“The great tragedy of life is not that men perish, but that they cease to love.” — W. Somerset Maugham.
Before antibiotics, one of the most powerful medicines against tuberculosis was love. Happy patients tended to be more successful in overcoming the disease, so health care providers took every step to improve patients’ state of mind. Patients stayed busy with occupational therapy and social activities. Cure porches were oriented toward the best views to boost patients’ sprits with natural beauty. And then there was cousining — a term for informal romances that developed between patients.
“Cousining” is a curious word. It carries the meaning of a lasting, reassuring, family relationship — something patients were sorely missing during their time away from home. The term also implies, in a tongue-in-cheek way, casual and possibly forbidden love.
The Trudeau Sanatorium was the perfect setting for romance. Many of the patients were single, in their early twenties, and in the early stage of disease. Faced with the reality of death, they felt driven to live life to the fullest. A gazebo at the Trudeau Sanatorium was called the “cousinola,” as it was a favorite spot for cousins to get away to be together.
At the Trudeau San, other area sanatoria, and throughout the cure cottages of Saranac Lake, love flourished between patients. Nurses and doctors were not immune. Some patients found a cousin in someone who was temporarily separated from a spouse left back home. Some cousins just held hands, but others did much more and ended up at the altar. More than one person walking down Main Street in Saranac Lake today is the result of cousining.
While Saranac Lake embraced cousining in various forms, some relationships were still taboo. One remarkable love affair, long hidden in plain sight in our local history, is that of famed author W. Somerset Maugham. In the 1940s, Maugham’s longtime romantic partner Gerald Haxton contracted tuberculosis. The couple came to Saranac Lake seeking a cure in 1944. Maugham stayed at the Hotel Saranac while Haxton cured at the Alta Vista Lodge. Although Haxton’s health improved for a few weeks, he died later that year. Tragically, Somerset Maugham lost his partner of 30 years in an era when their relationship was considered a crime.
Love stoked the will to live, but not all love lasted. Our museum collection contains beautiful photographs of patients gazing at each other on cure porches, madly in love. Some snapshots show couples that spent the rest of their lives together. Others show relationships cut short by death or the complications of life. The images poignantly capture the moment between two people when, against all odds, all was well in the world.
Executive Director, Historic Saranac Lake
- Mary Welday and Duke Huntington, cousining in Saranac Lake. Courtesy of Priscilla Goss.
- Illustrated map of the Trudeau Sanatorium, including #6, the Cousinola. Illustration by M. L. Herold for Wish I Might by Isabel Smith. Historic Saranac Lake Collection.
- Betty Koop and friend. Historic Saranac Lake Collection, courtesy of Theresa Brown.
This June, the graduates of the class of 2020 have walked through Saranac Lake High School one at a time, to receive their diplomas with no other classmates beside them. It might be comforting to know that this is not Saranac Lake’s first lonely graduation ceremony. At the high school’s first graduation in 1896, there was only one graduate, Francis H. Slater.
Mr. Slater went on to work as a lawyer, and he kept a fond place in his heart for his humble academic roots. Later in life, he wrote a letter to the alumni association, saying, “I can think of nothing in my career which would be of any interest to those who have since gone out from the Saranac Lake High School, unless it may possibly be the fact that I am still trying to pay my just debts and with more or less success to apply the Golden Rule in business, as well as personal, affairs…. I have my High School diploma framed and hung in a conspicuous place in my private office, and am proud to have my name in the list of the alumni.”
Today’s students face an uncertain world, but they are in the company of young people in history who also confronted adversity. The first floor at Lake Placid High School is lined with photos of graduating classes. There on the wall are two extra photos for the wartime classes of ’44 and ’45. Eleven boys graduated early in January 1945 to go off to war. Five boys were in the next year’s January class. The June photos for both years are almost all girls.
Almost every boy in the Saranac Lake High School Canaras 1945 yearbook lists his future plans as entering one of the branches of the military. The yearbook lists the names of 36 boys who could not attend graduation, because they were serving overseas.
Three years later, the war was over, and the 1948 yearbook shows a full senior class. Under the photos of the graduating boys and girls are a multitude of plans for the future — engineer, teacher, mechanic, homemaker, farmer, doctor, and a few “undecideds." The young faces of Howard Riley, Natalie Leduc, Art Levy, Hilda Castellon, Manny Bernstein, and Richard Yorkey smile out from the pages with so much determination and promise.
Born during the Great Depression and raised during WWII, the class of 1948 didn’t take things for granted. Through challenging times, they learned the importance of hard work and the value of community. Class of 2020, you are in good company.
Historic Saranac Lake
Class of 1948. Courtesy of Howard Riley.
List of Servicemen, 1945. Courtesy of Saranac Lake High School.
"Are you a Trotty Veck?" This was the question posed to readers of the first Trotty Veck Messages pamphlet, Good Cheer. These small booklets contained quotes, poetry, jokes, local sayings, and more intended to boost the spirits of their readers. Trotty Veck Messengers were described as people who, “having a wide vision and cheerful disposition themselves, have it in their hearts to give cheer and courage and inspiration to others.”
The publication was started in 1916 by two roommates at Trudeau Sanatorium, Seymour Eaton, Jr., and Charles “Beanie” Swasey Barnet. When the pair complained of feeling down, Eaton’s father, who was an authority on publishing and advertising, suggested they write inspirational messages to one another. They turned this advice into a lifelong career.
Barnet and Eaton based their outlook on the character of Trotty Veck, found in Charles Dickens’ short story, “The Chimes.” In the story, Trotty Veck delivered messages of good cheer to the townspeople, despite his own ill health. This philosophy, and the publication, were both great successes, and Eaton and Barnet sold four thousand copies in the first year alone.
Seymour Eaton sadly died of TB in 1918, but Beanie Barnet continued the publication, publishing at least one edition a year. Over the course of 50 years, Barnet published 55 editions of the Trotty Veck Messages, and sold four million copies that lifted spirits all across the world. The pamphlets were sent to U.S. Troops in both World Wars and the Korean War. The titles included Good Words, Joy, Chuckles, Real Riches, Your Best, Happy Hearts, and more. Barnet eventually opened an office in town and hired staff to support the publication.
Barnet kept a scrapbook of quotes from many sources (which can be found in the Adirondack Room at the Saranac Lake Free Library today). These sources ranged from Shakespeare to Seneca to Thomas Paine, to unknown jokesters and riddlers. The first issue included a quote from a famous Saranac Lake visitor, Robert Louis Stevenson; “Only to trust and do our best, and wear as smiling a face as may be for others and ourselves.”
The Messages were intended to be sent near and far, to fellow patients, their family members, and friends. They provided a way to connect and share joy, most often around the holidays with special “Christmas Greetings” wrappers. So many patients were facing an unknowable future, and finding a source of connection and optimism could literally be life-saving. Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau himself recognized the power of positive thinking and saw an optimistic outlook as an important component of the treatment offered to patients in Saranac Lake.
At the age of 54, Beanie Barnet married Elizabeth Widmer, a TB nurse, at William Morris’ Camp Intermission on Lake Colby. He lived out a long life in Saranac Lake. He died in 1977 at age 90. The optimism he instilled in others lives on.
In the midst of so much uncertainty and “social distance,” we recognize Barnet and Eaton’s wisdom in spreading a message of “Good Cheer” to your loved ones even while far away. We are happy to share that we have issued a reprint of the first issue of the Trotty Veck Messages. You can send a copy of Good Cheer to someone in need of “good tidings;” a friend, family member, or even yourself for just $5 (plus shipping) on our online store. We hope you’ll consider making a small matching donation to support our work in the name of your friend as well. We will also be sharing digital versions of the first ten editions of the Trotty Veck Messages on our website. We will share one a week, so be sure to check in at the end of each Letter from the Porch for the latest.
Today we ask—as Barnet and Eaton once did--Will you be a Trotty Veck?
Be of good cheer,
Historic Saranac Lake
Historic Saranac Lake
Purchase a reproduction copy of Good Cheer to send to a friend, family member, or someone in need of "good tidings!" Your purchase will support Historic Saranac Lake and send good cheer all across the country!
Images from the Historic Saranac Lake Collection.
Long after people die, the buildings where they made their lives often remain. Many visitors to the museum follow the footsteps of a family member who came to Saranac Lake with tuberculosis. Often the only trace that remains is the address of a cure cottage and a porch where their relative once took the fresh air.
Places anchor the past. Together with our partners at Adirondack Architectural Heritage, we work to document the places that anchor the history of the Saranac Lake region — from cure cottages to churches to great camps — these structures stand as lasting memorials to the humans who built and cared for them over generations.
About 40 years ago, one of Historic Saranac Lake’s first projects was to do a survey of the cure cottages of Saranac Lake. The primary feature of a cure cottage is a cure porch, and so volunteers counted up the number of buildings that had evidence of cure porches. They identified over 700 structures!
Over the seventy years that Saranac Lake prospered as a tuberculosis health resort, cure porches were built as part of the design of new cure cottages, and they were added on to existing buildings. Our porches exist in many sizes and forms, upstairs and downstairs, on the grandest of sanatoria like Prescott House, and the most modest home, renting to one patient for extra income. The porch was the key feature of the Saranac Lake treatment — a place where a patient could sit out — and preferably sleep out — to benefit from the fresh air. They were places where sick people who had been banished from society could find community with other patients and with the outside world.
Porches are places where private life and public life safely mingle. Today, as we navigate the solitude of quarantine times, even avowed introverts notice the value of social contact. A porch is a good place to find a balance between private and public life, if just by providing a spot for a casual wave at passers-by.
Porches also contain stories from the past. As I drive past one cure cottage on Lake Flower, I often think of a remarkable man who died nearby over 100 years ago. The house at 245 Lake Flower, along with a neighboring cure cottage, no longer standing, catered to African American patients and boarders. One of those health seekers, Hunter C. Haynes, was born in Alabama, two years after the end of the civil war, to parents who had lived in slavery. In his lifetime he worked as a barber, inventor, manufacturer, entrepreneur, and motion picture producer and director. He invented the Haynes Razor Strop and developed the product into an international business. He died of TB at the age of 51 in Saranac Lake on January 1, 1918. The glassed-in porches of 245 Lake Flower stand today as a quiet memorial to Hunter Haynes and other African American patients whose stories have gone unrecorded.
Across the lake is a house that reminds me of another story. Back in 2003, Howard Riley interviewed Olive Lascore Gardiner, who lived at 56 Riverside Drive (now 135 Kiwassa.) It is a nice old house on the water with a big wrap-around porch. Olive’s father was a carpenter, and he carefully built the house for his family of six daughters. Olive, the youngest child in the family, remembered the night the house was completed in the winter of 1923. She and her mother walked across the ice on Lake Flower to the new house, carrying a Bible and a freshly baked loaf of bread. Olive’s mother placed the bread and the Bible in the attic rafters and said, “This house will never be without faith or bread.” Olive Gardiner lived in the house her whole life, and she died one year after telling Howard that story.
The house, still standing, reminds us of Olive’s story, and Olive’s story brings the house to life.
Historic Saranac Lake
- Priscilla Bergren and Louis Mackay. Courtesy of Priscilla Mackay Goss
- Hunter C. Haynes advertisement
- 245 Lake Flower Avenue (Ramsey Cottage, formerly 24 Lake Flower)
- Olive Gardiner yearbook entry
- 135 Kiwassa Avenue (formerly 56 Riverside Drive)
Graveyards are for the living. It's something I think about every autumn, when Pine Ridge Cemetery comes alive with children on our annual fifth grade field trip. Ahead of time, the students research a person buried there. As we walk down to the graveyard from school, excitement builds. Upon arrival the kids race around, looking excitedly for their person. It’s like a bizarre version of an Easter egg hunt.
With the help of friendly and unflappable volunteer, Jim Clark, the kids eventually find their gravestones. We stop at the resting places of Charlie Green, Julia Miller, Don Duso, and many others. We notice the memorials for veterans, fire fighters, and children. Jim Clark fills in with stories he remembers. The simple lesson of the day is that our lives matter.
We stop to see the memorial to the Norwegian sailors who came for the TB cure after WWII. Eyes open wide when we go inside the vault and see the cabinets where the bodies were stored. In the Jewish section of the cemetery, the kids notice the pebbles left on the headstones. We talk about the tradition of leaving a pebble to show that the person is remembered. The kids each pick up a small stone, and many choose to place one on the memorial to the Ring family who lost 25 family members in the Holocaust.
We climb up rolling hills terraced with old stone walls to visit the graves of Saranac Lake’s prominent doctors. Dr. Edward Baldwin is buried here with his wife Mary. Dr. Baldwin was a scientist of national prominence and a close friend and colleague of Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau. He served as the director of the Saranac Laboratory, where we make our museum today. Last year, Dr. Baldwin’s granddaughter and her children brought a treasure trove of family photos for our collection. The family emailed this spring, asking if we know someone who could clean up the headstone and family plot.
Immediately the person who came to mind is a man of the same last name who has been carefully cleaning some of the old stones at the cemetery. A veteran of the Vietnam War, Gary Baldwin retired a few years ago from his career as a standout teacher at Petrova School. Elementary students who came on tours to the laboratory museum would always ask if Dr. Baldwin and Mr. Baldwin were related. They thought it perfectly likely that their Einstein-like teacher would have a close connection to our laboratory and its first director.
So it was only fitting to ask Mr. Baldwin to restore Dr. Baldwin’s stone. He said he would be happy to help and that he would go on over sometime soon as the weather warmed. Now, all I needed was a young person to do the raking. Luckily a certain high schooler, James, needed to earn community service credit for school. So one early spring day, James and I went over to the cemetery. Coincidentally, there was Mr. Baldwin, who had just arrived to clean the stone.
James smiled to see his favorite elementary school teacher, and I left the two of them working together at a safe social distance, happy with each others’ company. As I walked out under the tall pines, I thought about how nice it is to live in a place where people know each other over time and across generations. I thought about how graveyards are for the living. They remind us that what matters is our time on this earth, right now. Plus, sometimes you’ll find someone there you know — living or not — and it’s nice to stop and visit.
Historic Saranac Lake
-Pine Ridge Cemetery in Saranac Lake.
-Saranac Lake High School student, James, and Gary Baldwin stand with the gravestone of Dr. Edward and Mary Baldwin.
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.
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