Marquette’s fresh air school

MARQUETTE – As children are heading back to school in the coming days, let’s take a moment to look back at a rather unique school that once operated in Marquette. The Fresh Air School, named because the windows were left open year round, was part of a nationwide movement attempting to prevent tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis, also known as “white death” or “consumption,” was the leading cause of death in 19th century America. In the last two centuries it is believed to have killed over one billion people. It is a bacterial disease which is spread through tiny droplets released into the air via coughs and sneezes. Symptoms include coughing up blood, fever, night sweats, and weight loss. It was the weight loss that led to the name consumption as the disease “consumed” the patient.

Most people infected had latent tuberculosis, meaning they didn’t have symptoms. In the roughly 10% who progressed to active illness, in the absence of an effective treatment, roughly two in three people died within five years of the onset of symptoms and diagnosis. At the time, many people believed pine trees and pine products were beneficial. Before antibiotics, treatments included isolation, pine tar based medicines, bed rest, good food, fresh air, and heliotherapy–exposure to the sun–which was thought to kill the bacteria.

Shortly after Marquette was founded it began attracting tuberculosis patients in search of a cure. In her diary, Olive Harlow noted “Lake Superior air was considered a sure cure for consumptives … the arrival of every boat by scores of poor individuals, who had come on this long journey, to try its effect upon them, as a last resort.”

During the late 19th and early 20th century, the disease spread rapidly, primarily in cities and among the poor who lived, worked, and went to school in close quarters. Medical professionals found that the cramped quarters and lack of access to fresh air in many schools exacerbated the risk of disease.

Based on these ideas, an educational trend of fresh air schools began to emerge. Originally pioneered in Europe, the first American fresh air school opened in Providence, Rhode Island, in January 1908. Within two years there were 65 fresh air schools across the country.

Marquette was a relative latecomer to the trend, opening the fresh air school in February 1920. The project was under the supervision of Dr. Drury, the city Health Officer and Mrs. M. J. Sherwood of the Visiting Nurse Association, as well as the school board and A. R. Watson, the Superintendent of Public Schools.

Located in a white frame house at 116 West Ohio Street, the school had an initial enrollment of 12 students. Initially, classes were held only on the upper floor but later the upper and lower grades were separated, with the lower grades on the first floor and the upper grades on the second floor. The first teacher was Miss Susan Kearney. By 1925, Miss Theresa Smeberg and Mrs. Adele Manthei were teaching at the school.

That building was eventually torn down to make way for Graveraet High School in 1928, with the fresh air school housed in the southwest corner of the new building. The room was isolated from the remainder of the building and was specifically constructed with windows that could be opened.

The school was intended for children ages 4-14 who were not in good health. There are conflicting documents, but it appears that the students at the school either had latent tuberculosis or were considered to be at risk for developing TB. Children with active tuberculosis were admitted and treated at Morgan Heights Sanatorium. There is also a report that a few healthy students were urged to attend, so that it would not be perceived as a school for underprivileged children.

The windows in the fresh air school were kept open constantly while the heat was turned on periodically with the goal of keeping the temperature at 55 degrees. The children wore “Eskimo suits” which were two piece outfits similar to pajamas with a hood. They were made of heavy grey woolen blankets and designed to be worn over their regular clothes. They also wore thick felt boots.

Their day included school work, outdoor recreation (although running was frowned upon), meals, bed rest, and quiet play in the playroom or on the roof if weather permitted. Subjects deemed important were reading, penmanship, hygiene, language, and music. Arithmetic was taught in the lower grades, with geography taught in the intermediate and upper grades. There was no homework.

Students received a morning snack, mid-day meal and afternoon snack which were prepared first by a family that lived in the rear of the original house and later by the high school’s domestic science department. One former student, Mrs. Patricia Jones Pearce, in an undated reminiscence, described the food as her worst memory of the school. The “unappetizing nasty gruels” were made from Wheatena, Farina, Cream of Wheat, oatmeal, and other similar products.

The food was often prepared early in the morning and but not served until about 10:00. If the students didn’t eat their food, they had to stay after school to finish their portions. She noted, “They were awful and I have not been able to eat hot cereal since.” The students also received milk, which was delivered in small bottles that were warmed on the radiators since the warm milk was believed to be healthier for the students.

As medical science came to understand tuberculosis better, public clinics and better prevention education caused tuberculosis cases to decline sharply in the 1920s and the trend continued throughout the 1930s. We have been unable to determine exactly when the Marquette’s Fresh Air School closed but it was likely sometime in the 1930s.