Friday, February 18, 2011

Doctors in La Farge

When Dr. Frank Gollin left La Farge in 1960, the village needed to reassess its needs for medical services. Gollin, who had been the doctor for the village for over two decades, moved that year to Madison where he started to work in the radiology laboratories at the University of Wisconsin Hospital. For one of the few times since its inception, La Farge was left without a primary care physician practicing in the village. With Dr. Gollin’s departure from his full-time La Farge practice (He would maintain office hours in the village on a part-time basis for the next two years, while La Farge sought a replacement doctor), the little Kickapoo River town would scramble to provide for medical needs and services. In the end of this process to assess the village’s medical situation, a decision was made to build a new medical clinic in town. Before we look at the process of getting that new clinic built and staffed with a doctor, let us peer back into the village’s history to see what medical services preceded that time.

The story of the history of medicine and doctors who practiced in La Farge is a remarkable one in many respects. Even in the pre-incorporation days of Seelyburg and DeJean’s Corners, there always seemed to be reliable medical service available in what would become La Farge. Star, or Seelyburg as it was known locally, had a medical man soon after settlement in Dr. Jesse Smith. Dr. Smith kept his office in his cottage built next to the old schoolhouse on Plum Run Road, located north of the Kickapoo River. In 1869, Smith’s practice was expanded to include Dr. Amos Carpenter. Carpenter built a home at the intersection of the hamlet’s Main Street (the old river road) and the Lane, which led off to the east and up on Maple Ridge. Carpenter built an office and apothecary (drug store) across the street from his house, where his practice remained for three decades. Carpenter was an “eclectic practitioner” who used herbal and Native-American remedies in his practice. The Winnebago Indians, who traveled along the Kickapoo and camped in the area, regularly traded their potions and poultices with their friend, “Dr. Amos”, when they were in the Seelyburg region. Mrs. Carpenter was an accomplished midwife, who assisted in many hundreds of births over the years, and continued her birthing assistance even after the death of her husband.

The first doctor in La Farge was E.E. Gaines, who came to the growing little village in 1897. Dr. Gaines first had his practice in the La Farge House Hotel before moving it to several other Main Street buildings over the years. In October of 1897, the railroad reached La Farge and the little community really spurted in growth. The following year, Dr. William E. Butt moved his practice to La Farge from Fox Lake, Wisconsin. (There will be another connection between La Farge and Fox Lake in regards to medicine seventy years after Dr. Butt’s move, but more on that in the next Local History Notebook.) Dr. Butt was the son of the renowned Colonel Butt of Viroqua and set up his practice in his room at the Klondyke Hotel (now the post office). Later he would move his practice to second-story offices in the Miller Building (now the Field House Bar).

Later in 1898, Dr. Adam Shambaugh came to La Farge to construct a residence and place for his offices. Shambaugh was 82 years old and well known in the area. He moved to La Farge from Muller’s Mill on south Bear Creek, where he had a drug store and practice for many years. He started his La Farge practice, limited due to his advanced age, in his new house (now the Walker house, just north of the Lawton Library), from which he also sold groceries and herbal medicines.

When La Farge incorporated as a village in the summer of 1899, there were four doctors practicing in the new town. They would all be gone before the tenth anniversary of the village. Drs Carpenter (1900) and Shambaugh both passed away (1905). Dr. Gaines joined the group of Kickapoogians who headed west in the early twentieth century, moving his practice to Montana in 1908 before eventually settling in the state of Oregon. Dr. Butt moved his practice to Viroqua in 1909.

Despite the fluid nature of the medical profession in those days, or perhaps because of it, La Farge did not suffer from a lack of doctors when that first batch left the village. Dr. Perres Randall moved his practice from Soldiers Grove to La Farge in 1901 and became a popular member of the community. Dr. Randall suffered a stroke and died in 1903 at the age of 55. That same year, Dr. A.J. Lewis moved into the village, coming from Bloomingdale. He built a bungalow south of the Hotel Ward and established his medical office in the front parlor of the house. Dr. Lewis stayed in La Farge for five years before moving back to Bloomingdale.

Dr. Joseph Esch, who had a practice in Rockton, moved south to La Farge in 1903 to also establish a practice in that booming town. He had offices in several locations before settling into space above the post office for many years (currently apartments owned by George Wilbur located across from the Stittleburg law offices).

Dr. Esch bought the first automobile to La Farge in the fall of 1904. The La Farge physician had traveled to St. Louis to purchase the auto and it was brought to La Farge on a railroad car. With the new automobile, Dr. Esch could expand his practice into the rural areas around La Farge. The good doctor liked his new auto so much that he bought another and then another. He was soon selling autos out of the Hotel Ward garage, a lucrative addition to his medical business. In 1909, he purchased a White steam-driven automobile. The White Steamer greatly enhanced the doctor’s country practice as the vehicle could climb the area’s steep hill roads without faltering. When Dr. Esch went into the country to make house calls, he would have someone drive the White Steamer for him, so he could rest or sleep between calls.

Because of his auto, Dr. Esch became known as La Farge’s “country” doctor, who could make calls everywhere in the steep terrain of the Kickapoo Valley. Dr. J.E. Bingham, who came from Whitewater in 1909 to establish a medical practice, stuck with the old-fashioned horse and buggy form of transportation. Dr. Bingham was known as the “town” doctor in La Farge. During this time, a Dr. Cohen came to La Farge to practice in 1908-09, but left after a year to practice in Wonewoc. Eventually, La Farge settled in as a two-doctor town for much of the time from that time around 1910 until the 1930's.