Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Fresh Air School: Lessons in outdoor education

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. 


  • Bassists at Deerwood Adirondack Music Center, Historic Saranac Lake collection.
  • Saranac Lake Fresh Air School, courtesy of the Saranac Lake Free Library 
  • Saranac Lake High School music teacher Keith Kogut teaching a trumpet lesson this spring, courtesy of Josh Dann. 


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Amy Catania is the Executive Director of Historic Saranac Lake.

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