Most all of the small towns of the Thumb area in the 1880s and into the 1930s had a local doctor or, maybe two, if they were fortunate. In our efforts of researching old records at various village and township offices plus local newspapers, my son, David, and I uncovered some interesting stories about the local town doctors.
Many of the early small-town doctors also had their own drug store or medicine shop. They grew herbs and harvested the plants and seeds to make a variety of herbal drugs to help in the cures of the common cold, stomach aches, kidney ailments, and the ague, or swamp fever.
At Caseville, in the early years, there was a Dr. Jackman and, later, Dr. Henderson. Both doctors had drug stores. It was not uncommon to see large potted herb plants growing right in the store as seen in the photo presented in this article. Some of the plants grew four to six feet tall.
At Bay Port, Dr. McLean had an office on the main road through the town, which today is M-25. This doctor, in the 1890s, had no choice in modes of transportation. He had to use the horse and buggy to make house calls. The second photo in this article shows the doctor with the driver of the carriage and his office in the background. If you look very carefully, you might be able to read the notice of office hours in the window. The doctor’s morning hours were 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.; afternoon hours, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.; and evening hours of 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. You may wonder, “When did he have time for house calls?” We certainly can come to one conclusion that being a small-town doctor in the late 1800s and early 1900s was a hard life in the rural communities.
Dr. Howell became the doctor at Bay Port when Dr. McLean left in 1914. Dr. Howell was truly a doctor to all in the area. He called on the sick fishermen living or working on some of the nearby islands. He served the farm families and the local residents, and he was there for the various epidemics that broke out, such as diphtheria and typhoid fever. His wife, Sarah, would oftentimes go with him on house calls. She was probably there for several at-home deliveries of the new baby, as farm families usually had many children. These country doctors made house calls at all hours of the day and night.
Just imagine the pain and suffering a sick person could go through before the telephone was in the home. Someone had to find the doctor to get him to come out to see the patient. If the person was a victim of an accident at a nearby lumber camp or the local saw mill, the patient might be rushed to the doctor’s home in the middle of the night to have a broken leg or arm set or, in a worst case, perform an amputation. The telephone certainly improved the quality of life for everyone in the early days here in the Thumb.
At the turn of the century, life expectancy was about 45 years of age. Doctors didn’t do very well in the longevity category. The Sebewaing medical officer and town doctor attended many village council meetings during the epidemics of scarlet fever, measles, small pox, and diphtheria. He was in charge of quarantining whole families to stay in their homes. He was also in charge of the Pest House, where people would be sent with a contagious disease or maybe an illness thought to be a menace to the community. In the mid 1880s, shortly after the first train service came to Sebewaing, the medical officer sent the council a bill for services he provided to visitors coming to the community. This was sometimes someone who couldn’t pay for medical treatment. The person might have been put in jail for living in the park and sleeping there, which violated an ordinance.
The man was oftentimes a tramp, traveling the rails, and happened to be very sick. Sometimes he was given a room, probably in one of the many hotels in Sebewaing. The village council paid the doctor and covered the room and board expenses. As time passed by, there were more entries in the clerk’s records indicating more tramps had been given medical attention. It became apparent the word was out in the Tramp Community that if you get sick, "Just ride the rails to Sebewaing and you will be cared for, and if you are real sick and pass away, they will bury you in the Potter's Field."
At Lapeer, Michigan, in its early years, Dr. Minor Turrill was the postmaster and medical officer. The settlement in the l830s was divided: One area was known as Whitesville, which was owned by Mr. White. The property east of what we know to be M-24 in the town was owned by Mr. Alvin Hart. These two men competed for opportunities to develop the community. They each built a county courthouse in their area. There was also a feud developing between some families over the meadowlands between the White and Hart properties. The meadowlands had high marsh grass ideal for feeding livestock. Each family cut and used the grass, but sometimes the McClellan family would do the cutting and the Smith family would come along and pick up the dry grass and alfalfa for their own use. This started the “Meadow Wars.” You may wonder what this has to do with doctoring in these pioneer times! Read on for the rest of the story…
The McClellan family and the Smith family decided to settle the matter by setting up a competition with each family picking their strongest young man to see who could cut the most hay and marsh grass. The boys were selected, and on a hot day in July, the boys picked up their scythes and went to work. The townspeople came to watch as this became an event. Each boy cut and piled the grass high, each having their own pile. They worked for hours until one boy fell and died of heat exhaustion. The other boy, declared the winner, was also in bad shape. He died the next day. Dr. Minor Turrill administered to the boy and commented on the tragedy wishing this event had never happened.
At our home in Pigeon, in the 1940s, Dr. Scheurer made many house calls over the years and especially when we had the measles and mumps, which were at epidemic stages. This outstanding doctor also saved the life of my cousin Eddie, who got his arm caught in a corn shredder shortly after he came home from WWII. I hope some of you will remember some of your hometown doctors for their dedication and service to the community…and That’s The Way It Was! Photos courtesy of the Al Eicher Collection.
Al and Dave Eicher provide television production services to corporations, ad agencies and nonprofit organizations. They also create Michigan town histories and offer lecture services on a variety of Michigan History Events. You may contact them at 248-333-2010; email: email@example.com; website: www.program-source.com.