The Story of Woodloch Chapter II: “Woodloch Way Back When…”
~shared by Joseph J. Ranner
When our tale last ended, Harry and Mary Kiesendahl took a plunge and purchased a small boarding house just outside of Hawley, Pennsylvania… ready to take on the challenges that would certainly head their way…
For Woodloch’s first few years, Harry Kiesendahl had little to no time for rest and relaxation- he’d leave that to his resort guests. Still needing to work to support his family, he found himself commuting back and forth to his businesses on Long Island during weekdays then back to the resort on weekends with hardly enough time to catch a wink. Until Woodloch was profitable enough to keep the family afloat, such was the way of life.
Mary Kiesendahl, the true “heart” of Woodloch, was always within reach of her guests. In fact, she kept her resort reservations book with her almost all the time- even on her nightstand as she slept. Between greeting, serving and cleaning, you never knew when the phone would ring with inquiring guests. She liked to be ready. She did all of this while taking care of her 3 children in the Pennsylvania wilderness while Harry was away.
John, just entering his “tween” years, found the first few weeks of Woodloch challenging. Alone in the woods without his friends back home, missing his father during his midweek furloughs, endless chores and more were trying for a young man. The song changed when the first summer guests arrived, as lifelong friendships were forged on a weekly basis. It got even better for young John when he got acquainted with the young ladies at the camp next door. Life was getting better.
It was a never-ending labor of love for the Kiesendahl family. Cooking a meal was followed up by also greeting diners as they arrived. A long day of yard work was capped off with a night of bartending. But it was always worth it. As guests would depart (at the same time together on Saturday mornings), hugs, handshakes and even a few tears were all part of the routine. Kids promised to write each other, and lifelong friendships were established. To this day, these children, their children and even grandchildren still call Woodloch “HOME” upon visiting. “It always felt like our guests weren’t ‘customers’, but actual company visiting us for the week in our home,” says John. “That feeling soon became our mission statement, and is still true to this day.”
It became evident after a season that Harry was needed full-time at the resort. Not only was the resort picking up in bookings, but his children John, Nancy and Steven were growing up without him around much. There were lonesome times for the rest of the family in a small adjoining cabin as they eagerly awaited his return from New York life week after week. He made the difficult decision to sell his business interests in Long Island and became a full-time Pennsylvanian.
While EVERYONE in the family pitched in during the early days, it didn’t take long for the Kiesendahls to realize they needed help, and not just any help. They needed support from people that cared for others the same way that Mary did. To have the success they wished for, they knew that employees had to have the same sort of empathy for others that they did.
As the resort grew and grew, the Kiesendahls hired help consisting of friends, family and even former guests- people they knew they could trust to welcome guests with warm hospitality. “Many were in school with us- they started part-time, but their responsibilities grew as our resort did,” says John.
Fred Gelderman, one of Woodloch’s longest tenured employees, followed his mother in to work one day and was recruited for yardwork at the ripe old age of 11. “At the end of the week, I was given a brown envelope with $2.50 and all the food I could eat- not a bad deal,” says Fred. While furthering his study of the hospitality industry at Cornell University, John Kiesendahl decided to bring his roommate, Randy Barnes, home with him one weekend. For Randy, it was a match made in heaven. “Every weekend of my senior year, I commuted to Woodloch,” says Randy. “I couldn’t believe that I was getting paid for having fun with people.” He knew it was a lock when he met his now-wife Elaine as she worked in the dining room.
Word was getting out about this magical place so close by called “Woodloch.” Through the power of word of mouth, the 14 room property was booked to capacity, and there was clearly demand for more rooms. Expansion began in the 1960’s with the construction of new cottages, hotel buildings, lounges and game rooms. The property itself doubled in size with the acquisition of the girl’s camp (much to John’s disappointment). Anytime adjoining property went up for sale, Woodloch made every effort to acquire even more beautiful property alongside Teedyuskung.
Financing all of this necessary expansion was a trying ordeal. “Banks just didn’t have the confidence in seasonal businesses. If you had a bad summer, you might fold,” said Harry Kiesendahl. Ever the innovators, Harry and Mary called upon their guests offering “vacation bonds” to help finance Woodloch’s expansion. The response was overwhelming and heartwarming. “It was one of the most gratifying things that could have happened,” said Harry. “It was then that I realized how trusting and loving our relationship with our guests had become.”
Woodloch developed a reputation of being “the place” to relax and enjoy peaceful surroundings. But it also became a haven for FUN. Bingo, square dancing and even “the hokey pokey ”were soon accompanied by amenities like tennis courts, miniature golf, and bocce ball courts. Fleets of boats and snowmobiles provided smiles year round, while the activities program evolved into trivia contests and athletic events for ribbons, trophies and eventually medals. Summers were filled with cookouts and capped off with staff water ski shows every Labor Day Weekend.
Of course, ownership wasn’t without trials and tribulations here and there. The 1970’s gas shortage was of no worry to resort guests when they were guaranteed a full tank of gas for the ride home. In 1972, a Thanksgiving snowstorm led to widespread power outages. With a full guest count, the traditional Thanksgiving feast had instead become a candlelight dinner of ham and bologna sandwiches. “Everybody still got into the spirit- and I think it made it easier for what we were truly grateful for- each other,” says John.
By the late 1970’s, the winds of change were blowing across Lake Teedyuskung. John, after earning his degree from Cornell and serving in the US Navy, had returned home to step up in the business. He took charge of the expanding kitchen operation. The resort gained national recognition in 1978 as it was selected as one of America’s top family resorts by Better Homes and Gardens. The Kiesendahls had endured 20 years of ownership, and the second generation was waiting in the wings to proudly carry on the legacy…