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Dr. Archibald Wilson Opens a Hospital at Fenelon Falls, 1895

June 17, 2023

The Former Fenelon Falls Hospital

In the Victorian Era, long before the advent of medicare, it typically fell on families to care for their relatives who were ill. In that era, if patients were too sick to attend at the doctor’s office, the physician was expected to make house calls, and most people were born and died at home—families were not shielded from the painful realities of these difficult moments in life’s journey. When relatives fell ill, many people (often younger women) spent years of their lives doing what they could to help.

While most farmers and merchants lived with their families, a significant proportion of the local population (perhaps one third) were labourers, boarding a long way from their families. The lumber industry, particularly, brought many labourers to the region, often from rural Quebec. When mill hands, river drivers or lumber jacks fell ill, their employers had to look after them. Far from the medical benefits that many workers enjoy today, in those days, not only would they not get paid when they were sick, their pay would be docked for the cost of having to care for them.

Though in the Victorian Era, luxuries like confections, games, and (muscle-powered) household appliances were mass produced and came within reach for many families, most people worked long and hard just to get by. Paying for medical assistance was something few could readily afford, and many people waited too long before they called the doctor, hoping that they would get better on their own. But most small towns had a resident physician.

Archibald Wilson was born at Lifford, near Bethany in Manvers Township, and after convocation from the University of Toronto in 1878, he promptly moved to Fenelon Falls, while his brother Edward S. Wilson set up practice in Bobcaygeon. In a growing village like Fenelon Falls, being a physician, carried an expectation of serving the community on public committees. Then, as now, it often seemed like the same people ran practically everything in town, and Dr. Archibald Wilson was one of those prominent gentlemen. Though many patients could scarcely afford to pay, and might only have farm produce to barter for the doctor’s services, being a country doctor was a secure and remunerative profession.

Fenelon Falls was home to the largest sawmill on the Upper Trent Watershed. Commonly called the Red Mill for its colour (located where Sobeys is today), it was significantly larger than Boyd’s more famous (and financially successful) Bobcaygeon Mill. Built by R.C. Smith, it was plagued by financial troubles, but after Smith’s death, his estate leased the property to J.W. Howry & Sons of Saginaw, Michigan—one of North America’s best known lumber companies. Howry further expanded the mill, as the company aggressively acquired timber rights to feed it. The company was progressive for its time, making arrangements with Dr. Wilson to help care for their workers.

Counting on the business that would come from Howry’s lumbering operations, in 1895, Dr. Wilson opened a private hospital—which was a novel community institution, coming seven years before the Ross Memorial Hospital opened in Lindsay. J.J. Nevison, a harness maker who would serve alongside Dr. Wilson on village committees, was moving his business to Minden, as his sister-in-law, Mrs. Heeley, was opening a millinery shop. Wilson rented Nevison’s house, which was located on Fidler’s Hill, a beautiful situation, overlooking Cameron Lake. At the time, its address was on Louisa Street, though the precipitous hill meant that access from behind via Queen Street was easier (this route is known today as Dodd Street).

Though the hospital anticipated that much of its clientele would be local labourers, Dr. Wilson’s hospital embodied a very genteel sense of health. For a society that was concerned by the urban pollution that came from industrialization, within a few years, the Kawarthas Lakes would be marketed as a health resort—Dr. Wilson himself would appear in an advertising booklet promoting Fenelon Falls on the Kawartha Lakes as a destination for “Health, Rest & Enjoyment.” (Smith and Fell’s sawmill, which is the reason that the Fenelon Falls Beach Park was known for many years as Sawdust Bottom, had been located immediately below Nevison’s house, but nine years before it was converted into a hospital, the mill had burned, not to be rebuilt). It was a wonderful location for the hospital, from Fidler’s Hill, they could look west over lake, and enjoy the summer breeze. The hospital was one of the few buildings in town that was served by a telephone—for the convenience of the doctor.

Much of the hospital’s business came from treating Howry’s employees—such as sawmill and logging camp injuries. In February 1896, a patient took the train down from the shanty, having lost his way while travelling from the headquarters to his camp. His hands had frozen from exposure. In addition to the business that would come from local industry, Dr. Wilson tried to finance the hospital on a subscription model, as explained in the Fenelon Falls Gazette on November 15, 1895:

As there has always been a difficulty about getting sick or injured men convenient and suitable lodging, in which they can have the quietness and skillful nursing necessary to their speedy recovery, Dr.

A. Wilson has rented Mr. J.J. Nevison’s house on Fidler’s Hill and

fitted it up as a hospital similar to many that have been instituted and are now being run successfully in other parts of Ontario and the lumbering districts of the United States. In Fenelon Falls, as well as in other places having mills or factories, there are many men, married as well as single, whose homes and relatives are elsewhere; and when one of them falls sick or meets with an accident he at once becomes a troublesome and unwelcome inmate of the hotel or boarding house at which he has been living, and the cost of his maintenance and medical attendance during his period of enforced idleness in many cases keeps him in debt for a long time after he becomes able to return to work. It is to meet such cases that Dr. Wilson has opened his hospital, and he makes no claim that he has done so out of pure philanthropy, but in the hope that it will prove beneficial to him and his patients. He has printed a considerable number of $5 yearly tickets and $3 half-yearly tickets which are sold only to men in good health and the purchaser of one is entitled—if he falls ill or meet with an accident—to board, nursing, and medical attendance in the hospital and to enjoy all its privileges by paying in advance, or giving security for the payment of a weekly fee of $8. Persons suffering from contagious diseases will not be admitted into the hospital, but should it prove a success, an isolated building for reception of such cases will probably be secured.”

Unfortunately for Dr. Wilson, the hospital proved to be short-lived. 1896 was catastrophic for Howry’s lumber business. On June 19, their lumber yard caught fire and turned into a massive conflagration that could be seen twenty miles away—it was so bright that night that “you could see to read a newspaper on the Church Hill [across town] at midnight as plainly as in daylight.” Then on September 9, the mill burned and locals started to speculate if the company would rebuild. It was already bankrupt—the produce that had burned was worth far more than the mill. John H. Howry slipped out of town on a special train, never to be seen again. His famous father, John W. Howry committed suicide on a train in Kansas City by drinking morphine, leaving a note that he was ending his life because of his financial troubles. After his Minden ventures failed, J.J. Nevison returned home to Fenelon Falls the same year.

With the demise of Howry’s Red Mill and the return of the hospital’s landlord home to Fenelon Falls, it seems that Wilson’s venture was no longer financially viable. Few local families made it a priority to buy the medical insurance that a hospital subscription offered—$5 would be a significant expense for families. However, within a year, a public campaign began to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (1897) by founding a hospital in Lindsay. Many locals donated to the cause and on November 20, 1902, there was much fanfare on Kent Street, as Victoria County was now served by a hospital. The Ross Memorial Hospital would be managed by a board of governors that included the Mayor of Lindsay and Warden of Victoria County. It operated on a more public, and charitable model than Dr. Wilson’s hospital, though free, universal medicare was still decades away.

Though his Fenelon Falls hospital disappeared soon after it opened, Dr. Wilson would practice until about 1910. Two years earlier, he stood unsuccessfully as Liberal Candidate for the Victoria Riding, defeated by Sam Hughes (4315-3277). Despite his unsuccessful bid for parliament, he served his community in many other ways, as choir director for the Methodist (later United) Church, Chair of the Schoolboard, President of the Board of Trade and Fenelon Falls councillor for three terms. His profession led him to be the local medical officer of health, associate county coroner and district surgeon for the Grand Trunk Railroad. He enjoyed membership in the Loyal Orange Lodge, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and the Masonic Lodge. Dr. H.B. Johnson took over his medical practice when he retired.

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