Mont Vernon, N.H. — One could say it was bacteria that caused Jew Pond to emerge from the miasma of history.
In the summer of 2010, an algae bloom forced the closure of a small swampy pond near the center of Mont Vernon, a storybook New Hampshire town of 2,400 people. And so it was that “Jew Pond” was splashed across the headlines of the local papers.
The name wasn’t news to longtime residents; that’s what they had always called the pond. As best as anyone could remember, it was because a couple of Jews had briefly owned a nearby hotel back in the 1920s.
Newer residents, including a Jewish couple living in town, were aghast at what they considered a slur. A well-meaning town health officer petitioned authorities to change the name.
But the town’s Yankee establishment dug in its heels, insisting that the name is part of its heritage. Now the issue is on the agenda of a March 13 town meeting.
There’s probably no one in Mont Vernon with a more visceral reaction to the Jew Pond controversy than Jill and Frank Weber, one of the few Jewish families in the area.
The Webers, who are originally from New York, have lived in the area for nearly 40 years since buying a ramshackle house for $12,000. (“We were ripped off,” Frank Weber exclaimed.) They say they love the community spirit even though they know they will always be considered outsiders.
“I feel so fortunate for having found my roots here,” said Frank Weber, a burly man whose father was killed by the Nazis.
Still, the Jew Pond name struck a nerve, and the Webers are determined to speak out against it at the upcoming meeting.
“I don’t care if they continue to call it Jew Pond. By all means, make yourself happy,” Frank Weber said. “I just want the damn name changed. It shouldn’t be on any maps.”
The Jewish Federation of New Hampshire and the state’s influential Roman Catholic bishop have also stepped into the fray, urging the town to reject the name.
“You just absolutely know it’s meant to convey some measure of contempt,” Bishop Peter Libasci wrote in an editorial in a local paper.
Roberta Wilkins, a member of the town historical society, acknowledged that the Jew Pond name was probably an “insult.” But like many of the town’s old-timers, she regards the name as innocuous and as an echo of the town’s heritage.
“It’s part of our history. I think we should keep it,” Wilkins said, echoing the consensus of town’s selectmen.
If nothing else, the Jew Pond controversy has shed light on an intriguing local episode that probably would otherwise have been lost to history.
In 1927, brothers Nyman and Myer Kolodny, two young Jewish attorneys from Boston, partnered with a Jewish hotel operator in Maine to buy The Grand, a resort hotel perched on a bluff overlooking Mont Vernon and the surrounding hills. It was one of several resorts in the area that catered to city folks seeking to escape the summer heat.
Following the custom at many hotels of the era, The Grand barred Jews. “Hebrew patronage not desired,” it wrote in a brochure. David Brooks, who is a member of the Mont Vernon historical society as well as a reporter for the Nashua Telegraph newspaper, unearthed the hotel’s history.
When the Kolodnys bought the place, they may have hoped to attract a new Jewish clientele. It seems likely that locals would have looked askance at some of the changes at the resort. Not only did the new owners rename the hotel the Mont Vernon Country Club, they also dubbed a lowly reservoir on the property “Lake Serene.”
“They dredged up the pond,” said Wilkins, who was married to the grandson of the hotel’s original owner.
Whatever the Kolodnys’ intentions were, the venture did not last long. They sold the hotel back to its original owner in 1929, and a year later it burned down.
Once the place was gone, the locals apparently took license to rename the reservoir after its short-lived owners.
Nyman Kolodny’s daughter, Phyllis Brody, was born after her father owned the hotel, but she does recall him talking much about it.
“I think they had a lot fun there,” she recalled. “My father had a roadster, and he took my mother up.”
For his part, Brooks says a range of motives could be ascribed to the naming of the pond, from affection to anti-Semitism. But “Jew Pond” certainly reflects a deep-seated mistrust of outsiders.
It was about “a small New Hampshire town’s annoyance at people from the outside trying to change things,” he said.
Ted Siefer is a journalist in New Hampshire. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org