Tuberculosis Mountaintop refuge


• Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that most commonly affects the lungs, but which can also affect the central nervous, lymphatic and circulatory systems, as well as bones and joints. It is one of the most common and deadly infectious diseases, infecting 14.6 million people in 2004.

• It has also been known as consumption (due to the way the disease consumed the sufferer), wasting disease, white plague (due to the paleness of a sufferer) and the Red Death (due to the coughing up of blood).

• It is spread by aerosol droplets expelled by people with active TB disease of the lungs through coughing, sneezing, spitting or speaking. Untreated, the death rate of TB is 51 percent.

• During the Industrial Revolution, tuberculosis was more commonly thought of as vampirism. When one family member died from it, the other members would slowly lose their health, leading to superstitious belief that the original victim had become a vampire who targeted other family members.

• Among writers who embraced tuberculosis in fiction was Edgar Allan Poe, whose mother, brother and wife died from the affliction. His short story “The Masque of the Red Death” is about such a disease that spreads so rapidly, it wipes out a large portion of the human population.

• Emily, Anne and Branwell Bronte, a family of writers, poets and painters, died of tuberculosis within two years of one another. It is believed by some that Charlotte Bronte also died of consumption.


Mountaintop refuge
The Hebron Sanatorium opened in 1904 and quickly filled with Mainers stricken with tuberculosis.

HEBRON – At the turn of the 20th century, when tuberculosis was blamed in as many as one in four deaths, those affected in Maine had few options.

Some fled to Arizona, Colorado or California, believing the drier air might cure them. Those who could not afford to leave were left to perish as victims of the so-called Red Death.

That changed in the first years of the new century, when a tuberculosis sanitarium was built high on Greenwood Mountain in Hebron. It was the first of three in the state and considered by many to be the most peaceful and healthy place for those suffering from the ravages of consumption.

“The Maine sanitarium is situated almost among the clouds on the tip-top of Greenwood Mountain,” a Lewiston Journal reporter wrote in 1904. “The view in every direction is grand.”

By then, tuberculosis was no longer thought to be caused by vampirism. But the bacterial disease was the leading health concern as entire families were wiped out by the affliction.

At the Hebron Sanatorium, all 150 available beds were sometimes filled as tuberculosis sufferers came from all over New England and the rest of the world, seeking the cure of country air.

“Tuberculosis can be successfully treated almost anywhere, if the patient will only live in the open air and in clean surroundings,” Dr. Estes Nichols said in 1904. “The best results can be gotten from the open air, hygienic dietetic treatment in a sanitarium where the patients are always under the observation of a trained nurse or a physician.”

The Hebron Sanatorium was a sprawling cluster of housing pavilions, barns, a school, dining halls, a meeting house and other buildings over more than 400 acres. It stood for more than 50 years until the introduction of antibiotics made tuberculosis more treatable and long-term stays at a sanitarium were no longer necessary.

Today, atop Greenwood Mountain, what remains of the grounds is a handful of crumbling buildings, remnants of foundations overrun with weeds, a rusting water tower and random relics hidden by tall grass and brush.

Wander around Hebron and ask locals about the sanitarium and most will have a story to tell: “My uncle died there many decades ago.” “My father stayed there as a teenager but recovered fully.” “My mother was a nurse there and later died of tuberculosis herself.”

There are few people left alive to tell firsthand stories, but Joseph Mills has written an autobiography with accounts of his time there as a child.

Cloistered living

Mills, now 81, went to the Hebron Sanatorium when he was 7. His mother, suffering a more advanced case of the disease, was housed in a nearby building. Mills recalls sneaking away from groups of other children to visit his ailing mother.

“Mother was on a first-floor ward in the building behind us and very often, our play would take us around that building. I would climb up on the outside of the ward porch so as to look over the edge and in through the screen to talk to her,” Mills wrote in his recollection. “This must have meant a lot to her as she was totally confined to bed. This gave me a chance to know mother better. I had not had this day-to-day contact with her since I was 5 years old.”

Mills’ story gives an overview of life at the Hebron Sanatorium. The patients and workers were largely self-sufficient, with a piggery, apple orchards, milking cows and potatoes growing on the land.

“They had an abundance of crops that they grew, not only for themselves, but to be sold on the open market,” said L. Bowman Sturtevant, who is researching the history of the sanatorium for the Hebron Historical Society.

Mills remembers gathering with the many other children at the sanatorium, including his older brother Albert, who was a patient there for a time. They huddled together on Saturday nights to watch movies and cartoons while the adults watched newsreels and movies popular in the days before television.

“The movies were generally silent films, as I remember,” Mills wrote. “The boys especially liked the movies about World War I.”

Mills also remembers standing in a huddle of other tuberculosis patients, watching a large fire that burned across the city of Auburn miles away in the 1930s.

“We could see the blaze from the sanatorium,” Mills wrote. “I remember sitting on the swing and watching the glow of the fire.”

Playing ball

Mills paints a picture of a thriving community of dozens of TB patients and roughly 80 doctors, nurses and other employees. There was sickness and death there, certainly. But Mills remembers his years at the sanatorium as not altogether different from the life of any child.

“There was always enough activity to keep us busy,” he wrote. “In the summer there was baseball. We had a good field for the game and plenty of boys for players. There was also a swimming pool where I learned to dog-paddle. I remember dad bringing me a little toy sailboat that he made. We sailed it in the swimming pool.”

Today, what remains of the baseball field can be seen on the grounds, a large clearing in otherwise overgrown acres in front of the large water tower that looms over it all.

“I remember back then the water tower was painted orange,” Mills said in a recent conversation. “It was so bright, it seemed lit up like a sunset.”

Baseball, for the patients, was a vital part of life during warm months. Ragtag teams from Minot, West Minot, Auburn and other area towns would come to the Hebron Sanatorium to play.

“That was the primary entertainment for the patients, the men in particular,” said Sturtevant, whose uncle worked at the sanatorium. “The field could be seen from the men’s cottages.”

Not all bad or sad

Mills spent five years in tuberculosis wards, most at the sanatorium in Hebron. In time, he was healthy again. In 1935, his father came for him and took the boy back to their home in Rockland. Just months later, the family received a telegram. Mills’ mother had fallen gravely ill and wanted to see her family. Arrangements were made to visit her the following day.

“However, not long into the evening, a telephone call came from the sanatorium that Mother had died,” Mills wrote. “We went right to bed. I remember sobbing myself to sleep.”

By 1950, the numbers of tuberculosis deaths had dropped dramatically due to a rise of medical advances. In 1959, the Maine Legislature voted to refuse further funding for the sanatorium in Hebron.

“There were fewer and fewer patients. There were problems getting nurses and it was hard for people to get there,” Sturtevant said. “There was one train a day from Portland and from Lewiston. And because there were fewer patients, they started sending people to the sanatorium in Fairfield.”

The last patient left the Hebron Sanatorium June 24, 1959. The bigger buildings were torn down, but others remained, giving way slowly to time and neglect. The state now owns most of the land. One building that remains intact is the former superintendent’s house, which was bought last year and restored.

Mills, who recovered from tuberculosis and became a Baptist minister, has clear recollections of the Hebron Sanatorium. Those memories mark a very important period in his life, he said. And not all of the memories are bad.

“I don’t feel that it was all bad or sad for us,” Mills said recently. “Once we got over the homesickness, we were able to have fun. We had companions to play with and plenty of space. It wasn’t entirely bad at all.”

On June 13 at 6 p.m., several historians and others will gather at the Grange Hall in Minot to discuss the history of the sanatorium. There is a possibility that the group will consist of a person or two who remembers the place the way Mills does.

“Hopefully, some of the people who attend will be able to tell us stories about it,” said Sturtevant. “There is still a lot of interest in the place. There is still a lot of fascination about it.”

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