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Sunday, December 05, 2004

Care of indigent patients had rude beginnings

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

Solano County’s first hospital was a crude shanty

Increasing population numbers during the 1860s in Solano County made the creation of a central institution to treat ill residents a necessity. While patients normally were nursed at home by dedicated family members, assisted by a doctor, those who could neither afford medical care nor didn’t have family, needed another source of care.

For this segment of the population, the Solano County Board of Supervisors contracted annually with local doctors.  By 1867, a centralized location to treat these patients seems to have been in place. Although not yet officially labeled the County Hospital, the Solano County grand jury inspected the premises as part of its duties. Their report in August 1867 showed the inadequacies of the contracting system.

“We have also visited the place called the Hospital. We found on a barren lot a 10-by- 12 shanty, unfurnished - unless you call a small pine table and a pine bedstead, with a dirty blanket on it furniture.

“We found a deplorable old man, afflicted with palsy, who had been here three months ... ” This gentleman, a former miner from Nova Scotia, had been robbed and left lying on the road eight miles northeast of Fairfield.

The jury’s scathing comments on the Hospital ended: “And this is the place that the County of Solano keeps her indigent sick.”

The Supervisors listened. While the contract system continued, the grand jury was able to report the following year that the hospital had “the proper conditions.”  It is not clear where this particular shanty was located, though most likely it was in the vicinity east of Fairfield.

Board of Supervisors minutes record the bidding of local physicians to obtain the annual contract. In 1870, the contract was awarded to Suisun City physician James Pressley and druggist S. D. Campbell for $2,000 in gold.

The following year, the two asked for an increase in the contract to $3,580, due to a larger number of patients and higher costs for medicines. Angus Williamson, of Fairfield, who offered to care for patients at 95 cents per day and bury indigent dead for $17, underbid the two. He received the contract for $3,000.  Pressley received the contract again in 1873, when records show that six indigent deaths occurred at the hospital.

By 1875, the little shanty clearly was inadequate for the growing need. The county is known to have rented buildings to house a new facility in 1875.

That same year, according to one source, the county purchased 60 acres for $1,500 from L. Fitch. The property was situated three miles east of Fairfield, roughly where Tabor Park is located today. A two-story building covered 30 by 60 feet. The first floor housed “the office of the physician and the drug store, the dining room, general sitting room, six small wards, and bath houses as well. On the upper floor there are four large wards, while in the rear there is an addition [on the ground floor] for cook, steward, and store rooms. It is throughout fitted with every modern improvement, its system of drainage being connected with a creek at the distance of a quarter of a mile.”

The cost for this “strictly up-to-date” modern facility came to $130,879.

The first physicians hired to oversee the day-to-day operations were A. T. Spence and W. G. Downing, “both gentlemen well practiced in their profession, and much liked in the district.”  Both medical supplies and physician contracts continued on an annual bidding contract.

The Weekly Solano Republican reported on hospital supplies Nov. 8, 1877: “Proposals received from Breck & Costigan and J. Frank & Co. for furnishing supplies for term of six months were opened and considered. The bid of Breck & Costigan being the lowest and best bid offered the contract was awarded them in the sum of $587, and the Clerk directed to draw the necessary bond therefore in the sum of $1200.”

The newspaper then added: “Pursuant to notice published for medicines and medical attendance for the Hospital proposals were received from Drs. W. G. Downing, S. F. Chapin, J. M. Vance and R. C. Hunter.

“Pursuant to notice published for proposals for overseership of the Hospital bids were received from Dr. W. G. Downing, Michael Lang, Michael Hughes, J. H. Gordon, Thos. King, Dr. J. M. Vance, E. Ferguson, E. F. Ferguson and W. B. Lane.”

Every large purchase item needed to go through the bidding process. This included such necessities as firewood, as recorded by the Solano Republican on Aug. 8, 1878: “In the matter of receiving proposals and awarding contracts for firewood for Court House and Hospital - bids were received from John Robinson, R. D. Robbins, and J. McSweeney in accordance with advertisement to furnish 65 cords of firewood. John Robinson’s bill was $7.80 per cord for one-half live oak and one-half mountain white oak, was accepted, and the contract ordered awarded to him, upon his filing a bond with sureties in double the amount of contract price.”

The Supervisors also were concerned with the moral welfare of the indigent patients, passing an ordinance in 1887 that forbid card playing on Sundays.

That same year, the Solano Republican informed residents of their healthy surroundings in an article on April 29, 1887 praising the beauty and advantages of Suisun Valley: “At this distance from the sea these winds are strong enough to beat back the hot breezes of the Sacramento valley, and the result is that the climate is one of great evenness, with no extremes of severe cold or enervating heat. Such a climactic (sic) condition is a sure harbinger of health, and it may be safely asserted that Suisun and its surrounding valleys arte reckoned in the front rank of the healthy localities in the State, and the assertion is borne out by the records of the State Board of Health. These records show that Solano county is one of the healthiest counties, and Suisun and its environs stand at the head of the health list of the county.”

Nonetheless, indigent patients continued to need care, as witnessed by the Solano Republican in the column of Supervisor-approved expenses on Aug. 12, 1887: “Money Paid Out by Order of the Board of Supervisors for one year, to April 4, 1887. M. J. B. Aden Cash paid for sending indigent to county hospital $41.30; E. E. Moorttigan Cash paid for sending indigent to county hospital $27.50.”  Prevalent diseases were tuberculosis, listed as consumption, general paralysis, and periodic flu epidemics. During the early 1900s, the hospital also served as “an old folks home.”

In 1920, the Solano Republican wrote about the annual Christmas celebration, hosted by hospital physician Dr. Samuel G. Bransford. Music teacher Mary Bird provided the music, and “Suisun’s young ladies distributed nuts, candies and fruit.”

Attached to the Hospital, though not generally mentioned, was a 30,000-square-foot burial ground. More than 200 bodies were buried there over the years, the last burial recorded in 1917. Graves were identified with wooden markers.

In 1920, the county built a new hospital on West Texas Street, which opened in July of that year. The old county hospital was closed in 1921, the building torn down, and the land sold to William B. O’Connor. The cemetery was more or less forgotten, marked “by a ramshackle wooden fence and high weeds,” according to the Times-Herald on Oct. 29, 1965.

Erection of the Glenn Richardson Elementary School at that time led to the rediscovery of the forgotten cemetery. A heated discussion about who would cover the cost of exhuming the graves ensued. Finally, the 206 bodies were reburied in the so-called “Fairfield-Suisun potter’s field,” the county’s indigent cemetery.