Russell Veeder


By Russell Veeder

Stark County has been fortunate throughout its history to have had such an outstanding array of medical doctors practicing within its county boundaries. The names of many have become legendary over the years: Reichert, Gumper, Stickney Davis, Perkins, Gilsdorf, Nachtwey, and others. If hard work and dedication could mend bones, deliver babies, and cure illness the people of Stark County would unquestionably be among the healthiest people of the world.

Medical doctors like everyone must adapt themselves to the environment in which they live, and consequently during the early years of Stark County the doctors experienced the same hardships which were characteristic of a sparsely settled frontier area. Just as the farmer or rancher covered long distances to purchase his supplies and market his produce, so too the doctor frequently had of necessity to cover equally long distances to reach the people who needed him and also, on occasion, to acquire the medicine necessary to treat a wound or disease. From 1883 onward until 1914 Dr. Victor H. Stickney became a familiar figure moving about the county on horseback. Life was hard in the early years and doctors because of the uniqueness of their profession were forced to face and deal with the grimmest aspects of that life — illness, suffering, and death.

With the arrival of improved roads, automobiles and more rapid means of communication via the telephone the conditions for both doctor and patient did improve, but still leaving home during the winter months could cause serious problems. The Dickinson Press reported in a front page story, for example, that in November of 1916 two Dickinson physicians were driving into the countryside in their touring car to visit with their patients when they came across a frozen bump in the road about four miles out of town. In an effort to avoid hitting the bump the driver swerved, but in the process the car skidded and the wheel hit the bump which in turn caused the car to roll over with both men inside. Fortunately, according to the Press, neither man was seriously injured.

It is during times of emergency that the true nature of an individual comes to the front. This is true for those in the medical profession as it is for everyone else. One of the great disasters to strike the nation as a whole as well as Stark County was the flu epidemic of 1918. Throughout the nation thousands of people died and additional thousands came near death. In Dickinson all the doctors were vastly over worked. In the county it was reported that “you could not get a doctor, and you could not get a nurse. They were all busy!” In Dickinson it was noted that people were using all sorts of home remedies to ward off the disease In 1918 there was no known cure for the flu, but among the medications used was an opium, quinine, aspirin mixture and perhaps a cherry tree barkcodeine mixture. One of the many Dickinson physicians attempting to deal with the epidemic was Dr. H. A. Davis who has been described as “an outspoken man,” a “comical sort of person yet very competent,” and a man who “had his own ideas about trying to stop the epidemic.” Apparently Dr. Davis while on his visitation rounds found a number of people on the south side of Dickinson burning hair, cooking onions, and eating garlic to ward off or cure the disease. On one occasion he entered a house which had been nearly sealed air tight for the winter. Dr. Davis apparently believed fresh air was superior to garlic so he proceeded to kick out the window panes. One old timer recalls that he came down with the flu and that he experienced a paralysis or numbing sensation in his left hand and arm Even though he was ill he decided to go to work and while at work he accidentally cut a finger on his left hand. Because of the numbness he did not realize that he was injured until he saw the blood which he described as initially black in color. Following this his paralysis disappeared and he became convinced the bleeding at least lessened the seventy of the flu.

In spite of all their efforts, however, the physicians were unable to do much for the flu victims. Schools were closed to help prevent its spread, and the majority of the ill people simply went to bed. Perhaps a little whisky, a lot of liquid, aspirin, hope, and rest were the only cures. The doctors and nurses were all overworked, but there was little they could do.

Although the physicians of Stark County did more than what could reasonably be expected from them they were few in number. This, along with the isolation of the population, the distances between farms and town, and the persistence of customs, accounts for the long use of many home remedies and home cures in Stark County as well as for the use of midwives during child birth. In many instances with the case of midwives it was simply a choice between driving five miles to procure the services of a midwife or twenty-five miles to procure the services of a doctor. In addition a number of the older women refused to let a medical doctor get near a delivery.

At the turn of the twentieth century home remedies were almost a fine art in Stark County. These home devices consisted of poultices of various kinds, tonics, plasters, and various herbal teas. One of the most popular types of plaster consisted of the famous mustard plaster where one would mix regular household mustard with flour and warm water to make a paste and this paste was then put over the upper chest until the skin became red. An onion poultice made of boiled chopped onions and oil was another popular type. To deal with infection of a wound or a sore two types of mixtures were widely used. One was a flax poultice and the other was made of sour cream and flour. The sour cream and flour were mixed together to form a soft dough which was put over the wound. The dough would soften the area around the wound and draw out the infection. In addition, a whole host of other remedies found widespread use. Goose lard and chicken fat provided common ingredients. Some insisted that the best method of treating a cold was pure alcohol, and drinking red liniment which was purchased from the Watkins man and mixed with milk would cure the flu. For head lice kerosene worked as well as anything. Cooked onions mixed with sugar as well as honey mixed with lemon juice were used for coughs. For a sore throat the neck was wrapped with bacon and turpentine. The throat would probably be burned to the blistering stage from the turpentine, but the soreness was supposed to disappear. Flax seed tea made by placing a teaspoon of flax seed in a quart of water and boiling into a thick syrup was also an effective home remedy for many ailments. Then in the spring of the year to aid the body for the change in season herbal tea or a molasses and sulphur mixture were considered by many to be good tonics.

Stark County, since the coming of its first medical doctors in the late nineteenth century, has been afforded the best of medical care. The physicians who lived and worked in the county have given much of themselves to make the county an exceptional place to live and to raise a family.
The above story is based on information gleaned by the author from the Dickinson Press, the Stark County Historical Society's Oral History Project, and a research seminar paper written by Robert Schaible for Dr. Alice Tirrell.