The Three Rivers Woman’s Club: Public Health and the Visiting Nurse Program

Newspaper clipping from the Tuesday, October 25, 1983 edition of the Three Rivers Commercial-News.

By Helen McCauslin, Three Rivers Woman’s Club

Our newspapers are filled these days with the news of the surge in Coronavirus cases requiring hospitalizations in local Michigan institutions. Three Rivers Health, the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency, and pharmacies are working daily to test and vaccinate against this evolving virus. Just a little over 100 years ago we faced a similar challenge in the Flu Epidemic of 1918. How prepared were we to care for the sick then? 

The answer is partly contained in a presentation 75 years ago to the Three Rivers Rotary Club, a speech that began with these words:

“Today we hear a great deal about the overcrowded condition of the hospital and shortage of nurses. We grant that this is true. But let us take a look into the past more than 30 years ago. Three Rivers then had no hospital facilities. There were no paved roads between here and Kalamazoo and Elkhart. Very few people could take advantage of [those] hospitals… Like every other small city Three Rivers felt the need of the services of trained nurses.” 

And just four years after the Woman’s Club started a program to fund a visiting nurse, in the fall of 1918, she was one of the nurses caring for influenza patients at an emergency hospital in the basement of the First Methodist Church.

Speaking in 1946 to the Rotary Club was Mrs. C.A. Strobaugh, from pages written by Mrs. W.H. Shumaker, she told the story of how the Three Rivers Visiting Nurse Program came to be in 1914. Recognizing Mrs. M.H. Rix of the Woman’s Club “who first had the vision of this need,” the Rotary members learned how she was able to interest physicians, in particular, Dr. A.W. Scidmore, and members of the Woman’s Club to study the need. Several months later enough funds had been pledged and a Visiting Nurse Board was formed as separate organization with the Woman’s Club. That Board and the nurses it hired served the Three Rivers area from then until 1985 when this headline appeared in the Three Rivers Commercial-News:

Speaking with a reporter, Mrs. Hester Bonfoey explained the vote by the Three Rivers Woman’s Club to end the program as possible because nursing home care was now available through the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Health Department and Medicare and fewer patients were using the Visiting Nurse. She said, “Back then [1914] it was such a different situation.”

Back then, in 1914, the first visiting nurse, Agnes Dunn, made her rounds on bicycle. Her services carried a nominal fee but were free for those unable to pay. The program was funded by subscriptions from local organizations and businesses. In the annual report of March 1919, you find these subscribers: Woman’s Club (which had pledged $50 a year); City of Three Rivers; School District; Sheffield Car Co.; Fairbanks, Morse & Co.; Michigan Gas & Electric Co., First National Bank; Knights of Pythias; B.P.O.E.; Eastern Star; the Ladies Aid Societies of the Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and Lutheran Churches, as well as individuals. These totaled $1374. Fees collected were $282.80. The salary of the nurse was $1152.50. But in addition to upkeep for the bicycle, there was now a car rented for her in January and February! By 1921, the workload of the nurse was such that a car was purchased for $100, a new Ford, with solicited funds. The Visiting Nurse Board “felt this was quite an achievement.” This program was definitely a cooperative effort of the whole Three Rivers community.

In 1917-1918, after the United States had entered WWI, the Club affiliated with the National Red Cross Town and Nursing Service. Together the two organizations used the basement of the Three Rivers Public Library to collect clothing for the relief of refugees and rolled bandages to be sent overseas. But during the fall of 1918 the Flu Pandemic was so serious in Three Rivers the hospital and doctors were overwhelmed with seriously ill patients. The City Commissioners called in the Red Cross to open an emergency hospital in the basement of the First Methodist Church. There two Red Cross nurses and the Club’s Visiting Nurse, Olive Dressel, served those patients. In an action that is familiar to us today, the mayor issued the following proclamation on October 28, 1919:

“Whereas, the State Board of Health and local health office has issued order closing schools, theaters, and churches and prohibiting all public gatherings, I, William H. Gay, as Mayor of Three Rivers do hereby issue an order that all children be kept off from the streets, and from associating with others in play or otherwise. This action is necessary to keep the Spanish influenza and pneumonia from spreading.”

In the 1920s, the Club and their Visiting Nurse Board expanded the services provided. The 1919-1920 VN, Mrs. E.D. Moore, conducted Health classes at the high school and did welfare work, and a second nurse, Mrs. Oldenburg, was hired for bedside nursing. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Club maintained a Health Booth at the County Fair every year as well as an annual Health Day open to the public with speakers from Three Rivers, Kalamazoo, and Ann Arbor. The nurses helped with many clinics with the P.T.A. and the Tuberculosis Society. In 1933, the Health Day program was held at the Riviera Theatre with a speech by Dr. Sundwell of the University of Michigan on Health Conditions in Russia. In 1934 and 1937 the topic was Mental Health, perhaps a sign of the stress and anxiety caused by the Great Depression. In 1935, the Visiting Nurse program saw 600 patients and delivered 56 babies. 

But by 1983, the Vising Nurse, Betty Wortinger, served just 108 patients with 740 home visits and 565 phone calls. We see her in this photo from the 1983 Commercial News serving Flora Bixler. Although the Visiting Nurse Program ended in 1985, it was not the only involvement of the Woman’s Club in Public Health issues. Next month we will explore other projects they took up with the City and the Three Rivers Hospital. We will also learn how deeply involved they were with the health of children and highlight the role club member Dr. Blanche Haines played in that issue over the years.

Helen McCauslin is a member of the Three Rivers Woman’s Club History Committee and a Board member of the Three Rivers Promise.

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