On January 2, 1912, a group of Fort Myers’ leading citizens met to form the Lee County Hospital Association. Among the members of this group was a 69-year-old woman named Julia Hanson. As she entered the room, the committee members rose silently to their feet.
In the past two weeks of 1911, Julia had buried both her husband and her son. Dr. William Hanson, Fort Myers’ first doctor, had been an ardent proponent of a hospital. On December 15 just past, he and Julia had been working on a poem to inspire donations to a hospital fund when the doctor’s heart gave out. Tonight, less than 3 weeks later, the hospital committee members understood that when Julia entered the room, Dr. Hanson came with her.
Not all the doctors in town were in favor of a hospital. As with any civic improvements proposed over the 45-year history of Fort Myers, the subject was fiercely debated. Its advocates were opposed by the town’s fiscal conservatives who hotly contested any spending for public improvements, including roads. The only way to get the thing done was to quit arguing about it and just do it. So Fort Myers’ more progressive leaders had gathered to form a hospital association.
Included in the gathering were: Louis A. Hendry, now in his sixth term as mayor of the city; Dr. J. E. Brecht, president of the medical society; Nathan Stout, former owner and editor of the Fort Myers Press; Stout’s mother, Olive, founder, with Julia Hanson, of the Fort Myers Women’s Club (and like Julia, widowed in December); Larkin Moses Stroup, town councilman and former marshal (famous for having gunned down tough Dennis Sheridan, a cowboy who attacked him with a knife outside Williams Drug Store in 1897); and Mrs. Peter Ruhl, whose husband was the current editor of the Press.
It will take this committee 5 years to achieve the goal of which they are so proud, and so sure.
Apathy and Opposition
Possibly, the difficulty in raising the money for a hospital arose from the fact that between 1911 and 1916, Fort Myers was busily remodeling itself. In the process, its citizens had been asked to buy bonds and/or pay extra taxes for one thing after another and they may have grown weary of it. The attitude of an average by-stander might be something along the lines of:
“First we got to have a new school. Granted. We needed one. No argument there. Then we got to have a city water system. I suppose, in the long run, that ain’t a bad idea. But now here they come wantin’ a public pier. That don’t hardly seem necessary. Then it’s a new-fangled fire truck and a fire station and a city jail. And then what. La-de-da new streets for them big fancy auto-mo-biles to ride along nice and easy on. And this last takes the cake; they’s gone and levied a special “publicity” tax so’s the Board ‘a Trade can advertise Fort Myers all over hell and gone—when, if you consider how many Big Spender-Tourists is already over-runnin’ Fort Myers—it seems to me the whole dang country has already found out about it.
“The town’s tearing down and building up so fast that you cain’t hardly get through the streets. You go som’ers today, and tomorrer you cain’t find it. Gone. Up one side ‘a Main [First] Street and down t’other, Langferd and Heitman seem to be in a dad gum race to see who can tear down and build up the fastest. Downright dangerous in town with all them buildin’s crashin’ down, and like I say, you go som’ers one day and the next it ain’t there. Instead of a general store, you got a guy on his knees trowelin’ mortar to brick.
“Now a’ course, Heitman and Langferd ain’t the only ones in on it. That Ton, Ton…however you say it [Tonnelier]…that fancy-name feller from Michigan has gone and bought Doc Matheson’s big stone building and is fancying it up with this Patio duh Leeown [Patio de Leon], he calls it. And Mrs. Terry, now, that woman has got sawdust flying all over the Royal Palm and the Riverview, buildin’ up them hotels for the crowds that the Board of Trade’s fixin’ to bring in here with advertising paid for by their “publicity” tax. And ‘a course, not to be outdone, and to help kerry these rich folks up river, old ‘Bulldog’ Towles is building a wharf at the end ‘a Jackson street to accommodate his new steamships, if you can believe that.
“And houses? Going up like toadstools. Between ’11 and ’12, maybe 200 of ‘em. Whole subdivisions planned way out east of town. Ever’ body’s gone plumb crazy.
“And now wait a minute. I ain’t finished. In the middle of all this commotion, they got to be pick-axing the streets—first for them damn water mains, and then smoothin’ ‘em over, like I said, for them devil wagons. And it’s a tee-total waste ‘a money because a few of them hammerin’ summer rains and the edges are just gonna go slidin’ down like Aunt Bessie’s triple chins. It’s like the money spent on that shiny new fire truck. Heck. Cain’t nobody but Johnny Johns even start the damn thing.
“And a’ course, we got to have the new water pumpin’ station and a 50,000-gallon water tank, and to fill it, they got arteesian, they call ’em, wells spouting up all over like Rockefeller’s oil rigs.
“And now here they come wantin’ money for a hospital. A hospital. For emergency operations they’re telling us. Whatever happened to emergency operations on the kitchen table or in a man’s own bed where they have always been had? Who wants to be jostled and thumped around in a ambulance over to some other house to be operated on and as likely left there to die anyway? Makes about as much sense as nothing. And that’s all I got to say about it.”
Given sentiments like those expressed above, it is not surprising that for the first 3 years after its founding, the hospital committee met infrequently and with little result. They discussed possible sites for a hospital, drew up building plans with cost estimates, planned fundraisers, and reported disappointing results.
And then, in October of 1914, Bill “Bulldog” Towles got it into his head to tear down the old courthouse. He and his cronies had been agitating for a new one for years and had finally decided to quit arguing about it and just do it. So in a single night, while Towles sat guard with a shotgun across his lap, the big, 2-story courthouse was disassembled. The workmen carefully laid aside the wall and floor boards to be reassembled into Fort Myers’ first hospital.
Their hopes buoyed, the hospital committee proceeded to adopt by-laws for the hospital. Land at Victoria and Grand, west of town, was procured as the hospital site. Largely with scrap lumber from the demolition of the old courthouse, a plain, 2-story, 8-room house, with screened porches across the front on both levels, was nailed together. The house was without electricity or running water. The kitchen was unfurnished but for a wood burning stove. Chopping block and axe in the yard out back.
But the rooms were large and bright, and new surgical equipment (a gift of Walter Langford) gleamed in the operating room upstairs. At long last, on October 3, 1916, Nurse Edith Davidson opened the Lee County Hospital.
A Life Saved
Sam Thompson lay in his bed on the hospital porch, gazing through the screen to the dirt yard. Nothing planted yet. Hospital too new. But he could see some kids hopping about and squealing a ways off. Glorious November day. Blue sky, a few clouds breezing by so white they stung his eyes. Sam heard the soft chugging of a passing automobile.
It was hard for Sam to fasten his mind on the fact that he was alive. He couldn’t remember much of the ride in from LaBelle. He was lying on his horse’s neck when he finally got to the hospital. Crazy with pain. He vaguely remembered, sometime during the night, hearing voices, then a man’s face swam across his vision. And he remembered the smell and glow of kerosene lamps close to the bed.
The next day, Nurse Davidson explained to him that Dr. McSwain from Arcadia had gotten in by train late the night before and had had to remove his appendix.
Sam could hear her walking about the house, crossing the porch floor above, her footsteps sounding more remotely as she went back inside, moving around the rooms upstairs. Often during the day, he heard her coming out onto the porch. Half dozing, he was aware of the gentle movement of her hands as she lifted the sheet to check his bandages.
With a maximum capacity of 15 patients, the hospital seemed overly large. Sam couldn’t imagine as many as 15 people in Fort Myers requiring surgery all at the same time. He was almighty grateful for the place, though. Without the hospital and a surgeon, he’d have never made it. He’d be cold-slabbed right now instead of lying with the warmth of the sun on his face, hearing birdsong and the cries of children at play.