We love to stay at historic places when we travel, and so I booked a few nights at Birch Lodge during our recent vacation to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. All I knew was that it was over 100 years old, on the National Registry of Historic Places, and looked beautiful and remote in the website photos. Imagine my surprise when we arrived, were led to our room, and discovered that our two-room suite had originally been the doctor’s office and exam room for the TB sanitarium! His diploma from 1896 was on the wall!
The current owner/manager was able to tell us a lot of the story, and the rest I learned from a deep dive into the 1996 application to the National Registry.
First, a reminder of what was going on in America in 1900 or so, regarding healthcare. Around the turn of the century, there was an improving understanding of contagiousness and the germ theory of disease and a commensurate exploding interest in health. There was also significant fear of tuberculosis, one of the top three killers of Americans.
In 1854 a botany student in Germany, Hermann Brehmer, wrote his doctoral thesis “Tuberculosis is a Curable Disease” when his own TB was cured after a trip to the Himalayas. He felt that high altitudes and fresh air were the key, and founded the first sanitarium in the German mountains.
The sanitarium movement grew quickly; the first American sanitarium was developed in Asheville in 1875. These facilities were always located away from cities (seeking the freshest of air), and were self-sufficient communities. Among these were palatial sanitarium towns in the Adirondacks, and the well-known Battle Creek Sanitarium run by Dr Harvey Kellogg. Between 1900 and 1925 the number of beds in sanitariums across the United States increased from 4,500 to almost 675,000.
And this is where the Birch Lodge story begins. A successful physician, Dr Edgar Ford, his wife Cornelia and their two sons moved from Wisconsin to Trout Lake, Michigan in 1911. Sinking their life savings in their ambitious plan, they lived in tents while Birch Lodge was built. It was to be a state-of-the-art sanitarium, in a bucolic setting in the north woods, on the edge of a beautiful lake. The nearby town, at the intersection of two railroad lines, was a bustling lumber town, and plenty of lumber and railroad workers had TB (and other illnesses). Plans called for a T-shaped three-story white clapboard building, with the base of the T being a hospital wing and the top of the T being hotel rooms for families of the patients. The design and plan, with high ceilings, large windows, and reclining chairs for enforced rest, were in keeping with many other sanitariums of the day. There would be an operating room, electricity and running water, and boating and fishing. A holistic approach to health and treatment would allow patients and families to be near each other in a resort-like setting.
Alas, Dr Ford died suddenly in 1912, before construction was finished. It’s not clear whether he died of sepsis or rabies from a patient’s dog; both are reported in newspapers of the time. His adult son continued to run Birch Lodge. However, the timing wasn’t quite right, and the sanitarium movement had passed its peak. There were also rumors at the time that railroad money, promised to help subsidize the Lodge, was embezzled. Additionally, the remoteness that was an advantage for pure air, proved to be a disadvantage for attracting paying clients, and the Lodge fell on hard times. Ford’s widow returned the property to the mortgage company, and it sat empty for several years.
In the 100 years since, the Lodge has variously been a police outpost for Michigan firefighters and game wardens, a local courtroom, and a hotel. By 1926 passenger train service to the area ended, which was a blow to the Lodge. It limped along. By the 1950s, roads in the area had matured, attracting more tourists, and the Lodge was able to make a go of it. All this time, the original furniture remained, giving it the feeling of a time capsule.
The current owners are the fifth or sixth family to buy the property with plans to make a success of it. They have done extensive renovations, modernized bathrooms, updated furniture, yet preserved the feel of the original Lodge. There’s a dock, rowboats and kayaks, and marshmallows for the fire circle. They hope to open a restaurant and bar. It is an attractive place for fishermen, hunters, and snowmobilers. I hope they make a go of it.
I loved our suite, painted an elegant grey, with high ceilings and large windows opening onto the generous porch. And I loved looking at Dr Ford’s medical school diploma, thinking about his cutting-edge plans for Birch Lodge.
TB sanitariums are all gone now. Real treatment and cure came in the 1940s with the development of Streptomycin, (and subsequent antibiotics), leading to their eventual demise. Several of them burned, others were made into hospitals or schools or were demolished.
What a rare opportunity we had, to stay in an historic building that once was part of the sanitarium movement 100 years ago.