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Letters from the Porch: The joy of exercise

Alice Gallup climbs a gate at Trudeau Sanatorium in Saranac Lake. (Photo provided by Historic Saranac Lake, courtesy of Michael Gallup)

The old neighborhoods of Saranac Lake are lively these days as people of all ages take a break from solitude to go out walking at all hours. Like the tuberculosis patients of the past, we are eager to stretch our legs, breathe some fresh air and wave to a friendly face across the street.

Moderate exercise was a key part of the treatment in Saranac Lake. Doctors recognized that exercise could boost the immune system by strengthening the body and improving mental health. Not all TB patients were bedridden, and those who were well enough to get out of bed went walking on their doctors’ orders.

The Trudeau Sanatorium admitted people in the early stages of the disease, and so many of the patients there lived a pretty lively existence. They made crafts in the occupational therapy workshop, walked to meals in the grand dining room and performed in plays in the auditorium. Walking provided a chance to spend time with a friend or romantic interest.

Doctors monitored their patients closely and prescribed increasing amounts of exercise as their health improved. Patients were expected to follow instructions exactly, as outlined in Dr. Brown’s “Rules for Exercise.” As we embark on ambitious long walks in these new times, we should keep in mind Dr. Brown’s sage advice, such as, “Remember always that you will have to return.”

As a young boy, Jim Meade lived in the superintendent’s cottage at the Trudeau San, and he remembers watching the patients taking their prescribed walks to the gate. Some wanted to go farther than the prescribed distance, and so they walked in a zigzag line to fit in extra steps before getting to the turnaround spot.

Tuberculosis patients who were ambulatory at Trudeau Sanatorium in Saranac Lake were expected to follow Dr. Brown’s “Rules for Exercise.” (Photo provided by Historic Saranac Lake)

Other area sanatoria had their own walking trails. At Stonywold Sanatorium, signs on the Onchiota dirt road measured walks of five minutes, 10 minutes and up to 60 minutes. At Will Rogers Hospital, walking trails wove in and out of the surrounding woods, providing cover for patients looking to grab a smoke out of the watchful eyes of the staff. Andy Rawdon tells the tale of being hired as a youngster to help police the Will Rogers trails. Andy managed to increase his income by accepting occasional tips from the smokers in exchange for keeping quiet.

One of my favorite photos is this one of Alice Gallup, shared with us by her son, Michael. Alice came from Pennsylvania to cure at the Trudeau Sanatorium in 1917. She recovered her health, but then her husband abandoned her to raise two young sons on her own. She made her home in Saranac Lake and supported her family by working as the organist in a local church and teaching piano. Alice maintained her joyful spirit in the face of adversity, a spirit you can see in this photo. Alice didn’t just walk to the sanatorium gate; she climbed it!

To sign off with a favorite phrase of one friend who lived to the ripe age of 107 — keep moving!

Amy Catania is executive director of Historic Saranac Lake.

Tuberculosis patients go for a walk in the snow at Trudeau Sanatorium in Saranac Lake. (Photo provided by Historic Saranac Lake)

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