Martha Reben

          Martha Reben is the pen name of Martha Ruth Rebentisch (1906-1964), born in Manhattan. Her mother died of tuberculosis when Martha was 6 years old. Martha became afflicted with the disease at age 16. 

          Martha’s father sent her to Trudeau’s famed sanitarium in Saranac Lake. After three years of bed rest, she did not seem any better. Therapies such as gas, tuberculin, shot bags, and two nerve operations did not help either. The doctors wanted to do a third operation. 

Martha Reben

Trudeau Sanatorium, Image courtesy of Dorothy Plum

          Martha decided that surgery would probably kill her so she was willing to try just about any other kind of treatment. She saw an advertisement in the local paper: “Wanted: To get in touch with some invalid who is not improving, and who would like to go into the woods for the summer.”

          The ad had been placed by Fred Rice, a local woodsman and boatbuilder. He believed the outdoors was the best treatment for invalids. The only response to the ad was Martha. 

          In June of 1931 Fred took Martha in his boat Gull through Lower Saranac Lake and Middle Saranac Lake to Weller Pond. She was too weak to sit up during the 12-mile trip, so she had to ride on a mattress propped across the seats of the boat.

          Finally, they arrived at the campsite. “I had no clear idea of what a real woodsman’s camp looked like,” wrote Martha, “but certainly I had not expected anything like this.” She saw a drooping tent, a single bed supported on the ground by rocks, blackened pots and pans, a moldy green table, and the noticeable lack of chairs, or even boxes, to sit on. There was no stove, no faucet, and no toilet.

          Martha started her new life of camping and observing nature. One of her friends was Mr. Dooley, a big, white Peking duck. Dooley had a distinct personality. He strutted around camp and stuck out his chest proudly. However, he ran to Martha for protection from chipmunks and snakes. Strangest of all, this duck was afraid of water.

Martha Reben

Martha and Dooley

Image courtesy of Adirondack Collection, Saranac Lake Free Library

          Geese were friends of Martha, too. She wrote about one special moment:

I sat alone before my campfire one evening...The moon came up behind the black trees to the east, and the wilderness stood forth, vast, mysterious, still. All at once the silence and the solitude were touched by wild music, thin as air, the faraway gabbling of geese flying at night.

Presently I caught sight of them as they streamed across the face of the moon, the high, excited clamor of their voices tingling through the night, and suddenly I saw, in one of those rare moments of insight, what it means to be wild and free. As they went over me, I was there with them, passing over the moonlit countryside, glorying with them in their strong-hearted journeying, exulting in its joy and splendor.

          From 1931-1941 Martha spent summers at Weller Pond, enjoying the wildlife and improving her health. When she visited her doctor, he was astonished by her good appearance. Within a few years, Martha claimed that she was free of tuberculosis. She also started writing. Her first book, The Healing Woods, had the subtitle “How my search for health in the woods opened up a new way of life.” It was a best seller and was featured by the Family Book Club.

Martha Reben

          Her third book, A Sharing of Joy, was published in 1963. Martha died shortly afterwards. Her ashes were scattered at Weller Pond, as were Fred’s when he died. A wooden slab is nailed to a tree at their campsite. It reads: “Reben Point. May this spot be kept as a memorial to Martha Reben, whose life, and books on her life here, have inspired so many.” 

          Martha went to Weller Pond seeking health, but she found so much more. The ending paragraph of The Healing Woods tells the lessons that she found in the wilderness:

It taught me fortitude and self-reliance, and with its tranquility it bestowed upon me something which would sustain me as long as I lived: a sense of the freshness and the wonder which life in natural surroundings daily brings and a joy in the freedom and beauty and peace that exist in a world apart from human beings.

Martha Reben