ACCORD – Talking with Annette Finestone is like time travel. Annette, who turns 100 this week, is a living testament to a strand of the history of the Rondout Valley that celebrated culture and progressive politics in a unique setting: Chait's Hotel.
The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, Annette began life on a small dairy farm at the end of Lang Road in Accord. Her parents, Sasha and Sarah, needed to take in boarders to help pay the bills.
Annette recalls a life filled with dramas.
"It was one catastrophe after another," she says. "The hurricane killed the cows. Then the Model-T tipped over when it lost a wheel. I was a tot then, but those memories are dramatic."
The Chait's house burned down and the family had to move, which took them to a property on Mill Hook Road, which Annette still owns. More cattle and chickens were bought, a generator was installed, a well was dug and "the hotel business was on its way."
Life in Accord in the 1920s and 30s was one where the seasons were very important. As a girl, Annette recalls fondly, "I used to walk down to Barley's in Accord; it was about two miles. I'd sit on the bags of nuts, walnuts and peanuts there and eat them." In winter, "all the kids would come out when the snow plow came by..." a wooden contraption hauled by teams of horses. "The kids would pile on and ride along as it pushed the snow off the roads."
A few years later, the teenage Annette was hitchhiking to go to the movies, either in Ellenville or Kingston. She got rides, as well as lectures.
"I was hitching with a girlfriend to Ellenville, and we got a ride from a state trooper who went off the road, got out and fired his pistol into a field and then told us how dangerous it was for us to be hitching," she recalls.
Those happy days in Accord ended, however, when Annette's parents decided she had to go to school in New York, where she and her sister Dorothy lived with relatives in the Bronx and attended Evander Childs High School.
Annette got caught up in the left wing political movements of the 30s.
"We raised money for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade," a unit of Americans who fought against Franco's fascists in the Spanish Civil War. And after gaining a degree in Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, she came back to New York City to take a job at the War Production Board, during which she worked on the 55th floor of the Empire State Building before getting sent to Washington. After the war, she went to Japan as part of the occupation.
Those were important times for Annette Finestone. She bought a Mercury half frame 35 mm camera, which she still has, and took photos of the countryside around Nagoya, where she was stationed. She saw the complete devastation wreaked on Japan's cities by the US bombardments and recorded it. She captured worlds now long past.
Returning to the U.S., she worked in New York again, met her husband Max Finestone, had two daughters and then, when her parents began to fail, moved everyone up to Accord to help out with the hotel. When her father died, they took over its management alongside Dorothy (now a sprightly 97) and her husband Ben Goldsmith, a former B26 bomber pilot who redesigned the place as a cultural jewel, attracting a progressive, leftist crowd.
"We had the first day camp for kids," Annette proudly remembers. "We had a great arts and crafts program, with pottery and jewelry making. There were many musicians who came, and they would hold impromptu concerts on the lawn. Then there were folk musicians, too, and they played and sang material from the Weavers, Woody Guthrie, the Kingston Trio..."
A result of all this was local notoriety.
"Oh yes, they called us the 'Commies'," says Annette, almost cheerfully. "Parents wouldn't let their kids work for us, although some still did."
Annette's daughters were "socially ostracized" at Rondout Valley High. That was the way it was in the 1950s when politics included black lists and the McCarthy witch hunt for leftists in government and media. But Chait's was now a political and cultural mecca that allowed them to double their capacity to fifty rooms, add a swimming pool and a new dining room, and a very modern looking lobby. Professional entertainers came every weekend and the arts and crafts program was boosted, along with the day camp. On Thursday evenings there were talent shows put on by guests.
But the golden years for Catskill resorts were coming to an end, as the 1970s wore on. Annette and Max sold the family hotel in 1978 (it continues today under the ownership of Elat Chayyim, a Jewish renewal retreat center). And she continued to work for social and economic justice, both on a local level and internationally, serving as a driver on a convoy of 23 vehicles taking medical and material supplies to women's groups in Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Nicaragua in 1989, the oldest member of the group, and getting her Japanese photos out for exhibition.
Annette has been a resident at Woodland Pond, a luxurious retirement home in New Paltz for the last few years. And everyone there is getting ready for her birthday party this coming Saturday. Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, an old friend, is coming, along with many from the area where she grew up and lived so many years.
For just one moment or two, the warm light of friendship lit at Chait's Hotel in the 20th century will shine again here in the 21st.
Happy birthday, Annette!