Founders’ Day in Fleischmanns marks 150th anniversary of a yeast-fueled Catskills haven

The Fleischmanns touted their product – America’s first commercially produced yeast – to millions at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and then built a thriving attraction called the Vienna Model Bakery on Broadway in New York City.

Part of the Delaware County Town of Middletown, straddling Route 28 a little northwest of the Belleayre Mountain Ski Center, the village of Fleischmanns only has about 350 year-round residents nowadays; but its history is something to celebrate. Bakers, baseball fans and New Yorker readers all owe the place a debt of gratitude, whether they know it or not. The Catskills hamlet will receive its due praise this weekend, as the annual fête known as Founders’ Day marks Fleischmanns’ sesquicentennial. A parade featuring firetrucks, area scout troops and local marching bands, an 1890s-period baseball game featuring the Mountain Athletic Club Vintage Base Ball squad and a baking competition judged by Bread Alone’s own Dan Leader are among the activities planned, mostly taking place on Saturday, June 8.

Fleischmanns was initially called Griffin Corners, after a prominent local attorney and businessman. In the late 18th century, the land belonged entirely to General Henry Armstrong and was populated by tenant farmers until the land reforms that followed the Anti-Rent War of 1844/45. It was accessible only by plank road from Kingston until the Ulster & Delaware Railroad reached the area in 1870.

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Thirteen years later, the family after whom the village took its current name arrived and began building a sprawling, elegant country retreat: a pair of brewer brothers, Hungarian Jews who immigrated from Austria, named Charles and Maximilian Fleischmann. They had already made a fortune in the business of standardizing yeast. While craft microbreweries today may revel in the serendipity of new beer flavors arising from ambient wild yeast strains, bakers in 19th-century America were struggling with unpredictable results. The Fleischmanns developed a process for manufacturing compressed yeast cakes that made consistent quality control easier for commercial and home bakers alike, and in 1868 they built a plant in Cincinnati, with help from an American investor named James Gaff. They touted their product – America’s first commercially produced yeast – to millions at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and then built a thriving attraction called the Vienna Model Bakery on Broadway in New York City.

Only one building, called Spillian, survives today of the 160-acre hillside compound of five mansions that Charles and Max Fleischmann built, which originally included a trout pond, a riding stable and a heated pool.

By the time the brothers decided to establish a summer home in the Catskills, money was no longer an object. Only one building, called Spillian, survives today of the 160-acre hillside compound of five mansions that Charles and Max Fleischmann built, which originally included a trout pond, a riding stable and a heated pool. But in 1914, shortly after the village incorporated and changed its name, Charles’ son Julius donated a park and ballfield to the community, known formerly as the Mountain Athletic Club and today as Fleischmanns Park. The family had also built a train station and post office. And their stately getaway became a model for upscale hotels and boardinghouses throughout the Catskills that throve until the rise of affordable air travel. As late as the 1940s, sleepy Fleischmanns’ population was said to rise to 10,000 or more in summertime.

In 1924, the brothers’ nephew Raoul Fleischmann, a friend of editor/publisher Harold Ross, used some of the family wealth to fund the launch of The New Yorker. He was listed as the magazine’s publisher until his death in 1969. The Fleischmann’s Yeast company was acquired by J. P. Morgan’s Standard Brands in 1929 and became known as the sponsor of the musical variety radio program known as The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour starring Rudy Vallée. It went on to revolutionize the yeast business yet again during World War II, by introducing the first shelf-stable granular yeast, requiring no refrigeration. Fleischmann’s Active Dry Yeast is still the standard product for home bakers, found in every supermarket in its distinctive yellow packet. The brand has changed hands numerous times, and is now the property of the food conglomerate AB Mauri North America, which is sponsoring this year’s Founders’ Day festivities in Fleischmanns.

The weekend’s events will be kicked off by a reception and panel from 6 to 8 p.m. on Friday, June 7 at Spillian, where panelists will discuss the area’s history, the Fleischmann family and local connections to baseball. The Fleischmann family were early boosters of major league baseball and made their park available for spring training. The most renowned player who got his start here was Honus Wagner, a/k/a the Flying Dutchman, admitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936. The principal residential street in Fleischmanns was named Wagner Avenue in his honor.

Like many Catskill resort towns, Fleischmanns fell on hard times in the latter part of the 20th century, but recent improvements to water and sewer infrastructure have given the community a boost and attracted new businesses and second homeowners. Come see the place for yourself on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. as Founders’ Day activities showcase its scenic beauty and intriguing history. The parade starts at 11 a.m. on Main Street, Vintage Baseball at noon, the Fleischmann’s Yeast Bake-Off at 12:30 p.m. For guidance on how to enter the Bake-Off and compete for prizes in the categories of Breads and Desserts, download www.fleischmannsny.com/calloutforbakers.pdf. To learn more about Founders’ Day, visit https://bit.ly/2QN291X.