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Yama Farms: A Most Unusual Catskills Resort

The growth of tourism in the Catskills resulted in at least forty hotels and boarding houses tucked into the Rondout Valley Hills between Napanoch and Cragsmoor by the early twentieth-century. None of them were quite like Yama-no-uchi (“Home in the Mountains,” also called Yama Farms Inn), a 1,300 acre idyllic thumb overlooking the Rondout gorge created from 1902 to 1913by Frank Seaman (1858-1939) and his companion Olive Sarre (1873?-1954). Seaman was attracted to the once-thriving little canal town (laid low by the abandonment of the Delaware & Hudson in 1902) by a stocks and bonds wizard of ostentatious demeanor named William Woodend. Woodend used to travel through the village of Napanoch in a white coach-in-four carriage (complete with driver and coachman in matching livery), showering children with handfuls of pennies. Seaman matched a fifteen-acre acquisition from Woodend with a 60-room Swiss cottage that he purchased in 1912, retaining the former owner’s family at the gate house. Anita Foraste (1906-2004), the daughter of the family, hunted butterflies with John Burroughs in the fields.

Yama Farms was similar to the hotels at Cragsmoor (1904), Minnewaska (1887), Sam’s Point (1871), and Mohonk (1870) in the beauty of its surroundings, unique architectural styling, and atmosphere of traditional charm. Cragsmoor’s development since the 1880s as a haven for artists and illustrators was of special interest to Seaman and Sarre, who were friends with George Inness, Jr., and Frederick Dellenbaugh, the more famous residents of that southeastern ridge. Yet there was nothing quite like George Seaman’s digs. You did not make reservations at Yama Farms: you were invited. Some came by yacht or their own personal train cars; many were picked up in New York City by Seaman and his staff. No one paid; tipping was not allowed; anything desired was available day or night. The guests usually worked out their bills beforehand or paid months later.

Seaman was a wealthy advertising executive who undertook this ambitious project as a resort for his wealthy clients. Among his accounts was Eastman Kodak, the company of his boyhood friend, George Eastman. He also had Palmolive, Studebaker, and his most meteoric account, American Tobacco. He and Sarre’s immersion in the “niceties of hospitality” of Japanese culture and architecture following a visit there in 1906(fifteen years before Frank Lloyd wright), coupled with their interest in the arts and Crafts Movement (which had attracted Ralph whitehead to Byrdcliffe a decade earlier) resulted in this stunning retreat for America’s elite.  

John d. Rockefeller stayed here. Sidney Colgate, Poultney Bigelow, Douglas Macarthur, Rabindranath Tagore, Edgar Lee Masters, Alexander C. Flick, H.H. Westinghouse, Hamlin Garland, U.S. Vice President Alton Parker (he came over from Esopus), U.S. Treasury secretary Ogden Mills, Jacob Raskob, Edward Everett hale, the Earl of Sandwich, Leopold Stowkowski, Frank N. Doubleday, Frederic Remington, Rudolph Wurlitzer, Count Felix Von Luckner, Prince Louis Ferdinand, and the Vincent Astors all had their own “keys” to Yama Farms—and their own wooden peg with brass name plates on which to hang their hats and coats. The most well-known guests were the Famous Four—John Burroughs and his friends Henry Ford, Thomas Alva Edison, and Harvey Firestone—also known as the Four Cronies.

Buffalo Bill Cody came one season and drove an old stagecoach through a village of “Indian” teepees in the annual Farms pageant. One of the employees remarked in later life that he overheard a group of bankers, politicians, and industrialists planning America’s entry into World War I in 1913in a Yama Farms conference room. A convention of American Telephone and Telegraph Company executives was preceded by sixteen engineers who came and built an experimental plant designed to allow them to send photographs by wire. The Vitaphone or “talking moving picture machine” was first shown to Bell Telephone Company nabobs at Yama Farms.

The buildings, whose designs were credited to Olive Sarre, were considered “the best adaptation of Japanese architectural principles in America,” according to Carlyle Ellis in the July 1910 issue of American Homes and Gardens. Yet Yama-no-uchi excelled in more than architecture, scenery, and style. Seaman’s black minorcas, which produced “the largest hens’ eggs known,” were considered “the aristocrats of the poultry world.” The Jenny Brook Trout Hatchery, there in rough form when Seaman purchased the property, became “the best private hatchery in this country.” The Yama Farms pure-bred Jersey herd, which included a $10,000 bull, won blue ribbons across the state. Their collection of Japanese irises was the best in America. The library consisted of more than 4,000 volumes. Olive Sarre also maintained a world-class English ceramics collection.

“I lost my heart to Jenny Brook,” John Burroughs remarked about its trout fishing. “I think she took it with a hook.” A John Burroughs night was a standard feature in which stories were told by the rich and famous around a campfire. Burroughs and his wealthy friends, who often traveled together, were frequently the subject of local anecdote and story. One day they were motoring in the country near Grahamsville when their Ford suffered a flat tire. A blacksmith grudgingly agreed to change it after negotiating a price. He complained about how shoddy things were these days, the tire and tube in particular.  

“It’s all his fault,” Ford said, pointing to Firestone. “He made that tire and inner tube.”

“Hmmph,” said the blacksmith.  

Edison piped up by informing the worker that the man who had just spoken had made that automobile.  

“Hmmph,” he said again.  

“And this fellow here,” Firestone chimed in, pointing to Edison, “built the battery and the lights on that machine.”  

That was enough for the blacksmith. He rose and pointed to the white-bearded man with them and shouted, “And I suppose he is Jesus Christ!”

Another tale of a Yama Farms car involved a wealthy perfume manufacturer who always had his chauffeur stop at the office when arriving. The driver came around to the front of the car, unscrewed the radiator ornament, took it into the office, and waited for it to be stored in the vault for safekeeping. The ornament, made of diamond-incrusted gold, was worth $35,000.

Poultney Bigelow’s eccentricities—walking barefoot on the trails and hooting like an owl, not to mention his two-inch-long toenails, of which he was uncommonly proud—appeared in their best light at Yama Farms. Yet the gregarious (and often obnoxious) world correspondent also was outclassed by his companions. At one point, showing off his pedigree, Bigelow announced that he was “one of the few men still alive” who saw John Wilkes Booth perform.  

“Sir,” said a man with him, “I was his manager.” The speaker was John Burnham, president of the American Protective Association, who managed Sarah Bernhardt and John Drew as well.  

Burroughs was not the only distinguished naturalist to frequent Yama Farms. Others included Roy Chapman Andrews, Raymond Ditmars, Carl Akeley, and Carl Lumholtz. Akeley and Andrews, an expert on China’s Gobi Desert, helped create the American Museum of Natural History. Ditmars, a reptile and snake expert, was with the Bronx Zoo. Lumholtz was a Norwegian naturalist and ethnographer who studied indigenous societies in Australia and Borneo.  

The setting was not only stunning, but convenient. Yama Farms spread from the top of the gorge that carries the Rondout Creek down from the Catskills to its slow, long drawl across the Rondout Valley to Esopus Creek. Route 209 south to New York lay just below. Honk Lake was a mile into the mountain plateau, where Route 55 followed the upper creek to the new Rondout Reservoir. Today, the hatchery lies in ruins below the plateau, where some of the old buildings, now crowded in by man and forest, are still used. On one side of the hut, a beautiful stone and wood grouping up a cobblestone drive from the highway, a modern mobile home park, (surprisingly well-kept) sits today. On the other side, the woods have grown to shield almost entirely the view of the valley below.  

No matter. Across Route 55 a sanding operation is gouging out a mountainside. The gorge itself was fenced off by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation after it ran out of money in a half-hearted cleanup of a superfund site created in the dumping of polychlorinated biphenyls by a defunct paper company decades ago. This beautiful natural area is not open to the public anymore.  

Yama-no-uchi also is gone. Its short, elaborate life expired with Frank Seaman in 1939, although Olive lived on amid the splendid setting for another 15 years. Its memory is sustained in an Ellenville Public Library display, and its elegance evoked in this touching, intelligent, well-illustrated, and altogether charming record by Harold Harris, based on his own memories and fifty years of notes and memorabilia. Harris, who died in 2003, was a Channel Master executive with a special interest in Japanese culture that drew him to Yama-no-uchi. Dianne Wiebe worked with him throughout the project and after his death. His daughter, Wendy E. Harris, undertook the final editing and rewriting.  

Vernon Benjamin

 

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