“Honest food, sunshine, [and] pure air”: Ridge Farm convalescent hospital for children

Some 25 miles outside of St. Louis, on a hill overlooking the Meramec River near Valley Park, there once operated a convalescent hospital for children. Overseen by St. Louis Children’s Hospital, this hospital on 127 acres in the Missouri woods was officially called the Country Department of the St. Louis Children’s Hospital, but was commonly known as Ridge Farm.

Children suffering from a range of illnesses, including tuberculosis of the bones, St. Vitus ’ dance (chorea), rheumatic fever, sinus aliments, asthma, encephalitis, and heart diseases, were sent to take treatment at Ridge Farm. These stays, of patients ages two to fifteen years, could last anywhere from four months to five years, and were overseen by nurses and attendants.

The treatments at Ridge Farm centered on the power of fresh air, sunshine, and fresh food to combat these “wasting diseases,” which were thought to be aggravated by undernourishment and lack of fresh air. Heliotherapy, healing by the sun’s rays, was subscribed to at Ridge Farm, and the children were reportedly exposed to the sun for at least two hours daily on an open porch. They were encouraged to spend time outdoors, and were reported to often sleep out of doors, in all seasons. While the pictures included in a St. Louis Children’s Hospital brochure for Ridge Farm show fully clothed children, newspaper articles from the time of its operation indicate that minimal amounts of clothing were at least occasionally worn, even in wintertime. These articles include photos of the children wearing only shoes and tied loincloths. Fresh food was also a daily part of the children’s lives, as the hospital’s attached farm supplied fresh produce, eggs, and milk. Newspapers of the time reported that the children ate no canned food, were required to drink two cups of fresh (never condensed) milk with each meal, and ate at least two pounds of fresh butter per week.

The approximately 70 children who were staying at Ridge Farm at any one time did not spend their time in idleness. They attended school, with a teacher provided by the St. Louis Board of Education, and learned to identify the flora and fauna of the woods, as well as the constellations of the night sky.  One reporter told of a young boy who, after a year at Ridge Farm, could name 48 species of birds in the woods around the Farm. When not at school, they might make their own toys, sculpt clay, or swim. They were also shown a weekly movie, and at one point, were reported to keep an Irish terrier as a pet.

The original Ridge Farm opened on land donated by friends of St. Louis Children’s Hospital on December 11, 1912. A new, larger building opened in May of 1915, and by 1938, Ridge Farm had treated around 3000 children. However, Ridge Farm would be hampered, and occasionally closed and reopened numerous times over the years, by lack of both staff and funds. In January of 1947, its last closing was officially announced, and in August of the same year, it was sold to the Foreign Mission Sisters of St. Dominic, Inc. to be used by them as a novitiate called “Our Lady of Maryknoll.”

More information on Ridge Farm can be found in the Becker Medical Library Archives in Collection RG013: Saint Louis Children’s Hospital Records.