Vacationing in New York has not always been easy for African Americans. For most of the 20th century cultural segregation was the norm. While Jim Crow laws in Southern states were explicit, here in New York there also were known rules of discriminatory racial separation in accommodations that could make finding a cool place on hot summer days challenging.
About an hour’s drive north of New York City, the popular mountain resort area of Greenwood Lake in Orange County near the border with New Jersey dated to the 1870s and for years had been off-limits to Blacks, Jews, and Italians. But in 1919, a change happened. Wanting to relax in this beautiful mountain setting and enjoy themselves without racial hassles, a group of prominent African American families, spearheaded by nine members of the Carlton Street YMCA in Brooklyn joined together to create the first African American vacation resort in the New York State.
Sterling Forest Farms Incorporated purchased 143 acres of land high in the mountains surrounding Greenwood Lake and named it Greenwood Forest Farms. The ‘Colony’ as it came to be known was to become the summer place to be for African Americans well into the 1960s.
By the mid-1930s, Greenwood Forest Farms was well on its way to becoming the place to be seen during the summer months. A July 1938 headline in the Black-owned New York Amsterdam News boasted “Greenwood Lake May Become East’s Most Fashionable Summer Colony.” A full-page story covered details of the site’s founding, and reporter Thelma Berlack-Boozer was given tours of several cottages, gardens, and all the amenities. At the time there were twenty-eight cottages set in beautifully landscaped gardens with thirty-five other lots in development. The writer described the wonderful natural forest surrounding the location, the luxurious summer furnishings on expansive porches and lovely interiors, the corporation’s plans, and how those who happened to not own cottages still could enjoy time there.
The corporation built a club house called the ‘Farm House’ where vacationers could enjoy live music, dancing, and a restaurant. For those who did not own a cottage, the Farm House was one of three locations where vacationists could rent rooms. The other two were private cottages which rented bedrooms during the summer, with one of those, the Justice House, opened during the winter for those interested in hunting. An August 1941 ad offered lodging at the Farm House for $15 per week or $4 for the weekend, with a car shuttle leaving from Harlem on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays to make traveling upstate easy. The plan was completely upscale, to the point that in the 1940s the colony generated its own electricity. When completed the Colony had a man-made lake, tennis, and hand-ball courts, and a nursey school for everyone’s use.
New York’s Black elite both owned the properties and visited their friends. Luminaries like Cecil McPherson (Cecil Mack) the famous lyricist and music publishing magnate, and his wife Dr. Gertrude Curtis, New York’s first African American woman dentist owned a cottage there. The poet Langston Hughes was among several literary figures who summered there with friends. Civil rights giants James Farmer, Harold W. Cruse, and Robert J. Elzy, the head of Brooklyn’s Urban League were among the property owners and guests.
If people wanted to know where to find the cream of the crop during the warmer months, society columns in the New York Amsterdam News kept people up to date. In 1933 the paper’s Brooklyn Society column informed all that the Elzys could be found at their cottage ‘Rob-Lou,’ and that Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Webster, and their weekend guests from Baltimore motored up to the Greenwood Forest Farm House on Sunday. Mrs. Willard J. Price and her daughters spent the week as guests of Mrs. Walter Taylor of Greenwood. The Jamaica News and Social Briefs shared that Mrs. Gordon Jones and her daughter, were at Sterling Forest Farm for the summer but had returned to Jamaica.
By the late 1960s as the older generation died, and options for vacation locations expanded for African Americans with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the opening up of public accommodations, fewer people ventured up to Greenwood Forest Farms. In the 1970s the famous Farm House was lost to a mysterious fire, but many families continued to vacation and live there year-round.
In 2007, the Greenwood Forest Farms Association, Inc was created by descendants of original property owners to preserve the legacy of the colony. Although diminished, Greenwood Forest Farms today remains a proud hamlet of the Town of Warwick and has a few multi-generational residents.
Today, New York State Paths through History signs can be found along Nelson Road in the Town of Warwick commemorating Greenwood Forest Farm’s amazing story of resilience and joy. And this historic place is now preserved for the people of New York.
On January 11, 2022, Governor Kathy Hochul announced a 130-acre expansion of Sterling Forest State Park, with a portion of the land belonging to Greenwood Forest Farms. Now with the designation of this land as a State Park, awareness of the legacy of the area will grow.
As State Parks celebrates Black History Month, we are reminded that this property tells the story of a time when racial segregation in the North was found around Greenwood Lake. It reflects part of a long journey to today, when State Parks is committed to the message that “All Are Welcome Here.”
Cover Shot – Historic marker for Greenwood Forest Farms (Photo credit – Woodham, Rebecca. “”The Colony” Historical Marker (Greenwood Forest Farms).” Clio: Your Guide to History. December 27, 2017. Accessed Jan. 20, 2022. https://theclio.com/entry/53333)
Post by Lavada Nahon, Interpreter of African American History, Bureau of Historic Sites, NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
Learn More About Greenwood Forest Farms
Watch this accompanying video by the Times Herald-Record.
Read this 2005 article from the Warwick Historical Papers newsletter.
Learn about upcoming Parks programming on Black History Month. Events include the lighting of Niagara Falls red, green, and black to honor Black History Month on February 13th. The colors will be displayed every 15 minutes hourly between 6 and 11 p.m.
Learn more about Black history in New York State in previous posts on the the NYS Parks Blog:
About Sterling Forest State Park
Established in 1998, Sterling Forest State Park covers nearly 22,000 acres of nearly pristine natural refuge amidst of one of the nation’s most densely populated areas, a remarkable piece of woodland, a watershed for millions, and a tremendous outdoor recreation area. This unbroken deep-forest habitat is important for the survival of many resident and migratory species, including black bear, a variety of hawks and songbirds and many rare invertebrates and plants. Hunting, fishing and hiking opportunities are available.
The park’s Senator Frank R. Lautenberg Visitor Center overlooks the nine-mile long Sterling Lake and features exhibits about the local environment as well as an auditorium for related presentations.
The park has more than 80 miles of hiking trails, including a portion of the Appalachian Trail. It offers opportunities for horseback riding (permit required), hunting (permit required), fishing, biking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and ice fishing.
The park also is part of the Sterling Forest Bird Conservation Area, and includes such species as Peregrine Falcon (endangered), Pied-billed Grebe (threatened), Least Bittern (threatened), American Bittern (special concern), Osprey (special concern), Sharp-shinned Hawk (special concern), Cooper’s Hawk (special concern) Northern Goshawk (special concern), Red-shouldered Hawk (special concern), Common Nighthawk (special concern), Whip-poor-will (special concern), Red-headed Woodpecker (special concern), Horned Lark (special concern), Golden-winged Warbler (special concern), Cerulean Warbler (special concern), and Yellow-breasted Chat (special concern). Numerous other species contribute to the diversity of birds within the BCA including Broad-winged Hawk, Acadian Flycatcher, Least Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Brown Creeper, Winter Wren, Hermit Thrush, Worm-eating Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Pine Warbler, Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Hooded Warbler, Canada Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Orchard Oriole, and Purple Finch.
Greenwood Lake May Become East’s Most Fashionable Summer Colony, Thelma Berlack-Boozer, The New York Amsterdam News, July 23, 1938, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Amsterdam News, pg. 10.
Brooklyn Society, Elzys ‘Rob-Lou,’ The New York Amsterdam News, September 6, 1933; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Amsterdam News, page 11.
Brooklyn Society, Mr. & Mrs. Webster, The New York Amsterdam News, July 12, 1933; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Amsterdam News, page 11.
Jamaica News and Social Briefs, The New York Amsterdam News, July 23, 1928; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Amsterdam News, page 9.