The following is a series of four articles that appeared in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in January and February of 2007 under the headline "Saranac Lake in the 1950s." They were Historic Saranac Lake's contribution to Winter Carnival that year, when the theme was "The Fabulous Fifties."
Part 1 of 4: Tuberculosis curing era ends for village
The 1950s were an economic roller coaster ride for Saranac Lake. The closure of Trudeau Sanatorium in 1954 was the death knell for tuberculosis curing, the industry around which the village had developed so substantially since 1884. Fires devastated Saranac Lake's downtown. The business community rallied to try to replace Trudeau with a variety of smaller ventures. Yet in many ways, life here remained the same — remained fabulous — at least as seen through the eyes of a child.
By MARY B. HOTALING Historic Saranac Lake
On Oct. 12, 1954, devastating news hit Saranac Lake: After 70 years of operation as the foundation of this community's unique "industry" — treatment and research in tuberculosis — Trudeau Sanatorium was to close on Dec. 1.
Dr. Gordon Meade, director of the Trudeau-Saranac Institute, made the announcement after he had informed all members of the staff. "Studies Of Lung Diseases Will Be Continued In S.L." read a hopeful, mitigating headline. The future of Saranac Lake hung by a thread, and the actions of two men would make all the difference to the future of this community. Closure of the sanatorium should not have been a complete surprise, but the community had optimistically ignored the fact that the work done here had contributed to successful treatment for TB — treatment that did not require long stays in sanatoria, away from home. Though in hindsight it appears that the development of drug treatments caused the closing, it was only one of the reasons given by Dr. Meade. The death rate had declined, and consequently so had the patient census at Trudeau. Though economy measures had been taken for a year to quell the steadily mounting deficit, Meade remarked, the decline had begun four years before and reached serious proportions within two years.
"In the light of these changes, we cannot justify keeping our patient facilities open," he said. Wrote the Enterprise: "Dr. Meade made it clear that tuberculosis had not yet been completely conquered but that as far as the treatment is concerned, we, feel that we have made our maximum contribution."
Sudden unemployment of 125 workers at Trudeau — about 5 percent of Saranac Lake's total workforce — was just the tip of the iceberg. The availability of drug treatment for TB without the need for long stays in a sanatorium would continue to have spin-off effects for many years afterward as the community struggled to reinvent itself — a struggle which is still going on.
Approximately 30 patients still at Trudeau were helped to relocate. The symbolic last patient was the celebrated baseball player Larry Doyle, star of the New York Giants, who had been there for 12 years and who went to live at Northwoods cottage on Church Street (on the site of the Paul Smith's College dormitory). Next to last was Sam Cosenza, who returned to his home in Brooklyn.
The problem of the $2 million Trudeau property, with its 52 buildings, remained.
On April 2, 1956, after hope for a connection with the Mellon Institute was dashed — a hope in which everyone involved had invested seven months "during which, for understandable and justifiable reasons, no other proposal for the use of the Trudeau facilities was either sought or considered" — it was back to the drawing board.
"Dr. Frank Trudeau, in making this sad announcement, has also announced a magnificent personal gesture: his temporary retirement from medical practice to give this Trudeau problem his full-time attention," the Enterprise editorialized. "We consider this his way of saying that, as the grandson of the founder of the institution, as the son of its former president, and as a native son of Saranac Lake, he intends to make every conceivable effort to find a solution for both the institution and the community."
Indeed he did. One of the issues was that use of the $3 million endowment was restricted. Many of the 52 buildings had endowments limited to their support. Dr. Frank Trudeau's task was to convince each donor or his heirs to release his individual endowment to a new general fund. To determine an appropriate new use for the fund, he consulted nationally prominent scientists in New York. With these difficult decisions before him, Dr. Trudeau's efforts were further complicated by the sudden death on July 19 of his father, Dr. Francis Berger Trudeau Sr., who was boating near his camp on Upper St. Regis Lake when he succumbed to a heart attack.
Despite the optimistic headline of 1954, there had been no guarantee that the laboratories would remain here. The board was reported to be "considering an offer to join with a group near Yonkers and to move everything including the staff and endowment. Local citizens and medical groups protested and a decision on this question was deferred for six months while further study is made."
"A few quiet, persuasive words" from an unsung hero "turned the tide at a time of crisis in the community's life" and saved the laboratories for Saranac Lake. "When the Trudeau Foundation Board seemed on the verge of closing not only the sanatorium in Saranac Lake, but also the research laboratories, and transferring funds of over $3,000,000 to another institution in a metropolitan center," George LaPan's plea "that the recommendation of eminent scientists be followed and that the labs be left in Saranac Lake led to a one-vote victory for his point of view. The labs are still here," the Enterprise editorialized.
At long last, good news was trumpeted on Jan. 30, 1957, when the sale of the Trudeau Sanatorium property to the American Management Association was authorized. AMA's plan was to establish an educational and research center here. Dr. Frank Trudeau had succeeded in finding a new owner for the property that would replace many of the jobs lost when the sanatorium closed. The board also approved "reorganization and expansion" of the research work being done at the two laboratories in Saranac Lake.
Long years of hard work and worry by Dr. Frank Trudeau — and George LaPan's persuasive word at the right time — made all the difference in the world to the future of Saranac Lake. in the next decade, proceeds from the sale of the sanatorium would be reinvested here in the form of Trudeau Institute, a welcome new institution that built on the community's strengths, one which maintains Saranac Lake's prominence in the world of medical research still today.
Part 2 of 4: The Changing Face of the Village
By MARY B. HOTALING Historic Saranac Lake
The look of downtown in the uncertain years of the 1950s was altered by several fires in prominent buildings but also by a significant public work and serious efforts by local businessmen and civic leaders to broaden the village's economic base.
On July 9, 1958, a former bottling works located on the banks of the Saranac River behind the Currier building — now Little Italy — was leveled by fire in half an hour. The building had recently been purchased by the Torrington Construction company which had been using it to store construction materials for the "new Route 3 causeway" — the LaPan Highway — then being built. The result of a 30-year effort, the $800,000 project was designed to replace the 14 percent grade on the Lake Street hill with a more gradual approach and to reduce accidents at the abrupt corner of Main and River streets. On Main Street, the Seaver Miller residence was razed along with the antique store next door and one of two three-story blocks owned by Alfred Currier, which housed the Distin and Wareham architectural offices. Several homes on Dorsey Terrace and School Street were also torn down. On Nov. 24, 1958, the George LaPan Highway was dedicated in honor of the bank president and community leader who had died in a tragic accident on Dec. 2.
The winter of '58 topped the decade for major fires when three prominent downtown buildings succumbed. The first, on Nov. 18, was Meyer's Drug Store, a three-story brick block with eight apartments upstairs. All occupants were safely evacuated. By Nov. 30, "wreckers were already beginning to knock down the top floors of the burned building." Bill Meyer said that "25 feet of additional land had been purchased behind the store, and that the new store" — housing Meyer's Gifts today — "would be one story high but half again as big."
Dec. 11 saw Boyce and Roberson's substantial Tudor Revival-style building on the northeast corner of Church and Woodruff Streets go up in flames. The fire moved incredibly fast, engulfing the upper floor in five minutes; drums of fluid in the ground-floor service station began to explode. According to Jim Griebsch, his sister, Nancy, was attending Dorothy Sargeant's dance class in the cavernous second floor space, formerly a bowling alley, when the fire began. When Nancy didn't return promptly to the family home on Helen Hill, a frightened Marion Griebsch sent Nancy's big brother Jim to find her. Brother John, 14, had gone down from his paper route with his constant accessory, his camera, shortly after the alarm. This was an exciting photo opportunity, as he had just started taking pictures a year or two before. John found Nancy almost immediately, and she stayed with him and safely watched the fire from Church Street hill. John took some stunning photos that evening and sold them to the Enterprise. In those days before cell phones, Nancy earned a loving scolding from her mother for not checking in at home! The first floor of the building still stands, housing Stratton Plumbing and G.O. Automotive, a one-story shadow of its architecturally handsome former self.
The G. Carver Rice furniture store at 34 Main St. (now 43 Main St.) caught fire on the 26th of December. 'Neighbors heard the alarm at 5:15 a.m. The building was the former Walton & Starks hardware store built around 1900 next door to the Harrietstown Town Hall. Roger Tubby reported in the Enterprise that the temperature was -22 degrees and the pump on the big new truck was frozen. The fire apparently started when the flue burst at the back of the furnace.
"The flue got too hot," Mr. Rico said, "with the furnace running all the time." It had been one of the longest stretches of severe cold in a great many yeans.
Total loss in the three fires was about $450,000, and they were reported to be among the best buildings in the downtown district. Judge Vosburgh recalled that not since 1927 had the village had three big fires in one winter — in the Berkeley Hotel, the Central House, and the first Town Hall.
In November of 1955, members of the chamber of commerce Industrial Committee signed contracts to bring a new industry to Saranac Lake. A building was being built "on Ampersand Avenue near the railroad tracks," on property leased from the New York Central, to house operations of the Fetcie Lumber Mill. The sawmill was soon to be followed by a wood products plant, where they would employ 30 to 40 local workers in all, but it was an unsuccessful venture. A second wood products business, called Saranac Veneers, Inc., took over the mill space. Now occupied by Hulbert's Tri-Lake Supply, this building still stands at the end of John Munn Road, far from Ampersand Avenue but very near the tracks. A newspaper editorialized: "This burgeoning small wood industry plus the shoe factory, now functioning for about two and a half years, plus the Summer business plus the remaining institutions in the area; plus the business of the community as a trading center, all this gives real evidence of a diversified community. In our opinion, we still have a considerable way to go to make up for the loss of Trudeau and everything that went with Trudeau. But the important factor is that we are moving ahead, and ahead is the right direction."
In a bid for tourism, the custom of building an Ice Palace to celebrate Winter Carnival was revived in the 1950s, after a long hiatus. In 1949-50, Winter Carnival was held over the New Year's holiday, and Ice Palaces were revived on a regular basis beginning in 1955, in 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960 and annually from, 1963 to the present day. Fabulous!
Part 3 of 4: A City Boy in Saranac Lake
By PHIL GALLOS Historic Saranac Lake
After curing from tuberculosis, my grandmother, Victoria Ann Gil (Nana to me), migrated back to Saranac Lake for periodic rests from life in the city, and my mother and I would sometimes come here to see her.
It was Easter time, 1957 — my third visit — and Nana was in residence at the Werle Cottage at 110 (now 129) Main Street. I was 9 years old. We came by car, arriving at night, the smallness of things and the quietness of the place making a huge and indelible impression. Nana tucked me in the guest bed on the porch. I lay there awake half the night, watching the moon move down through the branches of a massive Carolina poplar (now gone) and listening, this child of Manhattan, for the sound of traffic that wasn't there.
In the morning, the radio was on and tuned to WNBZ at 1240 on the dial, and Nana and I were entertained by Don McNeil and his Breakfast Club variety show, featuring Fran Allison. The Breakfast Club was all the rage in Saranac Lake since Don and Fran had been king and queen of the 1957 Winter Carnival. When Paul Harvey came on, there was more excitement, as there was already talk in town that he would be the next Carnival king, with Denise Darcel as queen. This was in the days when the village hired its royalty, and they didn't come cheap. But both McNeil and Harvey broadcast their programs from Saranac Lake during the Carnival and spoke on the air of their experiences here long after — providing a kind of publicity that could not be matched by any amount of advertising.
Then we walked to Charlie Green's market, arid while Frank Schmidt, the butcher, ran a pound of sirloin through the grinder, Nana shopped for the rest of her supplies and Charlie totaled them up with a pencil on a brown paper bag. When the gathering was done and two bags filled, we left with only the sirloin (69 cents), a half-dozen eggs, and a bottle of Maggi — the makings of steak tartare for lunch, a holdover from Nana's curing days. The rest of the goods were delivered later by Eddie Norman in his green pickup truck. Rough but generous, with a gravelly, foghorn voice and an ever-present Camel unfiltered cigarette dangling from his lips, a small man with powerful arms and a crooked gait, Eddie was an essential part of how this community worked in those days, a man whose calling it was to make life a little easier for those who couldn't afford automobiles and didn't have the strength to carry their own stuff. More than the moon in the tree, more than the silence and the diminutive scale of things, it was my first encounter with Eddie Norman that set this place apart from all that I had experienced before.
Later, Mom asked me if I liked it here. I said, "Yes." She asked me if I'd like to live here. I said, "Yes." There began an adventure that continues to this day.
We moved up in June, after I finished third grade, and we rented an apartment at 18 (now 114) Franklin Avenue. One of the reasons Mom wanted to get me out of the city was the violence there and the potential for a growing boy to get in trouble. So, soon after moving to safe Saranac Lake, I found myself part of a "gang" and engaged in "gang warfare." Our gang was the Franklin Avenuers, and our arch enemies were the Park Placers. Our battles usually were based on whatever we could throw at each other, though the ammunition of choice was green pine cones — especially from Scotch pine. They were firm, knobby and could really sting when well pitched. That nobody ever got seriously hurt was testimony to our poor aim or some very busy guardian angels!
When we weren't hurling hard objects at each other, we were breaking into houses. Well, not actually breaking — most of them were open. We were just entering. In the wake of the collapse of the sanatoria industry, many of the big, old cure cottages around town were simply abandoned and often left unsecured. We called them "haunted houses," and it was a great thrill to explore these places. Some of them seemed to have been vacated in great haste. One still had shakers of salt and pepper and jars of condiments on the kitchen table, food in the cupboard and dishes in the sink — as though the folks who had lived there would be returning any minute, but they never did. It was very spooky, and irresistibly fascinating.
We did not enter these places out of a taste for lawlessness. We were not malicious kids. We were simply inquisitive preadolescents, driven by a taste for drama fueled by healthy imaginations. And they were haunted, these houses, but in a way we did not then understand. They were haunted by the ghost of a town's glory, by the passing of an industry and a mission in which the better part of this community devoted itself for seven decades to the task of making people well.
Part 4 of 4: How the '50s were fabulous for a city boy in Saranac Lake
By PHIL GALLOS Historic Saranac Lake
There was endless variety to what was fabulous, or not so fabulous, or fabulously strange for a boy from the big city in Saranac Lake in the 1950s.
Not so fabulous then; fabulous now: the Christmas tree.
My first nine Christmas trees were balsam firs. They came from a vendor in a parking lot. Of course, I had no idea where they really came from or that I would someday live there. Our first Christmas here, I accompanied a neighbor to get us a wild tree from the woods. We went in his pickup truck to a farm in Vermontville. I'd never ridden in a pickup truck. He brought his rifle. I'd never seen a rifle except on TV.
"What's that for?"
"You'll see." He didn't seem to have an ax.
It was very cold. I was wearing dungarees, street shoes with cotton socks, galoshes with the dungarees tucked in, and an inadequate coat. The snow was over my knees. We slogged through it for a long time until we came to an overgrown meadow ringed by stately balsam firs — 40, 50, 60 feet tall. And here we found our tree — a fairly small one, about 30 feet tall. The neighbor raised the rifle to his shoulder and fired. And again. And again — until the top 10 feet of the tree fell to the snow. We dragged it back to the truck and drove it home. I was so cold and tired I could barely speak. Merry Christmas!
The next day we went out and got me proper winter wear. And the next Christmas, we got our tree from a vendor in a parking lot — a bloated Scotch pine (which was all the rage here then) with nasty prickly needles that were more chartreuse than green. The Christmas after that, we went back to balsam fir, but not back to Vermontville.
School was fabulous, even when it wasn't. This was before the less-than-fabulous idea of centralization was embraced here. We had the good fortune to never have to ride a school bus, at least up through sixth grade. Aside from Petrova and St. Bernard's, there were two other facilities for K-6 in Saranac Lake: River Street School (now NCCC's River Street Hall) and Broadway School (which stood behind what is now E & M Market). We Helen Hill kids walked to River Street School. It was small enough to be familial, and the proximity to home allowed us a level of independence that busing denies. Sometimes, instead of going straight home after school, we went down to the boiler room to watch white-haired Mr. Pratt feed the huge furnace with coal. Oil was not yet the universal fuel, and there were three coal dealers in Saranac Lake alone in 1957.
Unquestionably fabulous: first fish. One sunny afternoon, Nana took me down to Cheeseman's Sport Shop at 32 (now 23) Broadway (currently White Pine Designs), and she bought me a fishing pole. We got the reel, hooks, sinkers, bobbers, line and worms, too. Then we walked to Moody Pond. I did what I thought I was supposed to do, and, within a very short time, I caught my first fish. From water better known for bullhead, I reeled in a 9-inch speckled trout. Just then, a man walked by and asked to see what I'd caught. I showed him, holding it up proudly, and he said, "Nice trout." I was thrilled. It wasn't the last time I'd catch a trout with a worm, but it was the only time I'd catch a trout in Moody Pond.
Fabulous: the sound of life.
In our neighborhood in the late 1950s, there were no motor-driven lawn mowers. Everyone mowed their lawns with human-powered, reel-type mowers. There were no weed whackers, cither, nor leaf blowers, nor power-edgers, nor wood splitters. Chainsaws were for lumberjacks, and. if anyone on Franklin Avenue had one, I never saw it or heard it. There were no snow blowers. There were no snowmobiles. And there were no ATVs. Yet everything seemed to function smoothly, and no one seemed deprived when the loudest thing to be heard on our street was the sound of children laughing.
Fabulously strange: hanging bucks.
A cold and cloudy day, fixin' to snow. We came down River Street from the direction of Lake Placid, turned right at the "T" intersection with Main Street (there was no LaPan Highway, and there they were, three dead deer dangling from a beam over the parking lot at Saranac Hardware (now Sir Speedy). Such were the spoils of the Trudeau Big Buck Contest, displayed in the middle of town for all to see — whether they wanted to see it or not. Had I possessed the word "macabre," I would have used it. My mother was suitably impressed and photographed me standing next to the gutted corpses, perhaps to send to friends and family to show how truly far we had wandered from whatever it was that passed for "civilization" elsewhere. Forgive us. We were ignorant of the history — that the good Dr. Trudeau came to this area as a hunter first and a physician second; that he returned here a dying man to spend his last days in the place that had given him so much pleasure as an outdoorsman; that he regained his health under the ministrations of the Paul Smith's Hotel guides, who carried him into the woods on a chair lashed to a pair of poles, his rifle on his lap; that he established the first tuberculosis sanatorium in North America on the site of his favorite fox run; that had he not such a fondness for making meat of the denizens of the forest, the progress of medical science and the fortune of this community might have been very different.
Fabulous and strange: the "Old Road to Perry's."
Soon after move to Franklin Avenue, one of my new friends announced, "We're gonna take you on the Old Road to Perry's." There was no explanation, and when I asked, "What's Perry's," I was told, "Oh, Perry's is great. You'll love it." Everybody seemed very excited. So off we went, the bunch of us heading up toward the top end of our street and me trying to imagine what this old road looked like. There were no "roads" in Manhattan, just streets and avenues — none of which bore the slightest resemblance to the streets and avenues here. The only analog I could come up with was the dirt road my Uncle Bill lived on in Putnam County. Not even close, as I would soon see.
At the end of the street, we entered the woods and followed a footpath that skirted around the rear of Prescott House and ran along the rim of the precipitous slope above upper Main Street, below the head of Shepard Avenue and the backs of the houses on Park Place. This, it turned out, was the Old Road. It ended at Perry's Grocery — a mom-and-pop establishment in the ground floor of a private home at 8 Park Place (now 18 Prescott Place). In 1957, there were 14 grocery stores in Saranac Lake, plus a number of venues that dealt strictly in candy. Just about every neighborhood had one, and all but two of them were family-owned. Now the only one left is E & M Market [now closed]— a relative newcomer. (Sorry, delis and "convenience" stores don't count.)
Our trek down the Old Road was well rewarded. It was a hot day, and the ice cream cooler was packed with all kinds of cold confections. We returned home with our booty, walking on the paved streets, but the lesson of the Old Road had an immediate impact upon me. For a boy who came from a place where almost all travel was in straight lines on concrete and asphalt, the Old Road to Perry's was radically liberating. This village was a place of paths. They were everywhere: connecting house with house, street with street, neighborhood with neighborhood, and we used to them constantly, happily heedless of the laws of private property. lt was utterly tribal, utterly organic. No straight lines here — everything curved, like the body of the earth. Fabulous.