My father called the town the “jumping off place.” Mont Alto had been a stop on the railroad where folks got off the train to go to the Tuberculosis Sanatorium. The Sanatorium was at the top of South Mountain. Granny Beulah told me a horse and wagon would meet the train and take the new patients up the mountain. Later, the same horse wagon would bring them down the mountain in coffins and load them back on the train.
The railroad tracks are still there, traversed by the occasional freight train. You can hear the train whistle blow at the crossing, especially at night. Used to be if you met someone and told them you were from Mont Alto, they would ask you, “Do you have tuberculosis?”
Rich people who came down with consumption, they went to the Swiss Alps for the cure – like the hospital in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. South Mountain was a poor man’s Alps. Not the very poor. The very poor died at home, or on the street, or under bridges, coughing up blood. The people who came to South Mountain had enough money to be off the street, but not enough for the European tour. If they could get away to Mont Alto, their friends and family did not have to watch the wasting death, nor deal with the stigma the disease would put on the family.
These times were before the war and before antibiotics. Antibiotics could cure TB. I’d be happy to live in the 16th, 17th, 18th century, or earlier, if I could just have antibiotics.
There was a store in the town, a funeral parlor, a blacksmith, and a doctor. There was an iron ore foundry and a tree nursery where laborers could get jobs. My grandmother, Granny Beulah, was one of 13 children born to Jenny Verdier. She was called Muddie, which I figure must be a corruption of the German Mutti. One of the thirteen, Richard, died as a baby. The others survived and were all raised in a tiny house in Mont Alto. The house must have started as a sort of cabin. The upstairs was right under the roof with a slanted ceiling.
Harry was a drunk and Jenny raised the family. They needed to buy flour and cloth, but that was about it. They grew everything they ate and “put it up” for winter. They grew lots of potatoes. They had chickens and hogs. Jenny baked bread every single day. The boys hunted small game and deer. Wood was free for the chopping on the mountain, there was plenty of rain and things grew in the ground. All the children went through the sixth grade and most through eighth. They went to church on Sunday to the E.U.B. Church – the Evangelical United Brethren.
My great-grandmother’s house was tiny. Years later, when I used to go there for Christmas, it was full to the brim and supper would be served in shifts. Only so many souls could sit at the kitchen table. There would be two or three seatings. In between the seatings, Aunt Ellen would fill up the serving dishes with more food and set clean plates on the table. There were two slant-ceilinged rooms upstairs under the eaves – one for the girls and one for the boys. In the summer the boys slept outside.
When Harry died, the youngest child, Jean, was a babe in arms. Harry was laid out at the undertakers but Jenny fretted. She walked to the undertaker’s with a sweater and asked the undertaker to put it on him under his suit jacket because she didn’t want him to be cold.
It sounds almost wholesome, doesn’t it? But oh, my dear, it was not.