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Letters from the Porch: Arts, crafts gave patients a sense of purpose

Betty Koop makes jewelry. (Photo provided by Historic Saranac Lake)

During the years Saranac Lake was a health resort, many tuberculosis patients filled their time by making arts and crafts. These activities furnished a crucial sense of purpose for people struggling with isolation and boredom.

Before antibiotics, there was no real cure for TB, so doctors and nurses helped patients fight the disease by supporting their immune systems in every possible way. They provided good nursing care, healthy food, rest, moderate exercise and attention to mental health through occupational therapy. At the Trudeau Sanatorium Workshop, and later at the Study and Craft Guild in town, patients and community members learned jewelry making, basket weaving, painting and much more.

This past spring, we opened an exhibit titled “The Art of the Cure,” presenting some of the beautiful arts and crafts that grew out of our local history. Thinking about the parallels with our present times, I ducked into the museum this week to pick out a story from the exhibit to share in this letter.

I thought I would spend five minutes, but I couldn’t pull myself away. I couldn’t choose just one story. Dr. Trembley’s carved ducks, Temming’s jewelry, Mott’s pottery, paintings by Amy Jones, Kollecker’s photos — these creations all resonate in a deeper way in this strange new time. These objects, which have all outlasted the artists who made them, have stories to tell about the creativity and optimism of the human spirit in the face of a dreaded disease.

After carefully looking over everything on display, for some reason I kept thinking about one artifact that didn’t even make it into the exhibit, a pipe holder that has been in storage in our collection. A patient made the pipe holder in the occupational therapy workshop and gave it to Dr. Gordon Meade. Dr. Meade kept it his whole life, and a few years ago Dr. Meade’s son Jim donated it to our museum. We do not know who created this humble object, but we can trust that the person found a sense of purpose in making it. And today this pipe holder is a lasting expression of gratitude, a statement about the friendship between a patient and his doctor.

Clarkson University occupational therapy students pose on a tour to the Trudeau Sanatorium Workshop in January. (Photo provided by Historic Saranac Lake)

In order to make “The Art of the Cure” available during these homebound days, we have uploaded the entire exhibit online here: www.historicsaranaclake.org/art-of-the-cure. I hope you will take a tour and let us know what stories resonate for you.

What pastimes give you a sense of purpose during this unusual time? What gifts do you treasure as reminders of someone who cares about you?

Amy Catania is executive director of Historic Saranac Lake.

This pipe holder was made by a tuberculosis patient who gave it to Dr. Gordon Meade. Jim Meade, Gordon’s son, donated it to Historic Saranac Lake. (Photo provided by Historic Saranac Lake)

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