December 14, 2021
When you walk, cycle, or drive through Saranac Lake, you may notice an array of unusual, older homes, and a downtown full of buildings that feel like a visit to the past. The story of how Saranac Lake came to be what it is today is a fascinating, unusual history, featuring grand hotels, Adirondack guides, artists, and an array of men and women who came here seeking wellness. Saranac Lake loves its history and is justifiably proud of it. The village, and all those who live in and visit it, is fortunate enough to be home to Historic Saranac Lake (HSL), which runs the Saranac Laboratory Museum and Cure Porch on Wheels, and hosts special events, workshops, the deeply informative local Wiki, and walking tours in the village. HSL is an expanding, dynamic, and engaging organization that celebrates, preserves, and explores that amazing history, often telling stories that might otherwise be left untold and plays an important role in keeping local history alive. Leading HSL is its Executive Director Amy Catania, a California native whose natural passion for history has helped tell the Saranac Lake story to visitors near and far.
The move that was meant to be
Amy Bachman was born and spent the first few years of her life in Claremont, California, a suburb of Los Angeles near the San Gabriel Mountains where the climate is considerably different than that of famously chilly Saranac Lake, but which has its own fascinating history and architecture. Amy's family later moved to North Carolina and eventually, with a few more moves in between, Amy found herself in Oregon. A graduate of Oberlin College, where she was a Latin American Studies major, she got into teaching Spanish and English as a Second Language and her natural love of history was always present in her life and work. While in Oregon, Amy met another teacher, Roger Catania. The rest, as one might say, is history and a key to how Amy ended up in Saranac Lake. Together, Roger and Amy wanted to move back east, and when a job opportunity in Lake Placid became available for Roger, the couple made the trip together to explore the area. At one point in the trip, they sat on Adirondack chairs behind the Lake Placid Public Library, admiring the view of Mirror Lake and the surrounding mountains.
"We said, 'we’re crazy if we don’t do this.'" That was in 1996, and Amy and Roger have been Adirondackers ever since. Truthfully, as much as the pair liked Lake Placid, it was Saranac Lake they chose to call home. Amy recalls visiting the village, walking downtown, and admiring the historic buildings (this is a distinctively, delightfully Amy theme). Amy saw the Town Hall as the heart of the village, but it was something more personal that really drew her in.
“There was a dad and a boy going fishing. They were carrying their poles downtown and I knew, ‘this is the town that we need to live in.’”
Until she lived in Saranac Lake, Amy had never lived anywhere longer than five years. Amy and Roger were married at the Presbyterian Church on Church Street and held their wedding reception at the Hotel Saranac. More than twenty years later, the Catanias have raised two boys in the village, both of whom are now successful young men flourishing in college. Amy notes that Saranac Lake "is a great place to raise kids. The schools are so supportive." Amy's boys have different personalities and interests, but she and Roger feel that the schools and environment here were ideal for enabling the boys to flourish. "They're both doing really well so we're very happy."
While Amy spent several years as a teacher, one of her great loves has always been history. If you're the sort of person who thinks of history as being dry and stuffy, stop by the Saranac Laboratory Museum and chat with Amy (or any other staff member). For people like Amy, history is a vibrant part of our world and in talking to her, you feel the liveliness of the past. After a few years in Saranac Lake, Amy's love for history and her professional life intersected. She joined HSL in 2009 and became Executive Director in 2010.
Being in Saranac Lake and being exposed to the uniqueness of this small but remarkable town got Amy interested in the local history, which, as she notes, is all around us. It's hard to ignore, to be honest. Starting in the late 1800s, Saranac Lake was a renowned destination for the treatment of tuberculosis. People suffering from TB came from all over the world to seek treatment, including the famous fresh air cure. Homes with windowed cure porches are all over town, reminders of the patients who moved here. Early on, Amy pored over Phil Gallos' excellent book, Cure Cottages of Saranac Lake, and did research on the experiences of Spanish-speaking TB patients who spent time in Saranac Lake. Exploring the local history — of the people who made it so unique, of the houses, hotels, patients, and physicians — Amy says, "made a small town feel like a big town to me."
Amy has written about local history for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, Adirondack Almanack, and New York Archives Magazine. Her insightful writing beautifully captures Saranac Lake history, particularly in the complex stories of those who came to the area seeking a cure for tuberculosis. Life at the cure cottages and sanatoria wasn't all bad; there were bright points, including the friendships and even romances that blossomed, the way the town rallied around the patients — afternoon quiet time was strictly and respectfully enforced all over town — and the way that activities we still love and adore, such as the annual Winter Carnival, began as events to amuse and delight the patients. One of Amy's favorite books about the Saranac Lake TB experience is Wish I Might, a memoir of one young woman's time as a patient, her challenges, and the beauty she found in Saranac Lake and in the friendships she made. This choice of book fits well with how Amy views the stories of Saranac Lake. When you read Amy's work, and I strongly hope that you do, you'll hear in her writing her passion for history, but also her deep compassion and admiration for those she writes about. "It's meaningful and it's wonderful to be part of that," Amy explains.
Stories about Saranac Lake aren't simply relegated to the past, however. Under her leadership and guidance, Historic Saranac Lake has flourished and grown to include a partnership with the Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center, and the creation of the Cure Porch on Wheels, a mobile exhibit space you might see at the Farmers Market, a local school, or Winter Carnival. It's a way to take history and the museum out in the community and a really neat one, at that. Recent exhibits have focused on oral history and the people living in Saranac Lake now, as well as Pandemic Perspectives, a view of the parallels between life during the TB era and the COVID-19 pandemic. Another project is the purchase and the refurbishment of the historic building at 118 Main Street. Located next door to the Laboratory Museum, this handsome building was the home of Dr. E. L. Trudeau, the physician who came to the area terribly ill with TB, got better, and set out to do all he could for fellow TB sufferers. Amy and the team at HSL are working to raise funds to restore the building to its original configuration and use the space as a museum focused on local history, beyond the TB story. Amy explains, "It's important to have a place that affirms the history of the place, for people who live here and who visit."
Visitors are often a special part of the history of Saranac Lake, both in the past and today. The Saranac Laboratory Museum is often a touchstone for those who have links to the past and stories they have to share. It is not uncommon for a visitor to arrive at the museum, bearing photographs of themselves or a parent in Saranac Lake. One day the son of an elderly Norwegian sailor arrived, bringing memories of his father's time "curing." He had come all the way from Norway to visit and what he brought with him — his memories and his very presence — was moving and important to Amy. Likening HSL to a public service by its presence and what it can offer the community, Amy explains, "I'm so glad we were here. [Visitors like him] have a story that they need someone to hear."
I didn't ask Amy about retiring someday. Roger, who was for many years the beloved Superintendent of the Lake Placid School District, recently retired. Like the father and son of so many years ago, I often spot him taking energetic walks downtown. But as for Amy, who never stops enthusiastically celebrating the village, chatting with elderly residents who remember The Blue Gentian and the Hotel Alpine, I can't imagine her ever retiring. I know someday she will, and though it may be a sad day for some of us, the preservation of history in Saranac Lake will have been all the better for her presence. As she humbly points out, it's not about her, it's about Historic Saranac Lake thriving and it is certainly doing that.
Amy credits her colleagues at HSL for the continued success and growth of the organization. "From Mary Hotaling and our founding board members, to our current volunteers and hardworking staff, HSL has established itself as an important part of the community. I'm proud to be a part of that legacy."