by Robin C. Westmiller
Ellenville, New York. It’s not even a town, it’s a small village in the town of Wawarsing that lies in the heart of the Catskill mountains. As small communities go, it’s a nice enough place with the usual library, bank, post office and family owned bakery. Many of the residents who were born there, still live there and raise their families there. Those who’ve retired have moved to the warmer climate of Florida or California, taking their businesses and memories with them. I never thought of Ellenville as much more than a tiny spot on the map, just like millions of other undistinguished specks that lead to the big cities of New York or Los Angeles.
As teenagers, growing up in Ellenville wasn’t that much different from life in most other small towns. In the winter, we went to school. In the summer, we worked, usually at the local hotels or bungalow colonies where the “summer people” would flock to escape the heat and humidity of New York City. There was little to do if you were too young to drive, and at fifteen I became as bored as the rest of my friends as soon as the sun went down.
There was one weekend in particular I do remember when we heard about a little music festival happening not too far from Ellenville, but our parents wouldn’t drive the twenty miles to Bethel because of the weather. Besides, they’d said, there would be other festivals, and Woodstock wasn’t that big of a deal. History, as we well know, proved them wrong, but that’s another story.
After college, I moved to California where I’d never have to buy another snow tire. I thought I’d left my small town behind me, but my small town had a habit of following me everywhere I went. California, like Florida was a Mecca for New Yorkers, and we all seemed to be drawn to one another, even 3,000 miles away. Call it the epitome of Neil Diamond’s “I Am…I Said”, we were in Los Angeles, but our roots were still firmly planted back east. Although this didn’t surprise me, what did was the effect the mention of my home town had on the other displaced New Yorkers. The scenario was always the same. I’d hear the accent, still there sometimes decades after they’d left the state, as they told me they were from Queens, Brooklyn or Long Island. No hint of missing their old towns, glad to be in a warmer climate, no plans to return, and nothing to return to.
But the moment I told them I was from Ellenville, a strange transformation would take place. Their eyes would glaze over, a warm smile would appear on their face as a distant memory would suddenly surface. The mention of Ellenville was like a magical time machine, transporting them back to a moment in their past, and they would share whatever memory they recalled with this stranger who suddenly became family. They would ask if I knew certain people (I rarely did), and mention some of the familiar places, like the Shamrock or Pizza King, both long gone. In sharing the memory, we brought them back to life, if only for a brief moment.
This past summer, a play called “Grossingers” staged a one-night performance at the local theater here in Thousand Oaks, California. On the night of the performance, I wore a shirt with the “Ellenville” logo on the front and walked through the crowd, just to see what the reaction would be. I was not disappointed. People from every corner of the room began coming over to me the minute I entered the lobby, and almost every one reacted the same magical way. People I’d never met began to share intimate memories of their youth. Stories about the Nevele, the Fallsview, the Concord and of course, Grossingers, mixed with tales of friendship, families and relationships formed under a summer sky.
Ellenville to them was not just the name of a small town where I grew up, it was a mental photograph frozen in time. The name of my home town lit a spark that ignited a flame of memory and nostalgia. All because they saw the word “Ellenville” on my shirt. Was there ever a line that rang more true than the last one of our High School song: “As down life’s road we travel, we will sure be heard about.”? Many years after that song was written, we are most definitely heard about, talked about and remembered fondly from California to Florida. From Israel to Paris and just about anywhere else New Yorkers meet all over the world.
For those who still live there, Ellenville may be just another tiny spot on the map, just like millions of other undistinguished specks that lead to the big cities of New York or Los Angeles. But once you leave the boundaries of New York, you begin to realize the impact our little village has had on the rest of the world. No other town of its size can evoke such vivid memories of a simpler care-free time. No other village ignites the passion and nostalgia not only from former residents, but for hundreds of visitors who spent their youths and their summers in a “pleasant little town nestled in a valley.” A town called Ellenville.
September 25, 2000
Robin Cohen Westmiller was born in Ellenville where her parents still own Cohen’s Bakery, a business that has been in Ellenville for over 80 years. In 1975, she was the first female hired at WELV-am/fm radio station. Robin is the author of “Red Wine For Breakfast” an adult contemporary novel set at a Los Angeles Radio Station. She is currently working on her second novel “First Class Male” which takes place in a small town in upstate NY. Her web site is: www.westmiller.com