The following is a Woman of Courage profile written and produced by the St. Lawrence County, NY Branch of the American Association of University Women.
In the summer of l931, a pale and fragile young woman was carried from the end of the town dock on Lower Saranac Lake and lowered into a makeshift bed in a guideboat. She now depended on a strong and portly middle-aged Adirondack guide to take her eleven miles past the islands of the lake, through a lock into Middle Saranac Lake, into a winding slough to a remote and exquisite pond to go camping.
Against all medical advice, young Martha Rebentisch had signed out of Trudeau Sanitarium instead of submitting to a fourth operation in a long fight against tuberculosis. Three and a half years before, in 1927, her father had sent her on the train from New York City to Saranac Lake where she had remained an invalid at Dr. Trudeau's famous sanitarium.
Before that she had been sent to the Catskills for a cure. Before that she had been sent to a farm in Pennsylvania. Before that, when she was six years old, her own mother had died of TB. It is not unreasonable to wonder if she may have contracted TB from her mother as a child. In any event, until antibiotics were developed in the l950's, tuberculosis remained a big-time killer in the United States and around the world.
To those who know the bleak, cold and damp Adirondack Mountains, Saranac Lake might seem to be an unlikely choice as a health resort for curing tuberculosis. However, the efforts of one man made the choice seem logical.
Edward Livingston Trudeau came to Paul Smith's Hotel in l873 to die quietly of tuberculosis. Instead, the same quide who carried him upstairs from the stagecoach to his bedroom the first evening took him out in a guideboat the next evening to jack a deer.
"Why, Doctor, you don't weigh no more than a dried lambskin!" the guide exclaimed as he dropped Trudeau into bed, then retreated downstairs to get his newest arrival dinner which he would hand feed him. These rough, bearded backwoods men were really angels in disguise. The frail, New York City doctor recovered from TB living on fresh mountain air, Lydia Smith's renowned cooking, the guides' hunting and fishing trips, as well as Apollo (Paul) Smith's ribald stories on the porch or in front of a crackling fire.
With money from wealthy backers who gained added prestige as philanthropists, Trudeau hired local men to build the first "cure cottage" called "Little Red" on a hill just north of Saranac Lake, a sleepy Adirondack village 13 miles southeast of Paul Smith's Hotel on Lower St. Regis Lake. The town would grow to become nationally famous as a health resort in the fight against TB.
Village residents cooked and cleaned, fed, entertained and taxied these urban patients. There were tents on platforms at nearby Ray Brook, the Will Rogers Hospital for entertainers, boarding houses, rental houses too.
The Robert Louis Stevenson Cottage perched on a hill above the Saranac River in town is open to the public in the summer months. This is where the Scottish author wrote most of The Master of Ballantree before leaving for Tahiti where he died of chronic bronchitis. As a chain smoker, he hastened his own demise. The thick, damp fog filled with soft coal dust in Edinborough had probably irreparably damaged his lungs at an early age.
Bela Bartok, the Hungarian composer, was desperately ill and completely destitute in New York City when his friends paid for him and his wife and son to come to Saranac Lake for the cure. They stayed in a modest cottage above Lake Flower in town where Bartok wrote his last and best symphony in bed. It has later been determined that he probably was suffering from leukemia instead of TB, but no matter. Today, members of a Bartok group of admirers are trying to raise the money to restore the cottage.
The rich and the poor, the famous and the unknown, found their way to this cold little village with a warm heart, desperate for a cure from the devil's common denominator plague, tuberculosis.
Martha Reben (20 years later her editor at Thomas Y. Crowell Company in New York would shortened her name to Reben for the publication of her first book) went into the care of a local Adirondack guide, Fred Rice. He took Martha in his guidebook 11 miles down Lower Saranac Lake, through a lock, and across Middle Saranac Lake to Weller Pond. Here they camped, observed wildlife, and Martha started a new life.
From these happy years, Martha later wrote three books, The Healing Woods, The Way of the Wilderness, and A Sharing of Joy. A fourth manuscript, Two Little Indians, has been lost. In her writings, Martha never gives details about the real seriousness of her conditions. In fact, although her TB was not active, she died in 1964 at the age of 58 of congestive heart failure, a common complications of someone able to use less than one lung.
However, her friendship with the Rice family, her love for the wilderness and writing, gave her a reason to live. She did not return to New York City, fearing a relapse. Also, she had discovered a new, rustic way to live, although Kate Rice did a lot of the cooking, shopping and laundry.
Her books carry on a romantic American tradition best illustrated by Henry David Thoreau in Walden. He never mentions to his readers that his mother and sisters did his laundry and frequently cooked dinners for him. All he had to do was walk home from his "independent living" in the woods. Thoreau himself died of TB at age forty-five.
Physically unable to do hard physical work, temperamentally unsuited to office work or crowded living, Martha found happiness in simple outdoor adventures. Her books let us see her Adirondack world through her eyes.
Return to the Women of Courage page.
Return to the St. Lawrence County Branch homepage.