Thursday, December 4, 2008

Pedigree Ornament No. 4, Paternal Grandfather

Otto Karl Strike, born 1877 in Prussia; died 1946 at Cresson Sanitarium, Cambria Co., Pennsylvania.

Click ornament to enlarge. This is a vintage photograph of the kitchen at the Cresson Tuberculosis Sanitarium, which was located on the outskirts of Cresson, in Cambria Co, Pennsylvania. I have studied it closely with a magnifying class. Though most of the persons are women, there appears to be two men toward the back of the room, and the man on the far right pushing a cart may be none other than my Dad’s biological father, Otto K. Strike. I say “biological”, because my father, after the sudden death of his mother, was fostered by Otto’s sister, Martha, who was married to Robert William Kramp. Mr. Kramp, who we called “Pop”, legally adopted my father shortly after his sixteenth birthday. Thus, I consider Otto Strike as my biological grandfather; and Pop Kramp, my adopted grandfather.

Otto Strike’s Death Certificate states he was an "ice plant operator" at Cresson Sanatarium and an employee of Pennsylvania Department of Health. I never met Otto in person (I was 4 years old when he died), but my older cousin, who was raised in Akron, OH, told me she and her mother would visit Otto at Cresson. She remembers Otto treating them to ice cream cones. Perhaps one of Otto’s duties at the ice plant was making or storing the frozen dessert.

Cresson Sanitarium, or the “San” as it was called locally, was built on land originally owned by the mogul of the steel industry and a millionaire, Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie was going to build a large mansion on the site for his mother who suffered from Tuberculosis. The refreshing mountainous air around Cresson was ideally suited for the health and recovery of TB patients; however, Mrs. Carnegie died before the house was built. Carnegie agreed to sell the land to the state for one dollar if they would build a Sanitarium and hospital on the property.

After tuberculosis was essentially eradicated in America by the mid-1950s, the Sanitarium and its buildings were converted into a state prison. In 1993, I drove out to the prison hoping to take pictures of the institution which was once my grandfather’s place of employment. Unfortunately, the site was surrounded by a high fence topped with razor wire and large signs warning, “No Pictures”. One day as I was searching though vintage postcards at an antique store far removed from Cresson, I was fortunate to find a series of vintage post cards which depicted the old TB Sanitarium. I bought the whole lot (see below)

The individual postcards are captioned starting from the top row, left: Grace Chapel, Administration Building, Children’s Gymnasium and Swimming Pool. Middle row: Unit No. 3, West Wing, East Wing. Bottom row: Surgery Building, Unit No. 1, and East Wing and corridor.

According to Otto’s Death Certificate, he died on his birthday, 20 May 1946, in “Cresson Sanitarium No. 2”. I did not make the connection between that number and the San until I posted these post cards. There are images of Unit No. 1 and No. 3, but not No. 2. Was there ever a postcard perhaps showing the specific building in which my grandfather died? Please, you antique hunters, keep an eye out.

Only a few years ago, I traced down a distant cousin with the help of a fellow researcher, Lyn. Our mutual relation, Bill Albright, got out his shoe box of pictures and pulled out a realistic view of the old Cresson Sanitarium as show below:

Children and their parents would sometimes board at the San. The Historical Society of Cambria County in Ebensburg, PA, has a file on the San, and I noted the following item of interest from a booklet:

"A great interest was taken in the Sanitarium by Mrs. Mary Thaw of Pittsburgh who had a summer home near Cresson. She gave generously in a financial way, particularly in the building of the chapel, and she visited the Sanitarium frequently familiarizing herself with its needs."

"On her visits she several times brought with her HELEN KELLER, her friend and protégé and Mrs. Keller's teacher, Mrs. ANN SULIVAN MACEY. On one occasion Mrs. Keller gave a short talk to the sanitarium children who were gathered in the assembly room."

I would like to imagine that my grandfather had a chance to meet and hear Helen Keller in person.

I posted a couple of my vintage postcards on a genealogical web site I maintain for my father’s branch of our tree. I was amazed that out of the hundreds of people who went through the San, there was one former patient who stumbled upon my web site about two years ago and contacted me. He was an eye witness. Ron emailed me from London, UK:

“Thank you so much for displaying the photos ... I was a patient there in 1953 and 1954, and at seventeen years old, I was one of the youngest. I lived in Unit 1 for about five months prior to my discharge in December 1954. I made occasional appearances at the chapel but I remember it well. I have several photos of other patients taken in the sanitarium and a couple taken on the roof of one of the buildings but while there I didn't take any of the grounds and other buildings”.

“The orderlies and male nurses had rooms in the attic of the west wing or else they lived in the town of Cresson. There is one building I don't recognize- it might be the dreaded surgery building.”

“Once you were well enough but not ready for discharge, you were moved into a dormitory. One dorm for men, one for women, situated to the rear of the admissions building. Behind the men's dorm there was an abandoned mine entrance. … As part of my therapy I was given a job in the San's post office and I delivered the mail from one end to the other, quite a trek. Aside from a few doctors I was the only male allowed into the women's wards. The kitchen girls, all from local towns, such as Lilly and Holidaysburg, did not wear long dresses and black stockings. Instead, their dresses were a bit shorter and they never wore stockings. And they were terrible flirts.”

“From Cresson I went directly to Penn State on a rehabilitation scholarship. After graduating in 1960, I lived at times in New York City, in Florida and in San Francisco for the next 20 years …”

1. The vintage photograph of the kitchen at Cresson Sanitarium is taken from “Images of America. Around Cresson” by Sister Anne Frances Pulling, 2000. Published by Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, SC.

2. Two of the Vintage postcards of Cresson Sanitarium mentioned in the text were also posted to an album at my Father’s genealogical web site.

3. Chuck Felton, a former patient at Cresson Sanitarium, has collected much information on the historic Sanitarium and has posted it on his web site "Cresson Sanitarium Remembered"


ndlxs said...

Thanks for the interesting ornament. I'm guessing your older cousin is my mom, I never heard that story! You get the best out of everyone.

Cher said...

Hello Bob,

Interesting story. I came across your blog while searching for patient information for Cresson Sanitorium in Uniontown.

I've recently started researching my family genealogy. I wonder if you would have any contacts to pass on for patients of Cresson.

My great-grandmother immigrated to this country from Austria-Hungary in 1910. She died only 4-5 yrs. later. We believe of TB and was in Cresson Sanitorium. We've yet to find any death or burial records on her.

Any info. would be greatly appreciated.


Sandra said...

i enjoyed your research... my sister was brought there at around age 8. i believe it went from the sanitarium to a State Hospital (so i was told as a child) to the State Prison, where i later worked approx. 1 yr. after opening. I sure would like to see records of my sister as she too died there. they say her heart just gave out... Who knows? had a grandma confined to bed all her life...hum ..makes me wonder now??? TB possibly

Evelyn Yvonne Theriault said...

I see you're really interested in postcards and history. I thought you might like to know that there is now a blog carnival - A FESTIVAL OF POSTCARDS - dedicated to postcard collecting - especially as it relates to family history and genealogy.
If you think you might be interested in this project, then you can see the last two issues (Wheels & Main Street) at my site (A CANADIAN FAMILY).
Have a good day,
Evelyn in Montreal

Anonymous said...

There is a web site I found that has some postcards relating to the sanitorium. And, there is a card showing Unit #2.