This weekend, if you travel to Monticello, New York, you may see the awakening of a long-slumbering Catskill Mountains native. It is a positive spin on the Rip Van Winkle tale, which was set in the region, but this one has an ethnic Jewish twist, Monticello’s First Annual Bagel Festival.
In the heyday of the Catskill Mountains – the 1950’s and ’60’s, Monticello, New York swelled from the year-round resident population of approximately 5,000, to upwards of 15,000 during the summers.
The primary boost to the population boom was from area bungalow colonies, the area’s famous hotels and sleep-over camps. The setting was gorgeous: rolling hills, clear, clean rivers and lakes, cool mountain temperatures and only a 90 minute drive from its feeder: New York City.
But over the past 40 years the entire Catskill Mountain region has suffered through very hard times. What was once a bustling Broadway, Monticello’s thoroughfare, has more shuttered shops than ones open for business. Of the famous hotels, the Concord, Grossingers, Kutshers and the Nevele, only Kutshers is still operating, and it is a dessicated shadow of its former self.
Monticello is the county seat of Sullivan County. Sullivan has the sad distinction of being the county with the highest unemployment and largest consumer of social service benefits of any county in New York State.
But the slumbering former tourist attraction is stirring, and efforts are under way to bring back visitors to this still largely bucolic, picturesque destination.
And when there is a will, there’s a way. And Monticello has enormous will in the person of native son Jeff Siegel and his colleagues on the Monticello Business Association.
In a long interview with The Jewish Press, Siegel explained how Monticello is pulling itself up by its boot straps, and is using its newly minted status as “The Bagel Capital” and its Bagel Festival this coming weekend, August 16 – 17, to put the Bagel Belt on the map.
Read this carefully, because it is practically a guide for how to revive sagging towns.
First, the town’s representatives went to the local governments, and eventually on to the New York state legislature, and succeeded in having the township, the county and the State of New York approve their respective Resolutions naming Monticello as “the Bagel capital.”
“Of what?” The Jewish Press asked.
“I don’t care what you put in after ‘capital,’ that’s your choice. But Monticello is the capital,” Siegel said.
It was not entirely arbitrary. Not only has Monticello’s Bagel Bakery been a fixture on Broadway for more than 50 years, but the man who obtained the patent for the first “Dough Kneading Machine for the Forming of a Bagel and the Like,” Louis (Label) Wichinsky, is from the area.
Then, armed with the Resolution and their own certified authentic historic connection to bagels, Siegel and his friends spent the next year and a half preparing for the Bagel Festival.
In addition to the many vendors and a parade, in keeping with the theme, there will be all kinds of bagel “firsts, biggests and bests.”There are a few real highlights, all of which are testaments to the ingenuity of the team behind Monticello’s First Annual Bagel Festival. (As Siegel told The Jewish Press – there’s no “i” in “team.”)
There will be an effort – one likely to succeed – to create the world’s longest bagel chain, ditto success likelihood for the creation of the world’s “largest tie-dye peace sign bagel.” This latter is a nod to another of the area’s historic milestones: the Woodstock Festival took place exactly 44 years ago in Bethel, a stone’s throw from downtown Monticello.
There is also an author, coming from California, of the book, “The Psychology of Bagels.”
Of course all kinds of bagels – ones you might want to eat, and ones you might want to just marvel at – will be available during the festival.
The festival will kick-off Friday evening, from 7:00 until midnight. There will be comedians, live music, and a special drink – the Bageltini – will be served. There is a charge for Friday evening’s festivities, but no entrance fee the next day. See the schedule, but some highlights include a bagel triathalon, spin art bagels, more live music, and lots of children’s activities, in addition to many vendors booths, including local farm goods, jewelry, representatives from Sullivan County Community College, and a local beekeeper. Chefs will be paired with local farmers to showcase various locally grown produce.