Tag Archives: Orange County

All are Welcome Where They Once Were Not

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.

One of co-founders of Greenwood Forest Farms, Arthur Lewis Comither. (Photo Credit – ProQuest Historical Newspapers)

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. 

An account of the fire that destroyed the Farm House at Greenwood Forest Farm appeared in the New York Amsterdam News on Aug. 14, 1971. (Photo credit – ProQuest Historical Newspapers)

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


Read this 2019 article and 2005 article from the Times Herald-Record newspaper.

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:

Juneteenth — Coming to terms with Freedom

“Grand Old Fort: But Alas Manned by Colored Troops…” Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Ontario 

Do You Know Sojourner Truth?

Reviving a Dutch Holiday with African Flavor 

A Legacy of Strength: Civilian Conservation Corps

John Brown Farm: Growing Freedom in Adirondack Wilderness


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.

Sources

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.

A Legacy of Strength

During the 1930s when racial segregation and Jim Crow held sway over much of America, there was a Depression-era federal public works unit where African-Americans, not whites, were in command. And it was here in New York State Parks.

To combat rampant unemployment among young men, President Franklin Roosevelt had created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933 to perform public works projects.  

The struggles of the 1930’s reached beyond the economic depression. Major environmental issues plagued the nation as well.  The impact of poor farming practices, deforestation, and destructive pests were just a few of the things destroying thousands of acres of usable land. Across the nation, the CCC immediately put its companies to work solving these two major crises at once.

While discrimination based on ‘race, color, or creed,’ was against Roosevelt’s founding policy, that was to exist almost only on paper. When the first CCC companies formed, racial segregation was part of the process.  After two years of operation, this practice became official policy in 1935 when CCC Director Robert Fechner insisted on complete segregation of whites and colored enrollees.  The only exception allowed was if a company was formed in an area of the country with a small African American population.

Enrollees from big cities and small towns all over New York found themselves at Camp Dix, New Jersey, with thousands of other men who were desperate for work.  Upon arrival, men were assigned to a 200-man company, although many colored companies numbered less than 100. Each company was given a number, and a lowercase ‘c’ was added for ‘Colored’ where needed. And policy dictated that those in charge of all companies were white Army officers.

Men from New York quickly filled slots in several ‘Colored’ companies forming at Camp Dix. As these companies moved around the country, they were trained on the job by local professionals who were also white.  Pressure from Congress, the National Urban League, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began immediately for African American officers and professionals to work with African American companies, but it would be several years before things changed.


Click on this slideshow of the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps “Colored” companies from New York State.


By the fall of 1933, colored companies from Fort Dix including 246-c, 247-c, and 1245-c were formed and immediately sent out.  Company 246-c was shipped by train to Chelan, Washington State, to fight fast-moving forest fires. Their next mission took them across the country to Yorktown, Virginia, to excavate colonial buildings and reconstruct two historic sites — the Moore House and the White Swan Tavern, both of which still stand today.

From Virginia, the men of 246-c headed back to New York to the Orange County town of Wawayanda to begin working on the Wallkill Flood Control Project, a ten-mile-long canal designed to change the direction of the river and stem seasonal flooding.

Company 247-c headed to Idaho to build roads and fire trails and plant hundreds of trees in the Lake Pend Oreille Forest. They later went south to work as archaeologists at the Yorktown Battlefields collecting pottery chards and other bits before returning to New York. Company 1287-c fought forest fires in Idaho, built roads in Virginia, then moved into New York, joining the other companies for the Wallkill project.

Company 1245-c headed out in 1934 to create fire breaks, build truck trails, plant trees and dig wells before heading to the Wallkill. Company 3210-c and 3211-c, formed in 1935, went directly to the Wallkill project, with 3211-c later heading a few miles north to build roads.

Health care and food services were year-round jobs as well with the CCC, and often these were the first positions filled by young African American men. During the early years of the program, African Americans could be found as cooks and health orderlies but rarely as the head chef, doctor, or dentist.

Initially, trained African American officers in the U.S. Reserved Army were totally ignored, then slowly as more pressure from members of Congress and other groups continued, they began filling positions as medical officers, working alongside African American orderlies and chaplains. By 1936, such outside pressure forced Fechner to set-up a “demonstration camp” in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where a Colored company would be managed by African American commanding officers. If the experiment worked, other companies could be switched over.

While the Gettysburg effort was successful, only one other CCC company ever saw the change to Colored officers _  1252-c in New York State. Initially stationed at the Newtown Battlefield Reservation outside of Elmira, Chemung County starting in 1935, this company had started with white officers like all the rest. But in June 1939, colored officers were quietly brought in to run the unit.

The work of the men of Company 1251-c is still visible at Newtown Battlefield State Park, where they built the picnic pavilion and concession stand, sports fields, stone tables, and wooden bridges, as well as planted trees and plants, and added or graded topsoil.

A new CCC enrollee arriving at Newtown Battlefield Reservation.
At work at the battlefield.
The men of Company 1251-c at Newtown Battlefield Reservation with their officers, seated in the center of the front row.
Pavilion at Newtown Battlefield State Park built by the men of Company 1251-c.

Such work was only part of an average day for company members. Improving the education of enrollees was also part of the CCC’s mission. Civilian Educational Advisors (CEA) were local educators who were stationed at the various sites.

Classes were held regularly and for many of the colored companies stationed in New York the classes were taught by African American men. Reading and writing went hand in hand with Spanish, French, Mathematics, and Negro History. Recreational pursuits included bands, sports teams, and company newsletters.

Although hugely successful, the CCC came to an end in 1942 as the nation joined the Second World War. By then, more than two million men had gone into the program. Read more about New York’s history in the program in the Parks Blog post below…


Civilian Conservation Corps in New York State Parks

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) became president in 1933, the entire nation was in a state of turmoil never seen before or since. It was the height of the Great Depression: unemployment was at 25%, croplands were failing, and millions of families were going hungry. As governor of New York State, FDR had implemented the … Continue reading Civilian Conservation Corps in New York State Parks


Even in the face of economic hardship and ecological stress, racism and segregation had dogged the program each step of the way. CCC Director Robert Fechner’s insistence on racial inequality plagued the CCC in spite of constant pressure from the White House, Congress, and other groups striving to create a more equitable environment in the country.

The work done by the men in New York’s colored companies of the CCC continues to enrich the lives of New Yorkers everyday. Theirs is a legacy of strength we can all draw from.


Cover Shot: Company 246-c. All photographs from state Bureau of Historic Sites

Post by Lavada Nahon, Interpreter of African American History, state Bureau of Historic Sites


At Gilbert Lake State Park,  Otsego County, other companies of the CCC constructed cabins, trails, roads, dams, and erosion control structures between 1933 and 1941. The park is also home to the New York State Civilian Conservation Corps Museum, which displays photographs and artifacts from the days of the CCC.

A 1935 poster for the Civilian Conservation Corps. (Photo Credit- Wikipedia Commons)