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.
Historic Saranac Lake
-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.
We are thrilled to announce that we have been awarded an Inspire! Grant for Small Museums from the Institute of Museum and Library Services! The $48,300 award will support our work to catalog and rehouse a portion of our image collections. The project will enable us to gain intellectual and physical control over our collection in preparation for a major expansion into the historic Trudeau Building adjacent to the museum. Over two years, we will create catalog records for photographs, postcards, and photo albums, and implement long-term archival storage. The project tackles a major next step identified in the museum's recently completed Collections Preservation Plan, also funded by a grant from IMLS.
Read the IMLS announcement and see a list of all of the awardees here.
Read our press release here.
Image: HSL Museum Administrator, Chessie Monks-Kelly, examines a recent donation to our collections.
Join Chessie for this week's mini tour on our wonderful neighbors and colleagues, the Saranac Lake Free Library! Find out about the history of this important Saranac Lake institution (with only one library pun)!
To read more about the library's history, visit our wiki.
And check out all of their resources online!
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.
Historic Saranac Lake
-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.
This week's Mini Tour is close to "home"--the Saranac Laboratory Museum! Tune in while Chessie talks about some of the architectural features of the building. We hope to see you here soon!
The fresh air cure wasn’t all a bed of roses.
First-hand accounts left behind in letters, photographs, diaries, and memoirs paint a picture of life in Saranac Lake during the TB years. It’s an incomplete record that can lead us to believe curing was an overwhelmingly positive experience. It takes energy, time, and a degree of mental and physical well being to leave behind a personal record. People who were very ill, illiterate, or struggling with poverty did not have the same opportunity to create, or later preserve, accounts of their experiences.
Thousands of people whose names we do not know suffered and died in Saranac Lake without leaving much of a trace. Coffins were put on the train under cover of night. History, as they say, belongs to the victors.
Today, more historians are thinking about which stories get preserved and told, and why. We are more aware of our bias to pay attention to stories told by people who look like we do. With this in mind, in recent months we have been working to document this historic time by welcoming community members from all walks of life to tell their stories. Over the course of several months, our Oral History Coordinator Kayt Gochenaur has set up a table in town to interview passers-by, asking for their help documenting the time of COVID. Saranac Lakers report discovering new talents and strengths during this time, just as many TB patients did during their cure. Some people report newfound creativity, resilience, and spiritual growth. But we have collected many sad stories too — stories of financial troubles, health worries, struggles with addiction, and loneliness. Both sides of the story often surface in the same person. Both sides belong in the historical record.
Sometimes we come across a sorrowful story from the past, and it stands as a reminder of many that have gone unrecorded. John Patrick (Jack) Kenney was a young husband and father from Brooklyn who became sick with tuberculosis when he was 26 years old. Jack was one of eight siblings born to Irish immigrant parents. TB wiped out half of his family, killing his father, two sisters, and his brother.
Jack came to Saranac Lake in July 1930. He stayed at McCabe Cottage on Franklin Avenue and fought desperately to get well, but he died within the year. During his cure, Jack wrote letters home. His granddaughter saved eight of his letters and provided copies for our wiki website. Jack’s letters are full of financial worries and anxiety about the welfare of his wife and small children back in Brooklyn.
Jack wrote to his wife with detailed instructions about how to visit without spending too much money. “If the riverside is closed tell the cab driver you want to go to the Hotel Alpine. Both of these places receive early visitors from that train. When you get there, do not hire a room, but ask for the dining room. Then go in and order breakfast. Then ask the waitress where the ladies room is and wash.… The reason why I don’t want you to hire a room in the hotel is because they are rather expensive… Wear your best clothes as they are rather stylish up here. Also take with you a change of clothes & dress warm.”
Jack shared about his fight with TB, writing, ”This damn disease is very discouraging. One day you feel good and the next terrible. It is very hard to realize that they are making any progress at all. Your progress, if any, is extremely slow.” In the last letter he wrote, “My throat is awful sore, sometimes I think I am never going to get better. I am making a novena and Ella and the girls are too. That seems the only salvation. These doctors cannot create miracles. They can only help you. The throat doctor is a bit heartless. When he cauterizes my throat it sure does hurt. Sometimes I think it will never get better. Well, I will leave it in God’s hands.”
Jack died two months after writing that last letter. In a strange way, his letters provide some comfort now. Here, ninety years later, we walk the same streets that Jack’s wife travelled when she visited her sick husband. Like her, we wonder about our health, our future, and how to stretch a dollar. We are not alone.
Historic Saranac Lake
-Letter from John Patrick Kenney to his wife, August 1, 1930. Courtesy of Sue Kenney.
-Kayt Gochenaur collecting stories for Historic Saranac Lake’s “Saranac Lake in the Time of Covid” project.
-Advertisement for McCabe Cottage from the Journal of Outdoor Life, Historic Saranac Lake collection.
-John Patrick Kenney curing in Saranac Lake. Courtesy of Sue Kenney.
This footage of Richard "Dick" H. Ray was filmed at the August 1987 TB Reunion held by Historic Saranac Lake. The video shows Dick giving a tour of his memories of his time as a patient at Trudeau Sanatorium and Ray Brook State Hospital in the 1930s. Watch for a fascinating first-hand account of "the cure." You can learn more about Richard Ray on our wiki.
Dick Ray went on to write a book highlighting his memories of his time in Saranac Lake through the photographs he took here. The book was published by HSL, and it and the DVD of this interview can be purchased online in our store.
As autumn approaches, schools are thinking about ways to keep students safe by maximizing time outdoors. The concept of outside instruction is not new. Leading up to WWII, open air schools were built in the United States and Europe to protect children from tuberculosis. Even in Saranac Lake, where temperatures in the winter tend to stay well below freezing, some children attended unheated, open air classrooms.
In the mid-1920s, the Saranac Lake School District built an open air school at River Street, at a cost of $12,000. All Saranac Lake children were weighed periodically and X-rayed annually. Those found to be underweight attended the Fresh Air School. The building, now used for a nursery school, is located behind the former River Street School. In 1937, the Fresh Air School moved to a new six-room addition built at Petrova School.
Open air education wasn’t just for preventing illness and improving health. It was also widely used in summer camps as a natural extension of the camping experience. At local camps over generations, children have learned skills outdoors, such as arts, crafts, sports, and music.
The Deerwood Adirondack Music Center was a large summer music camp near Saranac Inn that operated from 1943 to 1957. The camp accommodated 50 students between seven and twelve years of age, and 100 older students. Deerwood’s music director Sherwood Kains brought in a distinguished faculty and guest artists. The great Hungarian composer, Béla Bartók, who came to Saranac Lake for his health in the early 1940s, served on the faculty at Deerwood in 1944.
Every Deerwood camper sang in the choir. Weekly concerts were held at the Harrietstown Town Hall in Saranac Lake and at the Sunmount Veterans Hospital in Tupper Lake. Béla Bartók attended one of the concerts at the Town Hall, where students performed a piece that he had written.
Former campers have written to us over the years, sharing stories and photos from their time at Deerwood. Camp programs in our museum archives document a place where young musicians worked hard and had fun too. While the camp attracted talented young musicians from far-flung places, we do not see people of color in any of the photos. Jewish campers did attend Deerwood, representing a departure from the long history of exclusion of Jewish people from the Northern part of Upper Saranac Lake.
Music ceased to ring out across the lake in 1957, when Kains died and the camp closed. The property sold at auction, and most of the buildings were demolished. But Deerwood lives on in the memories of many campers. In 2012, Molly Sykora McCrory wrote to us of her experience as a camper in 1944 and 1945:
"Each precious experience has continued to shape my life: singing the Messiah and other master works (as a 12 & 13 year old!!); exhilarating Friday night concerts in town; sitting at lunch when the announcement was made that WWII was over (complete silence, tears - all campers were stunned and turned immediately to their music for comfort); the entire camp walking to the train station to bid good-bye to expelled campers (for smoking) -all singing "The Lord Bless You and Keep You"as the train pulled away (gorgeous!); practicing piano under the trees (music ringing all day throughout the woods)…. I am almost 80 now, but I wish my grandchildren could have had such an enriching summer.”
Traditionally, summers in the Adirondacks come alive with music, but this season is oddly quiet. We miss concerts by the Lake Placid Sinfonietta and Loon Lake Live. We miss the voices of Gregg Smith Singers, Northern Lights Choir, and Adirondack Singers. We miss enchanting evenings with friends at Cobble Spring Farm.
But music waits in our future. Just listen as you drive by the high school, and you might hear the sweet sound of a student taking a music lesson, outside.
Executive Director, Historic Saranac Lake
- Saranac Lake Fresh Air School. Courtesy of the Saranac Lake Free Library.
- Bassists at Deerwood, Historic Saranac Lake collection.
- Saranac Lake High School band teacher Keith Kogut teaching a fresh air trumpet lesson this spring.
Courtesy of Josh Dann
On July 22, Historic Saranac Lake staff met with Historian and Artist, John Fadden of the Six Nations Indian Museum and SUNY Potsdam Archeologist, Tim Messner to brainstorm ideas for an exhibit in the new museum about Native American history in Saranac Lake. Once the restoration of the Trudeau building is complete, the building will offer much more space for us to present much more history of the region. We look forward to highlighting the long history of Native American peoples in the area, and we are thrilled to have expert advice from John and Tim. A Vision Grant from NY Humanities is supporting this project. Contact us to find out more or get involved!
Image: A socially distant group photo. (L to R) Kayt Gochenaur, Oral History Coordinator, John Fadden, Tim Messner, and Amy Catania, Executive Director.
Our Executive Director Amy was interviewed by Bob Cudmore on "The Historians" podcast this summer. Take a listen! Thanks to Bob for highlighting our fascinating history as a tuberculosis treatment destination!
Check out https://bobcudmore.com/ to learn more about the podcast and hear other episodes of the Historians.
Stay up to date on all the news and happenings from Historic Saranac Lake at the Saranac Laboratory Museum!