When I was a boy growing up in our house on 1 Stevenson Lane, my mom had an antique bottle collection that she kept on a shelf. One of those bottles had a rustically intricate attached metal stopper. The engraved circular glass on the front read “ISAAC MERKEL & SON, BOSS LAGER, SARANAC LAKE.” That bottle always held a special fascination for me. I still have it.
It all began innocently enough, quite by accident really, about three summers ago as I quietly rowed my Zen boat canoe from South Creek into camp. As I crossed some shallows near the shore of an island as I entered the lake, something glistened blue, reflecting morning sunlight from the lake’s bottom.
JOIN OUR ONLINE BOOK TALKS ON THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE APA
June 18 at 2:00 pm — Rural Indigenousness with author, Melissa Otis. The discussion will be moderated by Iakonikonriiosta, Museum Manager of the Akwesasne Cultural Center.
June 30 at 6:00pm — Contested Terrain with author, Phil Terrie. The discussion will be moderated by Ann Norton Greene.
July 8 at 6:00pm —50 Years of the APA: A Wild Idea with author Brad Edmondson. The discussion will be moderated by Jim Hotaling. Register for the talk and receive a 30% discount to order and read the book in advance.
Historic Saranac Lake (HSL) is launching a new project, titled: “Pandemic Past and Present.” This project will take place on their Cure Porch on Wheels, and is funded by the 2021 Corridor of Commerce Interpretive Theme Grant from the Champlain Valley National Hertiage Partnership.
HSL will be hosting programs from its mobile museum (the Cure Porch on Wheels) in order to explore local history in public health with new and larger audiences. Visitors to the mobile museum will be able to watch videos and take part in activities centered around Saranac Lake’s health resort history.
Mahala Nyberg, HSL’s new Public Programs Coordinator and leader of the project had the following to say: “As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, Saranac Lake’s sanatorium history is newly relevant. Our history as a community built on the treatment and research of a highly infectious disease helps to shed light on issues in public health today. The experience of the COVID-19 pandemic inspires us to explore untold stories in our local history and make new connections to broader themes.”
The mobile museum will be operating within 640 square miles of the Saranac Lake School District, and the Lake Champlain Basin Program grant will support the creation of short videos exploring the history of Saranac Lake’s TB history. This project is a natural outgrowth of a new exhibit soon to be unveiled at the Saranac Laboratory Museum titled, “Pandemic Perspectives.” Following its closure through the winter due to the pandemic, the museum reopened May 25, 2021.
Sing on, sing on you gray-brown bird, Sing from the swamps, the recesses, pour your chant from the bushes, Limitless out of the dusk, out of the cedars and pines. Walt Whitman, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”
A whole year has gone by since we first heard the word “Covid.” We are coming full circle, and soon the hermit thrush will sing again.
Following Black History Month, we have been thinking about something we’re often asked about at the Saranac Laboratory Museum – were there Black TB patients in Saranac Lake, and where did they stay? We know that as long as people came to Saranac Lake and the Adirondacks for their health, Black patients were among them. One early health-seeker was Henry Ossawa Tanner, who was one of the first Black artists to be internationally famous. He first came to Rainbow Lake for his health in 1878, five years after Dr. Trudeau.
Due to accidental loss or intentional destruction of records from the sanatoria, cure cottages, and public agencies following the closure of the TB industry, there is a lot that we don’t know. We have large gaps in our knowledge about the names, hometowns, race, and more of patients coming to Saranac Lake and where they stayed. This is true for patients of all races. But it is also true that Black patients were excluded from certain sanatoria and cure cottages, and did not have access to the same resources that white patients did.
This month, one block at a time, an ice palace emerged again on the shore of Lake Flower. If you had the chance to stop by, you may have felt its warm embrace.
The massive ice blocks of the palace remind me of the stone walls of Machu Picchu. Relying on a system of communal labor called mit’a, the Inca built enormous stone structures and highly engineered roads and bridges. Each citizen who could work was required to donate a number of days of their labor to cultivate crops and build public works. Historians of ancient Peru trace the ways the mit’a system forged a complex society. Working together, people developed friendships and bonds of reciprocity that served the common good throughout the year.
“I have been so upset by world events that my mind has been almost completely paralyzed.” — Béla Bartók
In the midst of the dark days of World War II, a frail man named Béla Bartók came to Saranac Lake for his health. Although he was one of the greatest composers in human history, many Saranac Lakers might have seen him as just another invalid, tiny and pale, wrapped in his dark cape against the cold Adirondack weather. Bartók and his second wife Ditta fled their native Hungary eighty years ago, as fascism and antisemitism swept across Europe. He had dedicated his life not only to composing, but also collecting and arranging the folk music of Eastern Europe. Nazi Germany was threatening to erase the cultures of the Roma and other peasant peoples of the region. In the face of such terror, Bartók was depressed, impoverished, and sick with a form of leukemia that acted like tuberculosis. He and his wife moved from one cramped, loud, New York City apartment to another. He had ceased composing.
October is a good month for a ghost story. So here is the tale of a humble spirit who for years haunted a cure cottage up on Charles Street in Saranac Lake.
I heard this story from Eileen Black, who has lived in the house for many years and raised her family there. A ghost visited their home several times a year for decades. He would show up at the back walkway, walking towards the house, glancing in the windows. Well-dressed, in an elegant, old fashioned coat and fedora, he looked a bit like Fred Astaire, so the family named him, “Fred.” Eileen, her husband, and children all got used to Fred sightings. He would appear and then be gone, before they could get a good look at him. Guests at the house would see him too. They were never afraid of him; he felt like a friend.
What’s not to love about a house in a box? In the first part of the 20th century, thousands of Americans ordered their homes out of the Sears Roebuck catalog. The homes were shipped in railroad cars, all parts ready to assemble — little boxes, just like the Pete Seeger song.
Customers could choose from a wide variety of architectural styles and price points, from the tiny metal “Lustron” to the elegant “Alhambra.” Both styles can be found here in the village. An untold number of other Saranac Lake homes were built from kits.
During this quiet summer, one of the things we are missing is the theater. From Broadway in New York City to Pendragon in Saranac Lake, stages have gone dark. Actors are a lively, irrepressible bunch, and so it’s a testament to the seriousness of the situation that theaters are closed.
In interesting contrast, through the 1918 flu pandemic, Broadway did not shut down. A New York Times article this past July titled, “’Gotham Refuses to Get Scared’: In 1918, Theaters Stayed Open” described how, at the height of the flu epidemic, New York’s health commissioner declined to close performance spaces. Instead, he instituted public health measures such as staggering show times, eliminating standing room tickets, and mandating that anyone with a cough or sneeze be removed from theaters immediately.
Historic Saranac Lake will be hosting a reading of “Safe Harbor,” a play about Saranac Lake during the height of Tuberculosis. The play will be read starting at 5:30 p.m. this Thursday, Sept. 10, from a cure porch in the village to a small (socially distant) audience.
The play is about two residents of a small cure cottage in Saranac Lake, whose lives intersect due to tuberculosis. “Safe Harbor” illuminates the experiences of many who, after being made outcasts in their own homes, were able to reclaim their humanity from TB.
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.
“I discovered that I wanted to stay in touch with a number of friends from my previous healthy existence, and I was soon writing to everyone within reach of the postal service … the mail delivery became the high spot of my day.” — Richard Ray, TB patient.
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.
Historic Saranac Lake (HSL) announced that it has been awarded an Inspire! Grant for Small Museums through the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The $48,300 award will support HSL’s work to catalog and rehouse a portion of its image collections. The project will enable HSL to gain intellectual and physical control over its collection in preparation for a major expansion into the historic Trudeau Building adjacent to the museum. Over two years, HSL 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.
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.
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