The View from Mrs. Priest’s 4th Grade Classroom 1953-1954 and How Public Health Came to Rangeley

A few years ago, on the second floor of a vaguely familiar converted school building in Northern New England, I studied the globe lights suspended overhead, scrutinized the tall, tall windows, noticed the radiators and hardwood floors and, for a moment, I was transported to the old Rangeley Elementary School in the early 1950s.   To no one in particular, I said “Oh my: this is Mrs. Priest’s room.”

The old Rangeley Elementary School was a unique architectural design based around principles of public health. The Elementary school was first built in 1904, long before there was any medical treatments for the deadly disease. Without any safe and effective treatments the only proven, effective measures were prevention, and that meant fresh, clean, flowing air. A vigorous public health campaign turned things around.

It helps to remember that 100 years ago, the Germ Theory was relatively new.  Early in the 20th century it became clear that some national, organized measures had to be taken to manage a global tuberculosis pandemic.  In the mid 1800s, the national death rate from TB was about between 250 and 300/100,000. When Mrs. Priest’s classroom was built in 1913, TB was the second leading cause of death in the U.S at 143 deaths per 100,000, after heart disease.

The first drug to treat the TB bacteria Isoniazid, was developed in 1952, but by then public health measures had driven the death rate to about 12 per 100,000.  Today the TB death rate rate is less than 1 per 100,000.  By comparison, the annual death rate for influenza (flu) is 1.8; the ongoing Covid-19 death rate per 100,000 has settled at about 191/100,000.

Without any drugs, the state of Maine, like many other states, built sanitariums to isolate and treat the ill. Indeed,  state-operated tuberculosis facilities in Maine lasted from 1915 until 1969. While the nation was focused on lowering risks of infectious disease in public spaces, there were many widespread improvements in public health nationally. Attention focused on public health in every aspect of life, notably architecture, sanitation, and nutrition.

For architects designing public schools, this meant lots of flowing fresh air, hence the wide stairwells, tall ceilings, and tall, tall windows.  The topmost sash was so high all the teachers used long poles with little brass hooks designed to fit into little brass receptacles to give purchase.  Lowering the top window a few inches allowed  a steady flow of warm, germy air to rise rising to the ceiling to be drawn out on the draft from the upper opening, while fresh air blew in through the lower opening at the level of a child’s head.  In winter, the incoming cold air flowed in and warmed over the radiators just below the window sills.  Mrs Priest and other teachers constantly reminded us to sit up straight because if we slouched, the TB germs could be trapped in our lungs.

  In daily life, increasingly widespread use of soap and better household hygiene produced a major advance in personal and home health. Procter and Gamble introduced “It Floats” to promote Ivory soap in 1891, and Lever Brothers Lifebuoy was introduced early in the 20th century.

Another breakthrough was persuading men to stop spitting. Chewing and spitting tobacco was so common that many places of business spread sawdust on the floor to collect not only dirt, but tobacco juice.  For a time, widespread use of spittoons was regarded as a big advance in public hygiene.  But chewing tobacco was soon replaced by chewing gum and  mass produced cigarettes.  Does anyone else remember Carl and Vance Oakes spreading sawdust on the floor at the Main Street Market?

President Harry S. Truman had signed the National School Lunch Act in 1946 to assure a nutritious meal for all American school children, and the hot lunch program came to Rangeley soon after.  In place of our little lunchboxes with PB&J or baloney sandwiches and tiny thermos bottles — plugged with corks! — we came to school with a plate and silverware.  First came a mid morning snack: Few of us who sat in those classrooms will forget the familiar clink of glass milk bottles rattling against the steel crate as they were carried upstairs at around ten o’clock, and then enjoying that fresh milk from local farms through a straw.

Hot lunches were served on long tables and benches in the school basement and I recall vividly that as an eight or nine year old my imagination went wild with anticipation when word passed down the line that lunch was going to be a special foreign recipe.  Expectations crashed when the cook poured a ladle of melted cheese over the four bare saltines on my plate, and announced that this was a special recipe called “Welsh Rabbit”.

After lunch, came vigorous exercise on the swings and on the playing field and in winter, snowball fights. After snowstorms, third and fourth graders spent recess outdoors, lobbing snowballs left and right, making huge forts, stockpiling the snowballs, shouting and hooting.  At the end of the day, looking out the school bus window the snow forts in the schoolyard looked all purple in the early afterschool dusk —  these were the days before colorfast dyes, and our wet hand-knit mittens bled all the reds and blues and browns into the snow, all the color mixing into a dull purple on the snow fort walls, even the occasional purple stray snowball lying here and there in the snowy schoolyard.

 The original Elementary School structure burned twice, in 1911 and 1912, and after re-opening in 1913, served all grades until the brick High School across the street was built in 1927. The elementary school was torn down in 1979 to make room for the new Town Office building.  That same year, Mrs. Priest moved to Orlando, Florida.

About the author: Peter Reich attended Kindergarten through fourth grade at Rangeley Elementary School.  A Vietnam-Era Army veteran, Peter completed his education at Bates College and Boston University School of Public Health and worked for 30 years as a faculty and staff member at Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health.  Peter’s parents first came to Rangeley during the war-torn summer of 1940, and purchased Orgonon in 1942.  Peter has been a yearly Rangeley regular for all of his 77 years and, since 1971, with wife, children and grandchildren.

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