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Gaye LeBaron: Chanate Road hospital’s past deserves consideration amid sale

It looks to be a long and winding road to a decision about the old hospital on the hill. This week's news informed us that some 650 public agencies and organizations that “sponsor” housing projects are invited by the county's general services department to make proposals.

Wow, 650! If just a tenth of those eligible submit tentative plans - well, you tell me when the first occupant of the all-new Hernia Hill complex will move in.

Sutter Hospital is what the photo caption called it on last Monday's front page. Hernia Hill is what the county's physicians who rattled up the road in their buggies in the 1880s nicknamed the County Hospital on that same property.

Today it's a “ghost hospital” with many changes in purpose and agenda, even in name. But it is county property. Some would say a county problem.

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THIS SEEMS LIKE a good time to go to the beginning, which would be 1850, the year that California became a state and this part of Mexico's “”Frontera del Norte” became, officially, Sonoma County.

Like a DNA report from Ancestry.com, the history of the area in question can be traced back to 1846, when two “Bear Flaggers” fresh from the revolt in the pueblo of Sonoma were captured and killed on that hillside by defensores of Mexican California. The search for the graves of Thomas Cowie and George Fowler continues on private property just beyond the county's 72 acres.

Beginning just four years after the “Bear War” and two years after the discovery of gold, California was rushed to statehood and divided into counties, with all the responsibilities that entails, including care for people who could not care for themselves - always a government concern. It's doubtful that the early politicians had a clue about just how hard it would be.

All health care was sketchy in those early years. What doctors there were, maybe a half-dozen in the whole county, saw patients and did what had to be done in their offices.

They were a colorful lot, Santa Rosa's first being Dr. John Boyce, who five years out of medical school in Missouri opened a practice here in Franklin, the short-lived town that preceded Santa Rosa (think Flamingo Hotel area) in 1852.

He had a thriving practice and was a charter member of the medical society when it formed in 1888, despite having what today would be called “a drinking problem.” Legend has it Boyce's first stop of his work day was at the butcher shop for a piece of raw meat which he said was “something for the whiskey to work on” and then to the Grand Hotel's saloon for his “four fingers of eye-opener.”

His counterpart, in so many ways, in those early years was the pioneer woman physician, Dr. Annabelle McGaughey Stuart, who began practice with her husband and continued for 25 years after his death. Her patients knew her as “Dr. Dear.”

Both took their turn at the early county hospitals.

All physicians did - handing out pills, setting broken bones, performing surgery and probably removing a bullet or two once in a while - without pay.

The stories of the first “hospitals” are colorful, as well, in quite a different way. The county's first “care facility” was in the 1850s - a bed or two on the second floor of the earliest Santa Rosa courthouse at Fourth and Mendocino.

Sketchy news of that “facility” comes mainly from the pages of the Sonoma Democrat, the first newspaper in Santa Rosa. The Democrat was faithful about printing the reports of the traditional government watchdogs, the grand juries.

In her research of the newspapers for a 1985 history of Santa Rosa, Dee Blackman read a lot about what those grand juries had to say about county “hospitals.” She can testify that readers were spared no details of infestations of insects, rodents and worse (I will spare you the details), while promising better things to come including “water for bathing” that would “soon be introduced.”

But the 1860s came and the jurors were not so optimistic. The hospital was now in an upstairs corner of the jail, described as “wretched” and declared “a public nuisance.”

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IT WAS 1867 BEFORE a real, honest-to-goodness hospital was built for people who couldn't afford the dubious luxury of a doctor's office surgery or a recovery bed in a nurse's private home.

It was a new building on the corner of Cherry and Humboldt streets. The second floor had a skylight. There were separate wards and a wide porch and, according to the Democrat writer, “every facility known to medicine,” including a well and windmill.

But the town grew out and around Cherry Street and within a decade the hospital's neighbors were petitioning to have it moved - anywhere but there. “Outside the city limits” was the most common suggestion.

So supervisors selected the Poor Farm, a western version of the London “poorhouses” immortalized in Dickens' novels, but much cheerier. It was, in fact, a decent solution to an everlasting problem, a farm where the penniless, the elderly and the infirm lived in a bunkhouse, ate in a dining hall and spent their days tending a garden and some small livestock and pretty much fed themselves.

It was located in a hillside meadow north of town known, without a trace of irony, as Pleasant Valley.

It seemed like a logical location for a new county hospital. And, with changes in roadways and expansions in several directions from the Poor Farm, it is the property that we are talking about today.

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BY 1892, THERE WAS a new hospital-only building. According to the newspaper, it was a very pretty building, “the best organized and equipped in California.”

It was still a haven for the poor. In a video interview that can be found online at Sonoma State's Schulz Library special collections site, Dr. R. Lee Zieber, who practiced here from the 1920s, recalled without a trace of resentment that he performed “literally thousands of surgeries at County Hospital and was never paid a dime for them.”

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IRONICALLY, IT WAS the Great Depression of the 1930s that occasioned the next and last County Hospital. The central building of the hospital complex that is there now, awaiting its fate, was constructed in the depth of the Depression by programs known collectively as the New Deal.

That fact alone complicates whatever decision is made about the property. Or, at least, those who keep the history of the region sincerely hope that it is one of the issues considered.

County archivist Katherine Rinehart is rallying the history community to preserve the main hospital building - not just the facade as the last prospective buyer proposed - but the whole structure. It belongs on the National Register of Historic Places, she will tell you.

So will a league of national New Deal historians, foremost among them, Berkeley's Dr. Gray Brechin, who plead for preservation of the Depression-era structures.

The fact is that the new hospital was historic in more ways than one. Medical care for both rich and poor took a giant leap forward when the University of California's medical school chose it for a new residency program for general practitioners.

This brought to town a continent of young physicians, many of whom stayed around to practice what is now known as “family medicine” for the rest of their working lives. It's the progenitor of the residency program that still exists at Sutter Hospital, which leased the county property for 10 years, beginning in the late 1990s.

Around this program, in troubled financial times, County Hospital began gradually expanding its patient base, joining General Hospital on A Street, which had been, along with the virtually archaic little Tanner Hospital from the 1890s, accepting some paying patients.

Specialization was just over the horizon - where World War II loomed. By the time Memorial Hospital, a communitywide fundraising project, opened in 1950, the pre-war resident doctors were old-timers, with their own stories to tell.

A favorite is Dr. Bill Rudee's recollection of the offices he leased with others after the war - the old Thomsen Hospital, now the Bird and The Bottle restaurant on Fourth Street.

Along with some archaic equipment, Dr. Allen Thomsen, ending his 50-plus-year practice, gave Rudee his emergency medical bag, in which Bill was shocked to find a revolver. When he expressed surprise, Dr. Thomsen told him it would be wise “never to make a house call without it.” Forty years ago, we laughed at that recollection. Today? Well, not so much.

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SO, YOU SEE, THOSE 650 prospective buyers for our old Hernia Hill will have much to consider. There's not only land use and traffic and neighborhoods and current “tenants” like the Bird Rescue Center and the lovingly restored (Thanks, Jeremy Nichols) ”boot hill” cemetery for those who died at the Poor Farm and others deemed “unacceptable” for the Rural Cemetery burial plots. There's also the history.

Historic sites, places with many stories to tell, should not be wiped off the face of the earth - like the Round Barn in the wildfires.

Shakespeare, counted on to find the right words, tells us: “What's past is prologue.”

As such, it deserves consideration.

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