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Escape from the everyday: Wiawaka guests relax on a dock overlooking Lake George.

Where the Girls Are

More than 100 years after it was founded as a retreat for working-class women, Wiawaka Holiday House remains true to its original mission

By Kathryn Lurie

Photos by Alicia Solsman

Alathia Kennedy, a kind-looking, dark-skinned woman in her mid-30s who wears gold jewelry and goes by Nicki to her friends and coworkers, is a hard-working single mother of four children. Her oldest had a baby in April, and now the new grandson lives in the same apartment as Kennedy and the rest of the children. Kennedy has two jobs and just enough time between them to get from one to the other. When she leaves her second job, she goes home to get dinner ready for her family. There’s little time for relaxation; when she lays down to unwind and watch some television at night, she falls asleep almost immediately from exhaustion. Day in and day out, this is Kennedy’s life.

When she’s not working at either of her jobs, Kennedy gains more work experience by volunteering in the kitchen at Meals on Wheels in downtown Albany, where I met her on a recent rainy day. Dressed in a typical kitchen-worker uniform—an apron and hair net—Kennedy sits with me in a barren hallway in a nondescript downtown building (where Meals on Wheels is based) on her one half-hour break during the middle of the day to tell me about a much-needed break she has taken two years in a row with the help of local nonprofit Career Links.

This year marked the fourth time Career Links sponsored a trip for low-income women to go to a historical women’s retreat in Lake George, called Wiawaka Holiday House, where they enjoy gourmet meals; attend educational lectures; participate in self-discovery workshops; go swimming, boating and hiking; meet future friends, and have a chance to kick back.

“We started it as an opportunity for the women to be recognized for all that they do and all their hard work,” says Marsha Lazarus, the executive director of Career Links. “In a sense, it’s contrary to the general [ideas about] these women who may be on public assistance. . . . There are a lot of put-downs and a lot of negative feelings that a person isn’t working hard enough or that they can do better.”

The concept of the retreat was a new one to Kennedy, whose typical “vacation” is taking her children to New York City to see their grandmother. “I never go on vacation by myself,” she says.

Though at first she didn’t know what to expect, Kennedy felt appreciation for the reward. “It was like winning the lottery,” Kennedy said, a wide smile on her face.

Picturesque retreat: a view of the House of Trix.

“In working with these women, I am just in such awe,” Lazarus says. “And I said, these are individuals that need to be recognized for all that they’re juggling. [There’s] a lot of single parenting; most of these women depend on public transportation. They need to take their children to one, two day-care centers, take one, two or three buses, and then get back on the bus to get to work on time. . . . So it was really a chance to give the women a little respite and a chance to rejuvenate.”

The first year Kennedy went on the retreat, the women were able to stay for two nights, participating in workshops, writing in journals, and relaxing. This year, the trip was only an overnight stay at the camp, but Kennedy explains how imperative it was for her to get even this little bit of time away to rest and to bond with other women.

“The slogan is, ‘Come as strangers, leave as friends,’ and it’s the truth!” Kennedy says. “Because we all came as strangers, and then we realize, ‘Wow, she’s going through the same thing I’m going through.’ And then we start relating, and I actually see all of them as my sisters.”

The trip to Wiawaka gave Kennedy an opportunity for introspection and repose that she wouldn’t have had otherwise.

“If I were home, I wouldn’t have that time to take care of me,” Kennedy says. “When we’re at home, we have to work, pay bills, take care of our children—we don’t have too much ‘me’ time. I really appreciated the trip, and the workshops. I really enjoyed it. I really felt rested.”

Going to Wiawaka is an event that Kennedy now anticipates greatly. “The retreat is my spark of light,” she says. “I wound up leaving there with friends, and I also was able to relieve some of the stress. I felt like a brand-new person when I left.”

The year was 1903, and the women’s-rights movement was in full swing. Upstate New York and New England already had seen some legendary progressive action on the parts of reformers. Almost 50 years earlier, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott held the famous Seneca Falls Convention. A couple years after that, the first official Women’s Rights Convention was held in Worcester, Mass., and Susan B. Anthony organized another convention in Syracuse.

Up for renovation: a currently closed guesthouse called Wakonda.

In the Capital Region, women’s-rights activists were doing their part throughout the 19th century to pave the way for women across the nation. Troy resident Kate Mullaney founded the first female labor union, called the Collar Laundry Union. (She also organized the first female strike.) Also in Troy, Emma Willard founded the first endowed seminary school for girls. Troy was known as the City of Women because there were so many women working in the textile and collar factories, and in the garment industry in general.

Another progressive women’s-rights activist, Mary Fuller, was a woman of social standing and wealth (her father was a Troy industrialist), which she used to try to help young female factory workers. Fuller, recognizing the need for these women to have some relief from their difficult work, founded Wiawaka Holiday House in 1903 with the help of her friends Spencer and Katrina Trask, an affluent Saratoga couple, who gave Fuller a property they owned on Lake George. Fuller, in turn, used the land for Wiawaka. (If you think the name Trask sounds familiar, it’s because you probably have heard of them before: The Trask family also built Yaddo, the renowned artists’ retreat in Saratoga Springs.) Land also was given to Wiawaka by industrialist George Foster Peabody.

The mills would close to have their machinery cleaned in July and August, and that’s when women would go and stay at Wiawaka.

The mission of Wiawaka (the name means “the great spirit in women”) was to give these women factory workers, mainly from Cohoes and Troy, some respite from the hard monotony that filled their lives every day. In the beginning, room and board at Wiawaka cost $3.35 a week. Now the cost is based on a sliding scale; depending on what guests can afford, it’s between $55 and $150 per day, including food. The cost to Wiawaka per person, per day, is $100; the people who can pay more subsidize people who pay less.

Wiawaka Holiday House is situated on the eastern shore of Lake George. It’s a peaceful, idyllic place, with acres of green lawns and trees and wildflowers. There’s an herb garden, the harvest of which you can taste in the homemade meals that are served; there’s a dock on which women sit in groups (the knitters here, the book club there); there are old picturesque Victorian buildings that are clean and well-kept; and there are hiking trails and plenty of other places to discover.

Wendy Littlefield, Wiawaka’s executive director, is a bright, welcoming presence, whose knowledge of the history of the place is comprehensive. We chat about how Georgia O’Keeffe used to stay at the retreat and paint views of Lake George from the docks of Wiawaka, and how the camp has 10 buildings that are on the national register.

Littlefield walks me through the green expanse that first greets visitors, past the Lakehouse, down to the dock, over to the recently renovated House of Trix, and then through an old, run-down building called Wakonda, which will be renovated as soon as the funds are in place to do so. She shows me the just-redone ice house that will be used for art-studio space or for some other purpose, and then we walk through Fuller House, which is the main area for dining and gathering. Each area is carefully tended to and lovingly protected by its caretakers.

Alathia Kennedy

Before Littlefield became involved with Wiawaka, she and her husband ran their business, Ommegang Brewery, in Cooperstown. When their children left for school, the couple sold the brewery to their Belgian partners and moved to Troy.

Littlefield had heard from some friends there was a property on Lake George that had been a women’s retreat and that there was some action trying to revive it, which sparked her interest. Then one day, she saw an ad in the Record.

“[It] didn’t say Wiawaka,” she says, “but it said that they were looking for a director of a women’s retreat on Lake George.”

Since the position was part-time, and her daughter, Claire, had just begun school at Emma Willard, Littlefield applied for the position and was hired. Beyond having built the brewery, her qualifications included her position as the head of Tourism Advisory Board for Otsego County. She also went to all-girl schools and majored in architectural history in college.

“There were just a lot of different things that captured my interest about the place,” she says.

In her new position, Littlefield promptly got to work scheduling presenters to lead workshops and enrichment programs at the camp, booking people to stay as guests, and generally promoting the heck out of the little-known resource, which has been in continuous use since 1903.

“It’s the oldest women’s retreat in America,” Littlefield says. “Everything like it has gone out of business or has ceased to function in its original capacity.

“The board of Wiawaka has always been essentially Troy-focused [for] Troy women in support originally of the textile workers,” she continues, “and then ultimately Troy women in support of all of the women who come who increasingly—instead of the textile workers—are women in some state of transition.”

Living at Wiawaka, for one day or a week, is a simple state of affairs. Guests take care of their own rooms to keep operation costs down, and they dine together, family style.

“It’s completely low-key, but you don’t come here if you’re not willing to interact with other people,” Littlefield says. Computers, televisions, cell phones and the like aren’t allowed at Wiawaka. “The point is to get away from all those stresses.”

During our walk, we come upon Marsha Lazarus, who is staying at Wiawaka with her book club. When we see her, swimming in the lake, she climbs out to chat with us about the community vibe at the camp.

“It’s the way it’s set up,” says Lazarus. “The fact that there are no TVs, there’s no radio, cell phones, the way the dining room [is set up], it just fosters meeting other people and communicating. It’s just an amazing place.”

She goes on to explain that the uniqueness of the place originates from the fact that it’s not the typical kind of vacation place that people seek out. “It’s not the spa, the fancy restaurant, the nightlife,” she says. “And yet I think it’s needed in society today—the real soul nourishment you get here.”

“That, and three meals,” Littlefield adds.

The women both laugh, and agree that the food provided is terrific. The meals are gourmet, prepared with ingredients culled from local farms.

“The meals are fantastic,” Lazarus says. “They’re unusual, and they’re fantastic.”

Littlefield is very proud of the range of women who come to stay at Wiawaka. “There aren’t very many places,” she says, “where people from so many walks of life can really be together and become friends and mentor one another. There just isn’t. Society is becoming ever more stratified.”

Wiawaka executive director Wendy Littlefield

“We have women who range in age from 18 to 92,” Littlefield says proudly. She also reveals that though it’s rare, men are allowed to come and stay in June and July, but not August. And children aren’t allowed to come at all, for legal reasons like the absence of lifeguards.

The majority of people who come to Wiawaka currently are from a 100-mile radius of the grounds. Littlefield says that she would really like to crack the New York City market and attract women there to come experience Wiawaka.

“Young professional women who are really struggling to hold on to their apartments and who would love to get out of town,” she muses, “if they could discover this place and do it so affordably, they would definitely benefit [from the experience].”

These days, instead of the garment-factory workers, the new wave of women to pioneer their way through tough times and to come out on the other end successful, having benefited from the much-needed respite that Wiawaka brings to their lives, are the low-income but hard-working group of women like those who are involved with Career Links.

When I inquire whether or not Nicki Kennedy would attend the Wiawaka retreat next year, she becomes exuberant. “I will go every year they ask me,” she says definitively, adding that she would even recruit other women to join in, if Career Links asked her to.

“There are so many women out there who need that,” she says. “They need Wiawaka, they need to get away. I just think it’s the best thing.”

klurie@metroland.net

Wiawaka Holiday House’s 2007 season will run through Sept. 4. For more information, or to book a stay, visit wiawaka.org.


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