The Open Air Colony (Palmer Tuberculosis Sanatorium)

Springfield Open Air Colony (Sangamon Valley Collectino)

Springfield Open Air Colony (Sangamon Valley Collection)

The Springfield Open Air Colony was a private sanatorium for people suffering from tuberculosis that operated at Chatham Road and Lawrence Avenue from 1913 until about 1953. (This closing date has been corrected.) 

The Colony eventually was renamed the Palmer Tuberculosis Sanatorium, after Dr. George T. Palmer, a public health advocate and specialist in tuberculosis who was associated with the institution for its entire existence.

The colony, which in 1919 charged $17 per week and up, also cared for poor people with TB, thanks to funding from Sangamon County and the Springfield Tuberculosis Association. Otherwise, the 1914 Springfield Survey reported, Sangamon County had few resources for needy TB patients.

“The county almshouse has no adequate provision for the tuberculosis inmates, but it is understood that an appropriation has been made for a special pavilion which should be completed at once,” the Survey said. “At the present time there is no public institution where the citizens of the city of Springfield and the county of Sangamon afflicted with tuberculosis may receive care and treatment. Such an institution with special provision for children is not only desirable but necessary.”

Helen McCoy Shull’s memories of working at the Palmer sanatorium were reprinted in the May 2003 edition of Historico, the Sangamon County Historical Society newsletter.

In August 1939, after graduating from the Springfield Hospital Training School — later known as the Memorial Hospital School of Nursing — I went away to college. As money was scarce, it was necessary that I work during my summer vacations. Since the hospital had told me they would hire me during the summer, I went there to apply for work during my first college summer. Miss Kitty McKelvey, the superintendent of the hospital, said she had just received a call from the Palmer Sanatorium stating they needed an R.N. to help during the summers. She knew, too, that I needed to earn as much money as I could. Salaries at a TB sanatorium were higher than at a regular hospital because TB was and is a communicable disease. Miss McKelvey said that if I were interested she would submit my name to them. …

Most of the staff was Practical Nurses who had been trained on the job. Each nurse was assigned to a group of seven or eight patients.  … Most of their patients were in double rooms. All patients were kept in bed at all times. When mattresses had to be turned, the patient’s bed would be rolled next to her roommate’s and the patient would then roll into bed with her roommate until the mattress was turned. (This was certainly unheard of in a hospital.) Each patient had a paper bag pinned onto the side of her bed for sputum papers. The patient was taught to turn the top of the bag down when it was removed so the nurse would not have to touch the interior of the sack.

Of course, air conditioning was non-existent, so ice water was always welcome. Big chunks of ice (25 or 50 lbs.) were kept in the icebox for the nurses to chip ice for their patients’ water glasses. I still have scars on my hands caused by chipping this ice.

Since all patients were inactive, good elimination was quite a concern. As most of you, no doubt know, mineral oil is quite effective, but if taken over a long period of time it will finally just seep through. Most of these patients were in bed for months or years. For elimination, instead of mineral oil, they were given a tablespoon of Vaseline. This I certainly had never heard of before.

There were several cottages in back of the sanatorium, which housed those patients who were about ready to go home and more or less were able to take care of themselves. As I recall, most of the cottages were for men patients. We did have to take their temperature every afternoon. It was nice getting out in the fresh air to go to the cottages, but since I was a young nurse, they would always tease me,  as I was quite naïve and always blushed conspicuously. I believe this was the time of the “Knock, Knock, Who’s there?” sayings. I’m sure many of you remember them.

Dr. Palmer was the administrator of the sanatorium and Dr. Vernon was his assistant. Miss Swaze was director in charge of nursing care.

The former sanatorium was vacant in 1954, when the longtime pastor of First Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Richard Paul Graebel, initiated a move to buy the facility as the site for a planned Illinois Presbyterian Home.

As Edyth Anderson recounted in the April 2003 edition of Historico, Graebel announced on a Sunday morning that he had a key to the sanatorium, and anyone interested in seeing it should meet him there after church.

“Only a Springfield lawyer plus my mother and father and I joined Dr. Graebel to tour the buildings,” Anderson said. “The atmosphere was almost ghostly, with dusty stacks of bed linen — even a dental office.

“However, Dr. Graebel recognized that the property had possibilities for use as a retirement home. He envisioned a home in which he would be pleased to have his mother live.”

Following a fundraising drive, the church bought the old sanatorium complex, which took in 26 acres, for $140,000. The first residents moved in on March 5, 1956.

The facility is now the Fair Hills Residence of the Illinois Presbyterian Home.

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19 Responses to The Open Air Colony (Palmer Tuberculosis Sanatorium)

  1. Bermetta Burge says:

    My father’s 1st wife passed away here 21 January, 1927. I have wondered for years about her and I finally found your article. It was very interesting to know what she must have gone through back then. I knew it had to be a bad situation, but your descriptions gave me a new slat on her life, what little she had of it. Thank you for the information.

  2. Deborah Uetz says:

    My grandmother Aura Irene Rushing Glover died in this institution in 1929. She was in her early twenties. If there is any means of obtaining any information about her time there I would love to have it. My e-mail address is

    Thank you, Deborah Uetz

    • Deborah uetz says:

      My phone number has changed. I would still love to have any records or memories. Of those who knew her. She left behind two little boys, Jack and Jimmy. Both have passed away. She was a beautiful, tiny brunet who was married to Dick Glover.

  3. Marty Hume-Bailey says:

    My Mother, Bonnie Lee Walters Hume, was a patient here also. She was admitted in 1947, just 6 months after I was born and was discharge in 1951 or 1952. I have many pictures from there, but don’t really remember visiting her there. I would also be interested in any information relating to her stay.

    Marty Hume-Bailey

    • editor says:

      Ms. Hume-Bailey: I suspect there are records from the Palmer Sanitarium somewhere, but I don’t know where they’re kept. And under today’s medical confidentiality laws, I’m not sure about their availability to the public. I’ll see what I can find out.

  4. Marilyn Gonet says:

    Is there any information of Irene (Westphal) Slaughter died in August 1942 and was a patient there?

    • editor says:

      Ms. Gonet: The Illinois State Journal published a short obituary about Mrs. Slaughter. I’ll email you that page, in case you haven’t already seen it. Otherwise, shows her grave in Nokomis. Again, you may well have already seen that, but in case you haven’t, click here.

      I don’t know if any records exist from the Palmer Sanatorium. If they do, the person who will know where to find them is Curtis Mann, head of the Sangamon Valley Collection at Lincoln Library in Springfield. The collection itself is closed for library remodeling, but you can still talk to Curt by calling (217) 753-4900.

      Good luck.
      Mike Kienzler

  5. Lori McCollum says:

    I have photos of staff and facility from 1933 when my aunt was there. Anyone want them?

    • editor says:

      Ms. McCollum: I’d love to see them, but the best place to make the photos accessible to the public is by donating them to the Sangamon Valley Collection at Lincoln Library in Springfield. Call (217) 753-4900 and ask for the Sangamon Valley Collection. Thanks for reading.

  6. Virginia (Ginger) Lincoln Lewis says:

    Is there information on staff? I have a postcard where Elmina (Mina) Shinkel, a Nurse (at John Hopkins prior) was working there. The postcard is dated 12/20/1919. She was my Grandmother, Nellie Shinkel Lincoln’s sister. I have a quilt made of her nursing school uniform & her nursing pin. Trying to track her movements. Know she studied Psychiatry in Texas.

    • editor says:

      Ms. Lewis: I’m not aware of any information on Palmer/Open Air staff, and I found no information on Ms. Shinkel in old newspaper files. You still could contact the Sangamon Valley Collection at Lincoln Library, Springfield’s municipal library, at 217-753-4900. In particular, Ms. Shinkel might be mentioned in old city directories, which the SVC has. Good luck.

  7. Deborah uetz says:

    My grandmother died around 1928 in her early 20’s. My father was only 3 and had no memory of his mother. It is as if she never existed. She was Aura Irene Glover.

  8. Ruth W. McLemore says:

    My Great Great grandmother may have been at this Sanitarium. Anna Lula Miller Turney. There are no death records for her anywhere I can locate. I am trying to find out what happened to her. Our family had Tuberculosis. My Grandfather had it. His father had it and it may have started with Anna. We are thinking it might have started with her. They lived in Havana. If you can give me any help, I truly would be grateful.
    Thank you
    Ruth McLemore

    • editor says:

      Ms. McLemore: There was at least one other TB sanitarium in Sangamon County (and, I believe, several others around central Illinois). The other big local sanitarium was operated near Riverton by the same Franciscan nuns who staffed St. John’s Hospital. I’m not at all sure how extensively they preserved patients’ records in either place, but you could check with the current administrators of the former St. John’s Sanitarium. I don’t have a phone number right at hand, but here’s location information: St. Francis Convent, the home of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis, 4875 LaVerna Road, Springfield.
      Also, here’s contact info for the current operators of the former Palmer Sanitarium.
      I assume you’ve checked with the Sangamon County Clerk on whether a death certificate exists here. You can also contact the Sangamon Valley Collection at Lincoln Library, Springfield’s municipal library. They’re the gold standard of local history research: 217-753-4900, ext. 5634.
      Good luck.

  9. George Vernon says:

    My father Dr. George H. Vernon was on the staff at Palmer Sanatorium from about the early or mid-1930s until the summer of 1953. At that point we moved to Edwardsville, IL where he was the medical director of the Madison County TB Sanatorium. This facility had about 100 beds. In addition to his work at the Sanatorium he reviewed chest x-rays sent to him from facilities or doctors (I was never sure which) from various counties in central Illinois. He would return the x-rays along with a wire recorder containing his comments. TB was not a growth industry in the 1950s as antibiotics had been very effective in treating it. In 1960 we moved from Edwardsville to Glen Ellyn, Illinois where he directed what was a very large but mainly out-patient clinic in DuPage County. Sadly, he died in a car accident in December of that year. the Madison County Historical Society has substantial information on the Edwardsville facility, which included in addition to the Sanatorium a doctor’s residence and a nurses home for unmarried staff nurses. I believe it too became a residential nursing home for some period, but was all then torn down and is now the site of a large shopping center, part of the exponential growth of Edwardsville fueled by the creation of the SIU campus there.

  10. Paul Czerniejewski says:

    My great grandmothers death record shows she died at the Sanitorium in 1951. Was it still for TB patients at that point? Just curious to know. Could you email me any response? Thanks

    • editor says:

      Mr. Czerniejewski: I’ll email you as well, but, yes, it appears the sanatorium treated TB patients until sometime in 1953. The closing date in the original entry (“sometime in the 1940s”) was wrong. My apologies for that, and thanks for prompting me to do better research.

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