Since we first opened our museum doors in 2009, thousands have come to learn about Saranac Lake’s history as a center for tuberculosis research and treatment. Visitors often ask about the cost of care and who was able to afford it. Was Saranac Lake’s fresh air treatment just for rich people? Did people of different ethnic groups and social classes have access to the cure?
These were topics we discussed with a school group this past March. The students were participating in the spring break program of the Division of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at SUNY Potsdam. We were days away from the pandemic shutdown, and Saranac Lake's historic connection to infectious disease felt newly relevant that morning.
In the late 1800s, when Saranac Lake was becoming famous as a health resort, one in seven people in the United States was dying of TB. The disease afflicted people from all walks of life. Public health measures and improved living conditions were beginning to lower the rate of infection in the United States. Still, TB continued to spread. It especially plagued poor people, living and working in crowded, poorly ventilated spaces.
Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau founded his sanatorium in Saranac Lake in 1884 with the goal of providing care for the working urban poor. He solicited donations from wealthy friends to support this endeavor.
Two years later, Dr. Trudeau devised an experiment to study the effects of the environment on disease. He infected one group of rabbits with TB and released them to live on a small island in Spitfire Lake. These rabbits fared much better than another infected group kept in a box, mimicking the conditions of the tenements. The Rabbit Island experiment demonstrated that healthy environmental conditions have a positive impact on the incidence and progress of disease. Thousands of people suffering from TB began flocking to Saranac Lake.
Over time, as Trudeau’s sanatorium grew, financial pressure raised the cost of care. Eventually the facility served middle class patients on a sliding scale. Saranac Lake’s TB economy evolved to provide a patchwork of options, ranging from very expensive private facilities, to modest cure cottages, to free care at subsidized public or private institutions.
Patients at the Trudeau San who ran out of funds moved to the free State Hospital at Ray Brook. Many patients at Ray Brook were immigrants or the children of immigrants from urban areas. Some cure cottages catered to Spanish-speaking patients, Jewish patients, African Americans, and Greeks. At some point, black people were admitted to Ray Brook Hospital and Will Rogers Memorial Hospital. Still, there is a lot we do not know about race and inequality in our local history. While we do not know of any overt policy of exclusion at Trudeau, we have not seen photos of black people curing there.
The Saranac Lake fresh air cure offered hope for many, but it was out of reach for the vast majority of Americans with TB. In the early 1900s in New York City, TB mortality was as much as six times higher in overcrowded black and immigrant neighborhoods than in white neighborhoods. Few poor New Yorkers could have afforded a train ticket to Saranac Lake, let alone the cost of room and board at the most modest cure cottage.
The fate of the urban poor, particularly poor minorities, fell to the state. The public health response was inconsistently funded and poorly coordinated. Public TB hospitals in New York City served only a fraction of the urban poor with TB. In 1919, only 14% of New York City’s 32,000 registered cases found treatment in state hospitals. The state institutionalized many tuberculars, particularly the homeless, against their will.
Saranac Lake’s TB industry came to an end in the 1950s with the perfection of the antibiotic treatment. However, the disease is still a major public health problem, particularly in poor countries. The antibiotic treatment is a powerful weapon against TB, but the world has sadly failed to wage a successful war on poverty. TB took the lives of 1.5 million people around the world in 2018. The vast majority of those deaths occurred in Africa. Antibiotic-resistant TB continues to be a major threat to public health.
Like TB past and present, COVID-19 disproportionally affects poor and minority communities. Lack of access to health care, effects of poverty on overall health, the need to work in frontline jobs, a lack of space to quarantine, exposure to environmental pollutants — all these factors seem to contribute to higher rates of infection in poor and minority communities. The pandemic and its economic effects will hit poor Saranac Lakers hard for many of these same reasons.
At the museum that day in March, as the coronavirus loomed, I asked the students how they were feeling about the current situation. They said they were afraid. They were eager to continue their studies to become doctors, nurses, scientists, historians, and filmmakers. But they sensed they would soon be heading back to their families in Brooklyn and the Bronx, where COVID-19, like tuberculosis in the past, is taking such a heavy toll.
Here we are, over 130 years after Trudeau’s Rabbit Island experiment, and health is still a luxury that many cannot afford.
Historic Saranac Lake
During these days of solitude, many of us are finding great comfort in our animal friends. Blissfully unaware of troubles in the world, our pets are thrilled that their humans are spending more time at home.
Pets are a source of companionship and joy for us now, just as they were for the TB patients of the past. During the TB years, many patients spent two years or more, mostly in bed. Cut off from family and friends, patients were often lonely, scared, and anxious. Animals provided friendship and distraction from worry. Some wealthy patients rented entire houses for their cure, and they were able to bring their pets with them to Saranac Lake. John Black came from Mansfield, Ohio, with his dog, Buddy. Sadly, John eventually lost his struggle against TB, and the John Black Room Room at the Saranac Laboratory Museum was built in his memory. In this photo, John looks very frail, but you can see how happy he was to be with his dog.
Sadly, most working class health seekers would have had to leave their pets at home. Dr. Heise, the dignified and serious medical director at the Trudeau Sanatorium, often brought his friendly Newfoundland named Jack on his rounds. Jack must have delivered cheer to patients missing their own dogs. We do not know if Dr. Baldwin’s cat accompanied him on patient visits, but his feline friend did join him for this jaunty photo in the snow. Dr. Baldwin, his wife Mary, and the cat are ready for winter with their warm fur coats!
Wilderness author Martha Reben befriended local wildlife of all kinds. Over the course of many years, Martha cured for TB in the woods with her friend and guide, Fred Rice. She wrote several books about her experience and described in detail the friendships she made with the chipmunks, birds, squirrels, and raccoons that visited her campsite. When Martha moved back to village, she lived with a favorite pet duck, Mr. Dooley, and the two were frequently spotted around town together.
One well known pet around town was Eddie Vogt’s dog, Clarabelle. Eddie came to Saranac Lake in 1937 to cure at the Will Rogers Memorial Hospital, following a career as a stage, vaudeville, and silent film actor. After his recovery, he conducted a Sunday afternoon program on WNBZ, playing old time records. In the 1940s, he began writing a popular column in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise called “Our Town.” Eddie humorously featured Clarabelle in his column, writing, for example,
“Yesterday was another one of those days when living with Clarabelle was, shall I say, just a little difficult. It was all because she had received a post card from Paris on the early mail. It was from Mr. and Mrs. Otto Hayman, formerly at Will Rogers, and they wrote: ‘Dear Clarabelle: Why be a frustrated old maid? Don’t be a dope! Come to Paris. Six dogs to every native — from hummingbird to donkey size.’”
Through “Our Town,” Eddie and Clarabelle were helping to keep Saranac Lake a tight knit community even as the TB industry was coming to an end. Eddie’s column served as an inspiration for later commentary by Bill McLaughlin and Rip Allen.
In phone calls with family and friends during this unusual time, our conversations take a happy turn when we talk about our pets. From one friend’s playful old cat in Ray Brook, to a cuddly black cat at Will Rogers, to Walter the brown dog here with me, it’s a good time to appreciate our four-legged friends. What pets, past or present, do you count as cherished friends? I hope you will drop me a line to let me know.
Historic Saranac Lake
Images: John Black with his dog Buddy, Historic Saranac Lake Collection. Mary Ives Baldwin and Dr. Edward R Baldwin with cat, Historic Saranac Lake Collection, Courtesy of Barbara Baldwin Knapp. “Our Town” logo, the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, 1954, Historic Saranac Lake Collection. Walter Catania, courtesy of Amy Catania.
Hello from the four-legged (and finned!) family/bonus staff of Historic Saranac Lake - Walter Catania, Clementine and Edgar Monks-Kelly, Sparky Gochenaur, Nilla Bean Work, and Raphael Gyarados Guillette!
Today, the planet is taking a crash course on the limitations of modern medicine and the complications of human disease. It is a good time to look back and see what Saranac Lake’s history might teach us about public health.
From our place in the world of modern medicine and science, it can be easy to see healthcare in the past as quackery. Many visitors to the museum skeptically ask, “Was there anything to it? Was there any benefit to the Saranac Lake treatment?”
When Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau came to the Adirondacks sick with tuberculosis, no one knew what caused the disease or how to treat it. TB was killing one in seven people in industrialized countries. Trudeau suspected that it spread in poorly ventilated spaces. He believed the Adirondack wilderness to be a healthier environment. He recognized that TB disproportionally affected the urban poor, and that they had little recourse. In 1884 Trudeau founded his sanatorium here on the hillside of Mount Pisgah. His goal was to provide supportive care in the fresh air for those who could not afford it.
Two years earlier, Dr. Robert Koch discovered the TB bacillus under the microscope. Trudeau eagerly read a translation of Koch’s study. Convinced that the solution to the disease lay in the laboratory, Trudeau embraced the practice of microbiology. He built first a home laboratory and then the stone and brick lab where we make our museum today. The antibiotic treatment would not emerge for another 70 years. Yet Trudeau’s commitment to a scientific approach shaped the evolution of patient care in Saranac Lake and around the nation.
The Trudeau Sanatorium operated to some degree like a science experiment. Doctors carefully monitored patient progress and adapted therapies that proved to be effective. The doctors in Saranac Lake knew they did not yet have a real cure, and so they did what they could to improve patients’ chances against the disease. They boosted the immune system with rest, good food, fresh air, moderate exercise, and attention to mental health.
Some surgical interventions were surprisingly helpful. Doctors would collapse an infected lung to avoid hemorrhage and allow the tissue to heal. To keep the lung collapsed, doctors injected gases, cotton, or ceramic pellets into the chest cavity. Doctors achieved permanent lung collapse by surgically removing ribs. Sections of diseased lung were sometimes removed. These operations might sound barbaric, but similar procedures are used on patients with drug resistant TB today.
Not all the therapies were effective. The sickest patients endured total prolonged bedrest. We now know that such inactivity is detrimental. UV light therapy was popular for some time. While light helped keep surfaces clean and provided vitamin D, it did not cure the disease and damaged the skin. The fresh air treatment in the winter unnecessarily exposed patients to prolonged cold. Over ten pharmacies in the village sold a multitude of quite useless medicines. Some were addictive and dangerous. Doctors prescribed alcohol, heroin, morphine, codeine, and cocaine as drugs of comfort, particularly for the terminally ill.
Without the magic bullet of a medicinal cure, Saranac Lake doctors and nurses promoted overall physical and mental health. They prevented transmission with strict hygiene and good ventilation. They intervened early by monitoring the disease with testing. Many TB patients who recovered in Saranac Lake went on to live into old age by caring for their health with daily walks, a healthy diet, and afternoon naps. Today’s pandemic reveals the ongoing importance of these low tech interventions.
In the twentieth century, as major medical innovations such as antibiotics promised a quick fix, investment in public health has taken a backseat to modern targeted treatments. The advent of a new virus brings us full circle. And we must face the stark reality that millions of people around the world continue to die each year from diseases that are preventable and treatable. The antibiotic cure may have spelled the demise of Saranac Lake’s TB economy in the early 1950s, but 1.5 million people died of tuberculosis in 2018.
According to the Center for Disease Control, “Public health is the science of protecting and improving the health of people and their communities. This work is achieved by promoting healthy lifestyles, researching disease and injury prevention, and detecting, preventing and responding to infectious diseases.” This very much describes the Saranac Lake approach to tuberculosis before antibiotics.
Dr. Trudeau would surely approve of our renewed awareness of the value of a strong public health system.
Historic Saranac Lake
Images: Students from the University of Albany School of Public Health visit the Saranac Laboratory Museum each year to learn lessons from local history. Faculty and students are pictured with high school students from the Albany New Visions program, 2018. Prescription alcohol bottles. During prohibition, alcohol was available from local pharmacies by prescription. Historic Saranac Lake collection, courtesy of Jim Bevilacqua, Post Office Pharmacy.
Saranac Lake’s tuberculosis economy depended on the labor of many essential workers. In honor of today’s heroes, here are a few favorite stories of brave helpers in local history.
Nurses and doctors risked their own health providing care and companionship to tuberculosis patients far from home. Our museum archive is full of hundreds of photos and stories of these courageous women and men. In her book, Wish I Might, Isabel Smith writes warmly about her doctor, Francis B. Trudeau. He is somewhat overshadowed in history by his famous father, founder of Saranac Lake’s TB industry, Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau. But Francis was widely respected for his kindness and his fierce dedication to his patients. Ms. Smith described his “inimitable hearty roar of good spirits which, then and always, enveloped me like a blaze of sunlight.”
Members of the clergy provided essential support to patients in need of spiritual comfort. Alone and facing a dreaded disease for which there was no cure, many patients felt lonely and afraid. Serving as the Parish Visitor for the First Presbyterian Church, Christine Burdick visited two thousand bedridden patients in just one year.
Hardworking wilderness guides were the backbone of the local economy. They made possible the recreation of wealthy sports from the city, bringing welcome cash into what was largely a barter system. The hotels and great camps of the Adirondacks depended on the guides’ deep knowledge of the woods, lakes, and wildlife. Dr. E. L. Trudeau counted local guides Fitz Greene Hallock and Albert McKenzie as lifelong friends and hunting companions. A group of guides purchased sixteen acres on Mount Pisgah as a gift to the doctor and the site for his sanatorium.
Many of Saranac Lake’s first responders go down in history as pillars of the community. One such man was William Wallace. He served as chief of the Saranac Lake Police Force for twenty-seven years. Bill McLaughlin wrote that Chief Wallace “was as fine a chief of police in his quiet but forceful way as any village could ask for. He lived the job but he never let the majesty of the law outweigh his own sense of justice and mercy and everyone was the better for it.”
Cashiers and retail employees perform an essential service, and shopkeeper Charlie Green holds a special place in Saranac Lake history. He came here from England with TB after WWI. After his cure, he made Saranac Lake his home and became part of the fabric of the community. He generously offered goods on credit during difficult times, telling customers to pay him back only when and if they could.
It’s not easy to make a living in the Adirondacks. Then, like now, Saranac Lakers worked hard to survive. People risked illness working in the TB industry, often because they simply needed the money. Many young people delivered meals to TB patients to help put food on their own tables at home. One tray boy told the story of eating food that the patients left on their trays to stave off hunger.
For every person remembered in history, many more names slip quietly into the past. We know about far more doctors than housekeepers and deliverymen, but the TB industry relied upon their brave hard work as well. Here’s one story we know, told to us by a museum visitor. About 120 years ago, Edna Dubray was a housekeeper at the Trudeau Sanatorium. One day, a railroad deliveryman named David VanNortwick brought a package up to the San. Edna and David met and fell in love. Soon, they married, and Dr. E.L. Trudeau offered to let them honeymoon in Little Red, the first little cure cottage at the Sanatorium. The couple settled in the village and raised a family of nine children. Some of their children went on to serve in the second world war, and some became employees in the local sanatoria.
What stories do you know about helpers in our history? Contact us or share what you know on our wiki site at www.localwiki.org/hsl.
Would you like to thank an essential worker who is helping us get through this time? Please mail or email your thank you note to us at the address below. We will be decorating the Cure Porch on Wheels with your notes of appreciation!
Historic Saranac Lake
Images: Trudeau School Graduating Nurses, 1931. Courtesy of Jan Dudones. Historic Saranac Lake Collection. Guide carrying guideboat with "sport," c. 1905. Paul Smith's College Library Collection.
Many Saranac Lakers find themselves heading outside during these unsettling times. In the woods around us we find a sense of peace, a place where human worries and sickness feel far away. In fact, the natural environment of the Adirondacks is at the heart of our history as a center for tuberculosis treatment. The fresh air and beauty of the region was believed to restore both body and spirit alike, and thousands came here from around the world in search of the fresh air cure.
Long before the TB era, Native American peoples lived in harmony with the rich natural resources of the area for thousands of years. In the 1800s, newcomers began arriving, seeking profit and recreation. The riches of the wilderness enticed settlers, loggers, miners, hunters, trappers, vacationers, and, eventually, health seekers.
Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau first visited the Adirondacks as a young “sport” from the city to hunt and fish at Paul Smith’s Hotel. He fell in love with the pristine setting and the excellent hunting opportunities. Then, in the 1870s, stricken with TB, he decided to come back to Paul Smith’s, expecting to die. But during the summer he spent at Smith’s hotel, his health improved dramatically. He credited the natural environment, and eventually he established his sanatorium in Saranac Lake so that others could benefit from the fresh Adirondack air.
For 70 years Saranac Lake grew and prospered as a health resort, becoming very much a little city in the heart of the Adirondacks. Trains came and went some 20 times a day. Main Street grew with many specialty shops catering to the tastes of city people. By the 1930s, when Isabel Smith was curing at Trudeau Sanatorium, the rugged Adirondacks had been drastically re-shaped by logging, railroads, and population growth. But for a city girl, Saranac Lake was a haven in the wilderness. Isabel developed a love of the natural world that sustained her through 21 years sick in bed.
The outdoor life belonged not just to the TB patients on their porches. Many year-round and summer residents describe some of their happiest memories as the times they spent outdoors in the Adirondacks. Historic Saranac Lake has documented hundreds of stories about summers at the beloved platform tents, camping at Fish Creek, hunting and fishing, the timeless historic Great Camps, and climbing the High Peaks. (We look forward to sharing this history in our future expanded museum, and invite you to contact us with your photos and stories!)
Wilderness author Martha Reben has inspired many outdoor enthusiasts. After a year of unsuccessful curing at the Trudeau San, Ms. Reben spotted an ad in the local newspaper for a different type of cure. Local boat builder and guide Fred Rice placed an advertisement seeking a patient to guide into the woods. Mr. Rice believed that TB patients who were spending their days in the village resting on cure porches would be better served by getting out into the forest. Martha answered the ad and spent much of the next ten years camping in the great outdoors. There she found freedom from sickness and joy in the wildlife around her.
In her book, A Sharing of Joy, Martha wrote about hearing a flock of birds flying over her campsite, “…suddenly I saw, in one of those rare moments of insight, what it means to be wild and free. As they went over me, I was there with them, passing over the moonlit countryside…The haunted voices grew fainter and faded in distance, but I sat on, stirred by a memory of something beautiful and ancient and now lost - a forgotten freedom we must all once have shared with other wild things, which only they and the wilderness can still recall to us, so that life becomes again, for a time, the wonderful, sometimes frightening, but fiercely joyous treasure it was intended to be."
Now, as the weather finally warms, the loons are returning. What do you hear in their calls?
Historic Saranac Lake
P.S. Now is a time to PAUSE, reconnect with loved ones, and find safe, healthy adventures close to home. We will be here when the time is right and look forward to seeing you sometime soon!
Images: Young Alex and Martha Dreyfoos with their mother at the family’s platform tent camp on Burnt Island, c.1937. Courtesy of Alex W. Dreyfoos, Jr., and The Healing Woods by Martha Reben.
The old neighborhoods of Saranac Lake are lively these days, as people of all ages take a break from solitude to go out walking at all hours. Like the TB patients of the past, we are eager to stretch our legs, breathe some fresh air, and wave to a friendly face across the street.
Moderate exercise was a key part of the treatment in Saranac Lake. Doctors recognized that exercise could boost the immune system by strengthening the body and improving mental health. Not all TB patients were bedridden, and those who were well enough to get out of bed went walking on their doctors’ orders.
The Trudeau Sanatorium admitted people in the early stages of the disease, and so many of the patients there lived a pretty lively existence. They made crafts in the occupational therapy workshop, walked to meals in the grand dining room, and performed in plays in the auditorium. Walking provided a chance to spend time with a friend or romantic interest.
Doctors monitored their patients closely and prescribed increasing amounts of exercise as their health improved. Patients were expected to follow instructions exactly, as outlined in Dr. Brown’s “Rules for Exercise.” As we embark on ambitious long walks in these new times, we should keep in mind Dr. Brown’s sage advice such as, “remember always that you will have to return.”
As a young boy, Jim Meade lived in the superintendent’s cottage at the Trudeau San, and he remembers watching the patients taking their prescribed walks to the gate. Some wanted to go farther than the prescribed distance, and so they walked in a zigzag line to fit in extra steps before getting to the turnaround spot.
Other area sanatoria had their own walking trails. At Stonywold Sanatorium, signs on the Onchiota dirt road measured walks of 5 minutes, 10 minutes, and up to 60 minutes. At Will Rogers Hospital, walking trails wove in and out of the surrounding woods, providing cover for patients looking to grab a smoke out of the watchful eyes of the staff. Andy Rawdon tells the tale of being hired as a youngster to help police the Will Rogers trails. Andy managed to increase his income by accepting occasional tips from the smokers in exchange for keeping quiet.
One of my favorite photos is this one of Alice Gallup, shared with us by her son, Michael. Alice came from Pennsylvania to cure at the Trudeau Sanatorium in 1917. She recovered her health, but then her husband abandoned her to raise two young sons on her own. She made her home in Saranac Lake and supported her family by working as the organist in a local church and teaching piano. Alice maintained her joyful spirit in the face of adversity, a spirit you can see in this photo. Alice didn’t just walk to the sanatorium gate, she climbed it!
To sign off with a favorite phrase of one friend who lived to the ripe age of 107 --
Historic Saranac Lake
Images: Patients at Trudeau Sanatorium, courtesy of the Saranac Lake Free Library. Alice French Gallup at the gates of Trudeau Sanatorium, courtesy of Michael Gallup.
During the years Saranac Lake was a health resort, many TB patients filled their time by making arts and crafts. These activities furnished a crucial sense of purpose for people struggling with isolation and boredom.
Before antibiotics, there was no real cure for TB, so doctors and nurses helped patients fight the disease by supporting their immune systems in every possible way. They provided good nursing care, healthy food, rest, moderate exercise, and attention to mental health through occupational therapy. At the Trudeau Sanatorium Workshop, and later at the Study and Craft Guild in town, patients and community members learned jewelry making, basket weaving, painting, and much more.
This past spring, we opened an exhibit titled “The Art of the Cure,” presenting some of the beautiful arts and crafts that grew out of our local history. Thinking about the parallels with our present times, I ducked into the museum this week to pick out a story from the exhibit to share in this letter.
I thought I would spend five minutes, but I couldn’t pull myself away. I couldn’t choose just one story. Dr. Trembley’s carved ducks, Temming jewelry, Mott’s pottery, paintings by Amy Jones, Kollecker’s photos — these creations all resonate in a deeper way in this strange new time. These objects, which have all outlasted the artists who made them, have stories to tell about the creativity and optimism of the human spirit in the face of a dreaded disease.
After carefully looking over everything on display, for some reason I kept thinking about one artifact that didn’t even make it into the exhibit, a pipe holder that has been in storage in our collection. A patient made the pipe holder in the occupational therapy workshop and gave it to Dr. Gordon Meade. Dr. Meade kept it his whole life, and a few years ago Dr. Meade’s son Jim donated it to our museum. We do not know who created this humble object, but we can trust that the person found a sense of purpose in making it. And today this pipe holder is a lasting expression of gratitude, a statement about the friendship between a patient and his doctor.
In order to make “The Art of the Cure” available during these homebound days, we have uploaded the entire exhibit online here. I hope you will take a tour, and let us know what stories resonate for you.
What pastimes give you a sense of purpose during this unusual time? What gifts do you treasure as reminders of someone who cares about you?
Historic Saranac Lake
Images: Betty and Martin Koop working on jewelry, Historic Saranac Lake collection, courtesy of Theresa Brown. Pipe holder, Historic Saranac Lake collection, courtesy of Jim Meade.
Students in the Clarkson University Occupational Therapy program on a tour to the Trudeau Sanatorium Workshop, January 2020.
It has been a difficult week. Our hearts go out to friends and family coping with the coronavirus and to the brave medical professionals on the front lines of this crisis.
In an effort to fill up the silence of social distance, many of us are turning to the comfort of music. Some older Saranac Lakers can trace their love of music back to a kind lady who lived in a little brick house up on French Hill.
Pilar Gordon Benero was born in Cuba in the year 1900. Her father was a well respected physician from a prominent family in Havana. The last thing she must have imagined was that she would end up living out her life way up in the Adirondacks.
At the age of 25, Pilar came to Saranac Lake with her sister Isabel, who was suffering from tuberculosis. Here, she fell in love with Manolo Benero, a TB patient from Puerto Rico. Pilar and Manolo married, and unlike thousands of other Spanish speaking patients who came north for the cure, they settled in Saranac Lake. Manolo worked as the office manager at Troy Laundry and delivered for Meals on Wheels. They raised two boys, Manny and Joe, talented hockey players who graduated from Saranac Lake High School.
An accomplished, professionally-trained musician, Pilar taught piano lessons in her home on Virginia Avenue. She became close friends with Ditta Pasztory, pianist and wife of Béla Bartók, the Hungarian composer who came to Saranac Lake for his health in the 1940s. Ditta and Pilar often played piano duets together on the two pianos at the Benero house.
Although I never met Pilar Benero, her story has helped to connect me with people who have become good friends. Some of the best talks I’ve had with Tom Delahant have been about Mrs. Benero. Tom fondly remembers his piano lessons as a kid, and he talks about how caring and intelligent Mrs. Benero was. He describes a memorable trip he took out west, when he stopped to visit Pilar in Colorado, where she moved after Manolo died. We can thank Pilar for inspiring Tom to serve as the talented piano accompanist at our school concerts, always with the kindest, most radiant smile. Just as Tom loved Pilar and was inspired by her music, our students adore Tom, and they thrive in the wonderful music program in the Saranac Lake schools.
I called Pilar’s son, Joe, just last week to see how he is doing. He sounded well, and is coming up on his 90th birthday. He said to say hello to Saranac Lake, particularly his pal Natalie Leduc, down the road at Will Rogers.
Diane Keating Seidenstein emailed this past week from Florida, saying, “I’ve been playing the piano every day during [this crisis], and of course, Mrs Benero is by my side. When you speak to Joe next please give him my regards. What a gift — gifts I should say — I received from his mom.”
Did you take piano lessons with Pilar Benero? How is music helping you through this crisis? What teachers made a difference in your life? I’d love to hear from you!
Historic Saranac Lake
Images: Manolo and Pilar Benero, c.1930. Courtesy of Joe Benero. Sheet music, a gift from Béla Bartók to the Benero family. Historic Saranac Lake collection, courtesy of Joe Benero.
Tuesday, March 24, 2020
In the past week I have found such joy in the personal calls and emails shared with so many of you. Thank you for staying in touch. I hope this letter finds you all safe and well.
As a member of our email list, you understand that by paying attention to the lives of those who came before us, we enrich our own experience of the present. I am finding this particularly true right now. I would like to share with you a weekly letter to help us connect with our history and with each other. As a shout-out to our fresh air history, I’m going to call these “letters from the porch.”
I’ve been thinking about ways that TB patients combatted loneliness. Spending much of their time alone, often far from family and friends, radio served as a source of entertainment and a lifeline to community. In 1927, a time when there were fewer than 100 radio stations in the United States, Saranac Lake founded its own local radio station, WNBZ. The people at WNBZ produced locally grown radio shows tailored to keep TB patients busy, like courses in literature and history and one called, “Let’s Learn Spanish.”
Ham radio allowed for two-way communication and built lasting friendships. While a patient at the Trudeau Sanatorium in the 1930s, Ed Worthington made his own amateur receiving set at a cost of $25. When not busy talking with "hams" all over the country, he developed a brisk trade repairing other patients' radios. He went on to teach Radio Theory and Code at the Study and Craft Guild. Thanks to Ed’s daughter Jan Dudones, we have Ed’s beautiful ham radio in our collection, along with his scrapbook of call signs from other hams around the world with whom he made radio contact.
I hope that as you go forward this week, you will think of Ed and his radio, and all the patients who reached out from their bedsides across the airwaves. Our human desire to connect with each other is a beautiful thing, and it will pull us through this situation we face today.
I find myself thinking a lot about you, the people who I think of as my Historic Saranac Lake family. I have spent the last 12 years working with you to nurture this little museum. Over that time, I have made so many friends. From George in Florida, to Judy in Virginia, to Tony in California, to Anne and Natalie just down the street, and so many friends in between. We are far-flung, but we are joined by an appreciation for the Saranac Lakers who came before us. Their stories can ground us now and show us ways to get through these times together.
To keep in touch, I will be sending you this weekly letter, and I hope you will write me back to share a story or just to say hello. My wonderful colleagues here at HSL are working overtime to develop creative ways to reach out online. We will be posting video tours, seeking your input on creating virtual and at-home exhibits, recording oral histories, and more.
To mark the days, I have been making a daily visit to Mount Baker, just down from my house here in the village. Each day I am posting a photo here. I hope you will join me in watching for signs of spring.
Historic Saranac Lake
As the world confronts the challenge of coronavirus, many of you have kindly asked how you can help Historic Saranac Lake. Thank you for thinking of us with your membership or donation today. Your generosity will sustain us through this difficult period and prepare us for the bright day when we can open our doors to the public once again.
Letters from the Porch Archive:
Lessons in Resilience
Many years ago, Saranac Lake rallied to fight a deadly disease. Today’s news sure has us thinking about our local history.
Tuberculosis killed 1 in 7 people in the late 1800s. Highly contagious and with no known cure, fear and stigma surrounded TB. Unlike the new virus we face today, many of its victims were young people in their 20s. Like today, quarantine was often seen as an appropriate solution, and sometimes people were isolated against their will. A person’s ethnicity, race, and socioeconomic status affected the kinds of treatments available.
Noting the lack of options for the poor, Dr. E. L. Trudeau established his sanatorium in Saranac Lake with the goal of providing care to those who could not afford it. Here he established a model of treatment based on the efficacy of the human immune system. Early diagnosis with x-rays and lab testing was key to identifying the sick. Hygiene was of supreme importance. Trudeau’s “cottage plan” avoided aggregation of the sick. Nurses and doctors provided supportive care in well ventilated spaces. The Saranac Lake regimen consisted of rest, fresh air, healthy food, and attention to mental health.
Here we are, over a century after Trudeau’s death, facing a situation that is in some ways similar. For now, Trudeau’s same model of “non-pharmaceutical treatment” is the best hope against novel coronavirus. It’s not a perfect weapon, but for thousands of people in Saranac Lake’s history, it was effective.
Recognizing that fresh air was not a real cure, Dr. E. L. Trudeau worked for a scientific solution, just as scientists across the world are racing to perfect a vaccine today. Our two buildings — Trudeau’s medical office and his scientific laboratory — stand side by side at the corner of Church and Main, testaments to the power of medicine and science to fight infection.
Now, as the world falters in the face of a new disease, we find it reassuring to remember Saranac Lake’s brave cure cottage economy. Looking back in our history we find comfort in the resilience and compassion that doctors, nurses, patients, and the hardworking people of Saranac Lake demonstrated in the face of a deadly pandemic.
We Saranac Lakers have demonstrated resilience in the recent past as well. In 2008, just as Historic Saranac Lake was pushing to complete the restoration of the Saranac Laboratory to open as a museum, the great recession hit. But with your help we pushed through, and we grew and flourished despite the hard times. We are confident that together we will do it again, because history matters!
Amy Catania, Executive Director
Mary B. Hotaling, Architectural Historian
Laura Ettinger, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History at Clarkson University and Member of Historic Saranac Lake
PLEASE NOTE: The Saranac Laboratory Museum will be closed until further notice to help protect against the spread of novel coronavirus. On and off-site events and programs are also temporarily suspended. Historic Saranac Lake staff will continue to work while following best practices as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
We want to stay connected to our Historic Saranac Lake community during this time, so please stay in touch! Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and stay tuned on Facebook and Instagram as we continue to preserve and present local history and architecture to build a stronger community!
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