire apartment building.

When the time for remarks comes, Dora gets the attention of the festive crowd, hushes it, and then gives a speech in Yiddish. She tells the assembly how she was constantly worried for her boys. Then she turns to Al and says, emotionally, how he was always in her thoughts as he slogged across Europe fighting the Germans. “Abbie, I was with you in every foxhole. Wherever you were, I was with you.” Al responds, “Yeah, ma? How’d you like the little French babe in that Paris hotel?”

With the boys home there are more marriages: Ida to Max Haber, Al to Edith Wachman (the daughter of the Wellington Hotel owners), and Irving to Blossom Waxman. And more grandchildren: Billy and Larry to Elsie, and Rita to Ida.

Summers are spent in Sharon Springs and winters in New York City. In these first years a huge black cast-iron stove with a broad cooking surface is the focus of the Brustman House kitchen. In the chill of early morning the family warms by its radiant heat, consuming steaming coffee and hot cereal before beginning the day’s work. Wood for the stove is stored in a much-weathered carriage shed out by the brook behind the house, and coal for it is stored in the basement. The grandchildren, particularly Henry S, have the task of fetching wood and coal to feed the stove’s glowing embers.

Besides wood, ice is consumed in goodly quantities. It is delivered in 50 pounds blocks, carried to the ice box by the truck driver, slung over his shoulder in the grip of huge tongs. Produce is sold off the back of a farmer’s pick-up, the house being a stop on his rounds through the village. Soda is delivered too. Dora keeps several cases of Fitzgerald Brothers lemon soda in the storeroom. It is for sale to the guests, but every so often a cool bottle is directed to a thirsty grandchild.

Though originally purchased strictly as a business by a businesswoman, the house begins to transform into something else. It becomes a part of family folklore and legend, the summer refuge from city heat, and a gathering spot for relatives. Even if this old Jewish resort town is a peculiar mix of Marc Chagall and Currier and Ives, it just suits the family fine.

First Photo: 177 Union Street, Sharon Springs. The Brustman House as it looks in 2000, essentially the same as in 1944.
Second Photo: The original Brustman relaxing in front of the Brustman House, 1947.

 Continue to Part Eleven

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