"Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness." Letter from Thomas Jefferson to George Washington
Henry, Alice and Ken Walter's Ken Haven Farm, Loch Sheldrake I enjoy driving the back roads of Sullivan County. I often came upon empty wooden buildings that I knew were "chicken" coops as well as an unusual number of vacant low 2-story cinder block or metal buildings that looked industrial. It would take several years before I understood the purpose and importance of these structures.
I moved to Mountaindale, a small hamlet in Sullivan County, N.Y. in 2005, after spending 35 years in New York City. Having lived only in the large urban cities of Chicago and New York City, this area was visually fascinating in its beauty and even its decay. Sullivan County is an economically depressed county, filled with the ruins of hotels, bungalow colonies and shuttered storefronts. I enjoyed delving into local history and became aware of the rich past of the resort business, its rise and sadly, its decline. Searching historical records, there was little photo documentation of the thousands of hotels and bungalows, other than post cards. Several websites touch on this history. Phil Brown, a professor at Brown University created The Catskills Institute, www.catskills.brown.edu, to collect ephemera and create lists of all the hotels and bungalow colonies extent during the "Borscht Belt's" heyday. Barry Lewis, a journalist for the Sullivan County Times Herald-Record created www.classiccatskills.com, to share memories for the many who experienced the Catskills in its glory. I decided to photograph what remained and created www.vanishingcatskills.us, to at least document the ruins, leaving it to the viewer to imagine the long lost splendor.
Len Levy feeding a flock of starter pullets, Ferndale, NY, 1944 Ken Schmitt, my landlord, is both a member of the O&W Railroad Historical Society and the "unofficial" town historian. He discussed his personal history growing up in Mountaindale, having moved to the area in 1958. His father, Ray Schmitt, started Ramapo Eggs, an egg distribution company. He bought eggs from local egg farms, then washed, candled, graded and packed the eggs. He then delivered them to assorted stores and diners in New York City, Rockland, Westchester and Bergen County. When Ken was young, he and his siblings worked in the business and eventually Ken began delivering eggs to NYC. After a period of years Ken oversaw and ran Ramapo Eggs from 1972 until 1980 when the deteriorating economic conditions and competitive pressures on egg farmers in Sullivan County became overwhelming. Ramapo Eggs closed as well as the majority of egg farms.
The barely remembered history of egg farms as well as dairy farms was a significant part of the economic strength of Sullivan County. Post World War II, there were over 400 egg farms in Sullivan County, NY. The State of New York was the third largest producer of eggs in the United States with Sullivan County as the largest producer. Today only 2 egg farms remain along with 27 dairy farms. (In 1968, there were 250 dairy farms.) This decline in agricultural production has contributed to the economic woes of Sullivan County.
A good number of egg farmers were also Jewish. Some had begun in the 20's and some after WW II. Many egg farms existed in conjunction with a "kuchalein" or bungalow colony. Ken introduced me to Bobby & Phil Kaplan, only 5 miles from Mountaindale in Glen Wild. Bobby and Phil are 3rd generation Jewish egg farmers who operate K-Brand Eggs, started by their father, Meyer Kaplan. They raise layers as well as package and sell eggs to a wholesale market. In the 1980's, K-Brand Eggs was a state of the art egg farm with over 250,000 layers. Today given the stiff competition from larger egg farms in the South and Midwest, their operation is just surviving. (In March, 2013 due to personal health issues, Bobby and Phil Kaplan were forced to close K-Brand.)
Bobby and Phil were also the remaining board members of Inter-County Farmers Feed Co-operative located in nearby Woodridge. Inter-County was created by Jewish egg farmers, mostly located in the eastern part of Sullivan County, in the late 40's to supply feed for themselves At its peak it had more than 350 members. By the 70's, as the major large farms closed, Inter-County was sold to AgWay, who ultimately shut the plant in 1982. The Inter-County story is closely interwoven with the history of egg farms, since its board and membership were also the major egg farmers in Sullivan County.1
This web site was created to informally document the history of egg farms in Sullivan County. A "Portfolio" section documents remaining chicken coops and "Farms" is a database of lost locations along with the original farmer's name. "Life" presents organized clips of video interviews from the many people who participated. Bobby & Phil Kaplan were instrumental in assisting with the history of Inter-County Feed Coop and its members, discussing their own personal history as well as the process of egg farming. Ken Schmitt thoughtfully explained the business of wholesale egg "brokering." They were my first interviews, discussing their own personal history as well as describing the process of egg farming. Harold Ciccio drew maps of his feed delivery routes for Inter-County, identifying the locations of many lost farms and farmers. Gerald Skoda graciously supplied a structural history of egg farming in the county. Alan Levine provided insightful information about the economics of egg farming. Ken Walter offered many local historical insights. Norm Hecht explained the intertwined history of hatcheries and egg farms. Max Dwosh was valuable describing the post-war years of egg farms. Seymour Zuchrow explained the intricate workings of an egg breaking plant and failure of Mountain Pride. I would also like to thank the many other individuals who gave generously of their time in interviews, discussing their own personal stories in connection with the rise and decline of egg farming. Everyone who was interviewed appears in the "People" section.
"The Egg basket of New York State, Inter County Farmers Co-operative Assn. Inc." Unknown photographer, Rte. 17, Middletown, 1959, Collection of the American Jewish Historical Society
"Egg grading machine." Spring Hills Farm, Cockeysville, Maryland, July 22, 1935, The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore, Maryland
1Jewish Farmers of the Catskills: A Century of Survival by Abraham D. Lavender and Clarence B. Steinberg is a wonderful history, which also includes personal stories of many individuals who farmed in the area.
This web site is an ongoing project. I hope to interview more individuals associated with egg farming and Inter-County. Any help or information locating former farmers or identifying farm locations would be appreciated.