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Dr. Howard, A Country Doctor in Southwest Michigan

December 22, 2020 Archive Insight
Head and torso of man with beard/sideburns around the edge of his face, wearing jacket

Dr. Alonson B. Howard, Jr. in his early 40s, 1865–66 / THF109611

Since 1963, Greenfield Village has been home to the office of a country doctor named Alonson Bingley Howard, Jr. This modest, red-painted building was originally located near the village of Tekonsha, about 15 miles south of Marshall in south central Michigan. Back in 1855, Dr. Howard set up his medical practice inside this building, which had begun life as a one-room schoolhouse. After Dr. Howard’s death in 1883, his wife, Cynthia, padlocked the building with all its contents inside.

Room with one window and shelves covering almost all visible wall space, containing bottles, jars, papers, books
Interior of Dr. Howard’s office on its original site before its move to Greenfield Village, ca. 1956 / THF109609

There it remained, undisturbed, until the 1930s, when Dr. Howard’s great-grandson, Howard Washburn, began to take a deep interest in the building’s history. He not only sifted through his great-grandfather’s papers and medical books, but also collected reminiscences from those who still remembered him. Washburn was ultimately instrumental in the move of the building to Greenfield Village, which occurred between 1959 and 1961.

Small red building with white trim set on green lawn with trees, roads, and a streetlamp nearby
Dr. Howard’s office in its location in Greenfield Village since 2003. / THF1696

During a major renovation of Greenfield Village in 2003, Dr. Howard’s office was moved to its current location on the Village Green. The building’s history received new scrutiny and the interior was refurbished to the era of his medical practice in the early 1860s.

To prepare for a September 2020 filming of an episode of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, I had the opportunity to revisit and expand upon our knowledge of Dr. Howard’s background, medical practice, and the community within which he lived and worked. By looking at new sources and asking new questions, a more nuanced picture than ever before emerges.

Meet Dr. Howard


During the 1830s and 1840s, white settlement grew by leaps and bounds in southern Michigan. Those particularly prone to “emigration fever” at the time came from New England and upstate New York (following the path of the Erie Canal, completed in 1825). The emigration of the Howard family to Michigan followed a typical pattern of white settlement to the area.

Portrait of man in suitcoat, jacket or vest, and tie, sitting with hands crossed on knee, in intricate frame; also contains text
Dr. Howard’s father, Alonson Howard Sr., ca. 1860 / THF237220

Alonson Howard Jr. was 20 years old when his family (parents and six siblings) emigrated from Sweden, New York (about 19 miles west of Rochester) to Michigan in 1843. The Howard family settled in Tekonsha Township, Calhoun County, Michigan. Alonson Sr., 45 years old at the time of his family’s emigration to Michigan, purchased farmland for all seven of his children. This farmland was located on a flat, heavily wooded plain of the St. Joseph River called the Windfall section (so named because of the “chaos” of fallen timber that had not been cleared). The family farm was appropriately named Windfall Farm.

Three buildings among trees along a road
The office can be seen at left, along the road in front of Windfall Farm, 1956 / THF237140

In 1844, Alonson Jr. married Letitia Cone (1823–57), whose family had emigrated to Michigan from upstate New York during the 1830s. They had three children: Ella (1846–48), Herbert (1849–63), and Truman (1852–1923). In the 1850 census, Alonson Jr. referred to himself as a farmer.

Framed portrait of woman in dress with hair in two long coils on either side of her face, holding a young child
Dr. Howard’s wife, Cynthia, holding daughter Letitia (named after his first wife), 1865-66 / THF237222

Sadly, Alonson Jr.’s wife, Letitia, passed away in 1857. In August 1858, he married Cynthia Coryell Edmunds (1832 or 1833–99). Her family, originally from New England, had emigrated to Calhoun County in the 1830s by way of New York, Canada, and Ohio. According to family reminiscences, Cynthia was greatly loved by both family members and neighbors. She was “an easy housekeeper,” an excellent cook, a gentle, loving person, and an indulgent stepmother to Truman and Herbert. Family lore recounts she feared the Howard relatives might think she had been neglectful of Herbert when he tragically died of measles (a deadly infectious disease at the time) in 1863.

Four children with glum expressions
Alonson Jr. and Cynthia’s four children, ca. 1870. Front, left to right: Mattie, Camer, and Letitia; rear: Manchie / THF109605

Four children were born to Alonson Jr. and Cynthia: Manchie (1861–1921), Letitia (1864–1936), Mattie (1865–1940), and Camer (1868–1936). According to family history, both Manchie and Camer were named for Native American friends of their father.

Man with hair brushed back and white beard, wearing jacket
Dr. Howard, ca. 1880 / THF228450

As the decades passed, Alonson Jr. seems to have increasingly chosen medical practice as a full-time occupation over farming. In the 1860 census, he was still listed as a farmer, but by 1870, he was listed as a physician and, in 1880, a physician and surgeon. He passed away on October 12, 1883, of arteriosclerosis (then called softening of the brain, now known as hardening of the arteries). There were no effective remedies for this at the time.

According to reminiscences, Dr. Howard was remembered fondly by many as an intelligent, dedicated, forceful, and vigorous man who could be blunt and abrupt with adults when he detected affectation or pretense. He had a keen sense of humor and a lifelong love of learning.

Dr. Howard’s Medical Practice


Metal stethoscope
Physician’s folding stethoscope, ca. 1880 / THF152868

The unhealthiness of daily life in the mid-19th century may well be the most striking division between people’s lives in the past and how we live today. People did not yet realize the connection between unsanitary conditions and sickness. Nor did they understand the nature of germs and contagion and that diseases were transmitted this way.

As a result, infectious diseases were the leading causes of death at the time. These often reached epidemic proportions. Newborns might get infections of the lungs or the intestinal tract. Children were vulnerable to diphtheria, whooping cough, and scarlet fever, while the ordinary viral diseases of childhood—measles, mumps, and chicken pox—might turn deadly when followed by secondary bacterial infections. Adults might contract the life-threatening infectious diseases of cholera, typhoid fever, yellow fever, bacterial dysentery, pneumonia, malaria (or “intermittent fever”), and “the ague” (pulmonary tuberculosis, also called “consumption”). Women faced serious risks with repeated childbirths. Accidents were frequent killers; tetanus was a deadly threat.

Rectangular yellow paper package (similar to a wrapped bar of soap) containing decorative edging and text
Patent medicines, like these ca. 1880 Anti-Bilious Purgative Pills, were easily available, but they could contain dangerous, toxic, or habit-forming ingredients. / THF155683

American medicine was changing tremendously during the period in which Dr. Howard practiced, and approaches varied widely. Three types of medical practice vied for popularity: conventional (based upon the ancient Greek philosophy that the body’s system was made up of four circulating fluids or “humors”—blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile); homeopathic (a rather controversial approach which asserted that whatever created a disease would also cure it); and botanic (which utilized natural materials such as herbs, plants, bark, roots, and seeds to cure the patient). Those who could not find or afford a local doctor might try an off-the-shelf patent medicine, a family remedy, or a recipe found in a book or periodical.

Receipt on letterhead with handwritten list of items, quantities, and prices
Invoice from 1881 to Dr. Howard, showing the variety of equipment and ingredients that he purchased from this Detroit company. / THF620460

Dr. Howard did not stick to one type of medical practice. Instead, he chose from all three prevailing approaches based upon what seemed to work best for each illness and patient. This type of approach, referred to as “eclectic,” was quite popular at the time. Like other country doctors, Dr. Howard not only treated patients with the usual illnesses, cuts, burns, and animal bites, but he also performed surgery, obstetrics, and dentistry. In addition, he made his own pills and remedies—decades before the pharmaceutical industry produced commercial drugs and the Food and Drug Administration was established to approve them.

Black leather saddlebag filled with vials
A physician’s saddle bags, 1850-1870, used while visiting patients on horseback / THF166959

Although there were several physicians listed in local records, Dr. Howard’s account books list scores of patients who lived in Tekonsha Township and the surrounding countryside; larger towns like Marshall, Battle Creek, and Coldwater; and smaller communities like Jonesville, Burlington, and Union City. According to reminiscences, he was "out docktering" as much as he was in the office, “riding the circuit” from place to place around the region. He apparently visited patients during the week, sometimes staying overnight to tend the ill. He traveled by horse, and after 1870, by railroad. His office was open on weekends and story has it that, on those days, horses and buggies were lined up and down the road as patients awaited his services.

Native American Connections


No stories are more beloved in family lore than those that recount the friendship between Dr. Howard and the Native Americans who lived in the local area. According to reminiscences collected by Howard Washburn, Dr. Howard “cultivated a wide friendship with Indians at the Athens Reservation and learned how to use herbs and roots in treating illness.” Reference has already been made to the naming of two of his children after Native American acquaintances.

Page with handwritten cursive text
A page from Dr. Howard’s handwritten recipe book, 1864–68, reveals that his remedies included natural materials gathered from the local area. / THF620470

Washburn’s collection of reminiscences includes the following:

[Dr. Howard] used many roots and herbs, these were gathered for him from the woods on his farm and from around Nottaway Lake. He was friendly with the Pottawatomie [sic] Indians who had land there and over near Athens. He liked to have Indians gather herbs for him as they were more skilled and careful. Some of his recipes were Indian recipes and he had many friends in the tribe.

Charlie Hyatt of Tekonsha, who claimed to be part Indian, was living in 1950 and once called on us purposely to tell us that the Doctor had taught him the skill of herb gathering and had given him a book on herbs. He said that his mother was a Pottawatomie [sic] and that she and many others in the Tekonsha area supplemented their incomes by gathering herbs for Dr. Howard.


Dusty room containing furniture and a number of casks or barrels on their sides with handwriting on the tops
The photograph of these casks, taken in 1956 when the building was still in its original location, reveals the names of several extracts that Dr. Howard concocted for various remedies—many from plants and roots gathered in the local area. / THF109607

I became curious about these reminiscences because of the generally accepted—though, admittedly, white settler-based—perspective that the Potawatomi had virtually disappeared from the area by that time as a result of President Andrew Jackson’s notorious Indian Removal Act of 1830. These questions drove further research, ultimately leading to a richer, more substantive view of Potawatomi history in the area, Potawatomi-white settler connections, and conjecture about the friendship between Dr. Howard and local Potawatomi.

To make way for the ceaseless push of white settlement during the 1820s and 1830s, the U.S. government attempted to forcibly expel the Potawatomi from the area by means of a relentless series of treaties—totaling some 30 to 40 in all! A particularly significant one was the 1833 Second Treaty of Chicago, in which the U.S. government promised the Potawatomi new lands and annuity supplies in exchange for their removal over the next several years from southern Michigan (and portions of adjacent states) to reserved lands farther west (these lands and supplies were, for the most part, later reduced, delayed, or completely eliminated). At the time, the Potawatomi were told they could remain on their land until it was needed by white settlers, though much of the land had already been sold by then, as farmers and developers were eager to acquire land. Continued and renewed pressure for forcible removal of the Potawatomi persisted through the decade.

Not surprisingly, many Potawatomi were unwilling to relocate to unfamiliar territory farther west. Some fled to Canada, while others avoided relocation by taking refuge in remote places and becoming skilled at evading capture. Still others escaped north to join their “cousins”—the Odawa and Ojibway—in northern Michigan and Wisconsin.

When U.S. government agents finally left during the 1840s—assured that they had accomplished their task of successfully removing the Native Americans from the area—many Potawatomi quietly returned, unannounced and uncounted, to their old homes. The so-called Athens Reservation that is referred to in the Dr. Howard reminiscences is one such place. In 1845, with treaty annuity money, the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi purchased 80 (some sources say 120) acres on Pine Creek, near Athens, in Calhoun County. Influential chief John Moguago (1790–1863) led this effort. The band used the term “reservation” to denote land they had reserved for themselves, not land reserved for them by the U.S. government.

Corner of room with shallow wood shelves filled with baskets, bottles, and jars
For the 2003 installation in Greenfield Village, many of the contents of Dr. Howard’s original jars and bottles were recreated from ingredients listed in his recipe book—including dried plants, herbs, roots, bark, and seeds that would have been collected in the local area. / THF11280

Potawatomi who stayed on or returned began settling in—working out means of remaining permanently in the area, finding places to live, and searching for ways to earn a livelihood. They found support among local white citizens, who were by this time secure in their ownership of the ceded Potawatomi lands. The Potawatomi worked aggressively to demonstrate their ability to live among Anglo-Americans—seeking alliances with white merchants and actively pursuing white settlers’ help in purchasing land with their annuity monies. Meanwhile, contact with white settlers did not fundamentally alter their subsistence economy of horticulture (corn, beans, and squash), hunting, fishing, and collecting wild plants for food and healing. This was likely the scenario around the time that Dr. Howard was practicing medicine and might explain his friendship with them.

The Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi is still going strong today. On December 9, 1995, after a long, emotional road, the band was finally recognized by the U.S. government as an independent nation with its own self-government. This recognition opened many avenues for them to take care of their people and continue to work toward a prosperous government. Today, their homeland headquarters are at the Pine Creek Indian Reservation (previously referred to as the Athens Reservation), but the band also maintains 300 additional acres of land adjacent to the Reservation, and satellite offices in Grand Rapids, where members live, as well as in Kalamazoo, Calhoun, Ottawa, Kent, and Allegan Counties.

Conclusion


These are just a few of the stories we have uncovered about this building in Greenfield Village and the country doctor who practiced medicine here back when the building was located in southwestern Michigan. We continue to engage in new research and uncover new stories about Dr. Howard, his practice, and his community.

 

  • In 2013, several descendants of Dr. Alonson B. Howard Jr. made a pilgrimage to Greenfield Village to visit this building--read the story of their visit here.
  • The web site of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi can be found here.



Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

by Donna R. Braden, Michigan, healthcare, Dr. Howard's Office, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village

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