Dr. Russell Shefrin was a 1964 graduate of Saranac Lake High School who grew up on the grounds of the New York State Hospital at Ray Brook, where his father, Dr. Norman Shefrin, was on the medical staff. What follows is adapted from a brief account of his childhood published in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise on December 12, 2005.
While in high school, Russ, his teacher Dr. Ron Schroll, and some other students were among the first civilians to explore the crash site of the B-47 bomber which crashed on Wright Peak during the winter of 1962. [Adirondack Daily Enterprise, July 29, 2013]
Ray Brook reminiscence
During the 1950s and early '60s, I grew up on the grounds of what was then Ray Brook State Tuberculosis Hospital. It was a unique place, and I thought I would share some of my youthful "insider" memories. There are accounts of Ray Brook by or about former patients and staff, but as a child living there, I suspect my perspective was different.
The place where I grew up was originally known as the "New York State Hospital for Treatment of Incipient Tuberculosis." The title sounds stiff and formal now, but at the time, it conveyed hope— when TB was "incipient" (in its early stage), there was a higher probability of a good outcome. Part of the treatment at Ray Brook, in the days before the late 1940s, when effective drug therapy became available, was the "cure task" system. This regimen, which included rest and graduated physical activity, was said to work well as long as the patient had "incipient" TB. More advanced cases were another matter.
The 500-plus-acre site eventually developed a home-like atmosphere and included parks, ponds, walks, lawns, a small golf course and a train station. Cottages were built for the medical staff, and my family lived in one of them. It was a little village, with its own bakery, powerhouse, water source and grounds maintenance.
For me, the place conveyed a sense of security, though I suspect my parents worried that my sister and I might become infected with TB. By the time I reached adulthood, I'd been checked so many times for the disease that the procedure was_ almost a comforting routine.
Ray Brook seemed to run like a finely tuned clock. Lawns were mowed, driveways were plowed, homes were painted on what seemed to my childhood self to be a mysterious yet perfectly timed schedule. I always assumed these things "just happened." It was as if some wise entity was looking out for me, giving me that relatively rare (I now know) privilege of "just being a kid." Many years later, during a rotation as part of my psychology internship at the large county hospital in Buffalo, I had a chance to observe the daily activities of the administrator. Drawing on my Ray Brook experience, I was astonished at all the planning, daily decision-making and hard work that went into the running of a large institution. I had had no idea. Now, I am truly impressed with what must have been going on behind the scenes at what seemed to be effortlessly efficient Ray Brook.
When I grew up there, the place felt quiet and restrained, even innocent. I have since learned that there was a different side to the picture. I recently read that, at least at one time, Ray Brook had a more, well, "earthy" reputation compared to some of the exclusive curing establishments. Trysts were apparently not uncommon between the male and female patients in the woods surrounding the buildings. Once, when I was a boy, I came upon a little shelter in the forest. It had been crudely constructed, long before, of branches and scraps of canvas that had decayed. I always thought I had discovered the camp of an ancient explorer. Now, I wonder, had I actually found one of the rooms of the "Woodland Motel"?
In recent years, I have been returning to the Ray Brook pond to fly fish, and I have been pleased to find that time has been good to the place. It is a little disconcerting to drive by the old hospital grounds, though. On the one hand, I am pleased to see that the venerable buildings I knew so well are still in use. On the other hand, the entrances to the facility have been rearranged, leaving me a bit disoriented when I try to get my bearings. Most troubling, however, is the way the once stately grounds have been slashed with razor wire. I understand this structure is necessary now that a prison occupies the site, but its presence is more than a little jarring.
Ray Brook remains, in my mind, a special place. Yes, it was isolated and may not have been an accurate reflection of the "real world." There was also a great deal of suffering behind those brick walls, suffering from which I was almost entirely shielded. To me as a child, though, Ray Brook was a pleasant, secure and smoothly running world in harmony with nature. It was a source of hope for how things could be.