Not far from my old home in Gravenhurst, Ontario, a turn of the century house seemed to stick out amongst its 1960s and newer neighbours. It was abandoned for many years and I’d watch the porch roof slope a little further each winter, curious as to why this building seemed so out of place. I never asked anyone about it until a couple bought the house and set out to restore it. Connie, the new owner gave me permission to look through the building before they finished interior demolition. The result was this painting.
And then a casual conversation led to the answer I didn’t know I was seeking.
Gravenhurst was the location of the first Tuberculosis Sanitorium in Canada. Tuberculosis, also known as ‘consumption’, ravaged communities often unable to adequately treat its victims. Until the late 1940s and the development of streptomycin, treatments developed in the late 19th century created demand for places like the Muskoka Cottage Santorium, later the Muskoka Free Hospital, the Calydor Sanitorium and the Gage building. That demand was so high, many of the ill were turned away, and seeking other accommodations, some ended up in boarding houses. The prospect of sick people congregating in places around town terrified the citizens living so close to this devastating and often fatal disease.
During the first exhibition of the painting, there was some discussion of a rumour that this house was one of those boarding houses for consumptives. I was never able to confirm this with records, which is not surprising because either the boarding houses didn’t know their guests were sick, or they were taking them in secret, not wanting to alert their neighbours.
A few weeks ago, well after the manuscript had been submitted to the publisher, Connie reached out to me, so I asked her if she knew about the rumour. She said no, but what she told me next nearly made me jump out of my seat:
When they were tearing apart the walls of the old house she said they found an inordinate number of medicine bottles hidden behind the lathe and plaster.
Connie told me she took photographs, so it is my hope she will bring them to the gallery in September for the opening and the book launch!
This is the second in a series of extras on the making of the upcoming book, Once Imagined.
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*Edited – Patients should have been guests! All fixed…