The women began visiting Wiawaka Holiday House in 1903.
They were mostly young factory workers from the Capital Region, many of them single, many of them immigrants. The house, on the eastern shore of Lake George, provided them with respite, peaceful surroundings and fresh air.
Times have changed, but women still visit Wiawaka every summer, seeking quiet, communion and a break from the pressures of everyday life.
The organization is the oldest continuously operating women’s retreat center in the United States and still adheres to its original mission, although men are welcome during the month of July, provided they are accompanied by a woman. Wiawaka has always been run by women, and remains so to this day.
Rich in history — the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998 — Wiawaka has attracted the attention of Megan Springate, a doctoral student in historical archaeology at the University of Maryland. For her dissertation, she is researching Wiawaka’s history and plans to conduct an archaeological dig there next summer.
“It still has the purpose of being an affordable vacation for women, away from the stresses of their lives,” Springate said during an interview over dinner at Wiawaka. “One of the things that really drew me to this site is that it’s been in operation by Wiawaka since 1903. I’m able to look at 110 years of occupation by Wiawaka.”
Wiawaka occupies 60 acres in the Adirondack Park, at the base of French Mountain. Visitors stay in Victorian cottages or rooms in the main building, called the Fuller House, and gather for meals. There are no TVs or phones in the rooms, and open windows and fans are used instead of air conditioning. There is a labyrinth, a garden, a lakeside dock and walking trails.
The concept of women’s retreat centers came into being during the Progressive Era, a period of social activism that began in the 1890s and lasted until the 1920s. Reformers supported women’s suffrage, prohibition, the passage of food safety laws, the building of public parks and other measures designed to lift up and enlighten the poor. The living and working conditions of factory workers was also a big concern, particularly among middle and upper class women.
“There used to be a bunch of these types of holiday houses for working women,” Springate said. “They were run by private organizations, unions, the YWCA.”
Wiawaka Holiday House Inc. is the only holiday house in the country still operating according to its founding mission, said Christine Dixon, its executive director.
“It’s been very exciting having someone come in and do research,” Dixon said.
Dixon said women’s retreats are still vital today.
“It’s incredibly healthful to remove yourself from your immediate surroundings,” Dixon said. “Women today have so many more opportunities, but they’re also incredibly busy and over-tasked. It’s very challenging to leave all that behind and remove yourself physically, mentally and spiritually, but it’s really good for you to take time for yourself.”
Springate learned about Wiawaka from the National Park Service’s online list, Places Where Women Made History, which highlights 74 properties in New York and Massachusetts. She decided to visit and made her first trip to Wiawaka in 2010 in response to a call for volunteers to help open the retreat up for the season. On her recent trip to the area, Springate visited Wiawaka and also made a stop at the Rensselaer County Historical Society, where the Wiawaka archives are housed. The archives include guest ledgers, photographs, cancelled checks and meeting minutes.
“One thing that’s missing is the voices of the women who stayed at Wiawaka,” Springate said.
Springate is developing a more nuanced picture of the guests at Wiawaka, using guest ledgers and Census data to learn more about where the women who visited the site came from and how women of different socio-economic backgrounds interacted. Records suggest they did mingle, joining for activities such as card parties and teas.
The majority of Wiawaka’s guests were female textile workers employed as shirt collar makers, laundresses and mill workers in Cohoes and Troy, once known as “The City of Women” because so many were working in the garment industry. But Springate’s study of the origins of 100 of the retreat center’s guests reveal that the site also drew women from New York City, New Jersey, Ithaca and Rochester — women who were likely middle class and interested in vacationing on Lake George.
Springate said she is interested in “social reform and change and how that gets explained archaeologically,” as well as how “gender, class, ethnicity and race interact with each other.” She said her project is collaborative in nature and the Wiawaka community will help shape her research.
Wiawaka has always provided financial assistance and free lodging to women who cannot afford the holiday house’s regular rates. Today that assistance is provided through the Fuller Respite Program, a dedicated fund for women with little or no income. This year, a weekday overnight at Wiawaka cost $110, while a weekend overnight cost $125. A day visit cost $15, while a season pass, which gives visitors full use of Wiawaka’s grounds from June to September, cost $60. Neither the day visit nor the season pass come with meals.
Activities at Wiawaka this summer include yoga, zumba, an evening with singer-songwriter Peggy Lynn and a women’s liberation festival.
“We tend to be fuller on weekends,” Dixon said. “Most of the women who come are working women.”
She said the capacity is 45, but the organization would like to increase the number of people staying there.
“Sadly, we’re somewhat under-utilized,” she said.
Saratoga Springs resident Catherine Golden, 55, has been visiting Wiawaka for 14 years. She said she learned about the organization from her sister, a Boston-area resident.
“I live here, and I didn’t know about it,” she said. “It was so close, and I’d never heard of it. Maybe it’s too well kept a secret. I’ve brought friends who have lived here longer than me, and they loved it, but they’d never heard of it before.”
Golden has made six visits to Wiawaka this year, mixing overnight stays with day trips. She also ran a workshop on Jane Austen, with an emphasis on Austen’s novel “Emma.”
“There’s something very special about Wiawaka, and something very spiritual,” said Golden, an English professor at Skidmore College with a focus on Victorian literature and culture. “I always feel that my soul and spirit are renewed after staying at Wiawaka. There’s a feeling of closeness and camaraderie among women.”
Glens Falls resident Pay Bayard first visited Wiawaka with her mother in 1995, a year after having a stroke at the age of 38.
“We thought we would go and check it out and have lunch there,” Bayard wrote in an email. “During the time there, which probably was a few hours, we loved it and continued to go for at least a week or so every year after. I needed to find myself again, or at least the different me, and Wiawaka’s spirit and the great, wonderful people I met there has helped me so much.”
Bayard said she began to get her confidence back at Wiawaka and her visits were a crucial part of this process. She said she still has side effects from the stroke, “but I feel I wouldn’t be as well as I am if it wasn’t for going to Wiawaka every year.”
She said her favorite part of Wiawaka is the women she has met there, and she believes women-only retreats still have value.
“When you have women around a table, there is power behind that,” she said.
Springate maintains a website, titled The Wiawaka Project, about her work. Recently, she wrote about a trip to the Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, Mass., to look at collections from two other women’s retreats, Fernside, a Princeton, Mass.-based holiday house for women that closed in 1989, and Rockport Lodge, a Rockport, Mass., house that closed in 2002.
“Looking at their archives will give me a sense of how alike and different these similar vacation houses were,” Springate explains on her website. “In the Wiawaka archives are promotional materials from Fernside, so they were certainly aware of each other!”
In an item titled “Why Archaeology?” Springate explains: “Archaeologists study people by looking at what they have left behind, including objects, landscapes, buildings, pits, wells and posts. While these on their own provide some information, it is the physical relationships between and among them — both horizontally across a landscape and vertically in the ground — that reveals the most information about the people that created and used them.”
Archaeology entails dealing with a lot of garbage, Springate said.
“To an archaeologist, a broken dinner plate is not just a broken dinner plate,” Springate said. “You can tell from the dishes what kind of messages the women were getting while they were here. Were they getting messages about how to be good consumers? One of my theories is that they were getting messages about how to be middle class, how to come out of squalor in order to be successful.”
She suggested that many of Wiawaka’s leaders were married to wealthy industrialists and had a personal stake in seeing working-class women move up in status.
“In order to have a successful business, you need people to buy your stuff,” she explained.
Springate hopes to find the privy, which is where garbage would have been tossed.
“I don’t know where it is, although there are a couple of possibilities,” she said.
Prior to Wiawaka’s founding, the property was the site of a fancy resort called the Crosbyside Hotel, built in the 1850s. Artifacts from the hotel, such as nails and a porcelain door number, have already been discovered on the property.
Wiawaka Holiday House was founded by Mary Wiltse Fuller of Troy, daughter of Troy industrialist Joseph Fuller of stove manufacturer Fuller, Warren & Co. Fuller initially leased the property from Spencer and Katrina Trask.
Best known for establishing the artistic community of Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, the Trasks purchased the site in 1902 and later transferred Wiawaka to Fuller for $1 and a bouquet of wildflowers. Fuller then deeded the property to the Holiday House.
She was involved in Wiawaka’s operations until her death in 1943, and the main administrative building at Wiawaka, Fuller House, is named for her.
The Trasks remained active at Wiawaka after the transfer of property. In 1905, they built an artists’ retreat on the site, Wakonda Lodge, which drew notable guests such as Georgia O’Keefe. Also that year, the Crosbyside Hotel and a handful of other buildings burned down.
An effort to restore the 12-room Wakonda Lodge is under way. The building was closed more than 10 years ago because of disrepair. A matching grant from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historical Preservation helped stabilize the building in 2006, and the organization is now trying to raise $300,000 to reopen the building as a guest house and small gathering center.
“There’s something very special about this place,” Springate said. “The history here is pretty amazing.”