A Brief History of Katrina and Spencer Trask
By Patricia & Robert Foulke
Sunday, January 2, 2011
In the decade just after the turn of the 20th century, no couple was more active than Spencer and Katrina Trask in creating lasting institutions for our region. In 1900 they set up the trust that would lead to the opening of an artist’s colony in their home, Yaddo. Three years later Spencer and Katrina first leased and then gave the property that would become Wiawaka to Mary Wiltsie Fuller, leader of the founding group, and Katrina became its lifelong supporter. And in 1908 Spencer provided the impetus for founding the Lake George Club, leading it through construction to a grand opening in August 1909.
Clearly, these were people of vision with the means to bring their ideas to life. Spencer Trask was a descendant of Captain William Trask , who was involved in forming the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He graduated from Princeton University in 1866 and formed an investment firm in New York City which is still in business to this day. He was both a philanthropist and an investor who supported inventors like Thomas Edison as he developed the electric light bulb.
Working on a stage far larger than Lake George or Saratoga, in 1896 he saved the New York Times from bankruptcy and became its largest shareholder and president. He founded the board of trustees for Teachers’ College at Columbia University, established a distinguished lectureship at Princeton University, and became a prime supporter of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His humanitarian focus in 1890 led to the National Armenian Relief Committee that sent Clara Barton to Armenia with Red Cross teams.
Trask married Katrina Nichols in 1874. She became a well-known poet, novelist and playwright after her marriage. She wrote more than a dozen works, including poetry, Under King Constantine (1892) and Night & Morning (1907), several novels, including Free Not Bound (1907), and a number of plays, including King Alfred’s Jewel (1908) and In the Vanguard (1913). The Trasks bought property in Saratoga Springs in 1881 where they entertained houseguests, including statesmen, industrialists, artists, composers, poets and playwrights. When their original house burned, they built the current Yaddo Mansion, completed in 1893.
The Trasks had four children. Their little girl, Christina, thought of the perfect name for her home. “Call it Yaddo, Mamma” she said. “It makes poetry–Yaddo, shadow, shadow, Yaddo–Yaddo sounds like a shadow but it’s not going to be shadow.” The name stuck.. Unfortunately, all four children died young and are buried in the rose garden there. With no heirs, the Trasks began to think seriously about the ultimate use of their estate.
In 1899 inspiration struck while they were walking through the woods on their property. Katrina wrote that “an unseen hand seemed laid upon me. Look, Spencer, they are walking in the woods, wandering in the garden, sitting under the pine trees–men and women–creating, creating, creating.” Why not establish Yaddo as a place where artists could work undisturbed? In 1900 they incorporated Yaddo as an artists’ community and set up an endowment to grow and eventually fund it. Neither lived to see their plans reach fruition when it opened to its first residents in 1926.
Residencies are provided to artists from all over the world and in a variety of media, including choreography, film, literature, music, painting, performance art, photography, printmaking, sculpture and video. Artists have uninterrupted time with excellent working conditions. John Cheever described the importance of the Trask’s legacy in these words: “The forty or so acres on which the principal buildings of Yaddo stand have seen more distinguished activity in the arts than any other piece of ground in the English-speaking community and perhaps the world.” After their working day, some artists appear at lectures and events at Skidmore College in the evenings. Once we drove John Cheever back to Yaddo after a dinner on campus.
The Yaddo Garden Association was founded in 1991 and a group of dedicated volunteers have restored and now maintain beautiful rose and rock gardens. Roses begin to bloom mid-June and continue through July and peak in mid to late August. The rock garden is in bloom from mid-June through mid-September. The gardens are open to the public from 8 a.m. to dusk.
The Trasks had bought land once used as Algonquin fishing grounds and later as the site of the United States Hotel on the east side of Lake George for back taxes. They provided it first as a lease and later as a generous gift for Mary Wiltsie Fuller. The transfer of property was done with one dollar and a bouquet of flowers. Katrina Trask gave the name Wiawaka which means “the Great Spirit of God in Women.”
In 1903 Mary Fuller led a group of women from Troy in founding a vacation retreat on the property for immigrant women working in the local textile and shirt collar factories and laundries. These women began working long hours in crowded factories at a young age. Their low pay was based on the number of items they could produce in a day’s work. Although Sunday was a day of rest, some of the young women went to church and then did “piece work” at home to increase their wages.
The girls slept in the old cottages on the property and enjoyed the breezes and view of the lake. They walked on the property and hiked up Prospect Mountain with a picnic lunch, swam, canoed and rowed boats. They were also exposed to the arts because the Trasks had built one of the houses, Wakonda, as a retreat for pupils from the New York Art Club, prefiguring their vision for Yaddo. Prophetically, Georgia O’Keeffe was registered the first year Wakonda opened.
Wiawaka Holiday House is thriving today by offering a stay “to renew and enrich mind, body and spirit in a serene and simple historic lakefront setting.” The views of lake and mountains are memorable. There’s a walking labyrinth, hiking and walking trails, a dock with comfortable chairs, swimming and lovely gardens. Guests live in cottages in single or double rooms. One cottage, the House of Trix, perches over the lake; many workshops are held there and open to all guests. Three healthy meals a day are provided. Visits are affordable, depending on the income of the guests.
The Trasks next project was building an extraordinary summer home on Lake George. They had rented a cottage on Clay Island and liked the experience, purchasing three small rocky islands just off Homer Point on the west shore (Three Brothers Islands) renaming them Triuna. In the winter of 1907 rocky fill was brought over the ice to link and expand the islands, and Stanford White began creating the architecture you see remnants of today. You will see a belfry and Gothic arches attached to one of the colonnaded bridges and walkways connecting the islands. Window boxes filled with flowers flourish all summer to complete this idyllic getaway spot. Katrina continued to summer there after her husband’s untimely death, and it is still a private island.
The Lake George Club
In 1908 Spencer Trask gathered friends, including his business partner George Foster Peabody, and became the leading force in creating the Lake George Club. They wanted a place to relax and enjoy powerboat racing, golf, tennis and “all wholesome games and sports.” Trask found two locations, one on the west shore at Diamond Point and one in Caldwell (now Lake George Village). The Diamond Point site was purchased and in under a year—from a start laying foundations in November to the grand opening in August—the elegant Tudor-style building now standing was completed, along with a golf course and docks.
George Foster Peabody was another founder who worked tirelessly to make the Lake George Club a reality. He lived nearby in his home, Abenia, which is now the site of the Twin Birches motel on the Bolton Road. The architect for the club was his nephew, Charles Samuel Peabody. (An article on the Lake George Club centennial will appear in next week’s issue.)
Spencer Trask met an untimely death in a train accident at Croton-on-Hudson on New Year’s Eve in 1909. Daniel Chester French was commissioned to create a statue to memorialize Trask. “The Spirit Life” spreads her arms in Congress Park, Saratoga Springs. In 1921 Katrina Trask married her old friend George Foster Peabody. She died in 1922.
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