African-American Catskills History: The McKenleys of Oliverea

Dr. McKenley’s 1888 graduating class from Long Island College Hospital (now SUNY Downstate).

“I’m goal-oriented, and truth-oriented,” said retired forest ranger Patti Rudge, explaining why she’s devoted so much time and energy to early 20th century Oliverea resident Dr. William H. McKenley, one of her hamlet’s most interesting and mysterious figures. A man of color, McKenley was described in a July 11, 1900 New York Times article as “well-known both as a society man and a physician of the Negroes on the west side.” 

“The truth about Dr. McKenley needs to be known,” said Rudge. “He deserves the respect.” 

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McKenley’s story is unfamiliar to most locals. His Oliverea summer home, McKenley Farm — now the site of the Shangri La at Mountain Gate hotel — was a popular early 20th-century recreation spot for African-Americans. 

Why has McKenley faded from collective memory? Whatever the reason, Rudge is determined to remedy the situation. Her most recent effort began with a party in her woodstove-warm Oliverea kitchen, a 156th-birthday celebration for Dr. McKenley (born February 22, 1864) that also served as an information session for eight guests. 

Rudge shared a handwritten timeline of McKenley’s life and a three-ring binder with printouts from Ancestry.com and other online sources. She also prepared a dish McKenley likely enjoyed as a child in Haiti: pain patate, i.e. potato bread, containing potatoes, fresh grated coconut, coconut milk, butter, turbinado sugar, lemon zest, cinnamon, nutmeg, grated ginger root, raisins, and two bananas. (Turns out, it’s gluten free.)

In 1880, McKenley, then 16, emigrated alone to Gilded Age New York. (It’s worth noting his birthplace, Haiti, was home to the first successful slave rebellion of the Common Era in 1804, and has been independent ever since.) Within seven years, he would marry Virginia-born Nannie Farrow. Soon after, in 1888, he became the first black man to graduate from medical school at Long Island College Hospital — now SUNY Downstate. In 1892, he would cofound and become the first president of the Afro-American Medical Society, an organization advocating for doctors of color.

McKenley first made the papers in 1900. The aforementioned New York Times article, entitled “Whisky Sour Worth $5500,” detailed McKenley’s July 1900 visit to Manhattan’s Hotel Aulic with a white patient. Two bartenders refused to serve McKenley a whisky sour. Anti-discrimination laws were technically on the New York books at that time, though seldom enforced. Nevertheless, McKenley filed suit for $5500. (Adjusted for inflation, that would be approximately $160,000 today.) 

The outcome of the suit remains unknown. Also uncertain is whether it enabled McKenley’s subsequent purchase of 100 Oliverea acres in 1902.   

But purchase property he did. According to Rudge’s research, bolstered by oral history from neighbor and friend Efrem Ostrowsky (now deceased), McKenley christened his Oliverea parcel “McKenley Farm.” The McKenleys’ primary residence was West 33rd Street in Manhattan, but the couple summered in Oliverea, and operated what instantly became a popular seasonal vacation spot, earning frequent citations from African American newspapers The Baltimore Sun, The New York Age, and others. 

The Freeman (an “Illustrated Colored Newspaper” out of Indianapolis) described McKenley Farm as being “for wealthy resorters … distinguished guests were driven to the depot by [McKenley’s] coachman, Sammy, and his elegant team of snowy white farming horses.”

Visitors traveled on the Ulster-Delaware line, which traveled through the Catskills along tracks on what is now the Ashokan rail-trail. McKenley Farm-bound vacationers’ destination: Big Indian Station, where coachman Sammy would then transport them three and a half miles up Oliverea Road to the McKenleys’. 

Dr. McKenley’s untimely demise from renal failure (likely diabetes-related) at age 42 in 1906 did not end the McKenley business. Records reveal his wife Nannie kept it going until World War I. A 1915 ad in the New York Age describes McKenley Farm as “extensive acreage in the heart of a picturesque and healthful paradise.”

Even after apparently selling the business, Nannie still frequented the area, and crossed paths with young Efrem Ostrowsky (born 1919) in the 1920s. Decades later, after being awarded the Bronze Star for valor in the liberation of France, and becoming a sculptor and successful inventor, Ostrowsky would fondly remember Nannie McKenley to his Oliverea neighbor, Patricia Rudge, in 2005. Although Rudge lives just off McKinley (sic) Hollow, she’d never heard of Dr. McKenley, his wife, or their groundbreaking resort a stone’s throw from her home. 

“Efrem told me Nannie was ‘quite elegant in appearance and manner, well-educated and refined,’” Rudge says. Sadly, Rudge’s research found Nannie was committed to the Brooklyn State Hospital for the Insane in 1940, and passed away in 1946 at age 88. She and Dr. McKenley had no children, which may be one reason their story has faded from collective memory.

Efrem Ostrowsky, not happy the McKenleys were becoming lost to time, noted the misspelling of the road wasn’t helping. This and her deep regard for Ostrowsky set Rudge on the journey that has illuminated the McKenley story. When a 2005 flood knocked down the McKinley Hollow street sign, her efforts resulted in a corrected sign going up. “But people got disgruntled,” Rudge says. “So they put the old one back up, too.” Both signs remain. (Google lists the road correctly – with an “e”.)

“I don’t really care about the sign being corrected,” Rudge says. “That’s not my battle. This is all about honoring Dr. William H. McKenley, and my dear friend and neighbor Efrem Ostrowsky.” 

Rudge grew wistful thinking about that early 20th-century train ride from Manhattan. All the different cultures — Hungarian, Jewish, African American — on one train, bound for Catskill splendor, for peace.

“Can you imagine?” she says.

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  1. African-American Catskills History: The McKenleys of Oliverea – 320ro

    […] “I’m goal-oriented, and truth-oriented,” said retired forest ranger Patti Rudge, explaining why she’s devoted so much time and energy to early 20th century Oliverea resident Dr. William H. McKenley, one of her hamlet’s most interesting and mysterious figures. A man of color, McKenley was described in a July 11, 1900 New York Times article as “well-known… Source link […]

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