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Yesteryear’s Medical Mayhem

Putting away research materials now that my new book “An Eclectic History of Mendocino County” is done I got to thinking about how I came to be writing local history themed newspaper columns and books. It all started with Mendocino’s Dr. Preston in 2006.

Docent at any museum and you’ll find its archives being presented with objects of debatable value. One man’s trash may be another man’s (or museums) treasure…or worthy of a quick trip to a recycle bin. The Kelley House Museum was given a musty box from a basement in town of Dr. Preston’s papers. The treasure in the box was his medical records of dealings with Mendocino Lumber Company’s employees.

Remember, for 70 years there was an active timber harvest operation on the coast with logging camps, timber falling, railroads, mill work and shipping and innumerable ways to hurt yourself. There wasn’t a week that newspapers didn’t publish a short notice of who got injured (or killed) and how. So here I share Dr. Preston’s observations of injuries occurring while working for Mendocino Lumber Company.

Some injuries are obvious…but how do you go about fracturing your noose at work? What crushed the end of a man’s foot in the Caspar woods? How do you contuse an ankle…or your eyeball? What was a worker doing when he tore the tendons in his ankle? (He was given crutches and told to be back at work in three weeks). Mill equipment put steam burns on one man’s back and amputated the end of a thumb on another man.

Puncture wounds were common as shreds of wood and splinters flew off the saw blades in the mill. Getting stuck between rail cars when the started moving crushed the life out of more than one logger. Hurt yourself in the woods? If you were lucky a bus on rail wheels designed to haul workers had a fold down stretcher in it so you could be shipped to the doc in town.

Dr. Preston did good recordkeeping. His logbook identified the injured person and the nature of his injury. There were notes on the actions the doctor took, and most importantly, when the worker could return to his job full time. A visit to the doctor cost two dollars and I expect the company paid for that. He did not list fatalities, only the walking wounded who came, or were carried through his office door. The tattered logbook was dated 1926.

I wondered how many of the men listed by name in this ledger were the grandparents of elders on the coast today.

So, for me, that’s what started me writing about local history…a box of musty junk. One interesting thing I did learn, that others might enjoy noting, is to always check out postage stamps on old mail. There was no value to Dr. Preston’s old Phi Beta Kappa magazines but there WAS value to the stamps on the envelopes the magazine came in. We sold the stamps at a later silent auction and made money from them so I now always save old stamps.

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