Dr. Bailey’s Horse-and-Buggy Days

“Jamestown Horse-‘n’-Buggy Doctoring Recalled”

The Herald, Sharon, PA, July 17, 1979, page 28. 
(Courtesy of the Sharpsville Area Historical Society)


Jamestown ‘horse-’n’-buggy doctoring’ recalled

The Herald, Sharon, Pa., July 17, 1979

A doctor making a house call today is a pretty rare event. But for the old-time horse-and-buggy doctor, house calls throughout the day were the normal procedure. “The rare event then was a doctor who had time to see patients in his office,” said Dr. Nelson J. Bailey, 87, of 116 S. Mercer Ave., Sharpsville.

At 87, Bailey still works three days a week as a physician at Mercer County Home and Hospital. His father, Dr. Myron D. Bailey, was a country doctor in Jamestown from 1889 to the 1920s. He was a graduate of Western-Reserve University in Cleveland and lived in an old stone house that was built about 1820 “in the country” about a mile from Jamestown.

Fieldstone house
James Morland built the house of field stones,” Bailey said. “He just went out and gathered up the stones and slapped them together with cement. The house is still there.”

“When my father started to practice, he was living in that stone house,” said Bailey, sitting in a recliner chair in the living room of his home on Mercer Avenue — pressing his memory to recall events of some 70 years ago or so.

“You make me remember things I haven’t thought about in years,” he said in answer to questions about his medical practice in the old days.”

“My father had no money,” he noted. “He walked part of the time to make his calls. He had an office at the rear of Gibson’s Drug Store in Jamestown. To get to his rural patients, he did horse-and-buggy doctoring, but it was house calls almost entirely. He seldom had time for his office.”

Telephone system
Bailey said there was a telephone system, “after a fashion.” He explained, “It was Mercer County Telephone Co. in the area south of Jamestown. Northwest System centered in Westford, Pa., but telephones were very rare. Most people didn’t have them.

“In the absence of other means of calling the doctor, people sent someone for him. The farmers along the route he traveled waited for him. As he drove by en route to see a patient, they would look for him. They’d hail him as he drove by to ask questions about their health problems.”

Bailey said his father reared a family of six youngsters in that big stone house and how he ever “put us all through college I’ll never know. People were penurious — downright stingy — in those days. They lived off their farms. Their only cash was the check they got for selling milk and they weren’t about to give that to a doctor. They paid in produce.”Bailey recalls taking care of a patient who had pneumonia. “The man lived out in the country,” he said. “It was a long, serious illness He paid me in maple syrup. I would leave the door of my waiting room open when I was on house calls. One…

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…morning I went to the office and found the room filled with gallon jugs of maple syrup. It was worth $1 a gallon, so I really couldn’t complain.”

Bailey started his medical practice with his father in 1920 and made calls with him by horse and buggy.

Farm produce in payment
“We were paid in potatoes,” he said, “fruit — bushels of apples and pears — all kinds of farm produce. One time a fellow brought a live goose and put it in our back door. I said, ‘Forget it.’ Sometimes a farmer gave us half a pork or a quarter of beef, but without refrigeration to accommodate our receipts, we had problems. Often we ground up the meat to make sausage so it would keep. If we refused the food patients offered in payment for our services, we got nothing at all. And with a large family, the produce and meat at least cut down our grocery bill.”

Bailey went to Grove City College and The University of Pittsburgh. He was graduated from Jefferson Medical College (now Jefferson University) in Philadelphia. When he was ready to enter practice in 1920, his father wasn’t well, so he took over his father’s practice until 1923.

“These were long, tedious days — and often nights as well,” he said. “You carried medicine with you, examined, prescribed and dispensed the medicine and went on to the next patient. There were no paved roads in any direction from Jamestown. In early fall and early spring, the roads were very muddy. Milk wagons and other wagons had very high wheels that cut deep down into the road. When you got into one of these ridges with your wagon, you were stuck.”

When Bailey started to practice he got himself “a puddle jumper,” — an early model auto. “But with the muddy roads with the deep ridges cut by the high-wheeled…

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…wagons, your car got stuck just as the wagons did,” he said.

Wife in hospital
When his second son was born, he wanted his wife to be in the hospital. So he put her on a train and sent her to Greenville Hospital where she “engaged a room” to wait out her pregnancy. She went downtown every day, went to movies and entertained herself until the baby was born on May 8, 1921.

“The roads still were bad at that time. But I chanced them being good enough that I could go to Greenville in my car and bring my wife and baby home,” Bailey recalled. “I started out, but the wheels of the car slid into ruts and I had to go and get a farmer with a team of horses to pull us out.” 

By that time, if patients could be transported at all, Bailey sent them to the hospital in Greenville. “But there was a lot of surgery done in those days on the kitchen table,” he added. “I believe the mortality rate was good. The results weren’t always satisfactory, but people generally survived. One of my mother’s sisters assisted with the surgery in people’s homes.

Kitchen table surgery
“There was a state-owned and operated hospital — Mercer Cottage Hospital — where a Dr. J.C. Weidaman was appointed as surgeon. He drove his horse and buggy to Jamestown one day and operated on my mother for an ectopic pregnancy (a pregnancy occurring outside the womb).

“Weidaman primarily was in charge of these kitchen table operations. Of course, there was no prepaid medical care in those days and darned little postpaid medical care. People were very reluctant to see a doctor and had to be very sick before they sent for one. So when someone did send for a doctor, the doctor went. He knew he would find a very sick patient when he got there.”

The worst illness Bailey treated in the home was pneumonia. “But improvements were remarkable,” he said. “Pneumonia usually was treated by the neighbors. This was the era of the onion poultices. They would cook onions and put them on the chest, then put a sweatshirt over it. It was a very crude treatment. Aspirin was available and helped the aching and fever.”

Bailey said this also was the period that the state Department of Health was going to type pneumonia and have a vaccine.

Typing failed in rural areas
“But it didn’t work out. By the time the typing was done, the patient was well or dead. There was no quick way of getting to a laboratory like there is today. This was a complete failure as far as rural areas were concerned,” Bailey explained.

There also was a lot of typhoid fever in those days because of polluted water. “The germs grew in the gastrointestinal tract,” Bailey said. “Some people…

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…would get ulcers of the bowel that would perforate. We’d give them anti-inflammatory medication and keep them nourished as best we could on small feedings. But there wasn’t too much else we could do in those times.”

It also was necessary in those days to treat wounds and set fractures in the homes. “My father had all kinds of equipment for setting fractures,” Bailey said. “Splints, plaster of Paris. It was a hell of a job to arrange pulleys to set a broken leg in traction in a farmhouse. But we did.”

Broke wooden leg
One day Bailey’s father was called to the home of the town alcoholic who had worn a peg leg since he had had his real leg amputated below the knee. Bailey’s father was told the man had fractured his leg, so — thinking it was his remaining leg — he took all his equipment, put it in his son’s car and the two of them set out together.

“We drove all the way to Adamsville and found that the man had gotten drunk, walked out on a back porch, stuck his peg leg in a knothole on the porch floor, fell and broke it,” Bailey laughed. “When we arrived with all our supplies, he was lolling there half drunk….

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[He] stuck out his hand and said, ‘Well, doc, I want to thank you anyhow,’ fell and really did break his other leg. Then we did have to give him anesthetic and set the fracture.”

One of the biggest problems the country doctors had was with babies born on farms in the summer. “Sterilization was almost unheard of,” Bailey said. “Without refrigeration, the infant that was not breastfed generally got diarrhea and vomiting from contaminated milk and died. I made myself very unpopular with the women I took care of by insisting they breastfeed their babies.”

Cow’s milk unsafe in summer
“Cow’s milk was almost inevitably contaminated by the time it reached the baby’s bottle. To start with, manure was piled up against the back stalls of the barns. Farmers milked cows by hand and did not clean the cows’ udders. In the heat of summer, the milk became contaminated and a newborn infant could not tolerate it. There was a chance in winter, but babies born in summer didn’t stand a chance of survival if they were bottle-fed.”

Bailey’s father had a stroke and heart attack and wasn’t well enough to…

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…practice anymore, but his patients still came to the house for medical care. “He knew he wasn’t able to care for them, and was worried and upset all the time because they still came to him. Finally, my mother would meet the patients at the door and send them away,” Bailey added.

When Dr. Addison E. Cattron of Sharpsville died in 1923, Bailey went to Sharpsville and took over his office and his practice. Cattron’s wife and three daughters still lived in the house, but the office was built onto the side of the dwelling.

Proud of Ford coupe
“I had a Ford coupe when I went to Sharpsville and was proud as hell of that,” he recalled. “My office was at 61 E. Main St., the only office I ever had. I just closed it a year or so ago. But people kept coming even after I announced my office was closed. Just to get rid of it, I finally got a fellow with a truck to come and haul everything from the office to the dump. Of course, I was sorry afterwards because there were many things I should have kept. But as long as the office was there, people kept calling me.”

When Dr. Bailey started to practice in Sharpsville, the medical practice was different. “People of that period had a certain amount of respect for the opinion of the doctor,” he said. “They don’t today. Today, they suggest to the doctor what he should do. They are much better informed and make their own diagnoses before they even go to the doctor. This sometimes makes it difficult for the doctor, so practicing medicine today is largely a matter of practicing psychology.”Dr. Bailey made house calls when he started to practice in Sharpsville, “but not like we did in the country. Streets here were paved and people came to the office. Illnesses we treated in house calls in the country we treated as office calls now. Only when people were too acutely ill to get to the office did we go to their homes.”

Other physicians
Besides Dr. Bailey, other physicians practicing in Sharpsville at the time were Dr. William Twitmeyer, Dr. P.E. Biggins and Dr. Benjamin A. Frye.

Today, Dr. James A. Biggins is the medical director at Mercer County Home and Hospital. Dr. Bailey does routine examinations when he goes there three days a week. Every patient has to be fully examined annually and reviewed monthly, Bailey said. Bailey does these monthly reviews. Biggins, who is 70, does all the prescribing and admitting and also is the physician for Shenango Furnace Co., Bailey said. Bailey goes to the county home from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. three days a week. He was off a month this spring because of illness and has been working five days a week instead of three to “catch up.”


[Upper left] Dr. Nelson Bailey. Was country doctor.

[Upper right] Country roads like this in Jamestown were traveled on horse and buggy by Dr. Nelson Bailey and his father in the early 1920s. (Photos courtesy Dr. Bailey)

[Lower right] Old Mercer County Home in the early 1900s when it was known as “The Poor Home” and sometimes “The Insane Asylum.”