by Amy Catania
"I have been so upset by world events that my mind has been almost completely paralyzed.” — Béla Bartók
In the midst of the dark days of World War II, a frail man named Béla Bartók came to Saranac Lake for his health. Although he was one of the greatest composers in human history, many Saranac Lakers might have seen him as just another invalid, tiny and pale, wrapped in his dark cape against the cold Adirondack weather.
Bartók and his second wife Ditta fled their native Hungary eighty years ago, as fascism and antisemitism swept across Europe. He had dedicated his life not only to composing, but also collecting and arranging the folk music of Eastern Europe. Nazi Germany was threatening to erase the cultures of the Roma and other peasant peoples of the region. In the face of such terror, Bartók was depressed, impoverished, and sick with a form of leukemia that acted like tuberculosis. He and his wife moved from one cramped, loud, New York City apartment to another. He had ceased composing.
In the summer of 1943, the Bartóks found refuge in Saranac Lake. Here, wrote his son Peter, "he found the peace and tranquility suitable for composing…. My father was obviously contented; his surroundings were as spartan as the interior of a Hungarian peasant cottage -- a reminder of a world with such fond associations for him.”
Bartók spent three summers in Saranac Lake, where the quiet and natural environment inspired some of his greatest works — the Concerto for Orchestra, the Viola Concerto, and the Third Piano Concerto. In his music, he integrated peasant melodies of Eastern Europe with the birdsong of the Adirondacks. Here, under the cloud of terrible world events, he found a measure of hope.
The cabin off of Riverside Drive, where Bartók stayed the last summer of his life in 1945, was saved from demolition thanks to a Romanian pianist named Cristina Stanescu. She had come to Saranac Lake to perform with the Gregg Smith Singers one summer some thirty years ago. While staying at Fogarty’s Bed and Breakfast, she learned about the decrepit cabin down the street where Bartók once stayed. The composer was a hero to Cristina. When she was just six years old, her first teacher in Romania had taught her Bartók’s music even though it was banned under Communism. To Christina’s teacher, Bartók represented friendship among the peoples of Eastern Europe, and his modernist compositions had become a symbol in Europe of anti-fascist resistance.
Cristina Stanescu raised the alarm to save the cabin. Emily Fogarty, Mary Hotaling, George Pappastavrou, Lex Dashnaw, and Doug March took up the cause, and they worked with a team of volunteers and musicians to raise the funds to save the cabin. Today Historic Saranac Lake provides tours of the Bartók Cabin in the summers, and many interesting people from around the world visit each year.
One recent visitor to the cabin was Brian Ward. His grandmother, Corneila Hamvas, fled from the Nazis to the United States with her Jewish family. Back in Budapest, when Cornelia was seven years old, Béla Bartók taught her how to play the piano. This fall, standing in the humble cabin with Cornelia’s grandson, the past felt very close at hand. We listened for Bartók’s birds, calling in the woods.
“My own idea… is the brotherhood of peoples, brotherhood in spite of wars and conflicts, I try -- to the best of my ability -- to serve this idea in my music; therefore, I don't reject any influence, be it Slovakian, Romanian, Arabic, or from any other source.” — Béla Bartók
by Sunita Halasz
While the coronavirus pandemic rages like a figurative wildfire all over the world in 2020, actual wildfires are setting horrific records out west this year. The combined acreage of burned area surpasses the size of the state of New Jersey. The loss is not just to forest land, but to homes and businesses, and in some cases whole communities have been apocalyptically reduced to ash.
It’s hard to imagine that similar widespread forest fires once burned the Adirondacks around the turn of the twentieth century. Flames spread throughout the Park, and ash from Adirondack fires fell as far away as Albany, and smoke was reported in New York City. Fires in 1903 and 1908 were particularly widespread in the North Country.
1903 was a dry year for the entire Northeast. In the Adirondacks, snowfall was less than average, and from April to June that year, only 0.2 in. of rain was recorded. In 1904, W. F. Fox wrote in “Forest Fires of 1903,” a bulletin of the NYS Forest, Fish, and Game Commission:
The line of the New York Central from Fulton Chain to Mountain View was bordered with smoke and flames, except on the eight-mile stretch through the private preserve of Dr. William Seward Webb, where a large number of patrols were employed at his expense to follow each train, night or day, and extinguish the locomotive sparks that fell along the road.
Many Adirondack fires were caused by live coals that escaped from unscreened locomotive stacks and fell on dry, vertical slash in the heavily logged forests along railroad lines, though Professor Emeritus of Paul Smith’s College, Dr. Michael Kudish, estimates that only about eleven percent of fires were caused by trains. More commonly, forest fires were caused by escaped campfires and brush-clearing fires, and the furnaces associated with mining operations in the Park. With the exception of mining furnaces, campfires and burning brush piles remain the top threat for wildfire in the Adirondacks today.
One of the largest acreages burned during the 1903 fire season was around Lake Placid in a fire started by high winds fueling a burning brush pile. That fire spread into the High Peaks and is the one that burned down Henry Van Hoevenburg’s Adirondack Lodge.
Mt. Baker in Saranac Lake burned in 1903 and again in 1908 when dry conditions and logging slash once again proliferated throughout the region. The 1908 fire spread east to McKenzie Mountain and threatened the village of Saranac Lake, as well, but it ultimately remained contained to the wilderness. In 1914, the Saranac Lake Fish and Game Club ordered 15,000 Scots pine (also called Scotch pine) grown at the State Nursery at Saranac Inn, at a price of just $60 for the whole load, and the trees were planted by a volunteer force of local men and Saranac Lake High School boys.
A May 15, 1914 article in the Lake Placid News states, “It is not expected that the 15,000 trees will make much of an impression on the stony sides and summit of Baker...” The prediction was wrong! Those Scots pines are still very visible as a dark green patch in all seasons up on Baker Mountain today.
After fires burned over 400,000 acres in the Forest Preserve in 1903, and nearly 300,000 acres in 1908, strict laws were enacted that set up a patrol of railroad properties, forced railroads to use petroleum for steam locomotive fuel instead of coal or wood, punished those responsible for escaped fires, enabled the building of fire towers (the first fire tower built in the Adirondacks was on Mt. Morris in Tupper Lake in 1909), and gave executive power to the Governor to close the Forest Preserve to recreationists in times of high fire risk.
The widespread Adirondack fires in the early part of the twentieth century were an anomaly due to the convergence of several factors including climate and fuel loads. Fire in northeastern forests has been historically absent, as shown by fossil pollen and charcoal records which estimate a fire return frequency of many hundreds to thousands of years, due to swift leaf litter decomposition, low wind risk, widely and rapidly varying topography, and the fire-resistant nature of northern hardwoods. This doesn’t mean, however, that fires can’t happen here today. We must remain vigilant and follow local regulations about campfires, burning brush, proper disposal of cigarette butts, and so forth.
The first time I ever visited Vermontville it was to research the site of the 1991 fire near Kate Mountain Park that burned 300 acres. I was a graduate teaching assistant for an ecology course at Cornell University and, of all the places we could have visited in the state, we went to Vermontville because it was such an excellent opportunity to observe post-fire vegetation recovery. Now I live in Saranac Lake and coach our homeschool soccer team at Kate Mountain Park each fall, so I am watching the forest there grow a little taller each year and seeing the plants in the understory get a little more shaded out.
But like we are seeing out west, slight changes in climate, exacerbated by careless actions of humans, can have drastic damaging ripple effects that will be felt for decades.
-Ampersand Mountain fire tower, c. 1960. Photograph by Donald Gunn Ross, courtesy of Julie Ross.
-Mount Baker, undated. Library of Congress photo.
By Galen Halasz
Having lived in Saranac Lake my whole life, I must say that it is a cultivating environment for all pursuits. My views may be skewed by a heartfelt bias, but with such a history of doctors, Olympians, artists, actors, and writers being nurtured in this village, I can’t help feeling that one could be anything here.
I have wanted to be a writer for the past four years and so will visit the stories of notable authors who have stayed here in the past - most of them for the tuberculosis treatment we provided - and how their lives were influenced by this wonderful place, and, who, in return, made Saranac Lake even better.
Everyone has heard of Robert Louis Stevenson, creator of Treasure Island and Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis and recovered at Baker Cottage for the winter of 1887-1888.
I run past Baker Cottage on my way around Moody Pond, and I have to assume that Stevenson was inspired by the gorgeous view he had and also by the community of authors that had grown here. One of his greatest connections was between himself and Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, the founder of the town, a pioneer in fighting tuberculosis, and himself an author who wrote an autobiography full of his adventures here. They sometimes had fights due to firmly held opinions, but in the end, they both had a common respect for one another’s achievements and an affinity for their natural surroundings. Community and nature allowed them to continue their work even as their disease ever weakened their lungs.
Another writer who sought the care of Dr. Trudeau, and another influenced by the wilderness, judging by his detailed Naturalistic writing, was Stephen Crane, author of Red Badge of Courage. Though he died at a sanatorium in Germany, his legacy remains connected to this village.
To continue the theme of writers who were connected to the wilderness, Martha Reben, with her books The Way of the Wilderness and The Healing Woods, loved the people and forests of the area when she was taking the cure. She went on adventures with local guide Fred Rice in these great woods that gave rise to her humorous and philosophical accounts.
Let me apologize for not mentioning Mark Twain until now, but yeah, he was here, and he rubbed shoulders with Fred Rice too. Twain stayed on Lower Saranac Lake and was interested in the guide boats that went up and down the waterway, which surely reminded him of his hometown, Hannibal, Missouri, the inspiration for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. He discussed the design of these boats endlessly with Fred Rice, who was a guide boat craftsman.
Isabel Smith came here for the cure, but the beauty and nature that inspired her was largely unattainable, as she was more ill than the others I have mentioned. In spite of her sickness, she was compelled to write about scenery and kinship, and her book I Wish I Might makes anyone healthy who reads it cherish their freedom to be active and explore the world.
This little microcosm community works its way into the hearts of every resident and visitor and was and is the inspiration for more writers than I have talked about, and I can affirm that, to this day, the literary community flourishes in Saranac Lake. I see it in the Adirondack Center for Writing’s Poem Village, in the journalism of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, and in the novels present-day Adirondack authors churn out almost too often to follow. I see our future writing community in the participants of the Young Playwright’s Festival that Pendragon Theater holds annually.
And whenever I so much as look out my village window, the inspiration I feel is electric. I see the forest, and I also feel the legacies of the writers who came before me everywhere I go; I feel how they must have felt.
Touring Pine Ridge Cemetery, racing through the woods at Paul Smith’s, walking into our Ice Palace, I imagine them, the authors of the past, imagine their first breath of our fresh air, and what their adventures and friendships and mishaps must have been like in the magnificent Adirondack wild.
By Phil “Bunk” Griffin
Larry Joseph Doyle was born July 31, 1886, in Caseyville, Illinois. He began playing for the New York Giants in 1907 at the age of 21. He was so nervous on the first day that he took the wrong ferry and was late for his premier pro game. Giants’ manager, John McGraw, who was known to be strict at times, took it in stride, and Larry, with his powerful hitting and solid defense, held a steady job for the next fourteen years.
The only change in his routine of tending second base with the Giants was when he went to the Chicago Cubs for a year and a half. That was from 1916 to 1917. He was MVP in 1912 and played a big part in the Giants winning of the pennant for three years in a row, from 1911 through 1913.
Larry developed tuberculosis in the 1920's. His best friend and fellow Giant, Christy Mathewson developed the disease also, and they both came to Saranac Lake to cure. Christy lived at his home on Park Avenue. Larry took up residency at Trudeau San, where American Management Association is now located, and lived there for many years.
Larry was, in fact, the last patient to leave the Trudeau San when it closed in 1954. That famous photo of him walking towards the gates of Trudeau, a suitcase in each hand and snow gusting all around him, was in every newspaper and magazine on the newsstands that week. I don't know if the media posed the photo or not, but it was effective. It got the point across that Trudeau San was closed for good and that the TB era was kaput. It was a sad day for both Larry and Saranac Lake.
I first became acquainted with Laughing Larry while I was working at the Dew Drop Inn, tossing pizzas. This was in the early 60's when baseball was still a game and not a big money industry. Larry enjoyed being with the other regulars and they, in turn, reveled in the time spent with him. His laughter was contagious and could make you forget any problems you might have at the time. He was quick with a quip and had amazing timing. Larry could have been a great comedian if he hadn't been so good at baseball. He constantly kept the crew at Dew Drop's laughing with his stories of bygone days of baseball. He came by his nickname quite naturally.
Every afternoon Laughing Larry could be found on the first barstool on the right, the one closest to the kitchen. If someone was occupying that stool when Larry entered, the offender would politely move down to the next available stool or, if there were none empty, belly up to the bar so that Larry could have his choice seat. I recall doing that myself on occasion. Larry was a gentleman, and he instilled that quality in all who surrounded him. Although he enjoyed a brew or two or three, I never saw him the least bit affected by them. As a young pizza cook who would get a buzz from one brew, I was both puzzled and amazed at that ability.
Larry had an operation on his eyes around 1961. I believe it was cataract surgery, and he had to wear thick, coke-bottle type glasses after that. He joked about them the same as he did about everything else. Sometimes, when we were all watching a ball game, he would become quiet, and I could see his eyes take on a strange, faraway look through those thick lenses. It was as if he were trying to project himself onto the ball field on the TV screen. I imagined that he was thinking, "It WAS great to be young and a Giant.” I never asked him what he was thinking during those moments of silence nor did anyone else. Everyone needs a personal moment once in a while.
As the next few years passed, Larry seemed to slow down and had a noticeably harder time getting around. The stairs were too steep, and he would come in the back door. His favorite seat was empty more frequently. Then, on March 1, 1974, at 88 years of age, Laughing Larry Doyle joined his teammates of summers past and left his old Dew Drop Inn cronies to spend their summer afternoons watching the ballgames without the pleasure of his laughter and company. Another era was over for Saranac Lake.
Larry was a true giant both in the ball park and on the barstool and we were fortunate to have known him.
By Amy Catania
October is a good month for a ghost story. So here is the tale of a humble spirit who for years haunted a cure cottage up on Charles Street.
I heard this story from Eileen Black, who has lived in the house for many years and raised her family there. A ghost visited their home several times a year for decades. He would show up at the back walkway, walking towards the house, glancing in the windows. Well-dressed, in an elegant, old fashioned coat and fedora, he looked a bit like Fred Astaire, so the family named him, “Fred.” Eileen, her husband, and children all got used to Fred sightings. He would appear and then be gone, before they could get a good look at him. Guests at the house would see him too. They were never afraid of him; he felt like a friend.
Fred’s visits went on for years until the time when the family decided to do a major renovation to the back area of the house. One day, when the construction was just about finished, Eileen looked out the back window to see Fred walking down the path, away from the house. He glanced over his shoulder, and he was gone. It was the only time they had ever seen him walking away, and it was the last time they would see him.
That is the whole story. It’s pretty short and not very scary, but it is a first-hand account from a family who lived in the company of a ghost. At 168 Charles Street, some part of the past lived side-by-side with the present.
We tend to believe that apparitions grow out of violent occurrences, and that they are people with unfinished business. I looked up Eileen’s house on our wiki site, and discovered that the first owner of the house, Arthur Strough, died in a tragic car accident. Arthur and his friend Joseph LaBeau died in April 1922 on Bloomingdale Road near the Trudeau Sanatorium. The vehicle went off the road, and Arthur burned to death under the car.
Perhaps Arthur’s painful and untimely death helps to explain the haunting of Charles Street. Yet here in this town where death was no stranger, you would think we would have more stories of hauntings. Any one of our old cure cottages could be haunted by people who died early deaths, but it seems they are mostly quiet.
Phantoms may be uncommon, but if you pay attention to the past, it will come alive. At the museum, our exhibit on the fresh air cure features personal stories of several TB patients. Their faces hang in the room on semi-transparent banners. One of our exhibit ghosts is Gloria Hazard. She came to Saranac Lake as a teenager, in search of a cure for TB. In an effort to save her from aggressive TB infection, her doctors resorted to thoracoplasty, a drastic operation where ribs were removed to permanently collapse the diseased lung. Gloria died of surgical complications on July 4, 1948, when she was only nineteen.
Until her death, from her bed at Trudeau, Gloria wrote letters home almost daily. Her niece visited the Saranac Laboratory Museum several years ago and shared the letters with us. When we listen to Gloria’s story, we learn lessons about sorrow, perseverance, and love. We might briefly grasp the reality that our time on earth is miraculous and fleeting.
We invite Gloria to haunt our museum as a simple act of human decency, to pay witness to a life that came before us. As we work to expand the museum into the Trudeau building, we are making room for more ghosts. Visitors will listen to stories of TB patients like Gloria, wilderness guides, shopkeepers, great camp builders, and Native Americans who made their homes here for thousands of years.
Here in Saranac Lake, we love our phantoms and the old buildings they call home. Some towns might have chosen to tear down the Trudeau house and put up a CVS. But instead, we are bringing the place back and finding our way forward together, by looking into the shadows and listening to our ghosts.
Listen to our museum “ghosts” on our website. Scroll down to track #7 to hear actress Donna Moschek read Gloria Hazard’s letter.
By Kayt Gochenaur
“Ample food is necessary to health.” This adage was a founding principle of the fresh air cure for tuberculosis. The fresh air cure had three tenets: fresh air, good food, and plenty of rest. Saranac Lake was famous for its clear mountain air, but we also knew a thing or two about food.
In the 1800s, tuberculosis was called consumption because it consumed the body fat. Patients were often underweight, without appetite, and flushed from a fever. Hope for recovery depended on eating from a well-filled dinner plate as much as on the lauded mountain air.
Early practitioners of the fresh air cure like Dr. Hermann Brehmer advocated treating TB with an abundant diet, a strong Hungarian wine, and cognac. When Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau founded the Trudeau Sanatorium in Saranac Lake, he built his own treatment philosophy on the successes of these doctors.
Different doctors and decades brought about new fads in the recommended diet for TB patients. Dr. Trudeau’s patients ate hearty food and cod-liver oil. Later, TB doctors favored dairy products for their high fat content and purported ease of digestion (my sympathy to those lactose intolerant patients). Dairy faded in popularity towards the end of the curing industry. Florence Mulhern, a Trudeau Sanatorium patient in the 1950s, said that dinners were always hot and hearty and the potatoes usually mashed.
Patients were expected to eat regardless of their appetite. Bill McLaughlin remembered this emphasis on food. As he stated in an oral history interview by Rhee Rickard, “My God, the first thing they did was build you up. Eggnogs with six eggs if you wanted. We all looked better than the people who came to visit us.” Preventing weight loss was so important that one TB patient had to eat a seven-ounce Hershey chocolate bar every day, ruining her love of chocolate.
Dr. Lawrason Brown of Trudeau Sanatorium encouraged patients to “Eat once for themselves, once for the germs, and once to gain weight… not only must three good meals but six glasses of milk and six raw eggs be swallowed every day.” If this surprises our modern sensibilities, remember that the link between bacteria and illness was new to Western medicine, and the heroin and opium used in TB treatments was probably more dangerous than the eggs
At a typical cure cottage, food preparation was a daunting task. An account from Kevin Healy describes Loretta McCabe’s daily work running a cure cottage. “[She] did all the cooking. My mother said that she dirtied every pot and utensil in the kitchen ... there was always a starch, a protein, a green vegetable, and an orange vegetable and then some sort of dessert. She paid attention to the color and every plate was made to look appetizing so that it would encourage the patients to eat.”
Contrary to Dr. Brehmer’s recommendation of wine and cognac, alcohol was forbidden at Trudeau Sanatorium. After prohibition this rule relaxed and, by the 1950s, patients at both Ray Brook and Trudeau were allowed their own alcohol. Some patients described a high prevalence of alcoholism at sanatoria, and the connection between tuberculosis and alcoholism is still being studied today.
The demand for fresh food and dairy gave rise to a thriving agricultural industry in Saranac Lake. With the refrigeration and shipping constraints of the day, much of the food for area patients was locally grown. Dairies like Crystal Spring (now called Donnelly’s) met the high demand for pasteurized milk, while sanatoria like Stony Wold on Lake Kushaqua, had their own farms and claimed to be self-sufficient.
Did all this food help patients? Vitamins A and D and high protein do promote healthy immune systems. Undernutrition is considered a risk factor for TB, and patients fighting off infection would have had a better chance at recovery if they maintained a healthy weight. As to the efficacy of Hungarian wine, raw eggs, cod liver oil, or chocolate--well, you’ll have to ask your doctor about that!
Read our next History Matters guest column by Rich Loeber below!
By Rich Loeber
Starting in the summer of 1953, I spent several weeks every August, camping with my family at Fish Creek Ponds Campsite. Those summers cemented a love of the Adirondacks in my mind and, in my 50s, I made the move to Saranac Lake.
I spent my summers at Fish Creek with my older brother and sister and our parents. My father was the outdoors man, and he loved being in the woods. His love of the Adirondacks was born during family vacations in Indian Lake, but he chose Fish Creek because of the guaranteed lake front for each campsite.
Fish Creek was created by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the early 1930s. In fact, it was a large CCC camp on its own while accommodating public campers. Over the course of 1931 to 1935, CCC workers extended the camp, built picnic tables, stone fireplaces, and facilities. The early campers were allowed to stay for up to two weeks for free. Fish Creek quickly became the most popular of the many state campgrounds that the CCC was building throughout the Adirondacks.
In 1935, the CCC created a rustic amphitheater in the woods. The state started showing movies for free at the amphitheater. This kicked up a good Adirondack battle with locals, claiming that the free campgrounds and free movies were taking money from local hotels and movie theaters.
When we vacationed at Fish Creek there was no reservation system. You just drove up, and if there were no sites available (a common occurrence), you would wait on line at the check-in station until a site opened up. You had to take what the ranger was offering if you wanted to stay. We used to pack up from our home near White Plains, and my father would drive all night to arrive as early in the morning as we could. This was before the NY Thruway was built, and we drove up Route 9 for much of the trip. It could easily take more than 12 hours to reach our destination. On at least one occasion, we had to spend a night waiting on line when there were no campsites available.
The facilities were spartan at best. Toilets were open pit, and there were no showers. I recall bathing in the lake, but that would not do these days. There was a good water distribution system for drinking and cooking, with a working spigot placed every few campsites. After a few summers, the facilities were upgraded to flush toilets, which was a huge improvement, along with showers (cold water only).
We often rented a flat bottom row boat from Hickok’s. They had a rental site right in the camp located roughly where the modern beach is today. Mr. Hickok made these boats that were very heavy and unwieldy, but perfect for kids. When we got older, we converted to renting a canoe instead.
Fish Creek continues to be very popular today. Those early CCC fireplaces and picnic tables are still in evidence at many sites. It will cost you $22 a night, but you can enjoy hot showers, RV facilities, and your choice of 355 campsites through a reservation system where you can choose a site in advance, assuming it is available.
Since moving here, I have encountered many locals who point to Fish Creek as their introduction to the area. I have many fond memories of camping, swimming, boating, hiking, and sitting by the camp fire. Today, I live just down the road and often make the choice to drive by Fish Creek when heading out for the day.
Find out more about Fish Creek and share your memories at Historic Saranac Lake’s website of local history.
By Amy Catania
Sears catalog kit house advertisement, 1936.
What’s not to love about a house in a box? In the first part of the 20th century, thousands of Americans ordered their homes out of the Sears Roebuck catalog. The homes were shipped in railroad cars, all parts ready to assemble — little boxes, just like the Pete Seeger song. Customers could choose from a wide variety of architectural styles and price points, from the tiny metal “Lustron” to the elegant “Alhambra.” Both styles can be found here in the village. An untold number of other Saranac Lake homes were built from kits.
When I first moved to Saranac Lake, my husband and I bought a little house over by the Petrova fields. Just down the street is Susan and Glenn Arnold’s Lustron and Lynn and Wayne Newman’s Strathmore. Around the corner, you can find Sandy Hildreth’s Strathmore, built in reverse. As I learned about the kit houses in the neighborhood, I became hopeful that our house was part of the club. The tell-tale archway to the living room, the funny slant to the chimney, the compact design — these were some of the details that gave me hope our house might be one of the chosen.
One day, looking through old Sears Catalogues, I found it! There, with arched doorway, slanted chimney, and matching floorpan, was... the Collingwood! — “an unusual bungalow, well suited for modern living conditions. The exterior is very practical and finds much favor on account of its simplicity…. Living out of doors, as most of us do in summer, the front porch will be appreciated. The windows are very well designed and attractively arranged.”
The Strathmore, arriving on the train in Saranac Lake, and pictured at right, mostly assembled. Photos provided by Martin Winderl, the stone mason who built the foundation.
In 1936, the Collingwood cost $1,497, which included “all material consisting of lumber, lath, millwork, flooring, shingles, building paper, hardware, metal and painting materials according to specifications.” Today, adjusting for inflation, this solid little house would cost just $29,037. The new owner would have only needed to hire Maddens to deliver the kit from the depot to the new lot, and to pay a trusty contractor like Mike Boon to pour the foundation and assemble the house.
Thrilled with my discovery, I went about the process of looking for proof that my home was indeed a Collingwood. Sadly, I was out of luck. Where “Sears” should have been stamped on hardware, there was nothing. Where the dimensions of a room should have been exactly as listed, they were slightly different. I came to the conclusion that my house was built on the plans of the Collingwood, but not from an actual kit. Apparently, this was a common practice. Sears plans were readily available, and builders often made use of them to build their own kit house replicas.
My house was not quite a kit house, but nevertheless, we loved that place — it’s tidy size, it’s sturdy plaster walls, it’s bright rooms. My research into the house’s past set the stage for many happy years in that house. We raised two boys there, and the years passed quickly, measured by the sports seasons on the fields next-door, from spring baseball to summer rugby to fall football. Over time, we came to feel like we belonged in Saranac Lake. In all those years of flying baseballs, only one window broke.
Eventually we outgrew our Collingwood wannabe, and we moved across town to one of Saranac Lake’s rambling cure cottages. Our “new” house is all porches and angles, with no clear history or floor plan. It’s full of mysterious drafty spots and attic spaces to nowhere. Unlike a kit house, a cure cottage’s history and architecture is messy, the way most life is.
We tend to want to see the world like a kit house. We want reality to come in little boxes – right or wrong, left or right, red or blue. When we take the time to dig underneath appearances and into the past, we find that things are almost always more complicated than they appear on the surface. We discover connections and imagine new possibilities. We can find common ground in a shared appreciation for our hometown.
Lynn Newman at her home, the Strathmore, September, 2020.
A few years ago, when we were trying to wrest this cure cottage out of foreclosure, my friend Anne Merkel got wind of our interest in the house. Her husband Dr. David Merkel grew up here, and she loved this old place. Every few weeks, Anne would call and gently encourage us. One winter, when we had about given up, Anne called and said, “I’ve been thinking about the Merkel house and how pretty it looks at Christmas. Do you know where you would put the Christmas tree?”
Yes, I knew exactly where the Christmas tree would go, and I knew then that we would keep trying to get the house. Not long later, we bought it in foreclosure, and we began the long process of slowly bringing the place back to life. Now, as the leaves begin to change color, we look forward to another Christmas in the old Merkel house, in the place we call home.
Actors reading the play, "Safe Harbor" from the porch of the Merkel cure cottage, September 2020. The play by Karen Lewis is set in Saranac Lake during the TB years.
By Phil “Bunk” Griffin for Historic Saranac Lake
Following his brush with death (as recounted in last week’s article) Pete Tanzini appeared to have settled down. He married his second wife Gussy, and they settled into their new home at the end of Olive Street.
A couple of years later, however, Pete became the proud owner of a giant Wildcat still. This was said to be the biggest illegal still in New York State, originally costing $45,000. The still was previously owned by a Brooklyn bootleg gang, who had bought it piecemeal, assembled it and produced hundreds of gallons of booze a week. Eventually, the gang was snagged. The government confiscated the still, cut it into apparently useless scrap metal, and sold it to a junkyard.
A Rochester gang, operating as junk dealers, bought the "useless" scrap metal piece by piece with the intention of reconstructing it. Not wanting to provoke the Brooklyn gang, they sold the device to Pete for $7,000. It was quietly shipped to Saranac Lake and reassembled in a secret chamber that Pete had built into the cellar of his home on Olive Street.
The Brooklyn gang was run by Jack Moran, better known as Legs Diamond. Jack's brother, Eddie Moran, was curing in Saranac Lake, and Jack often came to visit him. Jack wanted to control distribution in the North Country, and he put the pressure on Pete. He said he would allow Pete to sell his goods in Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake, Lyon Mountain, and other small outlets in the area. He was, however, warned not to do business in Lake Placid, Elizabethtown, Port Henry, and localities to the south. On at least one occasion, Pete had been seen by the Diamond gang in a taboo area.
Legs Diamond continued his threats toward Pete and began spreading lies that Pete's whiskey was watered down. A lesser man would have thrown in the towel at this point, but Pete, although just five feet tall, wasn't a man who could be pushed around. Pete set up a meeting with Legs at the Aratoga Inn, in Cairo New York, 25 miles south of Albany, to settle this problem. This was one of Legs' favorite hangouts. At the meeting, Pete verbally and physically put Legs down, a very dangerous move. Legs Diamond was later attacked by Dutch Schultz and his gunmen at the Aratoga Inn but was only wounded. Two innocent bystanders were killed in that attack.
On Wednesday, December 17, 1930, at 5:00 PM, Pete told his wife Gussy that he had a business meeting in town and left the house. He told her that he would stop at the store on his way home and pick up groceries. He went directly to the Club Restaurant on Main Street, Saranac Lake, and met with the owner, Al Chapple, and Jimmy Carolina, a local businessman, concerning a store they were planning on building in town.
The Club Restaurant was busy with its 5:00 o'clock dinner crowd, so Pete and Jimmy left the restaurant saying that they would return at 8:00 PM Pete was seen shortly after coming out of a grocery store carrying a package. He got into his dark green Buick bearing 1930 license plates numbered 9P-55-32 and drove away. A Saranac Lake salesman reported seeing Pete a short time later near Work's Corners, now better known as Donnelly's Corners. The man said that Pete was driving his Buick and was accompanied by two men who he didn't recognize. That was the last known sighting of Peter Tanzini.
On February 17, 1931, exactly two months after Pete's disappearance, Norman Demo was doing some work around the Tanzini house on Olive Street. He recalled at 1:45 PM hearing the phone ring and Gussy answering. He said he couldn't hear the conversation. Norman testified that he heard the doorbell a few minutes later and that Gussy went to the door. Another telephone call came just a few minutes later, Demo stated.
Just before 2:00 PM, Norman said he heard a shot and ran upstairs to investigate. According to Demo, Gussy was on the floor and a .22 caliber pistol was lying nearby. She had a bullet wound in her right temple. Police traced the phone calls to a local pay phone but had no clue as to who made them. Mrs. Tanzini, 29, had just recently made out her will with Justice Harold Main of Malone, who appeared at the house just moments later. Norman Demo and a cohort named Sonny Foster, took a one-way trip to Alaska shortly after the death of Gussy. Rumor had it that each had $5,000 in his possession.
Later, a search was made of the house, and the secret chamber in the cellar was discovered. Police also found two secret rooms in the attic containing thousands of counterfeit Canadian liquor labels and seals. The still was once more cut up and stored in Malone. An associated bottling plant on Keene Street was also raided at that time.
On December 18, 1931, almost exactly one year after Pete's mysterious disappearance, Legs Diamond was rubbed out by Dutch Schultz's gang at his hideout on Dove Street in Albany.
According to an article in the Lake Placid News of February 25, 1944, the Tanzini home was involved in a fire but was not badly damaged. Pete's beautiful stonework and the entrance to the once hidden room can still be seen behind the house on the end of Olive Street. Although no song was written about Pete and no street bears his name, this stonework still stands as a haunting memorial of the tragic tale of the "Will O' The Wisp" and Gussy.
-Pete Tanzini trimming the hedge at his home on Olive Street. Courtesy of Bunk Griffin.
-Augusta "Gussy" Menzel Tanzini, Courtesy of Historic Saranac Lake.
-Shirley Tanzini, daughter of Pete and Gussy Tanzini, demonstrates a hidden door built by Pete at William Morris' Camp Intermission. Courtesy of Bunk Griffin.
By Phil “Bunk” Griffin for Historic Saranac Lake
Last week, local historian, Phil “Bunk” Griffin, introduced the tale of Pete Tanzini, one of Saranac Lake’s notorious rum runners. What follows is the second part of this fascinating story!
As prohibition continued and bootlegging took hold in the North Country, organized gangs soon demanded a share of the revenue. In return, they offered protection from competing criminal networks. Early in the game, a group out of Rochester had staked out much of the area business. The gang routinely patrolled the North Country and vigorously defended their claim. Any independent supplier entering their territory risked losing their loads, their money, and their lives. Independent rum-runners faced constant harassment from both the law and the outlaws. Examples of this dual threat are illustrated in two stories found in 1922 and 1923 editions of the Plattsburg Sentinel.
It was the summer of 1922, and two lawmen, State Trooper, Charlie Broadfield, and Franklin County Sheriff, Frank Steenburg, were searching for an escapee from the Franklin County Jail. They spotted Pete Tanzini's car coming across the border near Teboville. The car appeared to be carrying a heavy load. Inside were Pete Tanzini and his son-in-law, Tony Salvaggio. The remainder of the car space was filled with several burlap bags full of Canadian ale.
When Tanzini spotted the officials, he attempted to outrun them. Tony began tossing bottles of ale out the window in an effort to flatten the tires of the pursuers. The lawmen avoided the broken glass, and the high-speed chase continued for several miles, with the lawmen riding tight to their bumper. Pete's car was no match for the lawmen's vehicle, and he was eventually forced onto the bank of the Salmon River.
Captain Broadfield had brought along his 14-year-old Police Dog, Bobbie, to assist in tracking the jail escapee. When Pete and Tony began running, Charlie released the dog. Pete dove from the 30-foot-high ledge into the Salmon River. Bobbie followed suit, grabbed Pete's arm in his powerful jaws, and delivered the soggy captive to the waiting officers. He then found Tony and brought him back also. This was the first time in the history of North Country bootlegging that a dog had been used in the capture of rum-runners. Pete and Tony were arrested and paid a $600 fine. It was a small fee compared to the price Pete would pay to a group of outlaws a year later.
In the early hours of Saturday, June 9, 1923, Pete was taking his attractive 20-year-old girlfriend (soon to be second wife) Augusta "Gussy" Menzel to her home in Syracuse. Oscar Saunders, an ex-Saranac Lake cabbie, was driving Pete's Cole Eight. Gussy and her mother were in the front seat with Oscar. Pete was in the back, sleeping. It was around 1:00 AM and they were nearing New Russia.
The group was accosted by five men, who were parked on the side of the road in a big Wills Sainte Claire car. One of the men got out of the vehicle and signaled for Oscar to stop. The man was holding a .45 caliber pistol. When Oscar didn't stop, he fired five shots at the car. The first soft-nosed bullet flattened a rear tire and another splintered the spokes on a wheel. The last bullet passed through the back of the Cole Eight, pierced Pete's right kidney and lung and lodged in his chest.
The men, flashing what appeared to be fake badges, approached the stopped car, and said they were searching for illegal booze. When they saw that Pete was hit, they got back in their car. Oscar drove a short distance on the flat tire to New Russia. There, he pounded on the door of the home of Mr. and Mrs. H.O. Jacobi and asked to use their phone to call a doctor.
Pete was taken to the Champlain Valley Hospital in Plattsburgh. He wasn't expected to live, but several weeks later he was back in Saranac Lake, where he declared in a newspaper article: "I have made my last trip over the Adirondack Booze Trail." Was the "Will O' The Wisp" actually retiring from the bootlegging profession?
To find out, stay tuned next week for the final installment in Bunk Griffin’s story of Pete Tanzini!
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