Thursday, May 19, 2022

Definitely Not a Coffee Table...

Sometimes I stumble upon a mystery that catches my attention. That's what happened a few weeks ago after I received a covid booster shot at Mayflower Community. The nurse asked me to remain in the lounge of Montgomery Hall for a few minutes after the shot to make sure that there were no unhappy consequences. Discovering that all the seats in the lounge were already occupied, I passed through the lounge toward Montgomery Hall's front door and there found a chair. With no one to talk to, I cast my eyes around the unfamiliar space and noticed an unusual table in the entry immediately below the mailboxes that serve Montgomery Hall residents. I got up to take a closer look, and discovered that the table bore a decorative inscription taken from Christian scriptures (Matt. 28:20): "Lo, I am with you alway." Although Mayflower was founded by the Congregational Church of Iowa in part to provide for former missionaries and pastors, the clerical inscription still surprised me as the entryway gave no other evidence of religious service.

Moreover, the table surface featured a small dedication plate that remembered Lucinda A. Haskell Noble (1832-1921), who was, the inscription announced, "A faithful member of this Church."

Well, that was odd. For one thing, the table was not standing in a church, but in the entry of an apartment building. In addition, Lucinda Noble had died more than a century ago and some thirty years before Mayflower was founded. What the heck? I wondered. 

And so began a winding search to learn how this table, built a hundred years earlier, found a home in the entryway of Mayflower's Montgomery Hall in Grinnell, Iowa.


Finding the obituary for Lucinda Noble proved fairly easy. Thanks to the digitized records of a northeast Iowa newspaper, I learned that the elderly "Mrs. Noble was a devoted Christian woman, [and] a faithful member of the Congregational Church of Strawberry Point" (Edgewood Journal, April 7, 1921). Glad to know what church she had attended, I was nevertheless further discomfited to realize that the table in Montgomery Hall in Grinnell had previously stood in a Congregational Church in Strawberry Point. Why wasn't the table still in Strawberry Point, continuing the remembrance of Lucinda Noble and her faithfulness?

Undated Photograph Postcard of Strawberry Point Congregational Church

Answering that question also proved easy. A newspaper article from March 1953 reported that the First Congregational Church of Strawberry Point had recently been razed. "A decrease in the size of the congregation and no hope for immediate comeback brought an end to the church," the newspaper explained (Dubuque Telegraph Herald, March 22, 1953). As further investigation proved, in fact the church had been closed already early in 1951 (Clayton County Press Journal, July 26, 1951; Cedar Rapids Gazette, January 25, 1953). Clearly the Strawberry Point Congregational Church had disappeared almost seventy years ago, so whom could I ask about the table? Even those who had been members when the church came down in 1953 would now be either quite elderly or dead. How could I learn more?
Photograph from Dubuque Telegraph Herald, March 22, 1953

Happily, the records of the closed Strawberry Point Congregational Church landed, along with other records of the Iowa Conference and its churches, in the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston, Massachusetts. One of the archivists there kindly located for me the papers from Strawberry Point and sent me scans of the church register which recorded minutes of the last meetings of the congregation. These records report that on a slippery, winter night in January 1952 only eight members of the Strawberry Point Congregational Church appeared for the annual meeting at which they hoped to decide "whether or not to disband." With so few members present, a motion to delay the decision and reconvene in late April or early May carried. The reconvened annual meeting did not take place until June 8. That Sunday, after a pot-luck dinner, the twenty assembled members voted to authorize the church's trustees "to make such conveyance of property, both real and personal as shall be agreed upon in said negotiations" to the Iowa Conference of the Congregational Church, although the vote asked that the Conference find a way to share the proceeds of the sale with the Strawberry Point Methodist Episcopal Church, which at the time was organizing a building fund for a new church.
Undated Postcard of First Methodist Church, Strawberry Point, IA

Formal dissolution of the Congregational Church in Strawberry Point did not occur until November 24, 1952 when Dr. Judson Fiebiger (1905-2005), Conference Secretary, Rev. Andrew Craig, Field Secretary, and Mr. D. H. Thomas (1874-1959), Business Manager and Assistant Treasurer, met Strawberry Point church officials at the Union Bank and Trust Co. of Strawberry Point (subsequently succeeded by Citizens State Bank). The meeting concluded with several resolutions. The first conveyed to the Congregational Christian Conference of Iowa the real estate of both the church and parsonage. The second resolved that fifty percent of the proceeds of the sale be placed in trust in the Union Bank and Trust Company of Strawberry Point for the Building Fund of the Methodist Church of Strawberry Point. According to the final page of the church's records, the church sold for $2250 and the parsonage for $5800, thus ending forever the Congregational Church of Strawberry Point.

One other paragraph from the minutes of the November 1952 meeting is important for the history of the table now in Montgomery Hall:
It was agreed that the Thimble Society of the Congregational Christian Church be empowered to dispose of the personal property in the church, all moneys so rec'd [sic] to enhance the Thimble Treasury, it being understood that receipts be spent to advance Congregational Christian projects (Congregational Library and Archive, Iowa Conference Records, Subgroup III, Church records, Series FF: Strawberry Point Congregational Church Records, 1883-1952, Church register, 1935-1952). 
Coinciding with the dissolution and sale of the Strawberry Point church was a recently-founded and ambitious project of establishing a Congregational retirement community in Grinnell for former missionaries, pastors, and their spouses. The idea of a Congregational retirement home in Grinnell began with Royal and Margaret Montgomery (1883-1957), who at that time were living in a home at 819 Ninth Avenue, Grinnell. Royal Montgomery (1879-1966) had served the Congregational Christian Conference of Iowa for many years in various positions until his retirement in 1948. As Margaret Matlack Kiesel (1908-1987) put it, the Montgomerys "were living comfortably in the house they had built...," but "Dr. Montgomery also was aware that other Congregational ministers and their wives were not as fortunate as he and Margaret" (A Journey in Faith: The Story of Mayflower Home [n.p.: Mayflower Homes, Inc., 2000], p. 7). The Montgomerys decided to donate the proceeds from the sale of their home to help underwrite the founding of a retirement community in Grinnell. Soon thereafter Ferdinand Kiesel (1879-1956), a stalwart in the Grinnell Congregational Church who was impressed with the Montgomerys' idea, agreed to donate his own home on Broad Street toward the project. With this beginning, the Montgomerys approached the Iowa Conference with a proposal to found a retirement community in Grinnell. The Conference formally adopted the proposal in June 1950 and by November of that year the Mayflower Home was incorporated.
Plaque Recognizing the role of Royal and Margaret Montgomery in founding Mayflower Home
(entry to Montgomery Hall)

Although the recruitment of funds to build the new community proved challenging, by August 1952 officials had succeeded in securing sufficient backing to break ground for the first housing unit in the 600 block of Broad Street. The one-story brick structure featured eleven apartments, half of which were endowed to make them affordable to the denomination's retirees. Named in honor of Royal and Margaret Montgomery, this first building was formally dedicated in June 1953.
Among those attending the June dedication ceremony in Grinnell were several women from Strawberry Point: Mrs. J. J. Matthews, Mrs. Jennie Howard (1876-1955) (who as clerk had recorded minutes of the Strawberry Point Congregational Church's closing), Mrs. Carrie Slagel, and Miss Nell Westfall (1871-1961) (Clayton County Press Journal, June 18, 1953). All four were members of the Thimble Society, a women's organization which, despite the closing of the local Church, continued to operate. When the Thimbles next met, on June 25th, Nell Westfall and Mrs. Jennie Howard reported on their Grinnell visit for the Mayflower dedication (Clayton County Press Journal, July 2, 1953), helping spread the word in Strawberry Point about the Mayflower Home. Later that autumn, now meeting at the Methodist Church parlors, the Thimble Society welcomed "Miss Francis Ackman [sic; should be Aikman] of the Mayflower Home in Grinnell" who "gave a very interesting and informative talk on the Home" (ibid., November 5, 1953). Francis Aikman (1876-1977), who hailed from Minneapolis, was among the original residents of Montgomery Hall, occupying apartment 11. Her father, Rev. J. G. Aikman (1839-1923), had once been pastor at the Strawberry Point Congregational Church (Congregational Iowa and Pilgrim Log, February 1954), which explains both her connection to Strawberry Point and to the Mayflower.
First Residents of Montgomery Hall, Mayflower Home (1953)
Margaret and Royal Montgomery, 1st row, 1st & 3rd from left; Francis Aikman, back row, 3rd from left
(Drake Community Library, Records of the Mayflower Home #92, Box 2, Series 7,
"Scrapbooks, Pre-1959") 

The Strawberry Point Thimble Society, like other organizations within the Iowa Conference, supported the Mayflower Home initiative financially. Already in July 1952 the group donated $100 to the Mayflower Home (Clayton County Press Journal, July 17, 1952) and in December 1953 sent another $75 (ibid., December 10, 1953). The following April the group decided to send an Easter gift of $25 to Dr. Royal Montgomery, "the founder of the Mayflower Home" (ibid., April 22, 1954). Clearly the Thimble Club knew a great deal about and contributed generously to the Mayflower.

But the Thimble Club was not the only party in Strawberry Point committed to Mayflower. The program for the 1953 dedication of Montgomery Hall, for instance, reports that among those who had underwritten apartments in the building intended for clergy were "Dr. and Mrs. James S. Alderson, Strawberry Point." James Alderson (1864-1953) had operated medical practices in several Wisconsin towns and then later in Dubuque, but he had been born in Strawberry Point and was married there to Mary Buckley (1865-1963), who came from a well-known, pioneer Strawberry Point family. After Alderson retired, he and his wife moved back to Strawberry Point where they lived with Mary's sister, Helen T. Buckley (1871-1960) (Clayton County Press Journal, November 5, 1953). Both women were members of the Thimble Society, and therefore had early knowledge of the Mayflower Home. Moreover, both women provided bequests to Mayflower in their wills; the total of the two bequests ($120,000, about $1 million today) anchored the financing that allowed Mayflower to build its fourth apartment building, named Buckley Hall in their memory (A Journey in Faith, p. 36).
Undated Postcard Photo of Buckley Hall, Dedicated September 1963

"The Newberry Foundation, Strawberry Point" was also identified as a donor to Montgomery Hall. Information on the Foundation proved scarce; a survey of Clayton County newspapers in the decades around the Mayflower's founding yielded only a single reference to the foundation. But the Newberrys were well-known in Strawberry Point. The Honorable Byron Newberry (1853-1944), for instance, had been a local lawyer and banker, and had served several terms in the Iowa legislature. In 1905 he had married Eva Buckley (1858-1951), thus joining two local pioneer families. Eva Newberry's brother was Parke Buckley (1856-1925), who graduated in 1881 from Iowa (later Grinnell) College and who in 1885 married a local Grinnell woman, Nettie Williams (1859-1889), sister of the plein-air artist, Abby Williams Hill. So the Newberrys had a long connection with Grinnell and also with the Buckleys. 
Documents confirming the dissolution of the Strawberry Point Congregational Church had empowered the Thimble Society "to dispose of the personal property in the church, all moneys so rec'd [sic] to enhance the Thimble Treasury, it being understood that such receipts be spent to advance Congregational Christian projects." Exactly how the Thimbles disposed of furniture and other movables of the old church is not clear. Newspaper notices confirm that the club regularly hosted rummage sales, so it may be that they arranged for a special sale of church furnishings. If they did, no notice of an auction or tag sale came to my attention. However the Thimble women sold off the church possessions, some items proved difficult to merchandise. Not everyone, for example, needs a pulpit or communion service to add to their living or dining room!
Example Announcement of Thimble Society Rummage Sale
(Clayton County Press Journal, October 26, 1950)

Perhaps for that reason, the Strawberry Point Thimbles decided, as reported in Congregational Iowa and Pilgrim Log (v. 70, no. 2 [October 1953], p. 22), to donate "the Communion service and the Noble memorial table and the pulpit" to the Mayflower Home. At that time Mayflower had no chapel as such, so these items, however valuable they might have seemed, had to find a home that might not have corresponded closely to their original purpose. This explains the presence of the Noble table in the entryway of Montgomery Hall; perhaps the table has stood there ever since the Thimbles gave it to Mayflower (waiting for someone like me to ask how it got there).
Wine pitcher from the Communion Service of Strawberry Point Congregational Church (2022 photo)

Likewise, the church's communion service survives at Mayflower. Now decorating the shelves of Buckley Dining Room is a silver wine pitcher bearing the inscription "Cong'l Church, Strawberry Pt., Iowa 1875," two silver cups ("CC," engraved on the base, presumably signifying Congregational Church), and two silver trays for the communion bread. With no formal chapel at Mayflower until the 1959 dedication of the Warren Hathaway Denison Memorial Worship Center in the basement of Pearson Hall, it seems likely that the communion service stood on display in Montgomery Hall or remained in storage, only later being brought into Buckley to help decorate the Dining Room.

Something similar might be said of the Strawberry Point pulpit: without a chapel until 1959, Mayflower officials either kept the donated pulpit in storage or perhaps decided to re-gift it. What makes the latter option more probable is the fact that when the new chapel opened in 1959, it opened with brand new, locally-crafted birch pulpits made especially for the Denison Worship Center. These pulpits remain visible—one in Kiesel Hall beneath Pearson and one in the Lucille Carman Center above the Mayflower Health Center. But a clue survives to indicate that at least initially Mayflower retained and made use of the Strawberry Point pulpit.
Detail from a faded photograph of the June 1955 Dedication of Edwards Hall
(Drake Community Library, Records of the Mayflower Home #92, Box 10, Series 21,
"Photographs 1953-1965") 

Photographs from the June 1955 dedication service of Edwards Hall, the second apartment building erected at Mayflower, show what looks to be a mahogany or walnut pulpit in use.  Much church furniture of the time bore this dark coloring, perhaps an explanation for why Mayflower, sensing the more modern, brighter tastes of the 1950s, settled on bright birch pulpits when opening the Denison Worship Center.  

I have so far found neither the pulpit nor a document that reports what happened to the pulpit, but I suspect that church furniture on view in photos of the Edwards dedication service was the one bestowed upon Mayflower by the Thimbles of Strawberry Point. If so, then we may imagine that the pulpit saw occasional service at Mayflower at least until the 1959 opening of Pearson Hall and its new chapel that was outfitted with light, birch furniture. What happened after that I am not sure. 

And so I come to the end of my search. The table that first drew my attention is definitely not, as the title here confirms, a coffee table. Although most Protestant communion tables bear a different inscription ("Do This In Remembrance of Me"), I imagine that the table now guarding the entrance to Montgomery Hall for many years occupied center stage at communion in Strawberry Point's Congregational Church. If so, then the silver communion service now at Mayflower regularly stood upon the table's surface, from which the church's pastors distributed the elements. In this way, the Thimble Club's gift joined together these relics of yesterday among Strawberry Point's Congregationalists. The third part of the Thimble Club's gift, the pulpit, was also present in the Strawberry Point chancel. Any photograph of the church interior inevitably would have joined these three items, all central to Congregational worship.

Their transfer to Grinnell's Mayflower did not fully preserve their liturgical service, as the women of the Thimble Club might have wished. Their church abandoned and torn down, the Congregational women of Strawberry Point, casting about for an honorable retirement for these most precious symbols of worship, must have hoped that at Mayflower, among the retired Congregational pastors and missionaries, the pulpit and communion service would enjoy a new season of usefulness. Perhaps for the first few years the Grinnell retirees found opportunities to revive use of the pulpit and communion service. But before long, they, too, slid into retirement, reduced to quotidian or decorative functions only. 

Today, some seventy years after the Strawberry Point Congregational Church closed, the Noble table and the church communion service survive to remind us of a time when Grinnell enjoyed the interest, confidence, and generosity of the Congregationalists in Strawberry Point Iowa.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Grinnell's Colfax Orator

Colfax, Iowa has played a surprisingly large part in the history of Grinnell College. A small town whose population in 1910 was about 2500 (but which attracted thousands every year to the town's mineral springs) sent several talented young men to the college. Most famous among the Colfax natives who attended Grinnell was James Norman Hall (1887-1951), who had an adventurous life and left behind a substantial literary legacy. Less well-known is Leo Welker (1880-1937), an African American who was also a champion bicyclist and went on to a career in medicine and higher education. Given how few African Americans enrolled in Grinnell in those years, the arrival of James Owen Redmon in 1909 was notable, especially since he, too, found Grinnell from the "Spring City" thirty miles west of Grinnell. Redmon, who, like Welker, was not born in Colfax, wrote no literary masterpieces nor did he win any bicycle races. But soon after his arrival at Grinnell he proved himself a distinguished orator, a skill that he put to good use often in his career. Like Hall and Welker, Redmon took part in World War I, commanding a mortar platoon in France. But his greatest contributions came later when, like some of Grinnell's later Rosenwald Scholars, he worked within the "separate but equal" world of racial difference in twentieth-century America. Today's post examines the life of J. O. Redmon.

Photograph of Lt. J. O. Redmon (ca. 1918)


James Owens (later records abandon the final "s" in his middle name) Redmon (1889-1978) was the third child born to Samuel and Elizabeth Adams Redmon (1861-1912) in Boonville, a town in central Missouri. Built on the shores of the Missouri River and a way-station on the Santa Fe Trail, late nineteenth-century Boonville was home to some 4000 persons, including the Redmon household. Samuel Redmon died in 1898, leaving "Lizzie" to provide and care for her four children, the youngest of whom, Oscar, was only seven. The 1900 US Census reports that widowed Lizzie, still in Boonville, worked as a cook, but her wages were evidently slim, so James quit school after the fifth grade in order to contribute to the household income. taking work as a child minder, driving a horse-and-buggy for a judge, and delivering meat for a butcher (Quincy Herald-Whig, 9/1/1968). His elder siblings, Sam and Susie, evidently did the same, as the 1900  census does not report the teenagers in school. Lizzie was also not well, increasing the importance of her children's wages and perhaps helping explain her move to Des Moines where in early 1910 she remarried, taking Hamilton (elsewhere Hampton) Chessner as her husband. She did not live long to enjoy this pairing, however:  she was only 52 years old when she died in March 1912.

Gravestone for Lizzie (Adams) Redmon Chessner (1860?-1912)

No doubt his mother's death was a blow to young James (or Owen, as he was now often called), but by the time of his mother's death Owen had already left Lizzie's household. According to the obituary of his uncle, Samuel Dean (1873-1941), as early as 1903 the Deans had taken Owen into their own Colfax home, although I could not find Owen's name with the Deans in either the 1905 Iowa census or the 1910 US Census (Colfax Tribune 10/23/1941). Attending Colfax High School, Owen quickly showed his skill as an orator. The program for the 1906 school declamatory contest, for example, had Owen—only a tenth-grader and probably the lone African American—giving a speech on "The Unknown Speaker" (Colfax Clipper 12/8/1906). Owen was part of the next year's competition, too, this time speaking on "Affairs in Cuba," referencing US intervention on the island (ibid., 12/12/1907). A few months later Owen recited several "Sketches from Longfellow's Poems" for the annual Longfellow Program (ibid., 12/12/1908). As a high school senior Redmon again joined the declamatory competition, an event so interesting to townsfolk that entrance cost each person twenty-five cents (ibid., 11/26/1908). So far as I could learn, Redmon won none of these competitions, but he was certainly operating at a disadvantage, originally because of his youth and inexperience but also, perhaps, because of his Missouri origins and race.

1917 Photograph of Colfax High School

Before leaving Colfax High, Redmon took part in the local observance of the 1909 Centenary of Abraham Lincoln (Redmon's association with Lincoln would follow him into his career when he taught and administered schools named for the great emancipator). At a program convened in Colfax on Lincoln's birthday, young Owen Redmon read Lincoln's Gettysburg Speech, the memorable lines doubtless making the reading the highlight of the occasion (ibid., 2/11/1909).

One week later Redmon was again the center of attention, this time impersonating "cupid with white wings" at a high school valentine's social. Amid the red and white decorations, the costumed Cupid pronounced a poetic greeting to each guest he introduced, "an effusion from the muse that solicited many compliments," the newspaper enthused (ibid., 2/18/1909). Ten days later the Douglass-Washington birthday was the center of celebration at Mrs. Battles's home, "prettily decorated with the national colors, pink and white carnations, and the cherry tree with the historical hatchet." This time Owen Redmon kicked off the program by singing "America" and a song called "Revolutionary" (ibid., 2/ 25/1909). Coming of age in Colfax, whose 1909 graduating class numbered only ten, Redmon grew accustomed to being in the spotlight, giving him an advantage over some less-experienced persons.

Methodist Episcopal Church, Colfax

At the high school graduation ceremony on May 26 in the Colfax Methodist Church, the school superintendent, the high school teachers, and members of the school board all gathered on the platform along with the five female graduates, all wearing white and carrying tea rose bouquets, and the five male graduates (among whom was Owen Redmon), all sporting rose boutonnieres. The speaker for the occasion was Dr. Edward A. Steiner (1866-1956) of Iowa College, "a distinguished and popular speaker who delivered a fine address...." According to the newspaper, Steiner "emphasized the idea of respect for all human life, regardless of race or color, of the fellowship and sympathy for mankind." The college professor argued that "the difference in life was only due to inheritance and opportunity...," an address bound to impress a young African American. A song from a male quartet followed the address, after which "Owen Redmon, the bright, colored boy graduate, sang a solo..." (Colfax Clipper,  5/27/1909). By all accounts, it was a splendid evening.

Photograph (ca. 1914) of Dr. Edward A. Steiner
(Edward A. Steiner, From Alien to Citizen: The Story of My Life in America [New York, NY: Fleming H. Revell, 1914])

For Owen Redmon, however, the 1909 graduation ceremony was more than splendid; it directly affected his fate.  According to recollections published much later, at the 1909 Colfax commencement Steiner had 

complimented young Redmon who was the only colored boy in the graduating class. Redmon was so touched that he went to the railroad station to thank Dr. Steiner before he left for Grinnell. Dr. Steiner asked him if he intended to go to college. The boy said he'd like to if he could find work. Dr. Steiner promised to see what he could do for him (Quincy Herald-Whig, 9/1/1968).

A week later Redmon received a letter from Grinnell College president, John H. T. Main (1859-1931), who awarded the young man a scholarship "on character and ambition."  In this way circumstance helped fulfill a prayer that young Owen had often sent heavenward: 

I prayed to God daily asking that somehow I might be given a chance to get a college education. I promised that, should I receive it, I would use it for the benefit of my people and the advancement of His kingdom ("J. Owen Redmon, Grinnell '13: Past and Present Activities," Grinnell College Alumni Award files).

Grinnell College Bulletin 14(1916):46

Enrolled at Grinnell College in the fall 1909, Redmon immediately continued his participation in public speaking, competing as a first-year in the annual Spaulding Prize competition. The Marshalltown Times-Republican reported that Grinnell's "Colonial Theater was packed with eager listeners...for the Spaulding prize for 'most effective public speaking.'" "The emphasis," the newspaper continued, " mainly on delivery, the character of the production being ignored and the convincing power of the speaker taken into account" (5/12/1910). The Grinnell Herald reporter thought that Redmon "showed self-possession and grace on the platform and gave a finished declamation" (5/13/1910). Redmon's subject was "Indifference," but, despite the theme of the talk, the freshman "carried his audience very successfully and suited his bodily movements to his message to a remarkable degree." The student reporter admired Redmon's voice, but thought that "faulty enunciation" undermined the final result. Nevertheless, Redmon won third prize—twenty dollars (Scarlet and Black, 5/14/1910).

Grinnell's Colonial Theater (ca. 1890s)

Success at the Spaulding competition helped Redmon make more connections on campus. For example, the Scarlet and Black reported in January 1911 that Redmon was one of a handful of students who had organized a new campus group, the Quill and Gavel Society. The group's published statement expressed the hope that the new organization might "bring the College nearer the ideal of democracy, a democracy which recognizes the importance of each individual...and develops the individual through subordinating all purely personal matters to the common welfare." Roy Clampitt (1888-1973), who graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1911 and later became the father of the American poet, Amy Clampitt, served as the group's first president and Owen Redmon became the group's first secretary (Scarlet and Black, 1/21/1911). The new society gave Redmon frequent occasion to practice his speaking skills. In late March, for instance, Redmon spoke to the society on "Current Events"; two weeks later he offered Quill and Gavel a reading on 'The Government of the Canal Zone" (ibid., 3/30/1911; ibid., 4/14/1911). 

Photograph from 1913 Cyclone Yearbook
(Redmon in front row, 1st from left)

Somehow Redmon managed to keep up with his course work while preparing and delivering all these talks. More than that, seeking ways to earn money for room and board, the young man determined to open his own shoeshine shop. The first tiny advertisement for Redmon's "Shining Parlor" at 812 Fourth Avenue appeared in the Grinnell Herald on April 11th; the Scarlet and Black edition of April 12, 1911 had the same ad, encouraging readers to "get an up-to-date shine for 5 cents." Friday's Herald printed a two-line, anonymous endorsement: "I just had my shoes shined at Redmon's Palace; 5c" (4/14/1911). Two weeks later the S&B told readers that Redmon's younger brother, Oscar, had come to Grinnell "to assist his his shining parlors" (4/26/1911). In a recollection published much later in life Owen remembered that, in addition to shining shoes, he had worked in a Grinnell barber shop as well as in a Grinnell restaurant (Quincy Herald-Whig, 9/1/1968).

Advertisement for Owen Redmon's Shining Parlor
(Scarlet and Black, April 12, 1911)

Selections for the 1911 Spaulding Prize competition were soon announced, and again Owen Redmon was among the participants. Taking as his subject "The African in America," Redmon bested the other seven contestants, winning the first prize of fifty dollars. As he later recalled, "That $50 was the most money I had ever had at one time in my life" (Quincy Herald-Whig, 9/1/1968). Appraising Redmon's performance in the competition, the college newspaper asserted that "Mr. Redmon surpassed in artistic finish. He demanded attention, and his subject...did much in helping him win the audience. His gestures were graceful and he moved about the stage naturally." As with the S&B article on the previous year's contest, however, the student reporter again found Redmon "troubled a little with enunciation," perhaps a reference to Redmon's Missouri origins or his use of Black English (Scarlet and Black, 5/6/1911; reprinted in Grinnell Herald, 5/11/1911)). The city's other newspaper offered a longer, more appreciative review:

Redmon...took up the always present, the ever perplexing theme of race prejudice, as it applied to his own race. After the first few sentences, he had the entire sympathy of his audience as he told of the wrongs and injustice, the barriers against advancement in all lines, which the Afro-Americans had to face. It was a seething indictment against prevailing ideas in the United States, and, what was worse, it was hard to find a flaw in the propositions which he advanced. His delivery was such a fitting medium for the thoughts which he wished to convey that the majority of those who heard his eloquent plea heartily joined with the judges in giving him the first place (Grinnell Register, 5/8/1911).

Unlike the S&B reporter, no one in Colfax found anything to criticize in Redmon's success. The Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican told readers that after the oratorical victory Owen "received an ovation in his home town of Colfax on Saturday evening" at a banquet organized to celebrate Redmon's prize (5/16/1911; also see Grinnell Register, 5/15/1911). The young man's success soon spread to Des Moines,  the city's Young Colored Men's Progressive Association inviting Redmon to deliver his Spaulding oration soon to the group (Scarlet and Black, 5/24/1911; Grinnell Herald, 5/26/1911). As his sophomore year drew to a close, Redmon found himself elected vice president of Quill and Gavel, explainable at least in part by his many oratorical successes (Scarlet and Black, 6/3/1911). That autumn Redmon attended a meeting of the college's Debating Union which had recently made Quill and Gavel a member (ibid., 11/29/1911). In December the collegiate orator addressed the Ladora Congregational Church "on the race question," after which "he received many words of appreciation" (Grinnell Herald, 1/9/1912). In June at the annual Hyde Oratorical competition Redmon gave another oration directed at race in America: "An Appeal for the Afro-Americans." The newspaper complimented the speaker's technique, although "at times it was hard for him to make himself heard by those in the back seats...partly the result of the commotion caused by late arrivals"—or did Redmon's appeal make some of the listeners uncomfortable? (Scarlet and Black, 6/12/1912; Grinnell Herald, 6/11/1912).

Grinnell College Bulletin 8(1910):40

Next fall Redmon was part of the Merrill Political Debate at which three teams argued the cases for the three candidates for the US Presidency. Although the sides were decided by lot, Redmon spoke in behalf of Theodore Roosevelt, and, despite the debate victory by Taft's partisans, the college newspaper thought Redmon's speech "excellent in technique and powerful in appeal" (Scarlet and Black, 11/2/1912; Grinnell Herald, 11/1/1912). The Grinnell Register noted that, "Judging by the applause the audience seemed to consider Redmon's opening speech the best..." (11/4/1912). For whom Redmon actually voted I do not know, but the campus newspaper announced a few days later that Redmon was among the twenty or so men who went home to vote, Redmon being the only African American among them (Scarlet and Black, 11/6/1912). Perhaps Owen favored Wilson, since after the election he spoke before Quill and Gavel about "The Coming Administration" (ibid., 11/16/1912), although what he said the record does not preserve. Several times during the spring Redmon again made the newspaper because of his work at Quill and Gavel (ibid., 2/22/1913; ibid., 4/12/1913).

Photograph of J. Owen Redmon in 1913 Cyclone Yearbook

As graduation approached, Redmon cast his eye on the future which, unfortunately, remained out of focus. He told the S&B that he intended to teach, "probably at St. Louis" (ibid., 5/24/1913), although this prospect did not materialize. In fact, despite being a college graduate and an experienced orator, Owen Redmon found it very difficult to secure a teaching position. As he himself later reported:

Following my graduation from Grinnell [majoring in English and History] in June 1913 I tried unsuccessfully to secure a position somewhere in the country where Negro teachers were employed. I sent out letters to various schools and colleges...Most of the replies...stated that first consideration was given to graduates of their own institutions... (Redmon, "Past and Present").

Redmon met this unwelcome rebuff with admirable determination, and accepted whatever work he could acquire. At various times in the years after leaving Grinnell he worked as a porter in a Newton barber shop, as a night clerk and porter at the Victoria Sanitarium in Colfax, as a "helps hall" supervisor at Hotel Colfax, and as a chauffeur for an Indianola family (ibid.). He even moved to St. Paul, Minnesota where he worked first in a garage and then at the University Club, thanks to the intervention of Stanley Gates, the brother of George Augustus Gates (1851-1912), former president of Grinnell College (ibid.).

Postcard Photograph of Colfax's Victoria Sanitorium (postmarked 1913)

In between these employments Redmon continued to mount the rostrum to deliver talks. For instance, at the Colfax 1913 Thanksgiving celebration, "Mr. J. O. Redmon, late graduate of Grinnell College, made a short and interesting talk on the race being thankful. He said many good things in his remarks, which gave rise to the thoughts of his hearers along the lines of racial progress and thankfulness for the many blessings received in the past fifty years." The Bystander's report expressed regret that Redmon "was compelled to close his remarks and hurry to the train which conveyed him to Grinnell College where he had been invited to deliver an address that evening" (12/5/1913). In 1915 Redmon was again back in Grinnell, taking part in a supper meeting of the campus YMCA (Scarlet and Black, 6/9/1915). Later that summer he went to Chicago to attend the Negro National Educational Congress, thanks to his appointment by Iowa's Republican Governor, George Washington Clarke (1852-1936) (Marshalltown Times-Republican, 8/16/1915; Grinnell Herald, 8/13/1915). In 1916 Redmon joined the Des Moines branch of the NAACP to celebrate the births of Lincoln and Douglass. Before a "good-sized crowd," Redmon, "the young Negro orator of Colfax," delivered a much-admired talk on Frederick Douglass (Bystander, 2/18/1916).

Owen Redmon (back row, 2nd from right) at Fort Des Moines
(John L. Thompson, History and Views of Colored Officers Training Camp for 1917
 at Fort Des Moines, Iowa
[Des Moines: The Bystander, 1917], p. 107)

War brought an end to public speaking engagements and to efforts to find a teaching position. In June 1917 Redmon returned to Colfax, registered for the draft and applied for admission to the Fort Des Moines Provisional Officers Training Camp, opened to African American men with college degrees. By mid-June Redmon had arrived at Fort Des Moines and was formally inducted as a 2nd Lieutenant, assigned to Headquarters, 366th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Division. Special training took him to Camp Dodge and then to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. In between assignments Redmon sometimes visited his Uncle Sam Dean in Colfax (Colfax Clipper, 2/14/1918). When he returned to Fort Dodge in May he found his regiment preparing to go overseas. After a brief stay at Camp Upton in New York, Redmon embarked on the USS Covington, headed to France. The Americans arrived at Brest on June 15, after which Redmon received more training at the American Expeditionary Forces School for Sapping and Bombing near Bourbonne-les-Baines. Within a month he and his men were at the front, which is where the November 11th Armistice found them. Two of his men had died, several were wounded, but Redmon seems to have escaped injury. Not until February 22, 1919 did Redmon board the RMS Aquitania for the trip home, arriving in New York February 28. Back in Iowa a couple of months later, Redmon was discharged from the US Army on April 4, 1919 (Redmon, "Past and Present").

1914 Photograph of the RMS Aquitania, Requisitioned as a Troop Ship in WWI

Home again, with many new experiences but still without the teaching job he coveted, Redmon resumed the job search. Through the offices of a former Grinnell College friend, in June 1919 Redmon accepted the offer to cook for the Des Moines YMCA Boys Camp at Boone, Iowa, spending the whole summer working the stove. Redmon's summertime cooking at Boone clearly pleased him and became something of a habit; according to a 1969 celebration of the Camp, Redmon cooked eleven successive summers at Boone (Quincy Herald-Whig, 3/1/1969), a welcome addition to his regular work earnings as well as an important contribution to the African American youth of greater Des Moines.

1969 Photograph of "Chef" J. O. Redmon at Des Moines YMCA Celebration
(Quincy Herald-Whig, March 1, 1969)

The $60 a month that Redmon received for his summer cooking did not, however, suffice, neither in monetary nor in career terms: teaching African American youth remained his objective. In the meantime, Redmon improvised. In 1919 he took and passed an examination for the position of railway mail clerk, and began riding the Rock Island trains between Des Moines and Omaha, sorting mail. After a brief posting to Union Station in Chicago, Redmon left the railroad, and took a position as rural mail carrier in Colfax beginning in September 1920. After two years juggling the rural mail carrier duties with his summer cooking at Boone, Redmon received the very welcome news that he had been hired to teach at Lincoln High School, an all-black school in Princeton, Indiana. "I was pleased with the thought that at last I was going to be a teacher," he remarked in a much later reminiscence (Redmon, "Past and Present").
1947 Photograph of Lincoln High School, Princeton, IN

Princeton, Indiana in 1920 had a population of about 7500, 5% of whom were African American. In Princeton, as in so many other places in America, African Americans studied in schools that were all-Black. Lincoln High School was one of those schools (Caron's Princeton Directory for 1927, p. 141), described as serving "colored" students, of whom there were only 38 in 1929. At Lincoln Redmon taught Latin as well as History and English. It proved to be a challenging assignment, as he later observed: "I discovered that some high school pupils were more difficult to handle than the horses" he had used to deliver rural mail in Iowa (Preston, "Past and Present"). But Redmon must have done well, because after five years he was promoted to teaching principal at Lincoln (Indiana School Directory for 1929, p. 82). In 1927-28 Redmon took some education classes at the Indiana University Extension in Princeton and in summer 1928 he studied at Drake University, embellishing his resume (Data card at Grinnell College Alumni Office). All the same, life had not been easy for the single man who in his early forties owned no home and boarded with the Lorenzo Woods family at 603 East Chestnut (1930 US Census, Ward 1, Princeton City).

Even though he now worked a long distance from Colfax and his uncle Sam and aunt Maggie Dean, Redmon regularly visited his Colfax relatives. Most of his journeys there were unremarkable, but once, after having spent the Christmas holidays with the Deans, he had a difficult automobile trip back to Princeton that consumed several days. A blizzard and deep snow caught him on the road, obliging him to detour around various snow-related obstacles. As all Blacks in 1920s America knew, traveling through white America was not easy; many hotels, restaurants, and garages refused to serve Blacks, giving rise to publication of the Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide for Black travelers, the first edition of which appeared only in 1936. When Redmon and his African American passenger made their 1928 trip without the help of the Green Book, finding housing and food demanded negotiating rigid racial barriers, like those he encountered around LaSalle, Illinois:

We were informed that the road was blocked with snow and that 32 cars were snowed in on one road, and one farm house had as many as forty people in it. They do not like colored people in LaSalle and there are none in the town. We appealed to the Police. Two policemen visited most of the hotels with me but all claimed to be filled. So we returned to the Police Station and sat up in chairs all night....

Summarizing his journey later, Redmon called it "a terrible experience which I never want to go through again. I am sore and weak from it now...Winter is no time for automobiles and I intend to use the train on all other winter trips" (Colfax Tribune, 1/26/1928).

Undated Photograph of Lincoln Elementary, Quincy, Illinois

After ten years in Princeton, Redmon found his health deteriorating, and in 1932 he resigned, returning to Iowa. In a brief autobiography he prepared for the Grinnell College Alumni Office Redmon did not specify what health issues plagued him, nor did he articulate how he spent the 1932-33 year in Colfax. His Aunt Maggie Dean had died in February 1932 (Colfax Tribune, 2/11/1932), and, since she had effectively been his mother since 1903, Maggie Dean's passing must have impacted Redmon, perhaps precipitating his resignation and his declining health. In any case, Redmon's sojourn in Princeton was over.
Headline from Quincy Herald-Whig, July 12, 1933

In July 1933 Redmon received word that he had been appointed principal of Lincoln Elementary in Quincy, Illinois. As in Princeton, so, too, in Quincy Lincoln school was a "Negro" school. According to a 1945 directory, the school employed 5 teachers for about 117 students (Illinois Directory of Schools 1945-46, p. 65). Many of the pupils came from poor homes, as Redmon himself noted, telling an audience once that "fifty percent of the children attending Lincoln school were undernourished, making them susceptible to tuberculosis and other diseases" (Quincy Herald-Whig, 11/28/1937).

The city of Quincy was much larger than Princeton; the 1930 US census found almost 40,000 residents. Located on a bend of the Mississippi River, a little northeast of Hannibal, Missouri and southeast of Keokuk, Iowa, Quincy promised much shorter trips home to Colfax. Although Aunt Maggie was now gone, Redmon's aging Uncle Sam still resided in the Spring City, drawing the Quincy principal back to  Iowa often.

The new job also made possible another change in Redmon's life: marriage. Apparently during the 1932-33 academic year he had become acquainted with Bertha Strothers Gaines (1887-1971), who had been widowed sometime in 1922. In 1930 she was working as a janitor and living in Des Moines with her two sons, Donald (11) and Harold (9). How she and Owen became acquainted I don't know, but in August 1933 they married in Des Moines. Immediately thereafter Redmon took his blended family to Quincy where they established a home at 1736 State Street.
1933 Marriage Certificate for James O. Redmon and Bertha Gaines
( Iowa, U.S., Marriage Records, 1880-1945)

As Redmon made clear later in his life, he remained deeply religious, ultimately becoming licensed as a local preacher within the African Methodist Episcopal church. But even at Grinnell classmates knew Redmon to be closely connected to his faith, a knowledge that helps explain how Redmon sometimes presided over college class prayer meetings (Scarlet and Black, 4/27/1912). But in Princeton for the first time Redmon served as a substitute pastor at the A. M. E. church when the regular minister left. His sermons proved popular, leading the Quarterly Conference of the A. M. E. church to issue Redmon a license as "local preacher." Although he later declined to be made a full-fledged minister, Redmon remained, as he later recalled, "a local preacher and assistant to all my pastors since" (Preston, "Past and Present"). In Quincy he worshipped and served at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Undated Photograph of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Quincy, IL
(image taken from 2018 Google Street view)

Redmon had declined the offer to become a fully-licensed minister because he wanted to focus upon his work with African American youth. And in Quincy the school principal often found himself supporting local kids, in and out of school. In October 1934, for instance, the newspaper reported on the arrest of two thirteen-year-old "Negro boys" for theft of a bicycle. But when Redmon appeared at court, the judge allowed the boys to go, entrusting them to Redmon and a man from the school's men's club (ibid., 10/9/1934). When the "Negro boy scout" troop was reorganized in Quincy in 1936, Redmon was one of three men serving as troop committeeman and later served as chaplain and committee chairman (ibid., 1/11/1936; ibid., 1/14/1936; ibid., 2/17/1940)). Redmon also seems to have founded a quartet from children who had attended Lincoln, and he often took the "Musical Ambassadors" to meetings of the school's PTA and other groups (Quincy Herald-Whig, 3/22/1935; ibid., 12/15/1935ibid., 9/27/1936).

Redmon had not forgotten, however, that race, a subject he had addressed in several of his college speeches, remained a vital issue in America. When a local church embarked upon a series of six meetings devoted to the "Kingdom of God on Earth," James O. Redmon delivered one of the talks, taking as his subject "The Kingdom and Race" (ibid., 1/16/1938). At a meeting of the Lincoln school PTA a few weeks later, Redmon talked about "The Negro in Our History," his contribution to observance of Negro History week (ibid., 2/2/1938). At another Lincoln PTA meeting, Redmon spoke on an "Equal Chance." "The Negro asks no special favors," the principal said, "but simply requests [that] he be regarded as an American citizen...If America is to lead in the full vindication of equal opportunity, Christian fraternity and liberty, America must treat 'the oppressed race' decently," Redmon concluded (ibid., 4/28/40). Redmon's reputation as a speaker and his views on race brought him the role of keynote speaker for a "Race Relations Day" at Union Methodist Church. With representatives from China, Palestine, Greece, Austria, Germany, and Japan on the platform, Redmon, "representing the Negro race," delivered a talk on "America's Choice." With World War II raging around the globe, Redmon emphasized how, "For the second time in a generation, the honor of our country has been pledged to the noblest of causes. Our civilization preaches equality in God. Therefore, we must leave other people to live on equal terms of liberty." The newspaper does not say whether Redmon directed any of his remarks to the absence of equality within America, but African Americans in the audience will surely have noticed the parallels (ibid., 2/14/44).

The 1940s brought several challenges to the Redmon family. In early 1940 a fire did serious damage to the family home, firemen chopping holes in the roof to access the fire (ibid., 2/2/1940). Even more disturbing was the October 1941 death of Samuel Dean, Redmon's Uncle Sam. Dean had lived alone in Colfax after his wife's 1932 death. But in early 1941 his health rapidly deteriorated until finally, in early September, he moved to Quincy to live with the Redmons. Within six weeks the 68-year-old was dead (Colfax Tribune, 10/23/1941). A decade later the Redmons endured a similar trial when Bertha's father, L. W. Strothers, fell into poor health. Autumn 1950 he moved to Quincy to live with his daughter and son-in-law who served and comforted him until his May 30, 1951 death (ibid., 6/7/1951).


The 1909 Colfax High School graduating class had announced as its motto "Labor Conquers All," a slogan that could be applied very well to Redmon himself (Colfax Clipper, 5/13/1909). Although Redmon resigned from his duties at Lincoln school in 1955, throughout his last years the Colfax native maintained a furious pace of community activism. He helped found a Citizens' Good Government League in 1951 and that same year joined the Quincy Interracial Council's scholarship committee. Later he spoke on "Human Rights" before a Baha'i study group in Quincy. The same year that he resigned he joined a citizen group formed to attract to Quincy "outstanding speakers on topics of public interest." Three years later his alma mater brought him back to Grinnell to bestow on him an Alumni Award. After retirement he served many years on the city's Council on Human Relations from whom in 1965 he received a plaque for twenty years' service. In 1971 Quincy's Senior Citizen Council named Redmon "Senior Citizen of the Year" (ibid., 7/20/1971). For twenty years he was president of the Negro Advancement Association of Quincy; he was also a long-time member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and he was a director and occasional speaker of the Friendly Visiting Service of the United Fund and Welfare Council of Quincy. Because he had helped secure funding for the Frederick Ball Community building at 815 Elm, in 2006 the center was renamed as the Redmon and Lee Youth and Adult Community Association, partly in Redmon's honor (ibid., 11/26/2006). And this is only an incomplete list of his community contributions. James Owen Redmon had certainly labored long and hard, even if his efforts had not conquered all the injustice and discrimination that African Americans encountered.

Redmon and Lee Community Association, 815 Elm St., Quincy, IL
(2012 Photograph from Google maps)

When his wife, Bertha, died in January 1971 (ibid., 1/4/1971), Redmon was left alone; he and Bertha had had no children of their own and his stepsons were far away—one in Chicago and the other in Puerto Rico—but he had his Quincy friends, including the generations of students whom he had guided through the halls of Lincoln school and into their futures, among them the seven African American children whom they had fostered. 

February 10, 1978 James Owen Redmon died in Quincy's Blessing Hospital. Labor may not, in fact, conquer all, as the 1909 Colfax High School graduates had hoped, but James Owen Redmon, the Colfax orator and 1909 Colfax High School graduate, had labored long and honorably within the Black communities of a racially divided country. He had spoken often, with great skill and passion, to white audiences about racial injustice in America, but he had also worked decades within "Negro schools" to aid generations of Black men and women to succeed. As the 1958 Grinnell College Alumni Award remarked, Colfax's orator was a "loved and respected leader of his race."

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

When Grinnell Got a Hospital...

Having had occasion to visit a hospital recently, I found myself wondering about hospital care in Grinnell a century ago. If today in the US childbirth, septicemia, heart failure, and osteoarthritis are the main reasons for hospitalization, what drove people to the hospital back then, and what did physicians do to help them? Were hospital admissions common or rare? Was surgery a solution to which doctors often turned or not?

Photograph of the binder of Grinnell Hospital Register, 1915-1917
(Courtesy Drake Community Library)

Happily, two hospital registers, covering the years 1915-1919, survive for the last years of Grinnell City Hospital at 1030 Elm Street. Each register provides space to enter the details on 400 persons admitted to hospital in the period that overlapped World War I and the arrival of the so-called "Spanish flu." Today's post looks at the hospital registers to see what brought the men and women of early Grinnell to the hospital and what the local physicians did to help them.


The surviving registers do not come from Grinnell's first hospital, an eight-bed facility that Dr. Pearl Somers (1870-1952) founded in 1901 in his own home at 1127 Park Street. Not much is known about the patients or practice of that facility, which Somers reluctantly closed in 1904 (Reflections 1967-2007: A History of Grinnell Regional Medical Center, pp. 5-6). Despite the fact that most doctoring at the time took place at the patient's home, Grinnell's physicians and generous community support led to the opening of a new hospital in 1908 at 1030 Elm Street. It is from this second Grinnell hospital that the patient registers referenced here come.

Grinnell City Hospital (ca. 1910)

The house at 1030 Elm, often called Murray Hall, had functioned for some years as a rooming house for college students. The 1894 Grinnell College directory, for instance, identified a dozen students living there, including four academy students; the 1904 college directory listed sixteen student-residents. But in April 1908, the new Grinnell City hospital opened in this building, refitted to serve its new medical purposes.
Post-remodeling Photograph (ca. 2000) of First-floor Hallway 1030 Elm Street, Looking To Front Door
(Photograph Thomas Grabinski, Courtesy of Drake Community Library, Grinnell, IA)

An enthusiastic newspaper review of the new hospital described the building's layout which seems to have embraced the original plan, adapting it to new uses. Entering from Elm Street, one came into a hall which opened onto a reception room where, one imagines, the hospital registers were maintained. A dining room lay just to the east, and behind that a kitchen and an operating room that faced southeast. "The operating arranged to cause a minimum of trouble in keeping it asceptic [sic]," the newspaper enthused, "from the tile linoleum floor to the enameled walls and glass operating table" ("New City Hospital Opened Yesterday," Grinnell Herald April 10, 1908). Beyond the operating room lay the Men's Ward (whose costs the local Odd Fellows and Rebekahs donated) with three beds, each "adjustable and made so as to be easily kept clean." The Women's Ward, "which is furnished beyond the need of any possible improvement," occupied "one of the best locations, looking out on the southwest..." (ibid.).
Photograph (ca. 2000) of the Door to the Men's Ward, Named for I.O.O.E. (barely visible on door)
(Photograph Thomas Grabinski; Courtesy Drake Community Library, Grinnell, IA)

Six private rooms—previously bedrooms—filled the second story. "From the fine linen of the beds to the beautiful pictures and new furnishings everything was as much as could be desired...," the newspaper continued. Several local organizations—PEO; Pythian Sisters; and Grinnell Hospital Association—underwrote costs of three rooms while private donors (Mr. & Mrs. Wesley Manatt; Mr. and Mrs. G. H. McMurray; and Mrs. D. W. Norris—supported several others. A laundry and drying room along with a furnace room and a new hot-water furnace occupied the basement.
In the years around World War I Grinnell was home to about 5000 people. The hospital registers count about 200 admissions per year, a figure that included patients from other towns in the area. This means that a hospital visit remained an unusual experience in pre-1920 Grinnell. In this era physician home visits or self-medication was much more common than admission to hospital. Nevertheless, some Grinnell folk found their way into the hospital, hoping for relief from the health issues with which they contended. The hospital registers preserve the history of their visits.
Sample Entry from Grinnell Hospital Register
(Courtesy Drake Community Library, Grinnell, IA)

The registers allowed one page for each admission, detailing the name of the patient, the patient's address, age, occupation, religion, and address of a friend. There then followed space to identify the name of the patient's physician, the room to which the patient was assigned, the "disease" (meaning, presumably, the diagnosis), the operation (when there was one), the anesthetic deployed and by whom, and the name of the doctor or doctors who performed the operation. The last lines asked the dates of the patient's admission and discharge, the size of the fee, and an indication of when the fee was paid.

Compilers of the registers did not respond to all questions for every patient. "Occupation" was often left unfilled as was the address of a friend. Hospital officials also often failed to enter a "Disease," although more regularly provided entries for the type of surgery, type of anesthesia (almost always ether), and the names of the doctors supplying anesthesia and those performing the operation. These data permit a rough understanding of what brought Grinnell area men and women to the city hospital in the years between 1915 and 1919.

The extant hospital registers report that the two most frequent surgeries performed there between 1915 and late 1919 were appendectomies and tonsillectomies. The registers count 108 appendectomies (along with another half-dozen other operations to which appendectomies were joined) over the four years covered by the books—about two every month or about 13% of all hospital admissions. Tonsillectomies were slightly more usual, the books identifying 119 cases addressed in the hospital. In addition, the registers reported another 19 patients whose  tonsils were removed in the physician's office and a handful of other cases when doctors removed adenoids as well as tonsils.
MacKenzie-type Double Guillotine Used in Late 19th-Century Tonsillectomies

Although some form of tonsillectomy is reported in ancient times, the operation fell out of favor for a long time until new, more efficient surgical tools appeared around 1900. By the early twentieth century, tonsillectomies became very common, especially for children. In this way, the Grinnell hospital data correlate well with the most modern medical practice elsewhere in America. The great majority of tonsillectomies done in the Grinnell Hospital belonged to Dr. C. H. Lauder (1884-1953), who specialized in eyes, ears, nose and throat. A recent graduate of the University of Iowa medical school, Lauder opened his practice in Grinnell in 1910, and, according to the hospital registers, often performed tonsillectomies within his downtown office (913 Main Street, upstairs), although why these were registered in hospital books I do not know.
Grinnell Herald, October 7, 1910

Appendectomy has a much shorter history, the first cases of appendix removal being reported only in the nineteenth century. Grinnell's doctors, who performed the great majority of surgeries at Grinnell hospital, must have been among the first or second generation of physicians to learn the proper methods for diagnosing appendicitis and for operating to remove the appendix. Older Grinnellians would not have been familiar with the operation which came to prevail in the hospital's operating theater.

The third most-common "surgery" performed at the Grinnell Hospital in the early twentieth century was child delivery. Most Grinnell-area babies continued to be born at home rather than in hospital, but hospital registers identify some 60 successful deliveries over the four years recorded there. Two c-section operations occurred at hospital in these years, and at least one stillbirth. Hospital registers also identify five ectopic pregnancies and six miscarriages, an indication, perhaps, that only mothers whose pregnancies presaged difficulties chose to use the hospital for their children's births. In cases like these, doctors might find it advisable to perform curettage (or curettement), a procedure recorded at least 28 times. So-called "incomplete abortions" and other ailments like pelvic infections might also lead physicians to employ the curette.
A Selection of Curettes

In a community largely dependent upon manual labor it is small surprise to learn that hernias brought to the hospital in these years a dozen Grinnell citizens who found relief from surgical intervention. Hemorrhoids were twice as common a problem in early Grinnell, perhaps a function of the meat-heavy diet and consequent constipation. Here, too, Grinnell doctors were able to provide surgical repair.
Grinnell Register, January 6, 1916

The Grinnell Hospital, of course, offered help for other illnesses, although the physicians were not always able to do much. Hospital records for these four years report at least 28 pneumonia diagnoses along with another 21 cases thought to be either influenza or pneumonia. These numbers seem surprisingly low, inasmuch as they include the era when the great influenza pandemic blew through Grinnell. Many of the Grinnell residents who contracted flu apparently remained at home, nursed by family members who, not infrequently, themselves soon contracted the virus.

Typhoid was diagnosed in another 21 Grinnell patients. No surgery or then-available medicine was of any use in these cases, so patients either survived or didn't. Similarly immune to surgical help were the persons diagnosed with alcoholism or with some form of debility caused by nerves.
Grinnell Register, September 25, 1916

Tuberculosis, although not common in early Grinnell, was nevertheless deadly; in the absence of antibiotics, doctors could do little, as the case of Joe Canton illustrates. Admitted to hospital on the last day of August 1915, Canton died the next day, apparently having courted tuberculosis previously for some time. Locals knew little about the man, so that, when they discovered among his possessions a notebook with the name of Frank Knute of Little Falls, Minnesota, officials tried to reach the Minnesota relatives. Alas, the Knute family denied any connection with the Grinnell man, so Poweshiek County paid the $3 hospital bill, and the Social Service League covered the cost of the funeral and arranged for Canton to be buried in potter's field at Hazelwood (Grinnell Herald, September 7, 1915).
Extract from the Potter's Field List of Burials at Hazelwood Cemetery
(Drake Community Library Local History Archive)

Perhaps the most unsurprising category of diagnosis included fractures and other body traumas, like scalp wounds or hand injuries. Grinnell physicians were usually able to provide prompt repair for these problems, and most of their patients were soon up and back to their normal routines. Sometimes, however, surgeons had to resort to desperate measures, as happened to William Scofield (1874-1930), for instance. Scofield was part of a 1915 railroad crew at work on a bridge three miles north of Grinnell. When one of the jacks that the men were using to leverage a steel girder into place jumped out of position and struck Schofield on the head, the force of it threw the man twenty feet down the embankment. Trainmen rushed him to Grinnell where Dr. Somers took the man to the hospital, there discovering that the "dislocation of the right knee was so severe that it had caused laceration of the blood vessels and all circulation was cut off in the right foot" (Grinnell Register, November 18, 1915). Somers determined that it was necessary to amputate the right leg at the knee.

Charles Eastman (1890-1917) fared worse. An employee of the Rock Island Railroad, the twenty-seven-year-old was up a utility pole, stringing wire along the railroad track. For reasons unknown, Eastman fell about 35 feet, landing at the foot of the pole; "the skull was fractured at the base of the brain and both bones of the left arm were broken" (Grinnell Herald, January 9, 1917; Grinnell Register, January 8, 1917). Others at the site rushed Eastman to the Grinnell hospital where he lingered for about three hours before dying; doctors could do little.

Another patient who died in hospital was Elmer DeCamp (1845-1919), who operated a farm two miles north of Snow's Corner (intersection of 6th Avenue and Penrose). Since DeCamp lived alone, the stroke he suffered at home in February 1919 went unnoticed until Frank Sturgeon arrived to conclude some business. Sturgeon discovered DeCamp unconscious in his chair, but the situation could have been much worse: Sturgeon also found a kerosene lamp, which had been knocked on the floor, and had burned and scorched some papers before burning a hole in the wooden floor.  Surprisingly, the house had not caught fire. Taken to the Grinnell Hospital, DeCamp proved unable to recount the details, since the stroke had deprived him of speech. He remained in hospital for several days before death took him. Doctors were powerless to remedy the work of the stroke.

One of the more surprising reports in the Grinnell hospital records concerns circumcision. Presumably new male babies born at the hospital were all circumcised, as the practice had become increasingly common in the US at the time. By one estimate, around 30% of American males born in 1900 were circumcised. But if, as seems likely, most babies in the Grinnell area at this time continued to be born at home, many without the presence of a doctor, most boys would not have been circumcised at birth. This circumstance helps us make better sense of some other cases that appear in the hospital registers. Take, for example, the case of Donald Dawley (1901-1980), who was sixteen years old when admitted to hospital in August 1916. The spare wording of the register reports only that the reason was circumcision, which Dr. O. F. Parish (1873-1947) accomplished on the same day that Dawley was admitted.  Released later that day, Dawley paid the $3 fee and resumed his life.

Everett Graham's case was more complicated. Twelve years old when admitted in November 1916 with a diagnosis of appendicitis, Graham had Drs. Parish and C. E. Harris perform an appendectomy. However, while the scalpel remained in hand, the Grinnell physicians proceeded to do a herniotomy and, finally, a circumcision. We may speculate that young Everett or his parents figured that, so long as a crisis had brought the boy to surgery, they might just as well have the surgeons take care of that other, more minor matter. 
Howard Hafkey (1912-1980), 1929 Grinnellian

Two additional cases offer a more routine course leading to circumcision. Howard Hafkey (1912-1980) was only three years old when he entered the hospital in June 1915. Drs. Somers and E. F. Talbott (1873-1943) circumcised him, and released him the same day. Kenneth Palmer (1913-1979) was two when he entered the Grinnell Hospital where Dr. Parish circumcised him. It seems likely that both cases attempted to remedy the absence of circumcision from at-home deliveries that no doctor had attended. We may hypothesize that, in an era in which circumcision was increasingly common, parents opted to have the procedure done as soon as possible so as to spare their boys from the operation when they were older.
A wide variety of other ailments brought patients to the Grinnell Hospital in the World War I era, although often doctors were not able to do much to solve the problems. The registers contain one or two entries for asthma, colitis, dementia, emphysema, erysipelas, gonorrhea, neurasthenia, pyloric perforation, peritonitis, salpingitis, sciatica, and varicocele, among others. Hospital patients also presented impacted teeth, ingrown nails, hammer toes, and similar lesser problems to which Grinnell physicians might readily apply their skills. All sorts of accidents—including in one case a man who fell from an airplane (A. C. Beach who came to Grinnell to fly Billy Robinson's monoplane after Billy Robinson's death [Grinnell Register, April 3, 1916])—brought Grinnell's men and women to the hospital where doctors did what they could to repair the damage.
Grinnell Community Hospital (Opened in 1919)

But the times were changing, and medicine itself was changing. As I have written elsewhere, the arrival of radium in town initiated an entirely new form of therapy for a wide variety of illnesses which had been largely immune to earlier treatments. Following hard on this was the appearance in Grinnell of the x-ray machine which soon supplanted the direct application of radium to the affected area. Moreover, x-rays gave physicians a view of the patient's insides unlike anything they had previously had, providing better diagnoses and opening new forms of surgery. But these new technologies and treatments had to await the building of two new hospitals in 1919 Grinnell.

St. Francis Hospital, Grinnell (Opened in 1919)