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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Although medical history is not currently a focus of The Henry Ford’s collections, we do have numerous medical artifacts because they relate in some way to a different area of our collections, such as public life, transportation, buildings and architecture, or design. New Associate Curators of Digital Content, Katherine White and Ryan Jelso, combed through The Henry Ford’s collection looking for artifacts that were medically innovative, either as physical innovations or as representations of innovations in the medical profession. The objects they found were initially acquired for their relation to a different collections area, but they tie closely to the development of today's medical technologies and practices.
A Civil War surgeon used this government-issued Field Operating Kit, initially acquired by The Henry Ford as a public history artifact, at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May of 1863. It contains all the tools needed to perform the most common Civil War medical procedure – amputation.
New Weapons Technology Leads to New Surgical Techniques In 1849, French military officer Claude-Etienne Minié invented a hollow-based cylindrical bullet, which was more accurate over long distances than its predecessors and more quickly loaded into a rifle barrel due to its slightly smaller size. The minié bullet provided a significant advantage to those on the offensive; however, the bullet was immensely destructive to those on the defensive. Due to its hollow nature, the projectile became misshapen upon impact and its ragged edges caused significantly more internal damage than the solid bullets used previously.
Both the Union and Confederate Armies utilized the minié bullet extensively during the American Civil War. The damages wrought by this particular bullet surely contributed to the war’s astronomical death count, but also contributed to the advancement of amputation surgery. While amputation had been used throughout the ages, Civil War surgeons innovated numerous surgical advancements. Immediate amputation of an injured limb before infection spread to healthy tissue became standard and drastically decreased battlefield mortality rates.
The Henry Ford's broad transportation collection covers the motorization of ambulances during World War I. Take a look at a few archival photographs that document the Model T's role in this important part of ambulance history, here.
The Motorization of Medical Care The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries spurred technological innovations that would change how wars were conducted in the decades to come. By the beginning of World War I in the early 20th century, military units had become increasingly motorized, replacing the horses and wagons of past wars. Armies employed mechanized military vehicles like tanks, airplanes and submarines along with new forms of chemical warfare to inflict mass casualties during what became known as "The Great War." With a surge in casualties, quick transportation of the wounded away from the battlefronts to safer hospitals became a life-saving priority. To meet this need, volunteer services and individual armies experimented with and developed motor ambulance corps, eventually making them commonplace.
The torn up roads, heavily shelled areas, and muddy terrain of the war-torn European continent made lighter vehicles preferable. While other makes and models were present, lightweight Ford Model Ts made up a large percentage of the ambulances in service during World War I. The vehicles’ ability to traverse the war environment along with their easy maneuverability made them popular among ambulance drivers. Other advantages of Model T ambulances included their low cost, economical fuel usage, and ease of operation for the average solider or volunteer. The standardization of Model T parts also meant that maintenance for these ambulances could be performed readily, extending each vehicle's service life and allowing medical professionals to tend to the wounded quicker than ever before.
As a part of the historic building collection in Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford, Doc Howard's office serves as an example of the 19th century origins from which modern American medicine would evolve.
A Snapshot of Mid-19th Century Medicine Representative of a typical early rural doctor's office, this mid-19th century building is where Dr. Alonson Bingley Howard (1823-1883) practiced an eclectic combination of conventional, botanical, and homeopathic medicine. Born in New York, Howard moved to Tekonsha, Michigan, and began his career as a farmer, eventually deciding that he wanted to become a physician. He first attended Cleveland Medical College from 1850-1851, later entering the University of Michigan's School of Medicine, where he took classes from 1851-1852. Although medical school records list him as a non-graduate, Howard moved back to Tekonsha and went on to practice medicine until his death in 1883.
In the 19th century, medical professionals had a limited understanding of illnesses and often relied on bloodletting or other purging methods to "balance" the body and keep diseases at bay. Along with minor surgery, these common practices were available to Dr. Howard as he traveled across his community attending to pregnancies, chronic diseases, tuberculosis, dental problems, and various wounds. To aid him in treating his patients, he relied on the early pharmaceutical medicines that could be found on the market during this period. However, he also kept a laboratory in his office where he could experiment with developing his own medicines through a wide personal stock of plants and minerals.
Experimentation with Plywood Provides Medical Solution The Museum of Modern Art held a design competition in 1940 entitled Organic Design in Home Furnishings, which aimed to spur development of modern furniture that adequately addressed the era’s changing way of life. Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen, friends and peers at Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art, entered multiple molded plywood chair designs into the competition and won two of the six categories. At the time, molding or bending plywood was still a quite progressive process and molded plywood was not yet commonly used in mass-produced goods for the public. Along with his wife, Ray, Charles Eames continued experimentation with molded plywood after the competition.
America’s entry into World War II brought shortages of many materials, including metal. Splints for broken limbs had historically been produced of metal, although metal splints were not ideal for military use due to their weight and inflexibility. Charles and Ray Eames, perpetual problem-solvers, designed a lightweight, strong, and flexible leg splint produced through their innovative method of molding plywood. The Eames molded leg splint became a highly effective solution for the military as well as a highly sculptural design object.
Represented in The Henry Ford's large American public life collection is the late 19th- and early 20th-century phenomenon of patent medicines, over-the-counter drugs that consumers used to self-medicate.
Consumerism Helps Standardize Early Medicines In the late 19th century, an increasing body of medical knowledge had begun to revolutionize the practice of medicine. However, a lack of scientific understanding of early medical drugs meant that drugs used in treatment were often inadequate and could even exacerbate illnesses. At a time when disease was still widespread, Americans sought cures for any number of maladies and tried nearly anything to get relief. Entrepreneurs took advantage, using advertising to make claims and promise cures with manufactured patent medicines. Such patent medicines rose to popularity in the last quarter of the 19th century, but the industry was unregulated and manufacturers were secretive about their recipes.
Some of these concoctions contained harmful ingredients or ingredients used in unsafe quantities. Cocaine, alcohol, opium, and heroin were some of the common ingredients that could be found in early patent medicines. These examples, as well as other additives, could result in addiction or even death, prompting national legislation that prohibited misleading health claims and required manufacturers to list their product's contents. In the United States, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 helped stop the manufacture of drugs and products considered poisonous, adulterated or mislabeled.
Some of the patent medicines in our collection were analyzed in 2013 through a partnership between The Henry Ford's conservation staff and the Chemistry & Biochemistry Department at University of Detroit Mercy. Their findings, as well as more information on patent medicines can be found here in our Digital Collections.
An artifact, especially an innovative artifact, often has multidisciplinary significance. An object that is distinctly medical in nature may be equally as significant, or even more significant, as a public history or design history artifact. The Henry Ford’s collections boast countless significant artifacts with histories that reach across subject matter boundaries, such as this grouping of medically innovative artifacts.
By Katherine White and Ryan Jelso, Associate Curators, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. This post was made possible in part by our partners at Beaumont. Beaumont is a leading high-value health care network focused on extraordinary outcomes through education, innovation and compassion. For the latest health and wellness news, visit beaumont.org/health-wellness.
We’re continuing with the project we started this summer, digitizing materials related to our historic buildings in Greenfield Village. We’ve recently added photographs for a number of these buildings, including Dr. Howard’s Office. As Curator of Public Life Donna Braden notes in a 2013 blog post, Dr. Howard’s Office depicts a 19th century country doctor’s office, presented in large part through original artifacts from Alonson Howard’s practice in Tekonsha, Mich. This 1956 photograph shows an interior shot of the building on its original site, about five years before it was moved to Greenfield Village. Visit our collections website to view all the recently added material related to Dr. Howard’s Office.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
It’s always a thrill when we get to meet descendants of people connected with our Greenfield Village buildings. A few weeks ago, we hosted five descendants of Dr. Howard, whose Tekonsha, Mich., office is located out in the Village next to the Logan County Court House.
These five knowledgeable and enthusiastic members of the family came from North Dakota, California, and as far away as Australia! The group drove here together from North Dakota, visiting other family sites along the way—including, of course, the original site of Dr. Howard’s office in Tekonsha (near Marshall).
Dr. Howard’s office was brought to Greenfield Village to represent the office of a country doctor. It is particularly unique because virtually everything in the building is original and dates to the time of his practice.
Interior shots of Dr. Howard’s office in 1956, just before the building was moved to Greenfield Village.
Dr. Alonson Bingley Howard (1823-1883) was known to have a keen mind, an earthy sense of humor, and a colorful personality.
From the time he started his practice in the early 1850s until his death in 1883, Dr. Howard used a combination of methods to cure sick patients. These included herbal remedies that he concocted himself and more conventional medicines he had learned about while attending Cleveland Medical College and the University of Michigan for a few years. When he wasn’t in his office in Tekonsha, he was “out tending to patients” in the local area.
When Dr. Howard’s descendants came here a few weeks ago, they were hoping to unearth clues to this long-ago history that would build upon their previous research into family stories and genealogy. They spent a lot of time out in the building, talking to staff and visitors and taking loads of pictures. Then they combed through our archival collections that contained materials about their family and about the office.
We were delighted that they were also willing to let us interview them so they could tell us more about their family history—filling in gaps in our own knowledge, revealing new insights, and truly putting new life back into the Dr. Howard story.
Thanks, Corey, Dawn, Sue, Angela, and Fiona, for reminding us that people all over the world continue to have deep personal connections to our buildings in Greenfield Village. It was a pleasure meeting you and we hope you come back to visit again soon.
Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Ever heard of Alonson Bingley Howard Jr.? Well he’s actually someone we know quite well here at The Henry Ford. We call him Doc Howard and his office and garden are located in Greenfield Village.
Doc Howard practiced in Michigan around the time of the Civil War. He was, as we say now, a homeopathic doctor – creating his own concoctions and medicines from natural sources such as herbs, spices, elixirs, poultices, pills, waters, chemicals and minerals.