In 1909, Modern Woodmen of America, a fraternal financial service with over one million clients at that time, took action to help members who were stricken with tuberculosis. The plan was to build a modern sanatorium which would be available at nominal cost. The organization’s philosophy was simple: “[the medical facility] must show a profit in lives and in dollars.” As a life insurance company, providing a cure rather than a death benefit was paramount. This idea was embraced by the city of Colorado Springs. The local Chamber of Commerce offered financial incentives and other perquisites to the Modern Woodmen of America to secure the facility. The city soon became home to a major health industry: tuberculosis treatment. For close to sixty years, this industry attracted both patients and job seekers, many of whom remained in the area after the sanatoriums closed.

Tuberculosis (TB), or the “White Plague,” dates back to Ancient Egypt. The Roman Empire’s prescribed treatment was rest, fresh air, and good food. Also called consumption, this disease threatened the lives of millions during the nineteenth century and was the leading cause of death and disability among working men. TB caused flu-like symptoms and weight loss. Patients became weak and a general malaise overtook them. The rapid deterioration of a person with the disease was alarming and incited fear. No one was immune, and the cause was unknown. This was not just a poor man’s disease; however, it also affected prominent society members.
Dr. Charles Fox Gardiner

Consumptives were told to “chase the cure,” which translated to living a rigorous life outdoors. Treatment options remained the same as those available to the ancient patients. This lifestyle was meant to increase the appetite and strengthen the body. Colorado Springs was the perfect place to recuperate. Located in the foothills of Pike’s Peak, the city offered an abundance of sun, clean air, and opportunities for outdoor recreation. Tuberculosis became big business in “The City of Sunshine,” as patients from all across the country flocked to its warm, dry climate.

A Gardiner Sanatory Tent located at the Modern Woodmen Sanatorium
With no medical cure available, physicians sought instead to improve the body’s defenses though rest, fresh air and controlled exercise under strict medical guidance. Relocating to one of Colorado Springs’ boarding houses and health resorts alone was not adequate therapy because the patient would be tempted to remain inside where they were warm and comfortable. Since physicians knew tuberculosis was a highly communicable disease, special tents housed “lungers” individually to decrease the risk of contagion. Dr. Charles Fox Gardiner developed a unique “Sanatory Tent,” the design of which enhanced the chances for patient recovery. These tents were well-ventilated, circulating clean, fresh air constantly, and were habitable year round. They were to be properly furnished with a sturdy bed frame; a good mattress with plenty of blankets; shelves; a washstand and commode; rugs; tables; a desk for writing letters; and a small icebox meant for keeping eggs, milk and other nutritious foods. The design, based on a tepee, allowed ventilation from bottom to top, with clean air gradually flowing in and out at all times. Each tent had its own stove, which burned wood or coal. Dr. Gardiner claimed that this design would allow the occupant to remain comfortable at all times. This constant exchange of air also prevented overheating. Despite these amenities, patients complained that tent living was miserable, especially during Colorado winters.

Access and quality of care depended largely upon the patients’ income. The wealthy could afford the more private, luxurious ambiance that resorts such as the Colorado Springs Antlers Hotel or Cragmor Sanatorium - now the site of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs - provided. Many affluent sufferers were put up in private boarding houses. The poor, however, soon taxed the limited medical resources available. Most underprivileged people afflicted with tuberculosis suffered silently at home, unable to take advantage of the facilities and services afforded to the other tuberculars.
A room at the Modern Woodmen Sanatorium

The discovery of antibiotics was years away, and at the time, most East Coast physicians could only recommend the relocation of their patients from smog-filled cities to the high and dry elevations of Colorado. There was some evidence that sunshine and the higher elevation could somehow develop disease-fighting cells within the body, though whether either factor really made a difference has never been proven. Dr. Thomas Petty, a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado, saw a great advantage to the sanatoriums. “They were putting sick, suffering patients with doctors and nurses who cared about suffering,” he said. “They did the best they could and started making observations.” Just offering hope to people improved survival rates. Many people came to Colorado Springs with optimism, confident they would be cured. Furthermore, creating a center for treatment resulted in the added benefit of isolating infected persons from the larger community. This served to contain the spread of the disease by limiting exposure to others.
Patients enjoying the clean, fresh air.

Still, many of the so-called cures were not cures. They simply delayed the inevitable for a time, with the harsh finality of death from complications ultimately claiming the sufferers’ lives. Although the Woodmen Sanatorium boasted a sixty-seven percent recovery rate, such a figure remains nebulous. Many terminal patients were turned away, and it was very difficult to track actual rates of recovery for a disease that lingered sometimes for many years.

Yet the Woodmen Sanatorium did serve over 12,000 patients throughout its tenure as a tuberculosis facility, providing not only quality medical care, but conducting research and promoting education with guidance for sanitation and healthy living. The grounds on which it was housed covered 1,360 acres and was a totally self-contained facility. The sanatorium included an administration building, receiving hospital, auditorium, 180 tent-cottages for individual patients, laundry, post office, greenhouses, dormitory for male employees, staff homes, a large dairy herd which was used to support the belief that patients needed “plenty of sweet cream and milk”, chickens and pigs, a 200-acre garden, farm buildings, and a central heating plant. A large staff provided dental and medical care to the patients.
Preparing meals in the sanatorium kitchen.

As envisioned by its founders, the Woodmen Sanatorium provided the best care possible at no cost to its patients. Upon arrival, they were required to put down a deposit that would later be used for their return trip home. This was done to ensure that they would not become the responsibility of the sanatorium or the city. Patients were required to turn themselves over wholly to the medical staff and they were treated holistically, ministering to both mind and body. Their care was comprehensive, rather than merely attending to simply a set of lungs. They received a rule book which provided exercise guidelines, rules for use and care of sputum cups, expected patient behavior, and restrictions for foods and beverages. Consumptives were required to bring their own clothing including cold weather gear to ensure they could receive the optimum amount of time outdoors, even in the winter. Funding for the sanatorium was provided by the ten cent annual dues paid by its members and through the individual and group donations of various other Modern Woodmen camps.

Tuberculars came from across America to seek treatment. Very few cases were identified early – most were fatally ill by the time a diagnosis could be made. The prolonged train trip to Colorado frequently served to aggravate their condition and many did not survive the arduous journey. However, once they reached the clean air of the Rockies, others made a rapid recovery. Dr. H.C. Goodson, a Woodmen member and company employee, elected to come to the sanatorium as a desperate attempt to recover from the disease. He quickly returned to health and remained as a member of the medical staff. He went on to study the disease and new methods of treatment. Because of the work of Dr. Goodson and others, the Woodmen Sanatorium was on the leading edge for tuberculosis treatment, boasting such modern technology as an x-ray machine which aided in diagnostics. Furthermore, doctors at the facility implemented the new pneumothorax treatment which temporarily collapsed one lung so that it could rest and heal. In addition to such breakthrough treatment, patients received rest, as much nourishing food as possible – even at the risk of force feeding – constant fresh air and care by a skilled staff, experienced in tuberculosis care.
Patient receiving and x-ray.

Not only did the Modern Woodmen contribute to care of its members while at the same time attempting to find a cure for tuberculosis. They also created jobs and brought improvements to the infrastructure of the surrounding community. At its peak the sanatorium provided jobs for over 150 employees. A road was laid from the train station to the sanatorium – now known as Woodmen Road – which made for decreased travel time for patients. In 1913 the Woodman Sanatorium purchased the first truck in the region which was used to carry supplies. By 1917, they had also purchased a Stanley Steamer that was used to transport patients quickly and more comfortably.

Colorado Springs did not always relish its role as “America’s Greatest Sanatorium.” Local residents were fearful of contracting tuberculosis, even though patients were isolated. Spitting laws were passed, and fumigation of houses of the infected was made mandatory. “Hackers” or “lungers,” as tuberculosis sufferers were irreverently called, were not allowed to apply for jobs or move into certain neighborhoods. Though not publically pronounced, residents fretted about becoming infected. Tuberculosis began to be called “Colorado’s burden.”
A patient receiving a medical examination.
A dental exam at the Modern Woodmen Sanatorium.

Despite resistance to its role as a center for treating the disease, Colorado Springs’ future was clearly tied to tuberculosis and its management. By the 1920s, the mining industry was beginning to wane. Cripple Creek in Teller County saw a drop in population, from 29,000 in 1900, to 4,000 in 1930. The sanatoriums kept new residents and employees in Colorado Springs at a time when other areas were in a decline.

By the 1940s, the discovery of antibiotics made sanatoriums obsolete. The number of tuberculosis deaths in Colorado Springs dropped significantly, from 168 in 1904 to thirty-nine by 1948. The Woodmen Sanatorium discharged its last patients in 1947 and the property was transferred into private hands three years later. The tuberculosis tents were sold and placed in backyards as storage sheds, workshops, or playhouses, a vivid reminder of the role of the sanatorium and its impact on the city. The property was eventually donated to the Poor Sisters of St. Francis Seraph. The order still holds the property which is operated as a nursing facility and retreat center.

Drive down I-25 and you might just catch a glimpse of a Gardiner tent in someone’s backyard.

For further reading, please see:
Woodmen Valley: From Stage Stop to Suburb by John I. Kitch, Jr. and Betsy B. Kitch.
Doctors, Disease, & Dying in the Pikes Peak Region edited by Tim Blevins, Dennis Daily, Sydne Dean, Chris Nicholl, Michael L. Olsen, Katherine Sturdevant, and Amy Ziegler.
Locations of Historical TB Sanatoriums in Colorado and Possible Relationships with the Current Distribution of Asthma Cases A report published by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Sisters of Mt. St. Francis
Modern Woodmen of America

All photographs are used courtesy of the Pikes Peak Library District Digital Collection.