; Cwyn's Death By Tea: Pure Air Sanitorium, Bayfield ;

Monday, December 5, 2022

Pure Air Sanitorium, Bayfield

The back facade windows all faced Lake Superior.

One of the projects I always intended to get to in my life is doing something with a set of photos I took in high school. For more than 50 years, I have hauled around a set of film negatives that I took of Pure Air Sanitorium in Bayfield, Wisconsin. The building no longer exists, the moldering remains finally demolished in the early 1990s. I felt moved to get these photos posted after seeing only one or two photos online, even the one posted by the Wisconsin Historical Society is small and barely representative of the atmosphere of the building. 

This sanitorium was built in 1922 to house mainly Ojibwe Indians with tuberculosis, but was quickly expanded with an additional wing in 1923 to house war veterans with TB or other rehab issues. The building continued to house TB patients until it was closed in 1975. I first saw the building in 1976 or so. 

Bayfield sits on the shores of Lake Superior, with a ferry to Madeline Island, and the surrounding area populated by two Indian reservations. Mainly the small towns surrounding Lake Superior are tourist attractions and boating for people from Minneapolis/St. Paul. The Bad River Tribe keeps the wild rice beds around the Ashland area. 

My father purchased a boat about a half mile down the railroad tracks at Port Superior, a full service marina, with the intention of deep sea fishing on the lake. We spent some months there every year for nearly 20 years. My brother earned his captain's license which served him well, he recently did a decade-long stint on the Atlantic as a private deep sea fishing captain. My brother has a sixth sense for fish. 

Port Superior in the distance.
Below, what’s left of the sewage plant
after the demolition of the sanitorium.

While he was busy fishing with my father, I had time to run around with my step-sister and we both had boyfriends in the area, sort of. One of things we loved to do was walk up the railroad tracks to visit Pure Air Sanitorium, which was for sale for a number of years. The windows were often open to keep the building aired out, because the lakeside location meant the air was always damp. 

We were very much at that teen age where one is fascinated by creepy things like ghosts, vampires and haunted houses, and we were convinced the old San was absolutely haunted. Once inside an open window, we crept through the dark hallways and any old noise inside the building made us run away screaming. 

After getting into the basement windows, we noted the kitchen area in the basement was completely covered in green mold inches thick. We saw an ancient box of donuts that must have been purchased on the final work day. One donut no longer had any original organic matter left to it, it was entirely a donut-shaped ring of green mold. 

The X-ray room.

The next two floors up were bedrooms. During the active years, patients at the sanitorium were almost entirely confined to their rooms. The building had no dining room, because meals were taken on trays to the bedrooms. 

Patients were taken from their rooms to "air" outdoors, even in cold winter weather. In the early days of tuberculosis treatment, the population of people at the sanitorium either died in two years or less, or they got better and able to go home. Most met one of those two fates within 6 months of arriving. Very rarely were people there longer than two years. 

The San had a dentist office.
Not sure what this was.

In the late 1940s, the first antibiotic was developed that worked on some tuberculosis cases. Then a second antibiotic was added, which helped a few more cases. Finally in the late 1950s, a three-antibiotic regime was developed that became the standard today. The care of patients changed dramatically after that. People got cured to be sure, but also some people developed resistances to the antibiotics. 

The shortest course of treatment was still about six months, but now some patients lingered much longer. I found one testimonial online by a person who said her mother was in Pure Air for nearly 13 years, having a highly resistant case. I tried to find out if people were kept housed at Pure Air for other reasons, like mental illness, other behavioral problems or rehabilitation issues, or even racial issues, but I could not find any evidence of this. 

The room that had a pool table at one point.
Behind the curtains is a blocked window.

On the second floor, at opposite ends of the building were two larger group rooms. One was used as an occupational therapy room. I saw party supplies left from the last days the place was open, and Bingo tokens scattered. The opposite room was more of a recreational room and had a pool table which we messed around with, though most of the balls were missing. I tried to figure out what the little curtained "puppet stage" was used for. Behind the curtain was a window that opened. I think the little stage was used for church services, and the window was used to observe the patients and pass medicine or treats through without the staff coming into much contact with the patients in the room. This was probably the one area people met with their family, apart from their bedroom.

The lab.

The building also had a locked laboratory, except that the window was open in the lab which made it easy for us to sort of sneak in there. I took some photos of the sputum slides which were used to determine if a patient was responding to treatment and ready to leave. 

Because the building was so creepy, we didn't dare remove or touch anything apart from the pool table. We mostly sat around smoking cigarettes or pot. One regret I have is the tiny room with a medallion window, which was reached by a metal ladder and ran alongside the elevator shaft.

Medallion window.

Behind this window in a crawl space we found a cardboard box filled with mimeographed newsletters that were produced within the building for the patients. They contained things like messages and greetings between patients who were confined to their rooms. The messages lined up with old postcards we found in some of the bedrooms with messages like "Merry Christmas to you from Mary in room 209." I left the newsletters, but always regretted that I didn't simply remove them. What a treasure they would be now for the historical society. 

More stuff in the lab.

Another curious space was a junk pile outdoors in the woods just off the grounds. We found all kinds of things ranging from glass syringes to old bottles, tins and even religious items. Again nothing really that we wanted to have or keep, but just adding to the creepiness. 

One of the staff houses.

Also the grounds had two brick residences, one for nurses and another for doctors, used as offices and sleeping quarters for overnight. These also had a kitchen and living space, so the professional staff maintained themselves away from the contagious patients. We wandered through these as well, but they really contained nothing much. 

The drive-way view.

I visited the property year after year. The grounds had a sewage treatment system with operating sewage ponds, which served other properties in the area and has since been updated. This treatment system was of interest to my family as it served the Port Superior complex. So my father followed the fate of the sanitorium. He heard that an offer was made on the building by a local "cult," of sorts. One of the doctors in Washburn who stitched up my face after a fall belonged to the cult, it was said. The offer on the building was declined. With the mold and crumbling plaster walls, the entire place was not livable. It would have needed a full gut job down to the bricks. 

Creepy ivy covered door.
Probably held grounds-keeping 

The building finally got torn down in the early 1990s, I think. I visited it shortly before it was torn down. By then nearly all of the windows were broken. I took my photos in 1980 or 1981 before all that vandalism. With all the years we spent in the area, almost nowhere else is as familiar to my memory as the lake shore here, the forests, the damp. I still know when the smelt is running, and when the maple sap season begins. I am glad to know that the Ojibwe have reclaimed some of Madeline Island, which was once a place of governance by the tribes. I know how it feels to be there, I would love to see it all again, but the touristy nature of the entire area means you need reservations years in advance to even stay, and it's not cheap.  

If you want more information, you might find something at the Bayfield Heritage Association. I know they used to do live exhibits for the school children on the Sanitorium, but I am not sure if they still do those presentations. But they may have more photos or records. 

The window is just left open, oh if I could go back.


  1. < The window is just left open, oh if I could go back.

    The sting of mono no aware. I can feel it too, looking at the pics.

    You've dated yourself a bit more precisely in this post than I think you have previously. I'm surprised to find that I'm probably a bit older than you, in wall clock time.

    The hot chick in pic #2, is that you or your friend?

  2. This is so cool! I grew up in Bayfield and can remember my dad taking my little brother and I through the Sanitorium when we were kids. I still remember the blood test strips and glass beakers. It was so eerie. But I loved it there. You have captured the vibe just as I remember it! Such a shame that more wasn't done to document the people who stayed and worked there. I'm reading a book right now called "Madness" about the Crownsville complex in Maryland and it made me think of our old San. That is what brought me to your blog. Thanks for keeping the memory alive.

    1. Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. I feel sure that people are still around who worked there, or who maybe had a family member work there.