Early doctors shared in the frontier life of their patients

Those doctors who practiced in these parts more than a hundred years ago found the same general conditions — broken bones, serious cuts, and serious epidemics as existed elsewhere. As serious as those were, none of those doctors had hospitals in which to care for the serious cases they treated almost every day. It took a while for them to reach this area, but they did it.

The first doctor to arrive here was Dr. J. S. Gibson. He came to Green Lake Village in 1869, just before the railroad arrived, and after a short time moved his practice to New London and, finally, in 1873 moved to Atwater, where he stayed for the rest of his life.

Willmar’s first doctor arrived here in 1871. He was Dr. Edward Spurr Frost. Just as he finished his studies as a surgeon and had spent some time as a doctor in the Franco-Prussian War, he returned to the United States. He had received a letter from an old friend, Doctor Morris, telling him about the opportunities to practice in this area. When he reached Dr. Morris at Litchfield he found another physician had already taken his place.

The railroad had arrived so he went on to Willmar where he established his office and the first hospital in what became Kandiyohi County in a part of his home. Among other things he had taken a part of his training as a surgeon which made him the only one in a 100-mile radius, so he was kept busy.

The Frosts had three sons, one of whom followed in his father’s steps and practiced here all his life. When he was attending the University of Minnesota, he brought the antidote for the then-current epidemic home and used it in treating the disease successfully here.

He and several other doctors who had moved here developed busy practices, even though they were all hindered by the poor quality and scarcity of medical equipment. In spite of this and other handicaps more doctors came and practiced here. Some of these names may bring back memories: Adams, Archibald, B.J. and and A. F Branton, Frederikson, Hjelstad, Frisch, Frost, Geer, Gibson, Healey, Hodapp, Lambrecht, Newman, Hoftoe, Neilson, New, Raines, Winton and more.

They all participated in the hardships those settlers were experiencing. The doctors, for instance, visited their patients at their homes, even in the height of snowstorms which produced drifts higher than the rooftops and temperatures way below zero — all accompanied by high winds.

One family tells about Dr. Porter going on skis to Diamond Lake in the heart of a blizzard. The family wanted him to stay the night, but he wouldn’t. He had another patient near Green Lake and he had to go on. It was not unusual to be called out in storms. Another tells of Dr. Frost being called in the middle of a snowstorm to care for a patient in great pain, and that the patient and that the patient needed dental care. He suggested that the family call a dentist, but was told, “We’d never think of calling a dentist on a night like this.” Frost said that he pulled the ailing tooth but didn’t give the patient any of the customary whiskey kept on hand for similar situations.

All the local doctors had agreements with certain patients allowing the doctors to stable their horses, and hide themselves, when they were completely worn out, treating epidemic patients day and night until they were physically unable to continue without rest.

Dr. Hoftoe, of New London, was a man who didn’t let formalities interfere with his work. His claim to fame was derived from an accident which left all who knew the participants roaring with laughter.

Hoftoe had been called to attend to one of his patients who had an aching tooth. The good doctor harnessed his horse to his light sleigh and headed off to the northeast for the patient’s home.

He didn’t know that the patient would wait no longer and was on his way to Hoftoe’s office. The two sleighs met just about halfway between the doctor’s office and patient’s home, and collided!

Hoftoe’s patient ended up in a snowbank. Wasting no time, the man of medicine got out his instruments, straddled his patient right there in the snowbank, opened his bag and retrieved his forceps. When the patient opened his mouth to yell Hoftoe’s forceps got a good grip on the offending tooth, one twist and the offender was out. The patient went home and the doctor went on to treat another patient.

Despite the frustrations and hardships of frontier life, more doctors began practicing here. Some doctors were here for a while then moved on. Others stayed and played significant parts in this area’s development as a medical center.