Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

I can imagine the hundreds of people who were here on any summer evening,” recalls Nelson Whittaker, veteran custodian of twenty-five years. “They’d be walking around, talking, going to a theater performance, dancing in the ballroom, listening to a lecture, enjoying a fantastic meal. Now, it’s all gone.”

For most of the twentieth century, garment workers – individuals who cut and sewed great swaths of fabrics into clothing for American consumers – came here from the factories of New York, along the East Coast, and throughout the nation for entertainment and enlighten­ment. Many were immigrants and first generation Americans.

High in the mountains of northeast­ern Pennsylvania they found sanctuary from the grinding routine of the factory with its long hours and dizzying produc­tion demands. It was a special summer place for working people, managed by working people, and staffed by working people, in the pristine setting of the Pocono Mountains. Although attempts would be made to imitate it – the United Auto Workers’ Family Education Center at Black Lake, Michigan, for instance­ – there was no place quite like it anywhere in the United States. In its heyday, it could accommodate eleven hundred overnight guests and countless daytime visitors. It boasted an exceptional dining room with fare to match New York’s bet­ter restaurants; featured entertainment rivaling that of Atlantic City or the Catskills; offered extensive recreational facilities; and provided working-class people with rare exposure to university­-quality educational programs. Originally christened Workers’ Unity House by its founders in 1919, it was owned and oper­ated by the International Ladies’ Gar­ment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) from 1925 until its doors closed in the summer of 1989.

Wilkes-Barre garment worker Clementine Lyons remembers Unity House fondly. “Union leadership felt that if they could get members together in a nice surrounding, like the Poconos, that they’d have classes and teach them to read and dance. They would conduct all types of classes and try to develop peo­ple. There would be speakers on topics like politics, medical care, and economics from all over – Washington, New York, Harrisburg. They grew their own flowers, had a library, tennis courts, and cottages for families. They’d have excellent enter­tainment. It became the showplace of the Poconos. People were thrilled to come.”

From the very beginning, the idea was a gamble. “You have to remember that in 1919 this was an entirely new idea. Conditions in the garment factories were horrendous. So it was quite a novel thing – the notion that working people could have a place like Unity House to go to in order to relax, have fun, and learn,” reflects Tom Mathews, former Harrisburg ILGWU district director. With the exception of, perhaps, an excursion to Coney Island or Atlantic City or the even rarer chance to attend a school for industrial workers (such as the Brookwood Labor College in upstate New York or the Bryn Mawr Summer School) it was nearly unheard of for working people to be afford­ed – or to afford – such an opportunity.

A stimulating combi­nation of relaxation and intellectual enrichment was precisely what a group of women garment workers of New York’s ILGWU Local 25 envisioned when they purchased the Forest Park Hotel near Bushkill, Pike County, from German-American indus­trialists in 1919. Opened in 1870 by the Ottenheimer family – who resided in the Pocono Mountains and Manhattan and owned Lloyd Steam Ship Lines – the resort catered to East Coast families of German descent. Local stories contend that, with anti-German sentiment run­ning high during World War I, the own­ers were pressured, in part by the federal government, to sell the property. The timing was fortuitous.

Following several fitful attempts at establishing “unity camps” in southeast­ern New York’s Catskill Mountains, the Pocono facility proved attractive to Local 25 workers. Three thousand acres of woodlands, a large lake, proximity to Manhattan’s garment district, and an asking price of eighty thousand dol­lars – while a considerable sum for facto­ry workers – were too good to pass up. Using the property as collateral, some Local 25 workers borrowed most of the money, set the weekly rate at thirteen dollars for each guest, quit their jobs, and launched Workers’ Unity House.

Try as they did to make a go of it, the founders realized by 1925 that the ven­ture was failing. Rates proved to be insufficient to cover costs, a ponderous circumstance to address since workers who earned only a few dollars a week could not afford to pay much for a vaca­tion. Staff morale suffered to the point that the electrician threatened to cut off power, leaving the facility literally in the dark, unless his wages were increased. The cook became a problem, too, but for other reasons. Rather than tending to the kitchen, he spent more and more time writing anarchist speeches and articles. It appeared as though the “garment work­ers country club” was doomed.

Despite incessant turmoil – thwarted takeover attempts by leftist revolutionar­ies, virtual bankruptcy, and a union membership which had dwindled to less than sixty thousand by the mid-1920s­ the moderate New York-based ILGWU’s General Executive Board agreed to assume both management and owner­ship of Workers’ Unity House. The novel idea was given one last try, marking the first time in history that an American labor union established a recreational and educational complex of this magni­tude. The union’s commitment to Work­ers’ Unity House grew out of its interest in improving life for its rank-and-file, a commitment which spanned nearly seven decades and attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania.

Under ILGWU stewardship, improve­ments abounded during the late 1920s. The large main building was cleaned, repaired, and painted. Hot and cold run­ning water and indoor sanitation facili­ties became standard features in existing and newly constructed wooden bunga­lows which housed small groups and families. A staff physician was hired to give free medical service to visitors, and an assortment of physical activities were directed by a full-time recreation staff. A dietitian, chef, and expanded kitchen facilities, including a full service bakery, assured nutritious meals. For entertain­ment, a dance orchestra was engaged tor the season.

Workers’ Unity House, with its mission of intellectual enrichment, coupled with physical recreation, promised a wholesome, rewarding respite. A librarian man­aged the growing collection of fiction, non-fiction, social, economic, and labor publications. Fannia Cohn, ILGWU educa­tion director and an early adult education pioneer, initiated a lecture series in the resort’s outdoor Pine Grove Amphitheater. Workers discussed topics ranging from “The Economic Basis of Modern Civiliza­tion” to “Appreciation of Art.” Lecturers and discussions leaders included profes­sors from New York University and Johns Hopkins University, among others. Multi­ethnic programs became part of the amphitheater’s agenda and featured New York’s Hull Johnson and the Negro Sextet, Norwood and the Radio Artists, and the Compinskio Jazz Trio.

At the outset, rate hikes were small. Operation of the resort as a nonprofit endeavor assured that net revenues would be used to lower vacation costs in the future for ILGWU members. Deficits would be made up by the union or reflected in nominal increases. Officials reduced the size of the resort to about seven hundred acres by selling a large tract of woodlands to the Rand School for the development of an educational institute and, later, to Tamiment Resort. The ILGWU also began exerting tighter control over the resort’s operations.

In promoting Workers’ Unity House in 1927, the ILGWU portrayed it as an idyllic summer paradise.

In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Pennsyl­vania, high on a hill set in a dense forest which stretches for miles in every direction, stands our summer home. A large white house surrounded by cottages, on the shores of a blue lake, a mile and a half long, that sparkles in the sun or reflects the cool green of the overhanging trees – this is Unity House. It is a promise of a better day and evi­dence or our ability to bring on that day.

By the opening of the thirties, Workers’ Unity House had firmly taken hold. The idea had merit. Its popularity was growing. Visitors wanted to keep its spirit alive even when the doors closed at the end of the season. The ILGWU’s education department arranged winter reunions at New York’s Grand Central Gardens and the Manhattan Opera House.

In 1932, David Dubinsky (1892-1982), an Eastern European Jewish garment worker, began his career of more than three decades as president of the ILGWU. His tenure as president, which lasted until 1966, would be marked by unprecedented growth in the power and ranks of organized labor in the American garment industry during an era in which collective bargaining evolved as a per­manent component in labor-management relations. Dubinsky spearheaded signifi­cant efforts to expand the ILGWU’s menu of social programs to include union-operated health care centers, a health and welfare fund, education pro­grams, vacation benefits, and housing projects for retirees. He led the charge to see to it that garment workers and the ILGWU became full partners in Ameri­can industrial capitalism.

An explosion and fire in 1934 destroyed the resort’s main building, but the union’s new leadership remained dedicated to its development. Dubinsky kept a watchful eye on the resort and visited frequently. One story holds that, wanting to make sure that all visitors were content and secure at the end of each day, he would be the last person to bed at night – in his private bungalow, of course – after making rounds. The union president insisted on being treated like any other visitor, however, and immedi­ately complied with a security guard’s order to cease an early morning kitchen raid and return to his bungalow to await breakfast like other guests.

It was not long before officials changed the name of Workers’ Unity House to Unity House. Educational pro­grams exposed garment workers to drama, music, poetry, and the works of well known intellectuals. The resort’s Pine Grove Players staged dramas with social messages such as Blue Monday by Benson Inge and They Shall Not Die, the story of the Scottsboro Case, in which nine African American youths were tried, convicted, and eventually released on charges of raping two white girls. Musical performances featured stars of New York’s fabled Radio City Music Hall and the Yiddish Art Quartet. Lecture and discussion seminars were varied among topics such as “Understanding Human Nature and Psychology,” “Economics, Peace, and American Foreign Policy,” “Trends in American Literature,” “Negro Literature,” “The Federal Theater Project and the Arts and Humanities,” “The Worker and His Health,” and – natural­ly – “Women’s Apparel Through the Ages.”

For less than twenty dollars a week, visitors could also take advantage of an expand­ed two thousand volume library and writing room, a newly added horse riding sta­ble, barber shop, beauty par­lor, ballroom dance program featuring George Herbert’s Forest Parkers, and the din­ing room’s expansive menu, which offered everything from international cuisine to “pastrami and polemics.”

A newsletter, Unity News, informed guests of the daily schedule of events and activities. A typical morning began at seven o’clock with breakfast in the capacious dining room, followed by a varied schedule of activities for visitors who could choose lectures, educational workshops, and discussion programs, as well as bocce, canoeing, tennis, calisthen­ics, hiking, horseback riding, handball, and swimming. Staff counselors led a myriad of programs specifically designed for children. Lunch at noon was followed by free time for more recre­ational activities and personal enrich­ment programs. Dinner was served promptly at 6:30 P.M., usually followed by a theater performance. Evening con­cluded with a dance in the ballroom.

Because it offered abundant “rest, comfort, scenic beauty, and intellectual atmosphere,” the resort began receiving national attention. To Survey Graphic it symbolized “the end of an era which started with the archaic European revo­lutionary philosophy that only by bat­tling the bosses could the sewing machine operator and her fellow work­ers win the good things in life.” Reader’s Digest predicted that it was “the forerun­ner of workers’ vacation play lands everywhere” and that it was testimony to the peaceful revolution occurring in the United States in which “workers had begun to share in the fruits of their labor.” Eleanor Roosevelt visited on sev­eral occasions and, after one stop, edito­rialized for the New York World Telegram, “No matter how much of this world’s goods you have, you could not put children in a more favorable environment and that is something for us as a nation to be proud of. I cannot help thinking, ‘Thank God for the United States.'”

The 1940s were generally good years for garment workers and their union. By the end of the decade the ILGWU boast­ed four hundred and thirty thousand members. Health, welfare, and vacation benefits became standard components in their contracts. The union reaffiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) following a split in which it sup­ported the rival Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). In Pennsylvania the union had begun significant drives to represent workers in “runaway” garment factories – some controlled by organized crime – which relocated to the anthracite region mainly from New York in efforts to escape rising wages and union con­tracts.

Unity House fared well as the decade came to a close. Visitors usually num­bered about ten thousand for the season from May to September. The resort employed a staff of three hundred, including bellhops and one hundred din­ing room workers. Thirty-one clapboard bungalows were available with showers, terraces, and fireplaces, and new con­struction brought the total number of rooms to four hundred and fifty. Educa­tional programs were expanded. A model farm was built and a full service U.S. Post Office, a sauna and fitness club, and a physician’s office with its own lab­oratory were opened to guests. Services for the growing number of young visi­tors ranged from babysitters and diaper service to puppet shows and an expand­ed youth counselor staff. Up-and-coming entertainers included Danny Kaye (who credited the resort with launching his career), Sid Caesar, and Red Buttons. Unity House paid for itself, boasting more than five hundred thousand dollars in total annual receipts, it had an esti­mated market value of more than four million dollars, and it still offered an affordable all-inclusive week’s vacation for thirty dollars per person.

The popularity of the compound exceeded all expectations when David Dubinsky decided to attempt something unprecedented in the history of labor­-management relations. During heated contract negotiations in 1948, in which a strike – the first in fifteen years­ – appeared imminent, Dubinsky invited more than two hundred employers from throughout the East Coast to the resort for a free weekend of relaxation and dis­cussion. He wanted desperately to show dine on prime rib and lobster, enjoy amphitheater performances, and dance in the large ballroom. In what Survey Graphic called “a model of labor-manage­ment relationships appreciated by both sides,” the weekend respite averted a strike and helped to harmonize industry­-union relations. It became the forerunner of “employer weekends” conducted at the resort.

In 1956, the union built a theater, cost­ing three-quarters of a million dollars, to expand the resort’s entertainment com­plex. Comparable to those on Broadway, the theater featured a ninety-foot stage, seating for twelve hundred, and state-of­-the-art lighting and sound systems, Guests of honor Pennsylvania Governor George M. Leader and AFL-CIO Presi­dent George Meany cut the ribbon on Saturday, June 2, followed by a performance which included Marian Ander­son, members of the New York City Bal­let, and a recital of Negro spirituals. The theater began hosting entertainment ranging from popular comedians, such as Alan King, to the New York City and Chicago Opera Companies and perform­ers from Radio City Music Hall and the Harlem Dance Theater Group.

In addition to its distinguished list of star performers, the roster of dignitaries at Unity House during the second half of this century resembled a virtual “who’s who.” Visitors and speakers of national and.state significance included, among others, Secretary of Stale John Foster Dulles; labor leader Walter Reuther; Philadelphia Mayors Richardson L. Dil­worth, Frank Rizzo, and Wilson T. Goode; U.S. Senators Joseph Clark, Richard S. Schweiker, and Edward M., John F., and Robert F. Kennedy; Pennsyl­vania Governors David L. Lawrence, Milton J. Shapp, and Robert P. Casey; Pennsylvania Speaker of the House James Manderino; Philadelphia District Attorney Edward Rendell; Pennsylvania First Ladies Mary Jane Leader and Muriel Shapp; and Congressman Dan Flood (see “‘Dapper Dan’ Flood, Penn­sylvania’s Legendary Congressman,” by William C. Kashatus III in the Summer 1995 edition).

The seventies heralded an era of con­siderable change for Unity House. The resort’s main building once again burned to the ground, and in its place a modern dining, ballroom, and registration facility was erected at a cost of six million dol­lars. Besides the usual mix of Jewish, Italian, and Eastern European guests, the resort hosted more Hispanic, Asian, and African American garment workers who came in increasing numbers as the union’s membership reached an all-time peak of nearly four hundred and sixty thousand before beginning its gradual decline – a portent of things to come for the industry, the union, and the resort.

Unity House hosted many labor orga­nizations other than the ILGWU, includ­ing the National Association of Letter Carriers and Pennsylvania’s AFL-CIO, and became the site of a variety of confer­ences and retreats to promote fellowship and community service among unionists as well as rank-and-file workshops on topics ranging from contract negotiation to American history. Sol Chaikin (1919-1991), union president from 1975 to 1986, made sure costs remained affordable at a little more than one hundred dollars a person for a week in an era of rampant inflation. “This place is owned and oper­ated by the workers, so the rates are much lower than we would charge if we wanted to make a profit,” said Chaikin at the time. “My deepest regret is that rising costs have made the rates higher than they used to be.”

In spite of increasing costs, reserva­tions for summer weekends continued to sell out. Particularly popular was the Labor Day holiday when celebratory pro­grams crammed the agenda. During the late seventies and early eighties, multiple generations of visitors were represented as garment workers brought their chil­dren and mingled among the growing number of retirees. The resort was well covered by newspaper reporters interest­ed in its rich racial, ethnic, and genera­tional mix. Unity House increasingly symbolized inclusion to many, especially to Pennsylvania ILGWU organizer Mar­tin Morand. “The ILGWU represented a different set of values – not individualis­tic, not selfish – an alternative notion, an alternative inspiration, diversity,” said Morand. “Unity House was a major part of that inspiration. It was the model of the ‘new society.'”

But economic forces beyond the con­trol of the ILGWU began encroaching on the country’s thriving garment industry.

Comparatively less expensive gar­ments manufactured overseas crept into domestic retail markets. Some American manufacturers moved plants to foreign countries to reduce labor costs and become more competitive. The growing phenomenon of free trade policies began eroding limited protection once enjoyed by the domestic industry. Before long, the situation grew disquieting. ILGWU membership plummeted to slightly more than two hundred thousand nationwide by the mid-1980s, a drop of one-half. During a six year period, from 1979 to 1985, Pennsylvania lost nearly fifteen thousand garment industry jobs. And the trend continues.

By the close of the 1980s, Unity House was in deep trouble. For years the resort had technically lost money – sometimes as much as one million dollars annually – but this was no insurmountable problem when membership was strong and growing; the ILGWU could well afford to subsi­dize the difference. This was a uncon­ventional era, however. Despite the fact that visitors kept coming, the union’s Executive Board faced a fundamental business decision: either raise rates beyond the average of three hundred dollars per person per week to cover expenses – a move which many feared would place its cost well beyond the means of a factory worker – or close and sell the resort. The decision was as painful as it was imminent. At the end of the 1989 summer season, Unity House closed permanently. The “garment work­ers’ country club” was no more. The resort has since been on the market.

To many who vacationed at Unity House year after year, the decision to close was hard to accept. “I was head of the union’s Unity House Committee for many years,” said Sol Hoffman, vice president of the Union of Needle Trades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE!). “When we decided to close, many people, especially our retirees, were upset. It was as though an entire era was gone.” Current UNITE! president Jay Mazur said, “Closing Unity House was among the hardest decisions I ever had to make as the leader of this union.”

Many of the original buildings at Unity House still stand. Some are in need of repair after nearly a decade of neglect; others appear frozen in time vir­tually untouched by nature and decay. David Dubinsky’s bungalow remains­ – high on a hill overlooking the lake – as does the main building with its titanic dining room and glamorous ball­room. The theater stage is dark, its seats long empty. The lake is still, its cerulean surface broken only by jumping fish and dipping birds. The lifeguard shack stands silent sentry, its ceiling and walls emblazoned with the names (and fanciful past. The guard shack at the main entrance bears a piece of plywood inscribed with the words “Closed Keep Out.” Out by the main road motorists are still greeted with signs directing them to “Unity House – ILGWU” as they are with placards of vaca­tionlands that have become fixtures in these parts – Tamiment, Pocmont, and Bushkill Falls. Caretaker Nelson Whit­taker, who dedicated much of his life to maintaining the retreat, is philosophical about its closing. “It’s hard for a place like Unity House to stay open in this era. Noth­ing lasts forever, though many of us hoped it would. To some people, in its own way, this was sort of like a Disney World years ago. At least they have lots of good memories.”


For Further Reading

Danish, Max D. The World of David Dubinsky. Cleveland, Ohio: World Publish­ing Company, 1957.

Dubinsky, David. A Life with Labor. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.

Stein, Leon. Out of the Sweatshop: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy. New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Book Company, 1977.

Stolberg, Benjamin. Tailor’s Progress: The Story of a Famous Union and the Men Who Made It. New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc., 1944.

Tyler, Gus. Look for the Union Label: A History of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Armonk, N. Y.: Sharpe, 1995.

Lorwin, Lewis Levitzki. The Women’s Gar­ment Workers. New York: Arno, 1969.

Malkiel, Theresa Serber. The Diary of a Shirtwaist Striker. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990.


The author wishes to thank the staffs of Cor­nell University’s Kheel Center for Labor­-Management Documentation and Archives and UNITE! for their research assistance and guidance. (The International Ladies’ Gar­ment Workers’ Union and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers merged in 1995 to create the Union of Needle Trades, Industrial, and Textile Employees, or UNTTE!)


Kenneth C. Wolensky is a historian for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Com­mission.