Previous    Next    Table of Contents    Home

For others, a notice that a sanatorium bed was available offered them a second chance at life. Not everyone was admitted; preference was given to those most likely to get well. Many were young people whose cases were not too far advanced. If they could not afford treatment, they still might be admitted if they had strong family connections. Evelyn Bellak's mother was able to take a job at Ray Brook to help with her daughter's treatment. The initial elation at being accepted at a sanatorium, almost immediately gave way to other feelings - fright and despair at leaving one's home and family, loneliness, but rarely self-pity. This was not tolerated at the sanatorium; patients were implored to be cheerful and positive. By and large they complied, entering their real feelings in a diary or crying into their pillows at night. Henry Levy, an ex-patient at Ray Brook, recalled his arrival in 1931.
Click on photo to view a larger version.Click on photo to view a larger version.

For high spirited Evelyn Bellak, the hardest thing for her to endure at Ray Brook was boredom. Everything at a sanatorium was done by routine: Up at 6:30 a.m., breakfast at 7:00 followed by an exchange of sputum cups, doctors' visits and then rest or task work from 10 -12. The main meal was at 12:00 noon; afternoons were devoted to rest or task work with supper at 5:00 p.m. Some evenings there was entertainment, such as a movie, and sometimes Evelyn visited with other girls her age. She looked forward to the weekly movies when she could meet boys (from another wing of the facility) and even managed to carry on a flirtation or two during her stay. Her diary is full of speculations about her next "date," and she duly notes receiving her first kiss. A counterpoint to her budding social life is her illness, the fever that persists, her doctor's exams and pronouncements, her weekly weigh-ins.

The sanatorium believed in feeding its patients amply; not only did they eat three meals a day but had snacks in between. Patients drank milk on awakening followed later by breakfast which could include eggs, mutton chops or steak, bacon, poultry, bread (two days old) and a quantity of fruits. Dinner at noon was even heartier offering roast beef, mutton, turkey, and a variety of game, baked potatoes or well-boiled spinach, easily digested peas, corn, cauliflower, lettuce with lemon juice, or, as a vegetable substitute, macaroni, spaghetti without cheese, and for dessert, rice or bread pudding or ice cream (taken with caution). At least two more meals followed. Evelyn wasn't always pleased. "We had a horrid dinner. I just hated it," she complains. She worries when she loses weight but once she begins to gain, she's afraid of getting fat. At the heart of her regimen is "curing," resting wrapped up in blankets on an outdoor porch, or in very bad weather, inside. Evelyn, who would rather be talking to friends, speaks of getting "chased out" to cure a number of times.

Although Evelyn doesn't say much about it, occupational therapy was a big part of sanatorium life. At the Trudeau Sanatorium (the name given the original Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium), patients could take classes in metalwork, textiles, leatherwork, woodwork or ceramics. Patient Betty McDonald, who turned out a variety of decorative useless objects, christened them "toecovers." Her list included, "embroidered coat hangers... hand-painted shoe trees... cross stitched pictures of lumpy brown houses...crocheted paper knife handle covers...[and] poorly executed dolls whose voluminous skirts are supposed to cover telephones."

By the end of Evelyn's stay, her activities have increased, a measure of her returning health. From weekly movies she graduates to the outside, where she and the other girls hitch rides on a wagon or in an automobile to Lake Placid, or march in a parade in Saranac dressed as Red Cross nurses. Just before Thanksgiving 1918 when her diary stops, Evelyn makes her only reference to world events: "Thursday, Nov. 7, Peace. Great day today, alright Diary. About dinner time...Benny Novel announced that the Armistice with Germany had been signed. Then what a celebration we did have!" World War I had ended.

Dr. Trudeau had died three years earlier, when the town of Saranac Lake was rising to the height of its prosperity. From a wilderness settlement in the 1870s, it had become a world renowned center for the study and treatment of tuberculosis. Not only did it attract leading doctors and researchers but many celebrities who had contracted consumption, among them authors Robert Louis Stevenson, Stephen Crane and the brother of Harry Houdini. Trudeau spent much of his time raising money to support his facility. He described the Sanitarium about 1910:

Click on photo to view a larger version.
Known as the "City of the Sick," Saranac Lake flourished as the health industry expanded. Consumptives mingled freely with the townspeople, especially at Winter Carnival time, and were even celebrated. Townspeople provided services for the sick; in 1930, the town's zenith year, population was 8,020, and the town boasted thirteen druggists, five undertakers, fifty-three private physicians, thirteen private-duty nurses, seven banks, a savings and loan association, four hotels, two apartment hotels, and nineteen taxi services. In addition there were six major sanatoriums built in the town's vicinity, 150 cure cottages, and the Saranac Lake General Hospital.

"Health-seekers feel that they definitely 'belong' here, and that they are members of a community which understands them and takes them unto itself," one flyer assured prospective newcomers.

Companies made products for the invalid population. A. Fortune manufactured "cure chairs" and provided bedding, and Leonard's Department Store stocked large quantities of these chairs, cold weather gear, the new paper handkerchiefs, hot water bottles, slippers and robes.


Click on photo to view a larger version. Click on photo to view a larger version.

Boarding houses around town added open air and glassed-in porches to suit healthseekers who sometimes stayed there before being admitted to one of the sanatoriums.

The many-porched houses, particular to Saranac Lake, became known as "cure cottages." Even town activity harmonized with the sanatorium schedule: from two until four in the afternoon, during rest period as one visitor observed, there was an eerie silence in town, no dogs barked, no children's voices were heard. Medical staff, shopkeepers and townspeople in general had an air of optimism. But a few shuddered at a town built upon a devastating illness. The pine boxes on the railroad platform each day were a sobering reminder that all was not well.

Click on photo to view a larger version.

With the Great Depression in the 1930s, Saranac Lake's fortunes began to fail. The White Plague was at the end of another cycle, thanks in part to improved national hygiene and the isolation of the contagious in sanatoriums. Saranac's supply of healthseekers dwindled. Then, in the 1940s, a "cure" apparently was found. The antibiotic streptomycin proved to be effective against tuberculosis, and "America's Pioneer Health Resort" became a thin shadow of its former self. Its sanatoriums were converted into research facilities or prisons, its cottages into private homes, and its stores closed.

Previous    Next    Table of Contents    Home