from the everyday: Wiawaka guests relax on a dock overlooking
the Girls Are
100 years after it was founded as a retreat for working-class
women, Wiawaka Holiday House remains true to its original
by Alicia Solsman
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. Theres
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 Kennedys
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 uniforman apron
and hair netKennedy 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
marked the fourth time Career Links sponsored a trip for low-income
women to go to a historical womens 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.
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, its 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
isnt working hard enough or that they can do better.
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.
at first she didnt know what to expect, Kennedy felt
appreciation for the reward. It was like winning the
lottery, Kennedy said, a wide smile on her face.
retreat: a view of the House of Trix.
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 theyre juggling. [Theres]
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
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.
slogan is, Come as strangers, leave as friends,
and its the truth! Kennedy says. Because
we all came as strangers, and then we realize, Wow,
shes going through the same thing Im going through.
And then we start relating, and I actually see all of them
as my sisters.
to Wiawaka gave Kennedy an opportunity for introspection and
repose that she wouldnt have had otherwise.
I were home, I wouldnt have that time to take care of
me, Kennedy says. When were at home, we
have to work, pay bills, take care of our childrenwe
dont have too much me time. I really appreciated
the trip, and the workshops. I really enjoyed it. I really
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.
was 1903, and the womens-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 Womens Rights Convention was
held in Worcester, Mass., and Susan B. Anthony organized another
convention in Syracuse.
for renovation: a currently closed guesthouse called Wakonda.
Capital Region, womens-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.
progressive womens-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, its 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.
would close to have their machinery cleaned in July and August,
and thats when women would go and stay at Wiawaka.
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, its 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.
Holiday House is situated on the eastern shore of Lake George.
Its a peaceful, idyllic place, with acres of green lawns
and trees and wildflowers. Theres an herb garden, the
harvest of which you can taste in the homemade meals that
are served; theres 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.
Littlefield, Wiawakas executive director, is a bright,
welcoming presence, whose knowledge of the history of the
place is comprehensive. We chat about how Georgia OKeeffe
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.
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.
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.
had heard from some friends there was a property on Lake George
that had been a womens 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.
didnt say Wiawaka, she says, but it said
that they were looking for a director of a womens retreat
on Lake George.
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.
were just a lot of different things that captured my interest
about the place, she says.
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.
the oldest womens retreat in America, Littlefield
says. Everything like it has gone out of business or
has ceased to function in its original capacity.
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 increasinglyinstead
of the textile workersare women in some state of transition.
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.
completely low-key, but you dont come here if youre
not willing to interact with other people, Littlefield
says. Computers, televisions, cell phones and the like arent
allowed at Wiawaka. The point is to get away from all
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 way its set up, says Lazarus. The fact
that there are no TVs, theres no radio, cell phones,
the way the dining room [is set up], it just fosters meeting
other people and communicating. Its just an amazing
on to explain that the uniqueness of the place originates
from the fact that its not the typical kind of vacation
place that people seek out. Its not the spa, the
fancy restaurant, the nightlife, she says. And
yet I think its needed in society todaythe real
soul nourishment you get here.
and three meals, Littlefield adds.
both laugh, and agree that the food provided is terrific.
The meals are gourmet, prepared with ingredients culled from
meals are fantastic, Lazarus says. Theyre
unusual, and theyre fantastic.
is very proud of the range of women who come to stay at Wiawaka.
There arent 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 isnt. Society is becoming ever more stratified.
executive director Wendy Littlefield
have women who range in age from 18 to 92, Littlefield
says proudly. She also reveals that though its rare,
men are allowed to come and stay in June and July, but not
August. And children arent allowed to come at all, for
legal reasons like the absence of lifeguards.
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.
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
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.
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.
are so many women out there who need that, she says.
They need Wiawaka, they need to get away. I just think
its the best thing.
Holiday Houses 2007 season will run through Sept. 4.
For more information, or to book a stay, visit wiawaka.org.