Fatal Doctors: Medical Treatment In Days Gone By

“I do not believe in doctors,” quipped Brigham Young’s older brother, Joseph, in 1858. “I would rather call upon the Lord.”

It was a fairly common sentiment at the time, and for good reason: a wide variety of quacks were happily dispensing an equally wide variety of quack medicines.

There were “botanical” doctors; there were homeopathic physicians. There were traveling patent-medicine peddlers and newspaper ads confidently promoting “cure-all” remedies. In addition to ordinary physicians, there were “Thomsonian” doctors — followers of Samuel Thomson, a medical rebel who believed “restoring heat” was the trick for healing a patient. The harsh Thomson protocol applied an uncomfortable series of emetics, enemas and sweat baths, casually summarized as “Puke ‘em, sweat ‘em, and purge ‘em.”

Even mainstream practitioners back in the day were often dismissed by suspicious citizens as “Poison Doctors.” High doses of mercury and techniques like blood-letting were not unusual, and other quirky “remedies” seem outright bizarre by today’s standards.

Caskets like this featuring a glass face-plate offering one last view of the dear departed can still be seen in the undertaker’s parlor at Bodie.

Dr. Benjamin King approved the use of cow dung as a poultice to treat Hosea Grosch’s badly infected foot at Gold Hill in 1857, for example — a ministration that didn’t help and might have hastened Grosch’s demise. Even as late as 1892, a pneumonia sufferer in Virginia City was relieved of half a pint of his blood in a well-intended medical intervention. Ah Kee, a Botanical Physician with an office on Third Street in Carson City, claimed in his advertisements to have “cured many patients in town” — but there was also a Chinese section quietly located at Lone Mountain Cemetery.

The only ones who might have been happy about all these attempts at “curing” were the local undertakers, and those proliferated. Early practitioners of the mortuary arts in Carson Valley included M.A. Downey, George Kitzmeyer, and Samuel C. Wright.

Undertakers were evidently none too popular. Quipped the Reno Gazette Journalabout what they called the “disagreeable business”:

A horse-drawn hearse was part of the proper funeral.

[The undertaker] attends church and keenly surveys the faces of the congregation with a critical eye, . . . deftly tuck[ing] his business card under the door of the invalid. He is jolly when pneumonia gallops through a community, and howls with delight over a wholesale railroad accident. He can diagnose a case of physical degeneracy of any kind with unerring certainty at a distance of fifty feet. . .  He knows the dimensions of every man in the community and the coffins he furnishes are always guaranteed to fit, so that the defunct customer can rest without danger of contracting chafes and bunions.” [Reno Gazette Journal, June 3, 1882].

One unfortunate who landed in the undertaker’s parlor, a victim of prevailing medical wisdom and probably also malpractice, was young Harrison Shrieves.

Young Harrison Shrieves had everything going for him — good looks, a new wife, wealthy in-laws, and a job with the railroad.

A Civil War veteran (he had enlisted in the 10th Ohio Cavalry when he was about 15), Shrieves moved west after the war and landed a plum job as a conductor on the V&T Railroad. Fate continued to smile on Shrieves for the next few years. Around 1870 he married Louise Tufly, daughter of George Tufly, wealthy proprietor of Carson City’s St. Charles Hotel (and later state Treasurer).

The homeopathic remedy Nux Vomica contained traces of strychnine.

It wasn’t quite the “Ides of March” that got him, but it was close. Harrison Shrieves was given a well-intentioned dose of the homeopathic remedy “Nux Vomica” by Dr. Stephenson of Virginia City in 1873. Concocted from seeds containing strychnine, Nux Vomica was commonly used in dilute form to treat a wide range of illnesses from constipation and heartburn to flu. Harrison, however, was apparently given much too much. He suffered for months, and was just 28 when he finally succumbed on March 11, 1874 from his treatment. He is buried in Lone Mountain Cemetery.

There’s more about Shrieves, Tufly, Kitzmeyer, Wright and a great many other Carson Valley pioneers in my friend Cindy Southerland’s beautifully-illustrated book, Cemeteries of Carson City and Carson Valley (Arcadia Publishing 2010). Mark Twain himself commented that “to know a community, one must observe the style of its funerals and know what manner of men they bury with most ceremony,” as Southerland points out. This fascinating book highlights the final resting places of a wide variety of pioneers in this beautiful valley — from stagecoach drivers to governors, soldiers to desperados. Great photos and a helpful description of cemetery symbolism make this an uplifting and informative read. You can find it here through Amazon.com.

Another great book we wanted to mention, this one about early Nevada doctors and early medical remedies (including Chinese and Native American practices): The Healers of 19th-Century Nevada, by Anton P. Sohn (Univ. of Nevada, 1997). This one was a happy recent “find” for us at Morley’s Bookstore in Carson City, Nevada. If you haven’t been there, take time to stop in. Morley’s offers a fabulous assortment of local and Nevada history books plus a great “old-time bookstore” feel. Its 1864 brick building on West King Street is one of only four original stores still extant in Carson City. Be sure to check out the great historic photos on the wall showing this historic building’s evolution through time. Tell him we sent you.

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Old Carson Valley Creamery

This mysterious building on Waterloo Lane used to be something. Carson Valley folks have probably driven by it dozens of times, wondering: what’s its story?

Back in the day — 1891, to be precise — this used to be the Carson Valley Creamery. And not just any creamery, mind you; this was a gold-medal-winning local creamery!

What got the whole creamery notion rolling was a series of letters to Carson Valley’s E. Cohn from a man in L.A. And these letters weren’t any ordinary letters; the writer happened to run a creamery in Los Angeles for Lucky Baldwin. (Don’t know who Lucky Baldwin was? I didn’t either. His real name was Elias Jackson Baldwin (born 1828); the “lucky” moniker came from his extraordinarily good luck at wheeling and dealing. Wikipedia calls Baldwin “one of the greatest pioneers” in California business; he built San Francisco’s posh Baldwin Hotel & Theatre, and bought up so much Southern California land that his name still lives on there. Here’s the Wikipedia article on Baldwin, well worth a glance!).

It was something like receiving a letter from Bill Gates. If Bill Gates tells you creameries are a grand business, you have to at least consider it!

A meeting of local farmers was speedily convened at Valhalla Hall in March, 1891, to discuss the idea. C.C. Henningsen explained the relatively simple concept to the group: each dairy farmer would put his own marked milk cans out by the road; a creamery wagon would pick them up and haul them to the creamery; skim milk could be returned to the farmers in their own cans, for a small price. By selling and shipping their butter and cheese collectively, the farmers hoped to reach larger markets and get a better price. H. Springmeyer immediately came out as an advocate for the plan.

Milk wagons looked something like this miniature model. Note that cushy “spring” seat for the driver!

The newspaper was jammed with “Creamery Talk” that whole spring and summer. Before long, a 36 x 86-foot two-story building was being erected on a 10-acre parcel at the southeast corner of William Dangberg’s ranch. Plans for the new building called for a cold storage area, a butter room, and a separator room on the ground floor; and an “ice room” that spanned both floors. Upstairs would be the cheese room, kitchen, dining room and three “chambers.”

In July, 1891, the creamery group signed a five-year contract with Julius Kaupisch and his brother, both trained at a dairy school in Saxony, Germany. One Kaupisch brother promptly set off for Chicago to procure machinery. A steam engine was purchased and hauled in from a former steam laundry in Carson City, and a 90-foot well was drilled by George Hawkins to supply the new creamery with fresh water.

Corporate officers for the new enterprise included John Frantzen as president and C.M. Henningsen as Secretary. Banker (and man-of-many-talents) Fritz Heise not only served as the company’s treasurer but also helpfully hauled rock for the new creamery’s foundation. C.E. Merrick hired on as the manager.

Such a “quintessential Carson Valley” scene!

“The farmers are enthusiastic over the subject and are preparing to milk as many cows as possible,” the newspaper boasted, adding that local dairymen were scouting for good stock to add to their herds. “In a few years this Valley will be stocked with the finest lot of milk cows to be found anywhere.”

To expand local herds supplying the creamery, the Kaupisch brothers brokered the purchase of another 360 cows from dairies near the California coast that were shutting down — a whole train-load. In the process, though, the Kaupisch pair managed to royally irritate some local feelings; the new cows were mostly Jerseys, Durhams, and Short Horns, because (the Kaupisch brothers claimed) Holsteins “do not prove to be good milkers.”

This last comment received an agitated response in the local Appeal:  “The Kaupisch Brothers, if they made such a statement, evidently know little about milch cows,” the writer sniffed. “Let the proprietors of the Carson Valley Creamery investigate the records of thoroughbreds and not take the products of halfbreeds as a standard.”

The new creamery was touted as a win-win-win for local farmers: “Instead of hunting a market for their butter, they can remain at home and give their full attention to the farm and dairy work,” the local newspaper cheered. “There is no longer need for importing cheese from other States, for a choice article in this line will be manufactured” right there at the new creamery. And the more Carson Valley hay that local dairymen purchased to feed their growing herds, “the more you are patronizing home industry and assisting in making your own community self-supporting.” It was downright patriotic to patronize the creamery!

This is how the new Creamery building would have looked to approaching wagons.
(Photo courtesy Douglas County Historical Society).

When the new creamery building was up and running in the fall of 1891, it had machinery able to handle milk from up to 3,000 cows, and promised production of up to 1.5 tons of butter and 3 tons of cheese each and every day. Milk was to be delivered to the creamery twice a day in summer, and once a day in winter months, and farmers were promised $1 per hundred pounds of milk to start (provided it tested at four pounds of butter to the hundred-weight).

A visiting reporter from the Genoa Weekly Courier gave a fascinating overview of the operation in July, 1891. Farmers would deliver ten-gallon cans of milk, each weighing roughly 80 pounds. Cream content was tested once every month for each farm, and every batch of incoming milk was tested, too, to be sure it hadn’t been watered or skimmed.

A fascinating glimpse of the machinery inside the creamery.

The incoming milk was dumped into an immense bucket for weighing; then the bucket was hoisted to the upper story and drained into a large vat, where pipes took the milk to a centrifugal separator. And not just any separator, mind you; this separator was a special gem, imported from Germany and known as the “Alexandra.”

Once the Alexandra had done its work, the skimmed milk was returned to cans for farmers wishing to buy it (at ten cents for hundred pounds), or drained into the cheese tank for reuse. Watching one such operation, the newspaper reported that farmers “had the skimmed milk in the cans and were ready to return home” just twenty minutes after the milk was delivered.

The butter and cheese operations were additional marvels. Cream was conveyed from the giant Alexandra separator to a cream vat for cooling, where it was allowed to rest or “ripen” for 24 hours before being sent off one of  two steam-driven churns, holding 400-gallons each. A six-foot circular “butter worker” table came next, where salt was added and the butter got worked over by rollers. Off to the cold storage room it went, where it was molded into two-pound square blocks and then packed into cases of 120 pounds apiece. Shipments of butter went to Carson three times a week.

This beautiful mural inside Katie’s Restaurant at Carson Valley Inn shows rancher Herman Scheele, on his way from Fredericksburg to the Creamery with — how many cans of milk? We counted over 30, and this double-wagon probably carried more than that!

A separate cheese-making operation produced small and large rings of cheese, weighing 9 and 28 pounds respectively; as many as 200 of these were turned out a day. (The secret to turning skimmed milk into fatty cheese, shared later by a worker: the addition of just the right proportion of lard!) From the curing room, cheese wheels would slide down a convenient chute into a waiting wagon and were whisked off to market. As for the butter, that was packed into wooden crates, shipped by wagon to Carson City, then loaded onto trains for Virginia City and San Francisco.

And a lucky thing all that hauling that proved to be for teamster Fritz Dangberg. Dangberg arrived from Germany in 1895, and quickly got hired on by the Creamery to drive teams to Carson City. While in Carson, Dangberg used to stable his horses with Zirn Andersen, at Andersen’s Hay Yard. And there, as luck had it, Dangberg got to know Zirn’s sister-in-law, Metta Winkelman, who was staying with the Andersens. One thing led to another, and Fritz and Metta were married in 1897.

 * * * * * *
Okay, that’s not the end of the story! But it was too long for one post. So stay tuned next week, when we’ll continue with the rest in Part 2!
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