Sullivan County Historical Society History Maker Award 2008
The Kutsher Family
It has become commonplace to read in a newspaper that a Sullivan County resident has recently observed his or her 100th birthday. However, such longevity is not common among the local hotels. In fact, when in 2007 the Kutsher’s Country Club celebrated its 100th birthday, it was the only survivor of the many famous resorts which at one time formed the Golden Age of the Catskill hotels. Over a full century, three generations of Kutshers managed to survive two world wars, a great depression, recessions and the advent of inexpensive air travel, air conditioning and changing vacation patterns-to name a few of the challenges they have faced. Out of respect for their century-long commitment to the Catskill resort industry, the Kutsher family has been chosen to receive the 2008 History Maker Award.
The origin of the Kutsher’s Country Club parallels that of many establishments in the county. Max and Louis Kutsher had come to America near the turn of the century as emigrants from a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They worked hard in New York City and saved their money, but after a few years they became tired of the bustle and in part for reasons of health decided to return to the rural way of life they were accustomed to. In 1907, drawing on their farming background, they purchased the two hundred acre Hagan Farm outside of Monticello. Unfortunately, they soon realized that making a living from a Sullivan County farm was a difficult undertaking and to augment their income they began taking in friends for the summer months. Even with the summer visitors, the farm continued in operation with horses, dairy cows and of course chickens and the family grew with the addition of Louis’s son, Milton, who was born in 1916.
Today, looking back over the achievements of his parents and grand-parents, Mark Kutsher sums up their approach in a few words, “Hospitality first, then a creative approach to building an image, a willingness to reinvest and a little luck.” Farming did not offer the future they hoped for, so they decided to concentrate on making Hagan’s farm into an attractive setting for people seeking a brief respite during the summer months from the city pressures. However, as the families who came to the Catskills for their summer vacations became more affluent, their expectations rose and hotels in the county were always kept busy keeping up with the expectations. As soon as a lake was replaced with an outdoor pool, vacationers began to assume that next year an indoor pool would be available. As the number of hotels of various sizes climbed towards a thousand, the competition became intense. According to Mark, “The hotels that continued to prosper did so because they were willing to invest in their places.”
Aerial photographs of Kutsher’s show the results of reinvestment. What began in 1907 as a 200 acre farm, whose primary offering was fresh air and wholesome food, became during the following century, a 1,400 acre entertainment complex. A leisurely walk along a country road was no longer sufficient fare. Joining the original facilities were an outdoor and later an indoor swimming pool, a nine hole golf course which eventually became eighteen holes, twelve tennis courts, four indoor racquetball courts, an indoor ice-skating rink, a hair salon and stores able to satisfy many of the needs of vacationers to the Catskills. At night there was entertainment and guests had the opportunity to see a variety of talent including Alan King, Jackie Mason, Red Buttons, as well as the up and coming, at the time, Jerry Seinfeld and Billy Crystal.
Mark observes that “every one of the hotels tended to be a reflection of the ownership of the hotel. For us we were very sports oriented because my father loved sports.” In fact, Milton had played football at Monticello High School and briefly at the University of Pennsylvania. As the hotel expanded, Milton added two children’s camps to the complex. Kutsher’s Sports Academy was designed for youngsters ages 8-16 who came to learn and train in various sports from talented sports staff. The Academy handled over 500 young aspiring athletes preparing for sports programs back home. There was also Camp Anawana, which; provided recreation and the camping experience for some 300 young people. Milton’s interest in athletics led to his becoming a Trustee of the National Basketball Hall of Fame and a founder of the Maurice Stokes Memorial Fund which raises money for needy basketball players. Some of the photographs on display in the hotel include pictures of nationally known professional athletes of the day chatting with the Kutsher family.
In 1934 Kutsher’s had a special summer visitor, Helen Wasser. She was only ten years old, but she quickly became part of the hotel scene. The summer visits became permanent when in 1946 she and Milton were married. She recalls that initially she was a shy person and not at ease in meeting the numbers of people involved in the life of a hotel. Gradually, this changed and today she is routinely perceived as the hotel’s Matriarch. She still remembers one piece of advice she received from her mother when meeting guests. “Reach for their hands. Look in their eyes. People need to know that you are paying attention to them.” Helen reflects that “my job has been to make both guests and staff feel comfortable and welcome in the hotel. This was no easy task when the hotel could have as many as a thousand guests. I use a book I’ve had for fifty years,” she says. “It’s got information about guests and staff: birthdays; anniversaries; what people want. God forbid I should lose the book.”
Mark represents the third generation of the family. He attended the University of Pennsylvania where he met his future wife, Carla. They were married in 1971 and together they have carried on the family’s traditions. As leaders in the community, involved in a variety of civic and charitable organizations for many years, the Kutshers have received numerous honors. Milton served as the president of the Catskill Resort Association and as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Monticello Raceway. Helen is an active alumna of S.U.N.Y. Delhi and was awarded an honorary degree from that institution and she and Mark received honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degrees from St. Francis University in Pennsylvania. In 1988 Milton and Helen were honored by the Anti Defamation League with its prestigious Americanism Award, Mark and Carla were the League’s honorees in 1994. The American Heart Association and the Boy Scouts have also honored the family.
Today Helen can look back with pride on the role that the hotel has played in many people’s lives. “We’ve been serving families for generations. We’re more than a hotel to them; we’re a tradition. We’ve seen couples come here as honeymooners and come back with their children and grandchildren. It really is wonderful for us to have accomplished that goal, to become a true family hotel.”
In reflecting on the Kutsher experience, five characteristics stand out to explain, in part, the hotel’s longevity: Family interest sustained through three generations; reinvestment and planning to keep the facility competitive: creation of a family atmosphere for both guests and staff; an exceptional sports program for young people and participation in the work of local and national organizations.
What of the future? Mark Kutsher is hopeful. “Perhaps there will still be a place for us in Mr. Cappelli’s Catskill makeover. We’re not adverse to the idea. We have been here for many years. It would be wonderful for us to be part of the revitalization of the Catskills and help in some way to bring it back again.”