Searching for Amenia, New York’s Lost Jewish Vacationland
One spring day in 1927, two New York City real estate speculators drove upstate to Dutchess County with a couple of girls and had a bit to drink.
Before they got home again, they had bought half of Amenia, an old upstate mining hamlet ringed with dairy farms. By summer, they were selling bungalows on the shores of a mill pond they had renamed Lake Amenia. They hired a retired cycling superstar to organize games and built a dancehall to attract flappers.
It didn’t last. Today, there’s nothing left, not even the lake itself. This past summer, I went upstate to find out where it all went.
I first learned that Lake Amenia was missing from a local taxi driver who raised miniature goats. This was a few years ago, but I remember wanting to hear more about the lake and her getting stuck on the goats.
Amenia is a blip on Route 22 a few miles past the end of Metro-North’s Harlem Line. Once it was full of ore mines and blast furnaces. Today it has too many antique shops.
I had always had a bad feeling about Amenia. In elementary school I played youth baseball a few miles up the road in Millerton. We hated the Amenia team: Their roster was stuffed with ringers and their coach was a jerk. The coach’s sons, who looked about a half a decade older than the rest of us, were Amenia’s stars. Their dad told them he would pay 10 bucks for a home run as they walked to bat.
One afternoon on the Amenia diamond, one of those sons smacked a ball over second base. I had been exiled in center field in an effort to minimize the damage I could cause. My dad swears the Amenia kid’s ball was on its way over the fence. I remember sticking my hand in the ball’s direction for show, not imagining I’d make the catch.
I’m not a guy with a long record of athletic glory, so I’ve held tight to that moment when the ball fell into my glove. I was surprised, and my teammates were surprised, and the Millerton parents in the bleachers went crazy. This was almost 20 years ago, but I still tell the story sometimes. I recognize that that’s a little sad.
Listening to the taxi-driving goat enthusiast, I wondered if I had Amenia wrong. Maybe there was more to this town than a mean coach. How does a lake just disappear, anyhow? Where does it go? And what happens to a town after it’s gone?
So, this past July, I stood on the ruins of the Lake Amenia dam with the town judge, considering past glory and a vacationland’s demise.
I found Norman Moore at the old elementary school that now serves as Amenia’s town hall. Moore’s chambers and courtroom are former classrooms. The town jail cell was once the nurse’s office; the toilets in the bathrooms are kid-sized. Moore was born in the local hospital, grew up in Amenia, and had a law practice there. Now he runs the historical society and serves as a local justice. His wife Maureen is his clerk.
Moore got into my car in the school parking lot, and we drove down Route 22 and took the turnoff for Lake Amenia Road, which has outlasted the lake it’s named for. We drove past the old Catholic cemetery and down a curved lane that winds around a marsh thick with cattails and willows. We stopped where a wide stream crossed under the road and through the broken masonry of an old dam. A family of ducks paddled out into the stream.
This was it, Moore told me, this was all that remained of Lake Amenia. Moore had brought along an old color photograph of a lake surrounded by red-roofed bungalows. If you looked at the photo and then up at the wetlands you could almost conjure it up again. It would have been nice, though maybe a little tacky.
The developers who built and marketed the Lake Amenia development called it “New York’s Vacationland.” “Probably the happiest days of our lives are those spent on a mountain lake,” one brochure promised.
Their names were Frank and Walter Beekman. They were brothers, and they must have laid out a tremendous amount of money on their upstate gamble. They hired an orchestra that they dressed in white shorts and blazers for their afternoon concerts and sailor suits at night. They built a bathing beach and a boat landing and a stage that floated out on the water, and a two-story wooden gazebo overlooking the lake shore.
At the official opening weekend in July 1927, there were fireworks and an auto polo match. There was also a stunt plane with “Lake Amenia” written on its wings, which crashed into the woods at the end of the weekend, sending the mechanic to the hospital.
The plane’s 500-foot nosedive is a useful image to keep in mind while considering the subsequent history of the development.
Lakes do, sometimes, just disappear.
Some lakes make a habit of disappearing. In Slovenia there’s a famous lake called Cerknica that grows and shrinks unpredictably every year. In Ireland, lakes called turloughs form in the limestone hills, filling and emptying as the tides and the rains pull the water one way or the other.
Even in upstate New York, the lakes and ponds aren’t as static as they look. Amenia and some of the neighboring towns are dotted with flooded ore pits that have only been wet for a century or so.
Still, when Lake Amenia went, it went for good.
Not everyone is nostalgic for the days of sailor suits and floating stages.
“Dogs, Jews and black people were not allowed,” Arnold S. Rothstein, 82, told me when I called him up to ask about the Lake Amenia.
That’s misleading: They didn’t actually exclude dogs. But a fat brochure that the Beekmans printed in the early days of their project boasts of “sensible restrictions” on who could move in.
Rothstein was from Amenia’s other vacationland, a working-class Russian Jewish one that had little to do with Lake Amenia’s faux-rustic bungalows. Today, Rothstein’s memories of the place are locked in a closet at the Amenia Free Library. There, in plastic sleeves, is his extensive collection of color postcards of Amenia’s Jewish boarding houses: The Pine Tree Hotel, just by the train station, its white buildings surrounded by a low row of shrubs; the Roxy Hotel, four stories built into the side of a hill, topped with sharp dormers; the Maple Lodge, looking a little rundown even then.
I found Rothstein’s name on a business card filed with the postcard collection. Amenia’s library is tiny, so archived copies of the local paper are kept in an outbuilding in the yard, and local history books fill a few shelves in a closet. Most of the local materials are about the colonial era, but a friendly librarian pointed me towards Rothstein’s file. I looked through the postcards and gave him a call.
Rothstein’s grandparents owned the Webetuck Hotel, just outside of town in a neighborhood called Leedsville. Rothstein says it was huge, with a dozen cottages plus a main building. It could hold more than a hundred guests at once. One of Rothstein’s great-uncles owned the Maple Lodge; another owned Lakeview House, on a hill above Lake Amenia.
Arnold Rothstein lives in the Bronx, where he retired after a career owning a Manhattan camera store. He visited Amenia two years ago, but has no relatives there anymore.
Hardly any of the families that ran the boarding houses still have connections in Amenia. The only veteran of Amenia’s hospitality industry I could find in the area was Dorothy Osofsky. She lives in Pine Plains, 15 miles away. I went to see her the next morning, hoping she could make Rothstein’s postcards come to life.
Beyond the short burst of publicity during those first two years at Lake Amenia, Frank and Walter Beekman left few traces in the public record. There are no signs of other real estate projects, no mentions in The New York Times, and few in the local upstate papers. Walter’s 1983 obituary says he was a 32nd-degree Mason. Frank also died in the 1980s.
The only other trace of the Beekman brothers is on the personal website of Tony Monaco, an 88-year-old born-again Christian singer.
I called him on the phone and asked how he was. “I’m blessed,” he said.
Monaco has published a series of evangelical jazz albums with names like “Jesus, My Friend” and “Thank God for Jazz.” After dancing on Broadway as a young man, he appeared in a couple of movie musicals in the 1950s. He says he had a drinking problem but was saved, in 1975, by a 17-day vision of dead people walking. He became a born-again Christian, prompting his uncles Frank and Walter Beekman to disown him.
“They were go-getters, ‘we’re going to become millionaires’ guys,” Monaco said. “Frank and Walter would just seize things and make it work.”
Monaco thinks that drinking goes some way to explaining the boom and bust of the Lake Amenia development. “They were alcoholics,” Monaco said. “A lot of what you hear about Frank and Walter had to do with alcoholic craziness. They did things on a whim.”
The stock market collapsed two years after Lake Amenia’s happy opening weekend, erasing tens of billions of dollars of wealth in the space of a couple of days and failing to spare fanciful lake resorts. It’s impossible to know the exact mechanism by which Black Tuesday ruined Lake Amenia, but it’s likely that people stopped buying the bungalows and that the Beekmans had trouble raising the cash to keep the place going. In a 1964 letter to the Harlem Valley Times, a local paper, Frank wrote that the crash forced them to “cease all operations.”
The vision of a slick new vacationland died fast. The buildings stayed, however, and Walter spent the rest of his life living on the shores of the failed lake project, managing the dwindling property. Monaco says Frank moved to Washington, where he opened a photo studio.
After Monaco became religious, when his uncles were already old men, they shut him out. “When I became a born-again Christian in 1975, Frank actually disowned me,” Monaco said. “And Walter, both. When they died I got tsuris, I got nothing, I got bupkis.”
Monaco thinks they took it so hard because they were Jewish.
Well, not quite Jewish. Monaco says that Frank and Walter’s father, Noah Beekman, was born a German Jew. Noah attended a Christian Science church, and his wife, an Irish Catholic, raised Frank and Walter in the Catholic church. Still, Monaco thinks there was some deep Jewishness within the brothers that made them resent his evangelical turn.
“I honestly don’t know,” Monaco said, when asked again why his uncles had been so upset at him for becoming a born-again. “It’s like, you know, once a Jew, always a Jew.”
Dorothy Osofsky met me at the door of her house. A “chai” on her necklace shared space with a little heart. Pine Plains is even more rural than Amenia, but she’s surrounded by family here: A son lives nearby, and a grandson, and some great-grandchildren. Her brother-in-law’s sons have their own farm up the road — their company, Ronnybrook, is famous for still selling milk in glass bottles.
When Osofsky first came to Amenia in the summer of 1945, the place was a Jewish vacation paradise: Miami Beach without the sharks, the Catskills without the traffic, Havana without the mob.
There were five Jewish boarding houses in town then, plus a movie theater and a synagogue. Cole Porter hung out at the Jewish-owned restaurant down the road. There were old ore ponds up in the hills, and, a few miles away, the ruins of massive stone charcoal kilns that had once burned their way through the old forests.
Osofsky was 15 years old that first summer. Her grandmother had been hired for the summer as a cook at the Grand House Hotel, a Jewish boarding house in the center of town. Osofsky came along as baggage. To her, Amenia felt like the middle of nowhere. Osofsky was from Bensonhurst, a neighborhood on the edge of Brooklyn full of immigrant Jews and Italians. Amenia was full of cows and tourists.
‘Dogs, Jews and black people were not allowed.’
The locals called the Grand House “the Gut.” It had a main building and three little outlying cottages, plus an old-fashioned swimming pool that looked like a small pond. The Gut was owned by a family of Russian Jewish farmers; Osofsky married their youngest son, Sidney, in June of 1948. The couple had no time for a honeymoon — the next weekend was the 4th of July, and they had to rush up to Amenia to open the hotel.
There is an Osofsky family tree hanging on Dorothy Osofsky’s living room wall. At the center is Nathan, the patriarch, who moved from Russia in 1910 and bought a farm in a town called Ellsworth, just across the border in Connecticut, with a cheap loan from the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society. Sitting at her kitchen table, looking out the glass doors at the overgrown pasture, Osofsky pieced together the story of the family, with the help of a fat folder stuffed with articles and essays and notes.
There was no high school in Ellsworth, Osofsky told me, and Sharon, the nearest town, was unfriendly to Jews. So, when Nathan’s oldest daughter Frieda entered ninth grade, he had to send her 10 miles down the road to Amenia.
Frieda stayed during the week with a black family in Amenia, apparently the only family in town that would take her. Nathan would ride in his horse and cart each Friday to pick her up and take her home for Shabbat. It was a shlep, and in 1918, with more kids entering high school, Nathan sold the place in Ellsworth to another Jewish family and moved to Amenia, where he bought land off Main Street.
Nathan was among the first, but more Jews followed. They built the synagogue in 1929. Frieda and her husband Al opened a general store. Kosher meat came from a deli in Poughkeepsie called Rosen’s or, in a pinch, from Benny Shoifet, the local shokhet. Eggs came from the farmers up in Pine Plains.
The Osofskys seem to have slipped into the hospitality business by accident. Dorothy Osofsky said it began when her mother-in-law, Rebecca, started serving kosher Sunday dinners in the family’s dining room to Jews who drove in from Poughkeepsie. The Gut was never a fancy place. Working class Russian Jews from the city would pile into the New York Central Railroad’s cheap seats and head to Amenia to get away for the summer, cramming huge families into the rented cottages. Room and board at most of the Jewish places in town ran $12 per person per week in the 1920s.
The Gut scaled down during World War II, and Sidney’s mother shut the kitchen and had the guests cook for themselves. When Sidney came back from the army, he and a buddy from town decided to get the place going again. Things went well, at first. The boarding houses were full, the restaurants were busy. Amenia was hopping.
Then it slowed, and it stopped, and all the guests went home.
The Sensible Restrictions
If their father’s Jewish roots made Frank and Walter Beekman resent their nephew for becoming evangelical, it didn’t stop them from keeping Jews out of Lake Amenia.
The Beekmans advertised Lake Amenia’s segregation as a selling point. A Lake Amenia brochure preserved by Amenia’s historical society includes a page, decorated with a photo of two men fishing, that presents it as possessing rustic charm: “Thanks to sensible restrictions, there is the comforting thought that changing conditions will not compel you to seek a suitable environment in another neighborhood, as happens so very often in the city.”
The specific nature of the restrictions — which races and religions were allowed to buy, which weren’t — are not spelled out in the brochure, but Arnold Rothstein said that Jews were not welcome at Lake Amenia, and local historian Ann Linden said that Arnold Rothstein’s cousin Leon Rothstein had told her the same thing.
Still, Monaco insists that the Beekman brothers identified as Jews. So why did two sort-of-Jews create a vacation paradise in the mountains that barred Jews?
Even if the Beekmans identified as Jews, they were German Jews, not Russians like the Osofskys and the Rothsteins. German Jews looked down on the more recent Eastern European arrivals, drawing sharp lines of race and class. According to Deborah Dash Moore, a history professor at the University of Michigan and the director of the school’s Frankel Center for Jewish Studies, it’s likely that the slur “kike” was first used by German Jews as a derogatory way to describe Eastern European Jews.
“It’s not unlikely that the Jews these developers sought to exclude were the ones not considered ‘white,’ or acceptable,” Moore wrote in an email.
Amenia’s Russian Jews, the boarding-house owners and their guests, don’t seem to have minded much. Dorothy Osofsky, who didn’t arrive in town until nearly two decades after the development went bust, doesn’t even know what her in-laws thought of the Beekmans. She said that a few of her sisters-in-law married Jewish men who had come up to work at the development, but beyond that, Lake Amenia never meant much to her. The Osofskys, apparently, held no grudge.
“By the time I came, there wasn’t much there,” she said.
Leon Rothstein grew up at the Lakeview House. He died in 1996, but he was close friends with Linden, the local historian, who remembers his stories well. The Lakeview House was one of the bigger Jewish boarding houses, with its own pool and tennis court and dancehall. Young Leon had the run of the place in the 1940s. “He was the kid who rode with his dad in the woodie station wagon to get the customers [at the train],” Linden said. “He was the kid who twisted the orange juice in the morning; he was the kid who lost his room if it was too crowded.”
Leon Rothstein would take Lakeview guests down to Lake Amenia to swim. By then, the Beekman development on the lake was more or less a memory. A public notice of land being sold for unpaid taxes printed in the Harlem Valley Times in 1941 listed for sale dozens of acres owned by the Beekmans, including the famous dance pavilion.
But though the fireworks displays were decades gone, certain relics remained, among them the two-story gazebo by the lake. Leon Rothstein made good use of it.
“Leon said they had those little towers with straw roofs — there was one of them that was particularly noted to be the best place to make out with your girlfriend,” Linden said. “Leon was really acquainted with that little gazebo.”
Yet while the boarding-house Jews outlasted the Beekmans, they, too, were on their way out.
“I got married in ’48, and then my husband said, enough of this,” Dorothy Osofsky said. “By then, he had had enough.”
They bought their farm in Pine Plains in 1951 and never looked back. The Osofskys weren’t the only ones.
Business was slowing at the boarding houses. Some locals blame the Catskills. They say that the rise of the big resort hotels there in the postwar years drew Jews away from lower-budget places like Amenia. That explanation doesn’t quite hold water — it’s not as though the Jewish Catskills suddenly appeared in the 1950s.
More likely, the Jewish families just moved on. Leon Rothstein became a CPA, though he stayed in town. Arnold Rothstein says that the Webetuck shut down in the early 1950s after his grandfather died.
“My grandmother wouldn’t run it herself,” he said. “And that was about it.”
After we left the dam, the judge directed me the rest of the way down Lake Amenia Road towards its intersection with Route 44. On the left, the stone chimneys on the old bungalows gave them away as Beekman constructions. To the right, the dense marsh blocked the light.
We pulled into a baseball field. A sign at the entrance called it Beekman Park. I took in the site of my long-ago glory. I recognized the outfield scoreboard and the red bleachers.
Walter Beekman sold a piece of land that had once formed the bank of Lake Amenia in the 1970s for a buck. They had named it after him and, in the 1980s, built baseball diamonds there. A decade later, I caught a fly ball.
My moment of glory in Amenia came at the expense of Amenia’s own. By the time the lake disappeared, Amenia had already transformed. The center of gravity in town shifted away in the direction of the Wassaic State School, a massive state-run asylum just outside town that housed more than 5,000 patients at its peak and employed just about everyone. The town still attracted travelers, but of a different sort: Located just miles from the Connecticut border, Amenia’s bars drew drinkers seeking to take advantage of New York State’s lower drinking age. Passenger train service at the Amenia station petered out, then stopped altogether. Amenia got tough.
The Dam Keeper
The disappearance of Lake Amenia isn’t just the Dam Keeper’s fault, though it’s hard to know who else to blame. His name seems to be lost to history. Even Linden, who takes care of the archives at the historical society, doesn’t know who he was. Norman Moore, the judge, may know, but he’s not saying.
The Dam Keeper took care of the dam that kept Lake Amenia from emptying itself into the Tenmile River. It was his duty, when Hurricane Diane swept up from North Carolina in August of 1955, to ease pressure on that dam as the rain fell by opening the sluice and letting some of the water through.
Diane had mostly blown itself out by the time it rolled off the end of Long Island on August 18, but torrential rains still flooded upstate New York and nearby Connecticut, closing down train tracks and highways. The town of Winsted, 26 miles to the east of Amenia, was totally washed away.
Moore, the judge, remembers the day. “It was like we were in a boat,” he said.
The Dam Keeper, according to local legend, got drunk in the rain. When he stumbled out to do his duty in the midst of the storm, his key slipped from his grip and fell into the rising waters. Without the key, there was apparently no way to get the sluice open. So, early in the morning of August 19, the lake found its own way through the dam, bursting into the Tenmile River and on to Wassaic, submerging the town.
A picture in the next week’s issue of the Harlem Valley Times showed a Wassaic house submerged up to the windows. A week after that, the same paper ran a picture of the hole where the dam had once been, a man standing on the edge and peering down at the ruined stone.
“It’s difficult to find the heart to write any sort of piece of interest to anyone this week,” wrote Judson Phillips in the paper’s local gossip column. “You cannot drive five miles from any central point in Amenia or Sharon without seeing the results of the terrible backlash of flood waters.”
It wasn’t just the dam that had gone. Lake Amenia had flushed itself through Wassaic and into the Housatonic River, and it wasn’t coming back. Just days after the storm, town officials told the Harlem Valley Times that people in town didn’t want to rebuild the dam and risk having it burst all over again.
Decades later, in the 1964 letter to the Harlem Valley Times, Frank Beekman blamed the final collapse of whatever was left of his project after the Depression on the blowout of the dam. “It was the straw that broke the bank,” he wrote, mixing metaphors like paint.
Since the flood, there aren’t many traces left of old Amenia. The town has settled down a bit. Amenia doesn’t have any bars anymore. It also doesn’t have many jobs — the State School is closed, and the dairy farms are closing. The town’s main intersection was redesigned to allow traffic on Route 22 to pass by faster, which seems to have depressed the main drag. The supermarket strip mall likely hasn’t helped, either.
All that the Jewish families left behind, meanwhile, is Congregation Beth David, the red brick synagogue at the edge of town. Once an Orthodox congregation, Beth David is now Reform, with a part-time retired rabbi and a membership of about 41, many of them weekenders who drive in from Sharon, which doesn’t mind Jews so much anymore. The sanctuary is elegant, if tiny, but the building needs hundreds of thousands of dollars of work: Paint is peeling on the outside, the electric and HVAC systems need to be revamped. The synagogue is shut up during the week, and it’s stuffy and a little smelly inside. In July, there was a box of matzo sitting on a counter in the synagogue kitchen.
Dorothy Osofsky still belongs, though she doesn’t go much anymore. She still remembers how it used to be. “It’s unfortunate, because the Jews dwindled out,” she said. “It was nice. It was a way of life.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He has written recently about his quest to claim Spanish citizenship, his great-grandfather the Potato King, and Daniel Pinkwater. You can reach him at [email protected], or on Twitter at @joshnathankazis