Singing the Borscht Belt Blues

From 1951 to 1987, city dwellers seeking relief from sultry summer days and nights might have taken a bus to a little-known part of the Catskills where they could listen to the blues and watch legendary performers take the stage to sing and dance. They might relax by the pool, or grab a pair of skates and hit the floor of the disco roller rink. They could bike ride along mountain trails or visit the souvenir stand. And at any time, they might see someone who seemed right at home – a one-legged man with a legendary grin. For this was the Peg Leg Bates Country Club in Kerhonkson, and its owner, Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates, went out of his way to make sure his guests felt right at home. And unlike other resorts dotting the Catskills, this place was different, designed to appeal to a largely urban, African-American clientele who came from as far as Baltimore and Philadelphia to take in the country air, to mingle with others in a relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere, and to enjoy world-class entertainment.

On a recent visit, we saw very little of the glamour that might have greeted those guests. The years have not been kind to the Peg Leg Bates resort. Rather than tidy bungalows and welcoming walkways, we found dilapidated shacks and overgrown paths leading through the labyrinth of structures.  We’d read that Doreen Richardson, the most recent owner,  died while inspecting the property during Superstorm Sandy. At that time, there were still a few guests and tenants residing in the trailers and bungalows. A neighbor from down the road told us that as recent as five years ago there would be “really nice people here and you’d hear some great blues,” a relief he said because “at least it wasn’t country.” But even those days now seemed long gone and walking the grounds it was hard to imagine a future for Peg Leg’s place.

Like so many Catskills resorts, the Peg Leg Bates Country Club fell victim to a variety of forces. While the resort was created to serve African Americans, it was most popular at a time when other resorts either discouraged or outright denied blacks the right to stay overnight. What started as a four-room getaway grew to 110 rooms before Peg Leg, at age 82, sold the property. Times had changed and black guests had many more options. Almost all the Catskills resorts shuttered or tried to reinvent themselves to appeal to a younger, hipper clientele. Even the Peg Leg Bates Resort made an attempt at a comeback when in 2009, Doreen Richardson was persuaded to allow musical acts to perform at the property. Sadly, this did not last long either, and now the only sounds you hear are the sounds of cars driving past and birds fluttering in the trees. There is almost no trace of the laughter, tapping, singing and good times once enjoyed in this legendary home of the blues. Unless you listen very, very hard.

All photos: AHV