During the winter of 1974, I
was stricken with some sort of respiratory illness and stayed home from school
for several days.
|Downtown Mt. Vernon, 1920s|
(Westchester County Historical Society)
The timing proved
excellent. Joni Mitchell had released
her iconic album, “Court and Spark,” on January 1st of that
year. Now it was February, and I knew
the record would be essential to my recuperation.
After everyone had dispersed
to school and work, I got dressed immediately.
Although six inches of snow lay on the ground, my plan was to walk a few blocks to a street called Columbus Avenue, take the bus to downtown Mt. Vernon,
and go to the Bee Hive Record Store. (Its
name came from a soda parlor that previously occupied the space.)
|When the Bee Hive was still a soda parlor|
By 10:30 I possessed the
record and decided to stop at Clover Donuts, a coffee shop near the bus stop. That’s where I ran into Mrs. Moskowitz. She waved me over to the counter, pointing to
an empty stool. I sat down beside her
and ordered a cup of tea.
She didn’t ask why I wasn’t
That’s probably because Virginia
(“Ginny”) McClellan Moskowitz had other things on her mind, like history. In fact she was the city historian. She knew everything related to Mt. Vernon’s
past and present, as befitted a woman born and bred there. Mrs. Moskowitz had grown up in a family of
city fathers. Her childhood and much of
her adulthood were spent in a large Victorian house with three generations of
McClellans. After World War II, she
married Dr. Eugene Moskowitz and they continued to live in the house.
|Virginia McClellan (left column, fourth down)|
Mt. Vernon High School yearbook, 1933
During the early 1970s Mrs.
Moskowitz became especially busy. In advance
of the U.S. Bicentennial, the federal government dispensed millions of dollars
to support local history initiatives.
Mrs. Moskowitz would use her allotment to mount several exhibitions and
organize the old stuff that was pouring in.
She needed a lot of help. The
previous summer I had volunteered in her fiefdom, the Local History Room.
In that room, the wooden file
cabinets were packed with papers, the tables piled with maps and photographs,
and the display cases filled with medals, plaques, and old silver. Mrs. Moskowitz definitely had a plan, though.
She was working on it.
And now here we were in
“Nice to see you,” she said cheerfully.
I explained about being sick and
the unfortunate situation of having to run an errand in such bad weather. I didn’t mention Joni Mitchell.
Mrs. Moskowitz leaned close and
said with a smile: “You could probably
use some cumis.” That’s how I imagined the word, based on her
pronunciation. But no.
“K-U-M-Y-S-S,” she spelled enthusiastically, then added: “Unfortunately, you’re about 50 years too late!”
Indeed, I was very late for Kumyss, a sparkling milk drink popularized by Mount Vernon’s first mayor, Dr.
Edward F. Brush, as a cure for asthma, chest colds, indigestion, tuberculosis,
malnutrition, and anything else that ailed anyone anywhere. It was a classic nineteenth century patent
Kumyss is made by fermenting
unpasteurized cow’s milk. The addition
of yeast and sugar makes the drink fizzy and slightly alcoholic. According to Dr. Brush, the healing powers of
Kumyss were known to Homer, the nomadic tribes of Russia and Asia, Marco Polo,
the Crim Tartars and the Uzbeks.
| Advertisement for Kumyss, circa World War I|
Dr. Brush became interested
in Kumyss during the 1870s and published a book called Kumyss or Russian Milk Wine. Subsequently he began to promote the drink,
created a market, and built a Kumyss factory in Mt. Vernon. The sales made him a millionaire. Meanwhile, he continued to practice medicine, specializing in pulmonary diseases.
However, he also loved being
mayor and was reelected on the Republican ticket twice after an abbreviated first
The rage for Kumyss ran
through World War I, then started to decline.
But Mrs. Moskowitz kept the
story alive. And she found the perfect
moment to tell it. I can still hear her chatting
about Dr. Brush while we drank our tea in Clover Donuts. The windows were fogged, the sidewalks needed
salt, and the twentieth century marched on, looking for a new cure.
|Mayor Edward F. Brush, early twentieth century|
Vernon posts: 11/8/17; 6/28/17; 5/18/16; 9/27/16; 12/29/15/; 11/2/15