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Voices Fall-Winter, 2000:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read an excerpt of “The Farmhouse as Boardinghouse,” by Virginia Scheer here.
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Volume 26


The Farmhouse as Boarding House

Crystal Springs Farm At the turn of the last century, the gap between income and expenses on Catskill dairy farms led many families to take in summer boarders. The guests were primarily urban working-class families seeking escape from the sweltering—and sometimes unhealthy—city.

The mostly urban and suburban families who spent the summer at Crystal Spring Farm enjoyed pleasures not available to them in the city. Photo courtesy of Joe Hewitt.
For eighty years, boarding houses enabled rural families to supplement their farm income. But how did the families interact in farmhouses not built for the purpose? What physical changes did the farmhouses undergo to accommodate guests? Personal narratives and other primary sources form the basis of three case studies of farmhouses that became boarding houses in southeastern Delaware County. Among the findings: both the urban visitors and the farm families were acquainted with old traditions of sharing beds and bedrooms—a practice untouched by modern Victorian prescriptions for privacy. Moreover, some of the farm families, as immigrants, had lived in urban tenements, where sharing space was accepted. Thus the boarding houses remained viable enterprises until mid-twentieth-century expectations for family privacy and guest services made taking in boarders unappealing—and uneconomical in competition with other tourist attractions in the Catskills and nationwide.
Case 1

Bragg Hollow, Halcottsville, New York

Hubbell boarding house

The Hubbells’ boarding house began as a simple cottage, but the need for income from taking in boarders prompted them to raise the roof and add an ell. A center hall ran between the rooms, which together could accommodate as many as thirty guests. (View the floorplan). Photo: Sidney Chase Collection, courtesy of Diane Galusha and David Riordan.

Case 2

Fleischmanns, New York
The Mech boarding house To increase capacity on their farmstead, the Mechs built a summer house for boarders, leaving their square-plan farmhouse virtually intact. Photo: Virginia Scheer.

Case 3

Denver Valley, Roxbury, New York

Hewitt boarding house

The Hewitts enlarged their farmhouse several times to accommodate guests. Everyone sat down together for family-style dinners at Crystal Spring Farm, but eventually Jack Hewitt built a small house out back to provide sleeping accommodations for family members who had given up bedrooms in the main house.
(View the floorplan). Photo courtesy of Joe Hewitt.
NYC  tenement New York City tenements, like the additions to some Catskills farmhouses, have narrow connected living spaces and shared bathrooms. The use of space was flexible—living rooms could serve as bedrooms or work rooms—and privacy was not expected. Credit: Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University in the City of New York. The author acknowledges assistance of Elizabeth Cromley in obtaining the tenement house floor plan.

Virginia ScheerVirginia Scheer is the director at the Manhattan Country School Farm in Roxbury, whre she has developed both school and community folklife programs. She holds an undergraduate degree in art history from Smith College and a master’s degree in folk studies at Western Kentucky University, with emphasis on architecture and a master’s thesis on farmhouses. She is an advocate for the conservation of the rural culture of the Catskills.


American Resort Association. 1902. Catskill Mountain Summer Resorts. Containing selected lists of hotels, boarding houses, and farm houses where summer guests are entertained. New York: American Resort Association.

Cohen, L.A. 1982. Embellishing a life of labor: An interpretation of the material culture of American working-class homes, 1885-1915. In Material Culture Studies in America, ed. T. J. Schlereth. Nashville: American Association of State and Local History Press.

Cromley, E. 1990.Alone together: A history of New York’s early apartments. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

__________. 1992. A history of American beds and bedrooms, 1890-1930. In American home life, 1880-1930: A social history of spaces and services, eds. J. H. Foy and T. Schlereth. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Hareven, T. 1991. The home and the family in historical perspective. Social Research 50 (Spring).

Hubka, T. 1984. Big house, little house, back house, barn: The connected farm buildings of New England. Hanover and London: University Press of New England.

McMurry, S. 1997 (1988).Families and farmhouses in 19th century America: Vernacular design and social change. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

New York State Census. 1892. Town of Middleton, manuscript in Delaware County Clerk’s Office, Delhi, New York.

Ulster and Delaware Railroad. 1902. The Catskill Mountain: The most picturesque mountain region on the globe. Rondout, NY: Press of Kingston Freeman.

The full article, “The Farmhouse as Boarding House,” that we have excerpted here, appeared in Voices Vol. 26, Fall-Winter, 2000. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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