Sing on, sing on you gray-brown bird,
Sing from the swamps, the recesses, pour your chant from the bushes,
Limitless out of the dusk, out of the cedars and pines.
Walt Whitman, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”
A whole year has gone by since we first heard the word “Covid.” We are coming full circle, and soon the hermit thrush will sing again.
Last March, on the brink of the pandemic, I spent a weekend in Potsdam at my son’s basketball tournament. I remembering wondering when I would next spend time in a crowd of people. Between games, I worked on the first of what would become a year of essays, drawing parallels between the pandemic and Saranac Lake’s tuberculosis era.
One year later, I returned with a family member to the Potsdam gym, not for a basketball tournament but for a vaccine. The gym, once teeming with players and fans, was now full of busy nurses, national guard soldiers, and grateful community members.
That day at Potsdam a year ago things felt so uncertain. With no vaccine and no effective treatment for the new coronavirus, we were facing a situation similar to the time of tuberculosis in Saranac Lake. Dr. Trudeau’s treatment model was our best hope — prevention, diagnosis, rest, fresh air, and healthy food. During the pandemic, the world quieted down. Those of us who could, stayed in one place. We found the time to think more about the world and our place in it. We worried about our health and the well-being of our neighbors.
Interviews and written accounts of former TB patients show a range of experiences. Some people were lonely, in pain, sad, and anxious. Others fell in love, made friends, and discovered new talents and passions. People with better health, wealth, strong support systems, or upbeat personalities were more likely to enjoy their time curing. Surviving the fresh air cure, let alone learning from the experience, was a luxury not everyone had.
Although each experience was different, many people who regained their health in Saranac Lake report learning lessons that they carried throughout their lives. Many patients learned to value and care for their physical and mental health. They found new appreciation for friends and family. They discovered an appreciation of nature, a love of learning, and creative talents.
One former patient described in a letter how his time curing shaped his life. Whitney North Seymour, Jr., was one of the last patients to cure at Trudeau, when the antibiotic therapy was coming into use. He completed his cure at 89 Park Ave, staying there with his wife Catryna. Following his cure, he became a New York State Senator and served as United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Mr. Seymour wrote, “We walked for an hour every morning and afternoon, including in the deep snow, and learned important lessons about the role of nature in speeding return to good health.... When I was in Saranac Lake, I listened to a lot of classical recordings and developed a strong interest in Brahms and Mendelssohn.... I still listen for the hermit thrush and look for the witch-hobble in the early spring.”
Last March, I thought often of Whitney and Catryna as I watched people following their footsteps down Park Ave. They walked slowly, in ones and twos, to the sanatorium gates and back again. They were worried about their health and scared about the future, but they were learning some lessons worth keeping.
With best wishes for healthy days ahead,
by Amy Catania
This month, one block at a time, an ice palace emerged again on the shore of Lake Flower. If you had the chance to stop by, you may have felt its warm embrace.
The massive ice blocks of the palace remind me of the stone walls of Machu Picchu. Relying on a system of communal labor called mit’a, the Inca built enormous stone structures and highly engineered roads and bridges. Each citizen who could work was required to donate a number of days of their labor to cultivate crops and build public works. Historians of ancient Peru trace the ways the mit’a system forged a complex society. Working together, people developed friendships and bonds of reciprocity that served the common good throughout the year.
Saranac Lake has its own form of mit’a. Winter Carnival brings together individuals from all walks of life, all ages, political persuasions, types of jobs, and personalities. Building an ice palace or a parade float isn’t always fun. We disagree about costumes, decorations, and dance moves. Like siblings we squabble, but we emerge on the other side laughing. Just like the blocks of the ice palace, one person at a time, carnival comes together. Eventually the palace melts down to a pile of rubble like an Incan ruin. But when it’s time to argue about an issue relating to the school district or village politics, having survived the dry run of carnival, we make it through together. A community net is forged. When your luck takes a turn, it is there to catch you.
At Winter Carnival time, I think of this illustration by Mildred McMaster Blanchet. Milly left behind beautiful artwork and lively poems that belie a life marked by its share of hardship. A trained artist who came to Saranac Lake with TB, she met her husband Dr. Sidney Blanchet when they were both patients at Trudeau. Dr. Blanchet served as Dr. E. L. Trudeau’s personal physician. He was well respected and deeply loved by his patients. Milly and Sidney settled in the village and had three children.
The community reached out to help the Blanchet family more than once. In the winter of 1933, the oldest Blanchet boys, Gray and David, fell through thin ice while skating on Lake Flower. The Ogdensburg Journal reported, “Their screams were heard by a group of boys on the shore. With presence of mind the youths quickly grabbed planks, and ropes at a nearby garage and rushed to the aid of the lads in the freezing water.” Thanks to the heroic efforts of young Saranac Lakers, including Charlie Keough and Paul Duprey, the boys survived.
Four years later, tragedy struck again and didn’t miss. During the Depression, many of Dr. Blanchet's patients could not pay for care. He often treated them for free, resulting in his own bankruptcy. Dr. Blanchet fell into a deep depression and tragically took his life. Milly must have felt the world crumble under her feet. But the community net reached out. She was offered a place to live at the Trudeau Sanatorium and hired as an occupational therapist at the workshop. She taught painting, knitting, crewel work, and hand embroidery. Piece by piece, Milly re-built her life by helping others.
Eventually, thanks in part to the heroic ice rescue of 1933, Milly became a proud grandmother of ten. She retired to a senior center in Massachusetts where she created a craft room for the residents. Her granddaughter Sylvia remembers, “The walls were lined with shelves of every kind of art supply. There was a great table in the center of the room that was always filled with busy, happy people when Grand Milly was in attendance. She would mentor whoever was in need of attention and encourage every project. I saw people hooking rugs, knitting, doing needle point, and painting among other things. It was as if the people in the room were her garden and everyone there would blossom through her kind and gentle presence.”
In Saranac Lake, the workshop that shaped Milly’s life still stands. For a brief time, an ice palace emerged on the shore of Lake Flower. Sadly, this year's palace was demolished early to avoid gatherings during the pandemic, but come back next winter for a warm hug.
by Amy Catania
Seeking some historical perspective on the current pandemic, Historic Saranac Lake recently hosted an imaginary panel discussion at St. John’s in the Wilderness Cemetery. Three generations of Doctors Trudeau shared their thoughts on change and continuity in science and public health.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
MODERATOR: In your lifetimes, each of you witnessed major advancements in the scientific understanding and medical treatment of infectious disease. Does it surprise you to see a new virus set the world back on its heels?
DOCTOR 2: Indeed, it is a shock. Today’s situation reminds me of the flu that I saw when I served on military base during the Great War. Basic nursing care and sanitary measures were our only weapons.
DOCTOR 1: In my time, huge advancements were made in science and medicine, so it is surprising to see the mess we are in with this new virus. 150 years ago, I came to Saranac Lake fighting "consumption," a disease that was killing 1 in 7 people in our country. We had no idea what caused it or how to cure it. Then, in 1882, Dr. Koch discovered the tubercle bacillus under the microscope in Germany. It seemed science would save the world from infectious disease.
DOCTOR 2: When the antibiotic treatment for TB was perfected in the 1950s, it was a miracle. Many of my patients who had been sick for years suddenly got out of bed and returned to the living.
DOCTOR 3: Thanks to groundbreaking advancements like antibiotics and the polio vaccine, there was great optimism. U.S. Surgeon General William Stewart announced in 1969 that the time had come to “close the book on infectious disease.”
DOCTOR 1: I can understand that perspective. “Optimism in Medicine” was the title of my last public speech!
MODERATOR: Yet tuberculosis continues as a major public health threat, even now. And here we are with a new virus wreaking havoc around the world. What went wrong?
DOCTOR 1: Looking back on my early struggles in the laboratory, I knew then that microbes are tricky little buggers. It is no wonder that they continue to outwit us.
DOCTOR 3: In the 1960s, Eastern Europe was experiencing a resurgence of TB. Some doctors from the Soviet Union visited Saranac Lake to learn about our old surgical methods for TB. It drove home for me that science isn’t a straight trajectory. Microorganisms keep evolving. Overused and misused, antibiotics are losing their effectiveness. Some 1.5 million people are expected to die of TB in this new year! Scientific development of new antibiotics is woefully underfunded today.
DOCTOR 1: Research dollars flow to where there is money to be made, not necessarily where human health most needs the research. I founded my Saranac Laboratory in 1894 as purely a research laboratory, with no commercial side to it. Soon I realized the difficulty of that model.
DOCTOR 3: Still, I have such hope in science! In 1964, I opened the doors of the new Trudeau institute for the first time. I was so proud on that day, and I am thrilled to see Trudeau Institute still with us, carrying out important research. Science holds great promise. Just look at the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines!
DOCTOR 1: Today's vaccines are an achievement that I could have never imagined back in the early days when my microscope was lit by natural light. But it must be a two-pronged approach — science and public health.
MODERATOR: What do you think about the state of the public health system today?
DOCTOR 3: Under-resourced systems are straining to care for the sick, administer the vaccines, and prepare for the next disease. The lack of attention to public health is not new. In my time, as we came to rely more on pharmaceuticals, the holistic sanatorium model — buttressing the immune system with a long-term approach to wellness — fell by the wayside.
DOCTOR 2: I remember when the last patient left the sanatorium in 1954. It was a sad day for Saranac Lake, but a hopeful day for humanity. We thought then that the magic bullet of pharmaceuticals would simplify patient care and ultimately take the place of many prevention measures. It hasn’t been that easy.
DOCTOR 1: It’s been true for a long time — more lives are saved by public health measures than by medical care. Population density, poor sanitation, unventilated spaces, poverty, stress … all of these ills of the modern world contribute to infectious disease. (Yes, the late 1800s were “modern” to us then!) Addressing those conditions was (and is!) essential to improving human health. The world has taken shortcuts around simple public health measures. Coronavirus proves the danger of that approach.
DOCTOR 2: With each returning disease, like plague and Cholera, to new ones like HIV, Ebola, SARS, and COVID-19, public funding for emergency response and prevention surges, but then it declines again.
MODERATOR: Today's virus isn’t just hitting poor countries hard. Wealthy countries like the U.S. are struggling too. What’s going on?
DOCTOR 1: COVID-19 reveals that the same deep inequalities that bred the rise of TB in the 1800s are still with us.
DOCTOR 2: It’s a terrible tragedy. I read that on average, each victim of COVID-19 has lost 13 years of life. Blacks and Hispanics are more than twice as likely to die of the disease. But many turn a blind eye. Many people doubt science and medicine and distrust their fellow citizens. Political divisions, exacerbated by the pandemic, are threatening our democratic system.
DOCTOR 3: Disease doesn’t have to sow division. There is another path. Look how Saranac Lake came together as a community that cared for the sick with compassion.
DOCTOR 1: Empathy was at the heart of our work at Saranac, and the world needs more of it now. I never hired a nurse, orderly, or doctor who did not have that essential quality. I am proud of today’s heroes in medicine and science. Their courageous work during this difficult time reminds me of a favorite phrase, “To cure sometimes, to relieve often, to comfort always.”
Sources and Acknowledgements
- Epidemics and Society by Frank Snowden, Yale University Press, 2019.
- Covid-19 age expectancy statistic: January 2021 "Harper’s Index," Harper's Magazine, Stephen Elledge, Harvard Medical School.
- Special thanks for input from Laura Ettinger, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History at Clarkson University and Dr. Tony Holtzman, Emeritus Professor of Pediatrics, Johns Hopkins University.
by Amy Catania
"Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole.” — It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946
This is a good time of year to watch It’s a Wonderful Life. Set in a fictional town in upstate New York called Bedford Falls, the movie tells the story of a man named George Bailey who discovers how much his life matters. The movie brings to mind the wonderful life of Saranac Laker, Alton “Tony” Anderson.
Tony Anderson fell ill with tuberculosis while working as a toolmaker in Southington, Connecticut. As a member of the Masons, he received financial help to come to Saranac Lake for treatment in 1919. “I came here to die,” Tony used to say.
Facing death, Tony received a gift, a chance to imagine the world without him. He made his home here and dedicated his life to giving back. He served as village mayor for nine terms. He worked as the volunteer ambulance driver and as a plane spotter on top of the Hotel Saranac during the war. He was a member of the Masonic Lodge, the Elks Club, the Rotary, the Boat and Waterway Club, the hospital board, and the blood bank.
Mayor Anderson could always be seen around town, no matter the temperature, in his sport coat and tie, doing the informal business of holding the village together, one personal relationship at a time. He was a Republican in a time when political party didn’t matter much in small town politics. People voted for Tony time and again, because he was a good man who worked hard for the people of Saranac Lake. Mayor Anderson had a delightful, quiet sense of humor. He did the right thing without apology. If you needed something, he was there.
The gem of Tony’s eye was the beautiful Pontiac Theatre. The theater had the largest screen in upstate New York, an orchestral organ valued at $12,000, velvet curtains, and gorgeous chandeliers. It wasn’t just a theater; it was an experience. Famed theatrical agent William Morris, here with his own case of TB, brought some of the most famous talent of the day to perform benefit shows at the Pontiac.
Tony Anderson first worked as an usher in the balcony, which was reserved for TB patients. He went on to a long career as theater manager. Tony was always there at the door, warmly greeting each patron. After the Catholic Church burned, Tony opened the theater for Sunday services. Parishioners gave him the friendly appellation, “Father Anderson.” The business of managing the theater was hard work, and Tony liked to say that he “never missed a day and never saw a movie.” He kept a record of the date of each winter’s first snowfall on the doorframe of his little office under the theater stairs.
Each afternoon, Tony went home to his modest house on South Hope Street and sat on his porch in a cure chair. “Best seat in the house,” he called it. After his afternoon rest, he would go back to the theater for the shows. Tony’s wife Helen is remembered as a lovely person. She took care of the books at Newman and Holmes hardware store. They had two children, Charlene and Bailey.
Saranac Lake in the 1950s was a picture postcard of Bedford Falls. Everyone knew each other. Kids played together outside through all seasons. Downtown shops bustled year-round. The Adirondack Daily Enterprise was five times thicker than it is today. The theater, the radio station, civic organizations, and places of worship knitted the community together. Like the shadow of death cast by tuberculosis, the horrors of WWII inspired an appreciation for life and a sense of civic responsibility.
But forces were afoot that were beginning to devastate small towns around the country. Everywhere, industry and manufacturing were closing up shop. In Saranac Lake, the TB business came to an end. Jobs dried up and families left. Across America, suburban development was eroding downtown retail. Television offered solitary entertainment that took the place of public activities like going to the movies.
By the late 1960s, Tony Anderson’s beloved theater had fallen on hard times. The impeccably dressed ushers were gone, and, much to Tony’s chagrin, on Wednesday nights the Pontiac was showing titillating foreign films that reflected changing social mores. It seemed that only the bars were prospering. The town was on track to become like Pottersville, Bedford Falls’ evil twin in the movie. The forces that were changing the village were bigger than the efforts of the good men and women of Saranac Lake.
But things have a way of coming full circle. Many former TB patients credit their brush with death for shaping their sense of civic duty. As we emerge from a global pandemic, perhaps we have more than one Tony Anderson in the making. Good people and places are still with us. Cross the bridge by the Left Bank Cafe. Turn the corner, and walk past the Hotel Saranac, the museum, and the library. You just might see glimmers of Bedford Falls.
Sadly, some things are indeed lost forever. On December 19, 1978, a massive fire devastated the Pontiac Theatre. Three years after the fire, Saranac Lake’s longest serving mayor died at the age of 82. The Adirondack Daily Enterprise obituary stated, “Will Rogers said, 'I never met a man I couldn't like.' With apologies for the paraphrasing, we say, 'We never met anyone who didn't like Tony Anderson.’”
It’s true, no man is a failure who has friends. George Bailey and Tony Anderson had a lot of them, regular people who in small ways make up the wonderful life of a small town. George Bailey’s friends in Bedford Falls bring to mind the regular people of Saranac Lake who look out for each other — people like Ernie the taxi driver, Bert the policeman, Mary the devoted wife and mother, Mr. Gower the pharmacist, Martini the barkeep, Harry the war hero, the woman at the bank who asks for only $17.50, and Clarence the angel.
“Merry Christmas, movie house! Merry Christmas, Emporium! Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!”
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, Saranac Lake.
Special thanks to those who shared their memories for this story: Chris Brescia, Jan Dudones, Jim Griebsch, Bunk Griffin, Howard Riley, Jim and Keela Rogers, and our dear friend, Natalie Leduc, who, on December 8 came to the end of her truly wonderful life. We won’t be the same without her.
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 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 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.
During this quiet summer, one of the things we are missing is the theater. From Broadway in New York City to Pendragon in Saranac Lake, stages have gone dark. Actors are a lively, irrepressible bunch, and so it’s a testament to the seriousness of the situation that theaters are closed.
In interesting contrast, through the 1918 flu pandemic, Broadway did not shut down. A New York Times article this past July titled, “’Gotham Refuses to Get Scared’: In 1918, Theaters Stayed Open” described how, at the height of the flu epidemic, New York’s health commissioner declined to close performance spaces. Instead, he instituted public health measures such as staggering show times, eliminating standing room tickets, and mandating that anyone with a cough or sneeze be removed from theaters immediately.
The article described parallels to the current pandemic, and we Saranac Lakers would notice another connection. The lead photo from the 1918 Ziegfeld Follies included actors Will Rogers and Eddie Cantor. Eddie Cantor was one of the famous visitors to Saranac Lake. Although we have no record of Will Rogers ever coming here, his memory lives on in a beautiful local sanatorium named for him.
Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers were guided in their acting careers by one of Saranac Lake’s most famous TB patients and residents, William Morris. He founded the talent agency in 1898 that still carries his name. Morris came to Saranac Lake for his health in 1902, and by the 1920s, he was spending much of his time at his Camp Intermission on Lake Colby. He was one of many theater people, from ticket takers to vaudeville stars, who make up a vibrant part of Saranac Lake history.
While the show went on, TB was a common hazard of the job, and the theater community did not ignore the need for support. Empathy is an essential part of the job description for an actor, so it’s no surprise that many people in the entertainment business engage in helping others.
Impresario and theater owner Edward F. Albee led efforts to provide subsidized care to workers in vaudeville at three different cure cottages in the village. William Morris and his wife Emma established the Saranac Lake Day Nursery to provide childcare and nutrition to children in need. Morris brought to Saranac Lake some of the most famous entertainers of the time to raise funds for many causes. Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and Harry Lauder performed for fundraisers to support the Day Nursery, the Jewish Community Center, the Methodist Church, and St. Bernard’s Church. Morris brought actress Olga Petrova to Saranac Lake to turn the first shovel of earth for a housing project on Lake Street.
William Morris helped found the National Vaudeville Artists Home in Saranac Lake in 1929. In 1936, following the tragic death of Will Rogers in a plane crash, the facility took the name Will Rogers Memorial Hospital. It was a fitting tribute to the great American humorist, actor and vaudevillian, known throughout America as the country’s “Ambassador of Good Will.” In service today as a beautifully restored retirement community, the building hosts a stage where TB patients once put on performances. The Will Rogers Motion Pictures Pioneers Foundation in Los Angeles continues to support workers from the entertainment industry in need.
During the TB years, Saranac Lake children visited Will Rogers Hospital for holiday concerts. There, they serenaded the patients in the stairwell that wound up around the Will Rogers statue. Today, the tradition continues, when school children sing to elderly residents for the annual winter concert. For now the stage and stairwell are quiet, but actors are irrepressible. We can trust that someday soon, the show will go on again.
The Last Letter from the Porch
What started as weekly letters written from my porch during quarantine would now, 23 letters later, be more appropriately named “Letters from the Busy Museum.” There is much work to be done as we move forward with a major project to expand the museum, and it’s time to bring this series to an end. As they say, the show must go on!
Going forward, Historic Saranac Lake will continue to share a weekly column with our members and the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. We welcome your help with this effort. Please get in touch to share what you know about the amazing history and architecture of the Saranac Lake region! Thank you for helping to make history matter, and be well,
Historic Saranac Lake
-Advertisement in Moving Picture World, Nov. 1917. Public domain image.
-Dr. Edgar Mayer, actor Eddie Cantor, possibly Al Jolson, and theatrical agent William Morris.
Courtesy of Gail Brill.
-Saranac Lake High School chorus students pose with banner of Will Rogers in the stairwell at Saranac Lake Village at Will Rogers following last year’s winter concert.
Courtesy of Historic Saranac Lake.
by Amy Catania
In a time when compassion and logic often seem in short supply, many of us have a newfound appreciation for doctors and scientists. Saranac Lake’s history is full of professionals in medicine and science who had a passion for learning and an intense curiosity about the natural world.
Our own Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau was a naturalist at heart. He learned an interest in the natural world from his father James, who accompanied his friend John J. Audubon on scientific expeditions. When Edward fell sick with TB, he credited the peace he found in the Adirondack forest for his ability to fight the disease.
Later, that same appreciation for nature inspired Trudeau to pursue the scientific study of tuberculosis. In 1882, Dr. Robert Koch announced his discovery of the tuberculosis bacterium. Trudeau learned of his study and rushed to replicate Koch’s work, despite never having used a microscope himself. Motivated by his desire to find a cure and his own curiosity, Trudeau demonstrated incredible persistence in the face of adversity. He began his work in a remote, freezing village with no running water, electricity, or train service. As he stated in his autobiography, “One of my great problems was to keep my guinea-pigs alive in winter.” Trudeau worked with improvised laboratory equipment, and even when his first home and home laboratory burned down, he didn’t give up.
Trudeau died of TB in 1915. An effective antibiotic treatment would not be perfected for almost forty years. In the meantime, Saranac Lake’s community life would be enriched by the intellectual curiosity of countless men and women in medicine and science. One such person was Dr. Lawrason Brown. Believing it important that patients taking the rest cure keep their minds occupied, Brown encouraged them to study various crafts, ornithology, and botany. In 1905, Dr. Brown established the open-air workshop at the Trudeau Sanatorium to provide formal training in occupational therapy.
Dr. Leroy Upson Gardner served as the director of the Saranac Laboratory from 1927-1946. He performed the first study to show a connection between cancer and asbestos, and he led efforts to understand other industrial diseases such as silicosis. Dr. Gardner’s passion for science extended to botany. Alice Wareham recalled participating in a wildflower contest for the children who attended the Baldwin School. The teacher was surprised when Alice found what she thought was a yellow trillium, and didn't believe her. Alice asked Dr. Gardner, and instead of saying, "you're wrong", he said, "show it to me." She did, and he confirmed that it was a rare mutation of a yellow trillium.
Over the years at Historic Saranac Lake, we have had the pleasure of meeting many relations of Dr. Gardner. Our understanding of local history is enriched by personal relationships we have developed with descendants of Drs. Ayvazian, Baldwin, Blanchet, Bristol, Brown, Decker, Gardner, Heise, James, Keet, Leetch, Long, Meade, Merkel, Neely, Packard, Pecora, Sandhaus, Schwartzberg, Seidenstein, Shefrin, Steenken, Wolinsky, and of course, Trudeau.
We all have a story of a doctor who has made a difference in our lives. My grandfather, Dr. Landon Bachman, served as a beloved pediatrician in Millbrae, California, for some fifty years. After retirement, he continued to read his medical and scientific journals, and he turned to gardening. Instead of caring for children, he nurtured flowers every day until the fog rolled in. A tangled maze of color, my grandfather’s garden was a beautiful representation of his life’s work of caring for life itself.
Today, we are grateful for doctors and scientists like Trudeau, Brown, Gardner, and Bachman who continue to improve the world with their curiosity and compassion.
-Doctors in Saranac Lake, courtesy of Jan Dudones. Pictured left to right: John N. Hayes; unknown; Homer Sampson; Dr. Warriner Woodruff; Dr. Spencer Schwartz; Dr. E. R. Baldwin, with hat; unknown; Dr. Fred H. Heise; Dr. Francis Berger Trudeau; unknown; Dr. John H. Steidl.
-Dr. Leroy Gardner, courtesy of Tom Downs.
-Dr. Landon Bachman in gardening hat, courtesy of Amy Catania.
by Amy Catania
In times of trouble, some of the most essential workers are the people who deliver the mail. It can get lonely here in the Adirondacks, where there are more trees than people. Mail carriers keep us connected, and post offices in rural hamlets serve as social hubs.
Post offices, like schools, were less centralized back in the day. Mom and Pop operations were the norm. George Henry Carley, Sr. served as the first mail carrier in Lake Clear starting in 1912. He made his deliveries by sled in winter and horse and buggy in the summertime.
Until a few years ago, mail boats delivered to the docks of camps on Upper Saranac Lake. Many historic camps had their own leather mail bags. The Corey’s post office delivered mail to the camps of Upper Saranac Lake by the steamer Saranac.
Several large institutions had their own post offices, such as the Ampersand Hotel and the Trudeau Sanatorium. The owner or head of the institution served as the nominal postmaster. Hotel employees or TB patients sorted and distributed the mail. Eventually, mail service was all centralized in the village at a post office called "Saranac Lake, New York."
Looking for some good stories, I called up retired mailman, Tom Clark. For some 35 years, Tom’s smile brightened the village as he speed-walked his daily route. Tom liked his downtown walking route, because he got to visit with shopkeepers and their regular customers. He also delivered to the houses along Riverside Drive. By moving fast in some parts of the route, he made the time to slow down and visit with his favorite longtime customers. Some of his older customers waited for him with cookies and lemonade. Their talks with Tom were often their main social contact of the day.
Mailmen stepped in and helped out with sudden emergencies. Tom remembers one day when a customer rushed out to him in a panic, with a bat loose in her house. Tom got rid of the bat for her and continued along his way. Tom kept a stash of biscuits in his pocket and made friends with the neighborhood dogs. Occasionally, he had to deliver the cremains of a deceased pet, sent from the veterinarian by certified mail. That was always a sad day for the owner and for Tom.
Tom joined the postal service because he recognized it as a good, steady job that would allow him to raise his family in his hometown. As a kid, he remembers seeing a mailman at Mark's Bar having a beer after work in his uniform. Tom thought to himself, “that seems like a cool job.”
When he started delivering mail in the 1970s, Tom joined a crew of longtime clerks and carriers. The “old guard” were a tight-knit group who knew everyone in town. Locals remember George Booth, John Campion, Don Meachom, Nick Mitchell, Bob Nelson, Bob Oddy, Del Oldfield, Joe Quigley, Cal Reed, Charlie Sayles, Inky Schenck, Roddy Stearns, and Dick Toohey. Almost all served in WWII, or Korea, or both. They came home from war to serve in the post office. After work, they drank beer together at Journey’s End and the Elk’s Club. They put money in the pot all year to save for a big holiday party.
As Tom neared the end of his career, the post office began changing in ways that made it a less rewarding job. Management no longer consists of locals who had made their way up in the ranks. There is a growing focus on automation and efficiency. Most deliveries are now made by mail truck rather than on foot. Mail carriers are monitored by GPS, and they have to meet exact times and quotas.
What’s the worth of a first class postage stamp? As the postal service reconfigured its business model, the personal relationships Tom made with his customers and colleagues were never part of the calculation.
As email, text messages, and social media replace personal letters, the post office has a different place of importance in American life. Mail carriers no longer deliver as many personal messages, but they do bring census forms, ballots, stimulus checks, medicine, and essential items. Today, mail carriers move fast all day. There’s no time for long visits over lemonade. But they know who we are, and they deserve our appreciation.
-George H. Carley, Sr. in mail wagon, Lake Clear Junction, c.1915. Courtesy of Historic Saranac Lake
-Camp Topridge Mail Bag, Private Collection.
-The Trudeau Post Office, Courtesy of Florence Wright.
-Joseph Quigley and George Booth were WWII Veterans and part of the “old guard” at the post office. Courtesy of Adirondack Daily Enterprise.
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