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Day Tripping: Shall We Have a Hospital?

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - September 30, 2013

Nursing students

Students at Laconia Hospital’s nursing school.

I was on my way to the Laconia Public Library recently to do some story research. I had notebook, pen, and pencil in hand and was prepared for an afternoon of eventual eyestrain due to reading too many research books and staring too long at microfilm of old area newspapers.

When I do research, I get myself in the mindset ahead of time. No distractions and no heavy lunch that could cause mid-afternoon sleepiness. No scheduled appointments to interrupt or pull me away from the task at hand.

The idea of doing research was a good one but I found, upon entering the library, that I was immediately distracted. Not by a new book or video or anything along those lines. No, it was an exhibit that distracted me. I saw a sign that said “Shall we have a Hospital” and I was intrigued.

It’s happened before and I am sure it will happen again: I get interested in a new and wonderful exhibit in the second floor exhibition space of the library. A large circular room is the chosen space for the Laconia Historical and Museum Society’s changing exhibits. I’ve been thrilled with such past exhibits as the history of baseball in Laconia; as well as manufacturing, police, women’s clubs, and other exhibits/subject matter.

The historical society is a constant surprise in the fun and often-funky subjects they come up with. “Who would’ve thought of an exhibit on this or that subject?” I muse after viewing great displays of local memorabilia and historical items. Further, I always learn something I never knew before about the area and its history.

Thus, an exhibit on the Laconia medical world, I knew, would be fascinating. With all thoughts of my research project shoved aside, I made my way to the exhibit space and was immediately enthralled. Such alluring items as a mannequin dressed in a well-starched 1940s nurse’s uniform and old medical equipment lured me into the exhibit.

There was certainly a lot to see and read: A number of posters around the room with accompanying photos told the story, chronologically, of how Laconia’s push to provide a hospital came about. Subsequent posters and displays helped the story unfold.

It was not an easy task, I soon learned, to bring a hospital to the city.

The first display/poster was called “Local Matters” and was an enlargement of a Laconia Democrat newspaper article dated Nov. 27, 1891. The wording was verbose by today’s standards, but I love such writing from the Victorian period. (I have always wondered, did people really talk like that back then, or was it just that they wrote in a flowery, stylized manner?)

The article told of the need for a hospital and was entitled, “Shall we have a Hospital?”. It pointed out that Claremont and Exeter were on the move to supply their towns with a hospital. “In a town of this size, cases are frequently met with when parties falling sick are unable to command the attention and the pleasant surrounding for which they would gladly pay,” said the article. It went on to say that Laconia had a segment of the population that was needy and deserved medical care whether or not they could pay and another segment of those housed in boarding homes and rooms that also needed medical attention. A hospital where the sick could receive medical treatment, and rest and recover, whether they could pay or not, was called for.

The next poster drove home the point of the need for a hospital. The report was entitled “Grade Crossing Victims” and told the September 1897 story of a young couple gravely injured at a train crossing by a locomotive. “More than 30 minutes after the accident, the couple was transported to the Mt. Belknap House in Lakeport — physicians were sent for.” This event further demonstrated the need for “a place where sick people can go to recover their health and be sure of getting careful nursing in good, wholesome sanitary surroundings.”

If I were a physician or nurse, I wouldn’t want to miss this exhibit, I thought to myself. While, on the one hand, the old-time style of writing and a desire for “sanitary hospital surroundings” is laughable in today’s world of medicine, it also chronicles how our health system came about in Laconia. The pioneers of the drive for a hospital may seem outdated today but we can thank their forward-thinking actions when we receive good medical care today.


Mrs. J.F. Zebley was instrumental in raising funds for a Laconia hospital.

The story continued with poster boards tracing the good work of Mrs. J.F. Zebley, a Weirs summer resident and New York City year-round resident. She contributed to the fund to build a hospital in Laconia and helped further the cause over the years. (By the way, $1,500 was needed to get the project of a Cottage Hospital underway — not much in today’s world, but a sizeable sum in the late 1800s.)

Glass cases interspersed the posters with a photo of Mrs. Zebley. She gazes out from the photo with a pleasant half-smile, as if to say, “Come on, everyone, can’t you pony up a few dollars to see that this hospital gets built, for goodness sake?”

Mrs. Zebley was quite a mover and shaker in her day, and the display tells of her acts of kindness and fundraising in another newspaper article. It is not dated but must have been written in January in the late 1800s. It tells us that “Mrs. Zebley arrived in Laconia from New York City and commenced making New Year’s visits among the wealthy citizens with the purpose of raising $500 by subscription for the purchase of a collection of surgical instruments, books, etc. valued at $5,000 which Mrs. Zebley is determined shall be a part of the equipment of Laconia’s coming city hospital.”

It can be assumed this energetic and purposeful lady met her financial goal. She was probably among the happy guests at the Cottage Hospital dedication in a July 1898 ceremony. Old pamphlets from the event are part of the exhibit. The event took place on Court Street on the hospital lawn, with singing, skits, and band music, as well as speeches by hospital dignitaries. The Women’s Aid Association served ice cream and lemonade; ice cream and cake was 10 cents and lemonade was five cents!

Not long after, the Laconia Hospital School of Nursing was formed and the first student, Mary L. Gage, graduated. Soon after that, a respected Laconia citizen, Jeremiah Jewett, presented a deed for land in Laconia for a permanent hospital.

The timeline puts forth everything that went into the growth of a hospital in Laconia, up to the present day. I just loved the old black-and-white photos of nursing students and nurses from 1916 onward. (Many will be surprised to learn that a student nursing home was located next door to the present Lakes Region General Hospital; in the early days, young women got good on-the-job training by walking across the street and working in the hospital!)

As a lover of the PBS series Call the Midwife about 1950s nurses working in a poor section of London, I must say I am partial to their now-antiquated nursing uniforms. Thus, the uniform on display from the 1940s brought to mind the starched, almost fashionable garb from Call the Midwife!

Dr. John Perley.

Dr. John Perley.

Further exhibit cases were full of medical equipment now outdated but once the height of modern hospital instruments. I was thrilled to see a case of memorabilia from the early days of the Laconia Clinic. (My mother was a big believer in Dr. John Perley, one of the early clinic doctors.) What a wonderful surprise to see an old photo of the good doctor, as well as his Dr. J.R. Perley sign, among the display items.

The Laconia Clinic has its own history, which was covered in the exhibit. The clinic opened in 1938. Old photos of the founding doctors and the original brick clinic building are fascinating.

Perhaps less appealing but equally interesting are displays of old medical equipment such as early insulin syringes. The cold steel and the long needle sent a shiver through me; how much safer today’s medical equipment is by comparison!

“Shall we have a Hospital” is a great exhibit in keeping with the unusual and enlightening displays seen in this space every month throughout the year. The exhibit runs through November and is a must-see if you are a medical professional, a history buff, or just anyone who has memories of the city’s hospital and clinic in its earlier days.

For information on the exhibit, call the Laconia Public Library at 603-524-4775. The library is located at 695 Main Street in Laconia. 

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