Martha Reben (born Rebentisch, 1906-1964) 1 was an author who wrote The Healing Woods (1952), The Way of the Wilderness (1954), and A Sharing of Joy (1963) memoirs of her experiences camping on the shore of Weller Pond eight miles from Saranac Lake in 1931 in an attempt to cure herself of tuberculosis.
Reben grew up in New York City; when she was six her mother died of tuberculosis. When she, too, became ill she was sent to cure in Pennsylvania, the Catskills and finally, in 1927, to Saranac Lake where the Trudeau Sanatorium had had considerable success treating the disease. However, after curing for three and a half years, and after three operations failed to cure her, she decided to follow her own desires, and hired a guide to take her camping in the wilderness.
Martha spotted an ad for a different type of cure in the local newspaper. Local boat builder and guide Fred Rice placed an advertisement seeking a patient to help guide into the woods for the fresh air cure. Mr. Rice was a firm believer in the curative powers of the Adirondack woods air. He argued that TB patients who were spending their days in the village of Saranac Lake resting on cure porches would be better served by getting out in the woods.
Fred Rice did not expect such a young and frail woman to answer his ad, but he and his wife Kate agreed that five months of steady work was worth taking. Together Martha and Fred traveled eleven miles from Lower to Middle Saranac Lake and on to Weller Pond to camp. Over the course of the next ten years, an enduring friendship with Mr. and Mrs. Rice would be forged. Fred and Martha returned to the woods during the warm season. They went back to Weller Pond, and they also camped on Hungry Bay on Middle Saranac and Pope Bay on Lower Saranac Lake.
Martha found her home with the Rice family, wintering with Fred and Kate in her small house on the old State Road, leaving town towards Tupper Lake. They lived at 65 Algonquin Avenue, now numbered 36 Algonquin Avenue. Convinced of the health benefits of the outdoor life, Martha never returned to the city. Her disease slowly improved, and she lived to age 58. Writer Betsy Tisdale argues that Martha’s books were rather optimistic versions of her life events – she was always frail and struggled with serious health problems related to TB and the surgeries she had undergone.
Camping at Weller Pond, Martha passed the time by writing in her journal. Often Fred was away working as a guide, and so left alone at camp, Martha would record her observations of the natural world and the lake wildlife.
In 1952, The Healing Woods, was published, with Martha’s last name shorted to Reben. Based on her experiences camping at Weller Pond from 1931 to 1941, the book was a best seller and featured by the family Book Club. Martha also went on to publish The Way of the Wilderness in 1955 and A Sharing of Joy, published in 1963, a few weeks before her death.
In A Sharing of Joy Martha described a visit to New York City: “…I slipped away to the city, one morning, while my neighbors were busily watching for the ice to break up, and listening for the first call of the crow….After the almost oppressive silence of a snow-covered mountain village, not to mention my tranquil life in the woods, I found the clanging of streetcars, blaring taxis and rattling trucks almost deafening. Among these cliffs of concrete, amidst the crowds of tight-faced people whose greatest worry seemed to be that something would interfere to slacken their speed, I felt lost and bewildered….I waited only long enough to demonstrate to my friends and family what an active outdoor life had done for one very lively invalid; then, assured of their further support, both moral and monetary, I boarded a train and headed back to the mountains. I do not think I drew an easy breath until the last concrete pile had been left in the distance.” 23
Adirondack Daily Enterprise, February 24, 1990
Invalid found strength in forest's peace
When he arrived here in 1878, Fred Rice was only two years old. His father had decided to move from Vermont to Saranac Lake to establish a boat-building business. He opened his shop on Lower Saranac's shore just below what would, six years later, become the Algonquin Hotel. The project prospered and, as he grew up, Fred decided to follow in his father's occupation. At that particular time there existed a demand for guides and guideboats and Fred decided to offer both services to the disciples of Adirondack Murray. He built a reliable guideboat and developed into a knowledgeable woodsman who was always inclined to impart a bit of native philosophy to his patrons. As the early 1900's brought a remarkable influx of tubercular patients to the area, Fred took an avid interest in the prevalent cure methods and, eventually, formed some strong opinions of his own. As we shall see, he was not the least bit reluctant to express his ideas.
In his guiding services, Fred, by necessity, spent a great deal of time in the out-of-doors and was convinced that this environment was a very definite contributor to good health. He did, in fact, believe that camp life was far superior to the so-called rest cure provided by a sanatorium for any patient who suffered from tuberculosis. He agreed wholeheartedly with Adirondack Murray's accounts of bed-ridden invalids who, after spending a summer in the wilderness, exited hale and hardy. Fred took extreme umbrage with the popular medical belief that rest was of major importance in the curing of consumption. He took local doctors to task by insisting that exercise was far more beneficial to the TB patient than laying dormant in bed. Outspoken as he was on this subject there had to be a response from member of the local medical profession Dr. Lawrason Brown, in his "Rules for Recovery From Tuberculosis," slated that it was foolish to listen to the advice of laypersons who probably knew little or nothing about anatomy. Fred, in his own booklet, 'Fifty Years In a Health Resort," rebutted with even if a layman believes that the right and left lungs are situated in the right and left legs his foolish notion will not hinder his forming a correct opinion as to the value of the rest-cure when he actually sees invalids grow worse as long as they lay in bed."
The battle lines were drawn — bed rest in a sanatorium versus exercise in the out-of-doors. Fred Rice decided to go on the offensive with a bold stratagem. In the spring of 1931 he placed a classified ad in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, as follows:
"Wanted — To get in touch with some invalid who is not improving, and who wants to go into the woods for the summer. — Fred Rice."
Martha Rebentisch was born in New York City on April 30, 1905, and while still in high school, at age 16, she came down with tuberculosis.
She was advised to get out of the city and found a place on a farm. She rode a donkey, gathered eggs, watered the animals, and spent most of the summer out of doors. Returning to the city in the fall she suffered a relapse and was placed in a sanatorium. After several relocations she came to Saranac Lake in 1928 where her doctor advised her to go to bed for a one-year rest period. Three years later, after undergoing several forms of treatment, she had shown no improvement and was faced with an unpleasant ordeal of last resort known throughout the tubercular fraternity as "the rib." It was at this juncture that she happened to notice Fred's ad in the Enterprise. Since she was not looking forward to the impending surgery she decided to give Mr. Rice a try.
Using only the initial of her first name (she feared that Mr. Rice was expecting a male patient) she answered the ad and was directed to meet the guide at the Algonquin boathouse. Her surmise proved correct as Fred Rice displayed not only surprise but displeasure upon seeing a very sick young lady. At first impulse, he considered canceling the proposal. The pitiful appeal in her eyes caused him to relent, however, and, perhaps against his better judgment, he decided to honor the commitment. It was a good decision.
The two-boat safari left the Algonquin boathouse dock under the rather skeptical eye of Earl Alvord who, with evident concern, had helped to load the boats The lead craft had been built earlier by Fred along the typical guideboat pattern except the stern was squared off to accept a small four horsepower Johnson outboard motor. In this boat, a mattress was placed for Martha to recline on during the 10-mile trip to Weller Pond. Behind, towed by a rope, was a canoe, loaded with the camping gear needed for on extended stay in the woods
Martha, beneath a blanket, but able to enjoy the scenic wonders as the little flotilla progressed through the entire length of Lower Saranac Lake to enter the river connecting the Middle and Lower Lakes. Midway between these two they came to the state locks where they were locked through by Robert "Poker" Ryan, who was slightly amazed at the procession. He had known Fried for many years but this seemingly very sick young lady snugly ensconced on her make-shift pallet was something else. Fred explained their mission but Poker was left with some doubts.
Soon they entered Middle Saranac which Fred, like most old-timers, preferred to call Round Lake. After cruising to the extreme north shore they entered a narrow shallow passage through a slough and finally entered into Weller Pond, where they were to spend the summer in camp. It would be difficult, indeed, to fathom Martha's thoughts at this particular instance but, later, she would express her feelings in book form.
On the north shore of Weller Pond Fred set up a simple camp consisting of a tent, a stone fireplace, a rough table and no chairs. Cooking utensils were all cast offs from Mrs. Rice's wares, which didn't bother Martha too much until Fred dumped a can of corn into what had previously been an under-the-bed piece of crockery. She had anticipated primitive conditions but not this! When Fred passed the corn she said "no thanks." Her cot was set up in the tent with a canopy of mosquito netting and, glancing about, she wondered where Mr. Rice was going to sleep. As if to answer her question he soon came up from the canoe with his cot, which he set up beneath a huge pine tree.
The daily routine opened a new and wonderful environment to Martha, whose former surroundings had been dismal. The full enjoyment, of course, had to be gradual due to her physical limitations but the healing process began with Martha reclining on cushions in the canoe while Fred paddled her around the pond. There were nature lessons, bird and animal sightings, and some pike fishing to fill the days and restful nights beneath the soughing pines. As the summer waned Martha was taking long walks in the woods, padding her own canoe, and making copious notes in her diary that would emerge in a more refined format some 20 years later. The patient was definitely improving and Fred was proving his prognostications to one and all.
Summer after summer the routine was repeated with wonderful results. During the winters Martha lived with Fred and Mrs. Rice in their cottage on the state road just outside of the village. In 1937, Fred published his "Fifty Years in a Health Resort" containing 54 pages of his opinions. Fred's booklet could have ignited the spark that set Martha to thinking about writing her own version of the Weller Pond experiment. In any event, she spent eight years compiling the material that emerged in book form in April, 1952. She titled the publication, "The Healing Woods" and chose the pen name of Reben by simply shortening her surname of Rebentisch. (Reben was her second published alias since Fred, in his booklet, tells of a young woman "whom we shall can Agnes Stiffens"— but the identity is obvious.
"The Healing Woods" met with instant success as favorable reviews proclaimed unanimously that here was a non-fiction winner with a happy ending. The Family Reading Club selected the book and reported to its members that never before had they offered such a simply written and beautiful true experience story. Needless to say, the book was extremely well received in the Saranac Lake area because of its setting in our own immediate environs.
The book also attracted attention from the moving picture industry. C.V. "Sonny" Whitney, the well known owner of the huge Whitney Park south of Tupper Lake was also the head of C.V. Whitney Pictures of Hollywood fame. He decided to make a film on "The HealIng Woods." He sent for Martha and Fred and housed them in a cabin on Flatfish Pond three miles north of his main camp on Little Forked Lake. He had selected an actress, Marylou Shroeder, to play the leading role and she joined Martha during frequent visits to assimilate whatever characteristics she could gather from direct contact. At some point during the negotiations the producer married the star and their honeymoon dissolved all interest in the production. The movie was never made.
Disappointed but resolutely determined, Martha returned to her writing. She authored two more books, "Way of the Wilderness" in 1950 and "A Sharing of Joy" in 1963. Fred remained at her side and they continued their summer outings but as Fred approached 80 years they moved their camps ever closer to civilization. In 1955 they were on Hungry Bay Middle Saranac, in 1956 they were at the Whitney and in 1963 they were close to the village on Pope Bay on Lower Saranac Lake. Martha also had a cottage on the Saranac River below Bloomingdale.
During one of her stays with Fred and Mrs. Rice on the state road Fred gave Martha a white duckling for a pet. In the winter months the Pekin duck made its headquarters in the Rice's stone fireplace and the author named her pet "Mr. Dooly." As the duck grew it became completely attached to Martha and followed her about, especially enjoying the trips to Weller Pond.
Martha had become a well-known and respected figure in the community. Her books had brought recognition to herself while creating a widespread interest in our region. She managed, by her brave determination, to not only outlive those dire forecasts of 1930 but to make her mark in a highly competitive field of literary endeavors. By accepting the challenge of an innovative idea in a newspaper advertisement, she added a productive 33 years to her lifespan. Martha Rebentisch died on January 7, 1964, in Saranac Lake. According to her wishes, she was to be cremated and her ashes spread over Weller Pond. On Thursday, June 11, 1964 at precisely 2:30 p.m. a plane carrying Rev. Orville Wilson, Attorney Irving Edelberg, and game protector Dick Emperor brought Martha back to Weller Pond.
The photograph above of Martha Reben at a cabin tentatively identified as the one on the Saranac River near Bloomingdale was supplied by Julie Ross, who writes "My father was greatly influenced by her book, The Healing Woods, such that he took our family canoe camping to Weller Pond and the region for about 30 years (he died in 1986). Last year I purchased a copy of the book and, as I read it, realized just how much our experience in the Adirondacks was shaped by Ms. Reben's book... Recently my brother started scanning our family color slides from the 50s and 60s, most of which are of our camping trips. I noticed two pictures of people I didn't recognize, in the entrance to a cabin. After discovering your wiki pages last weekend, I realized that those people are, in fact, Martha Reben and Fred Rice, taken by my father when we went to visit her not long before she died. As a huge fan, my father had written to her and asked if he could visit. She agreed, and I came along, at the age of 9 or 10. I vaguely remember the visit, but didn't put it all together until I verified the identities of the people in the pictures.
Sandy Hayes lives in Bloomingdale on the Saranac River, who has tentatively identified the cabin in the photo writes that "The cabin in the picture is still there, but I think there is a room added on the east side... I only met Martha one time, but talked to her on the phone several times when she was trying to get all of her neighbors to agree not to hunt or shoot "her" ducks on the river. I was too young and unimpressed to know anything about her at that time in the 60s, so she was just another neighbor, but we all did agree to try to prevent hunting ducks on the river. ( I now have the same agreement with my neighbors and only strangers, floating down the river, hunt or shoot around my property.)"
He also notes that the cabin was the easterly neighbor of the John Pedersen family.
See also the similar photograph of Fred Rice.
Adirondack Daily Enterprise, April 4, 1952
Martha Reben Steps Into New Role Today
Mr. Dooley, a magnificent white duck had a strange experience recently and his feathers may still be a trifle ruffled as a result.
For the first time in his five years of being the center of existence he has had to share the limelight with his mistress.
Quackually he's secretly very pleased about the whole thing. For the young woman who takes such good care of him is Martha Reben who from her quiet obscurity is suddenly receiving national acclaim for her first book, "The Healing Woods," on sale today in Saranac Lake.
There's a background of 20 years of collecting material, a total of eight years have gone into the actual writing and the 250 pages were re-written four times before the exacting author would let the book leave her hands.
Twenty-three years ago, while still a high school student in New York City, she became ill and was brought to a sanatorium near Saranac Lake. After many discouraging months of bed rest and two operations things looked pretty dark.
Faced with a third and what she calls a "last hope" operation and a "no hope" look in the eyes of her doctor, the young girl was desperate. Then in an issue of the Daily Enterprise she saw the following advertisement:
WANTED: To get in touch with some invalid who is not improving, and who wants to go into the woods for the summer. — Fred Rice.
Martha answered the ad, using only the initial of her first name. Consequently she was a complete surprise to the seasoned woodsman when she met him at his lakeside dock prepared to take to the woods and get away from it all.
"The Healing Woods" is a refreshing account of how Martha Reben made the transition from a big city dweller to a seasoned woodsman herself. In a delightfully fresh, easily read manner she takes you right into the quiet, the tranquility of the Adirondacks, punctuating the experience with light and amusing happenings. Martha had been interested in writing for many years and at one time, as one of its first pupils, she took a course in both English and journalism at the Saranac Lake Study and Craft Guild.
"Dr. Holt Hughes, of Paul Smith's College, read my manuscript in its earlier stages and encouraged me to go on," Martha reports. "And Dr. Edward Welles took the finished work to a literary agent in New York who gave it to the Crowell Publishing Co.
"They accepted it immediately and have asked me to write a sequel. I haven't actually put any of it on paper yet but I'm assembling details in my mind."
Martha has spent five months of every year for the past 20 years in the woods. Slight of build, soft spoken, it is difficult to picture this auburn haired young woman as an accomplished woodsman, but she is, and she loves it.
Her book has been accepted by the Family Reading Club, still one more feather in the cap of our brand new author.
Adirondack Daily Enterprise, January 8, 1964
Martha Reben Is Dead; Adirondack Nature Author
Miss Martha Rebentisch, who came to Saranac Lake around 1929 desperately ill with tuberculosis, died here yesterday afternoon at Saranac Lake General Hospital.
In the intervening years she found a measure of good health that enabled her to earn fame for herself and the Adirondacks through her authorship of three books: The Healing Woods, The Way of the Wilderness and, published just a few months ago, A Sharing of Joy. She shortened her last name to Reben for professional use.
She became ill while she was a student in a New York City High School and was brought to a sanatorium near Saranac Lake. Months of bed rest and two operations did little good and she was faced with what she later called a "last hope" operation when she saw the following advertisement in the Adirondack Enterprise: "WANTED: To get in touch with some invalid who is not improving, and who wants to go into the woods for the summer. Fred Rice."
The story of what happened after that is told in her book, The Healing Woods. That book, she said, represented 20 years of collecting material and eight years of writing, including four re-writings of the book's 250 pages. Mr. Rice, who remained her life-long friend, typed her manuscripts with two fingers. She wrote in long hand in a notebook on a board, seated with her back to the window to avoid being distracted by the animal life outside.
From the time she decided to take to the woods, she gradually changed from a city dweller to a seasoned camper and woman of the woods. Her interest in animals was one of understanding and protectiveness rather than that of a scientist. She said she described her wild life neighbors as accurately as possible but when her human neighbors appeared in her books they were fictionalized or composites of people she knew. Her last book was published just a few months ago.
In recent years she lived at 55 Riverside Drive just outside of Saranac Lake and summers had a house on the Saranac River near Bloomingdale.
The Keough and Son Funeral Home in Saranac Lake will be in charge of funeral arrangements which are still incomplete.
Adirondack Daily Enterprise, January 9, 1964
A funeral service will be held at 11 a. m. Friday at the Garden Chapel of the Keough and Son Funeral Home for Miss Martha Rebentisch, author and wildlife expert, who died in Saranac Lake on Tuesday afternoon. The Rev. Peter O. W. Hill, rector of the Church of St. Luke the Beloved Physician, will officiate. Cremation will take place in Oakwood Cemetery in Troy.
Friends may call at the Funeral home today from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p. m. tomorrow morning.
Miss Rebentisch was born in New York City on April 30, 1906, daughter of Ernest and Mary McElroy Rebentisch. She was a member of the National Wildlife Association and the National Audubon Association.
A sister, Jean, of East Lansing, Mich, and a brother, Ernest, of New York City, survive.
Miss Rebentisch's family suggests that those wishing to remember her make donations in care of the Saranac Lake Federal Savings and Loan Association to the fund which is being established in her memory. The fund will be used to award a prize to a public school student who is interested in wildlife.
From Adirondack Roots: Stories of Hiking, History and Women by Sandra Weber
Fred was very saddened by Martha's death. A few months after her passing, he wrote to his grandson, "Three different times I have been sitting at the table and asked Martha some thing and when she didn't answer, I looked around to see why she didn't—and remembered that she was never going to answer me again!...I wish that I had died and been buried with her!"
Martha's ashes were scattered at Weller Pond, as were Fred's when he died in 1960. A wooden slab is nailed to a tree at their campsite. It reads, "Reben Point. May this spot be kept as a memorial to Martha Reben, whose life, and books on her life here, have inspired so many.'"
Excerpt from Al Evans Letter about Fred Rice, June 14, 1992
"In 1932, a twenty five year old woman named Martha Rebentisch, weakened by tuberculosis, answered an unusual advertisement in the Saranac Lake newspaper. "WANTED," it read, "to get in touch with some invalid who is not improving, and would like to go into the woods for the Summer." Rice installed Rebentisch on a mattress in the bow of his boat Gull and metered her into an al fresco life in which she was to find health and inspiration to be an author. For 33 years she published books under the name of Martha Reben."
Letter from John Vinton: "About The Healing Woods"
Courtesy of Eleanor Stearns
"I first learned of Martha Reben and her guide, Fred Rice, last August while reading Maitland De Sormo's Summers of the Saranacs. I was intrigues by the remark quoted from Mr. Rice that some passage or other in Martha's manuscript of The Healing Woods was "nonsense," that it should be more "accurate and clear." Any writer who has the benefit of an editor like that is almost certain to produce a worthwhile book.
To my surprise I found Martha's book on the open shelves of the Brooklyn Public Library, near where I live. When I returned it and asked to check it out again, I was told that someone else had reserved it. She is still being read after thirty years!
I questioned whether there was enough drama in the book to sustain 75 or 80 minutes of listening, but I found the nature vignettes so charming and vivid that I went ahead and drafted an adaptation. This first version was based solely on Martha's description of her first summer with Fred on Weller Pond in 1931.
I had written to Maitland about my project, and when I saw him again at the end of September, I discovered he was taking a very personal interest in my work. He gave me copies of Fred's Christmas letters to fellow campers, in which Fred recalled several experiences from that first summer, and one breezy morning Maitland and I paddled over to the famous campsite.
He also arranged a visit to Mott Chapin, who had camped with Fred and Martha in 1933, and Mrs. Chapin, who had known them. As we sat looking at slides of the pond and the three of them reminisced, the feeling grew strong in me that Fred ought to be emphasized more in my adaptation. When I discovered at the Saranac Lake Library that Fred's Fifth Years in a Health Resort (1937) contained a case history on Martha's recovery, along with his own strong views on nature vs. medicine, I decided to redraft my version of the story.
Fred and Martha both tell the story now. The healing aspect, which Martha downplayed, has become more prominent. And their remarkable friendship, which helped extend Martha's life by many, many years, will come alive, I hope, in a new way.
I have dedicated this adaptation to Maitland De Sormo in recognition of his profound influence on its creation."
See also: Natalie Leduc Interview
- Women of Courage Profiles - Martha Reben
- Adirondack Life, 2001 Annual Guide To The Great Outdoors, Christine Jerome, Martha and Fred
2010-08-24 12:36:22 I just picked up this book this morning. I really appreciate her descriptions of the wildlife I wish to spend more time in the woods and less time worrying and working in city (buffalo ny) —220.127.116.11
2010-08-30 21:37:49 Great to see this - reading Martha Reben's books changed my life, and I am always thrilled to find anything written about her. Good to see more attention has been given to her in the past 15 years or so. About 8 years ago (I think) there was a wonderful article about Martha and Fred in Adirondack Life - it was very moving to read about their lifelong friendship. Thank you for posting this, hope there will be more! —18.104.22.168
2011-03-10 14:58:19 i found her book " the healing woods" in the little northwoods town i have lived in since 1997, it described the nurture i felt since moving to the northwoods. i then found " the way of the wilderness" i read both books each year, it is like visiting with a friend...i remain in the woods of northern minnesota. —22.214.171.124
2011-08-17 15:35:12 A number of years ago, a woman named Belle stayed at Susan Moody and Alan Brown's B&B on Trudeau Road. She was the little girl, "Katie" referred to on page 215 of the first edition of The Healing Woods, and she signed their edition of the book. —amycatania
1. Martha Rebentisch's birth date frequently appears as 1911. However, her obituary given in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise give 1906 as her birth year.
2. From A Sharing of Joy by Martha Reben, quoted in “Martha Reben: Adirondack Writer” by Betsy Tisdale
3. Portions of this article appeared originally on Wikipedia as Martha Reben; its edit history there reflects its authorship. It is licensed under the GDFL.