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
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.
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.
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!
On January 29, 1919, the government enacted the Eighteenth Amendment, prohibiting the transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages. This act created a lucrative, new, and illegal enterprise for the North Country. Saranac Lake, with its maze of back roads and its close proximity to the Canadian border, soon found itself playing a key role in the bootlegging game. The Volstead Act changed the lives of many Saranac Lakers, and was instrumental in ending some prematurely.
Saranac Lake's reputation as a center for the treatment of tuberculosis was growing, and its popularity as a tourist destination was already well established, but there were still many residents with thin wallets. The average annual wage for Americans in 1919 was $2,000, but most residents of this area earned far less. Prohibition would provide an opportunity to improve the cash flow for many locals.
While the bulk of the imported booze was destined for Albany, New York City, and other large cities, speakeasies were numerous in Saranac Lake, and they were well stocked with Canadian booze. Locals, tourists, TB patients, and gangsters like Legs Diamond intermingled. It was the beginning of the Roaring Twenties, and it was party time!
Men who were normally law-abiding citizens were drawn into this dangerous occupation in the hopes of making some quick cash. Area lawmen were soon pitted against a steady stream of fast-driving local runners. Stories have been passed down about the exploits of local bootleggers. Almost every family had at least one member in the business.
Bert LaFountain, a local bootlegging virtuoso, had a song called, "Bert LaFountain's Packard” written about him. A street in Gabriels bears his name. In spite of his occupation, Bert lived a long life and died of natural causes. One local bootlegger, however, is virtually forgotten, in spite of the fact that he is the subject of a pair of mysteries that have remained unsolved for over seven decades.
Pietro "Pete" Tanzini and his five brothers had come to the United States from Italy in the early 1900s. Eventually they came to Saranac Lake, where they operated a construction company specializing in first class masonry. The brothers produced some beautiful stone work in Saranac Lake, including the early brick streets, which they laid around 1916. The brick was eventually covered with asphalt, but patches of the Tanzini brothers’ work occasionally show through the asphalt around town.
Four of Pete's brothers later settled in Binghamton. One brother, Jack, stayed in Saranac Lake and was associated with Rocco and Jimmie's American-Italian Garden Restaurant at 104 Broadway, which was frequently busted for selling illegal beverages. Pete decided to become a more active participant in the illegal booze trade.
Pete Tanzini was not only an expert stone mason; he was also an adept race car driver. He would utilize both of these skills in his bootlegging career. Because of his uncanny knack of avoiding their traps and disappearing quickly from sight, Pete became known by law enforcement agencies as the "Will O' The Wisp.” Pete's name was destined to become linked to North Country bootlegging and to the most perplexing unsolved mystery in the North Country.
Stay tuned next week for more about the mystery of Pete Tanzini!
Last week, we brought our “Letters from the Porch” series to a close. It was a fun way to stay in touch during quarantine times. Now we are starting a new weekly article series called “History Matters” that will present history on a wide range of topics relating to the rich history of the Saranac Lake region. The articles will run each week in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, and we will share them here on our blog. We welcome your help with this project! Our good friend and local history expert, Phil “Bunk” Griffin has agreed to be a regular contributor, starting with an essay on bootlegging next week, so stay tuned…. We promise, you will learn something new each week!
The decade of the 1940s was a dramatic time in Saranac Lake. Emerging from the Great Depression, the TB economy was booming again as the world geared up for war. Saranac Lakers flocked to the Pontiac Theatre to watch motion pictures like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and It’s a Wonderful Life. The horrors of WWII came to an end in September of 1945, and it was time to celebrate. Big Band Dances were all the rage. New romances flourished while dancing the Lindy Hop.
The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra played in the Harrietstown Town Hall for the “Post Ball” in 1949. It was the climax of the four-day encampment of the New York Veterans of Foreign Wars. Eight hundred people danced until 1:30 a.m. The orchestra played a number of request selections and introduced "I've got that New Look" written by Ernie Burnett and Thomas Sheridan of Saranac Lake. As the dance concluded at 1:30, Mrs. Dorsey, mother of the two nationally known band leaders, was introduced to the dancers.
The Latin American Connection
Big band dances in Saranac Lake during the 1940s weren’t all swing music. There was quite a lot of Latin American music played too. Music from Cuba was all the rage, and thousands of people came to Saranac Lake from countries all over Latin America for the fresh air cure.
Many Spanish-speaking people in Saranac Lake were guests of Alfredo and Alicia Gonzalez. Alfredo Gonzalez was born Puerto Rico in 1903. He came to Saranac Lake with TB at age 17. Alicia was from Havana. The couple met and married in 1926. Together, they operated cure cottages in Saranac Lake for some forty years. Alfredo and Alicia established Saranac Lake as a destination for patients across Latin America. Walking through town, you would have heard Spanish being spoken at many cure cottages throughout the village.
Alfredo Gonzalez was active in the Saranac Lake Study and Craft Guild, founded in 1935 to bring the benefits of occupational therapy to the community and to patients outside of the Trudeau Sanatorium. Mr. Gonzalez taught Spanish at the guild from 1941-45 and 1954-57. He helped to get a Time Magazine radio series called “Let us Learn Spanish” onto local radio station WNBZ. He also established an active Spanish Club which met for regular parties in the 40s and 50s at peoples’ homes and area sanatoria. Alfredo’s Spanish Club and classes laid the groundwork for some fabulous dances at the Hotel Saranac.
Dances at the Hotel Saranac
From 1942 to 1952, Alfredo Gonzalez organized a major annual fundraiser for the Guild, the Harvest Hop dance. For the 1942 Harvest Hop, the Pan American Union in Washington, D.C. loaned a complete set of large flags from all 21 Latin American countries, which were used to decorate the hotel. The event included a pageant in which “21 beautiful girls” participated, each representing a different country. There was a Latin dance contest. Entertainment was provided by the band Señor Uvanni and his Caballeros, and the singer, Louisa Paván Hennessey.
In 1948, the annual dance was renamed the “Fiesta Hop.” The head of the Armed Forces of Venezuela, Mario Vargas, who was a patient at Gonzalez Cottage, served as honorary chairman of the dance. Old timers recalled Vargas’ uniform weighted down with medals. The general arranged for shipment by air from Venezuela of 100 native orchids for the female guests. The hotel was decorated with Latin American murals. Mr. and Mrs. PJ Seralles of the Don Q. Rum Company did a Samba exhibition. Alfredo's friends from the El Chico nightclub in New York City, Rosita Rios, and Benito Collada, were the star performers, along with the music of Raul Barragán and his five-piece orchestra.
The End of an Era
With the advent of the antibiotic treatment in Saranac Lake, the cure cottages emptied out, and suddenly very little Spanish was spoken in Saranac Lake. The big band dances at the Hotel Saranac became a thing of the past.
We were looking forward to bringing the decade to life again, with plans for a 1940s Big Band Gala at the hotel this summer. Like so many events, it has been postponed due to the virus. But we look forward to the day when we can put on our dancing shoes and dance the Lindy Hop and the Mambo again.
-Latin American Patients and family members at the Saranac Lake Union Depot. Alfredo Gonzalez is second from left. His wife Alicia is third from left. Courtesy of Joe Benero.
-Advertisement for Gonzalez Cottage, Journal of the Outdoor Life, Historic Saranac Lake Collection.
Stay up to date on all the news and happenings from Historic Saranac Lake at the Saranac Laboratory Museum!