Dark clouds frame the old building, shrouded by heavy, leafy trees, going to seed. As I entered the Susan La Flesche Picotte Memorial Hospital early Tuesday afternoon, the rooms were chillier than most and ghosts seemed to pace the halls.
While some rooms have become alive with museum pieces like syringes, blood pressure gauges and glass breast pumps, other rooms are overcome with black mold and loose tiles. Water drips from the ceiling and windows are left open to let in some fresh air along with the puddles.
In one room, across from the memorabilia dedicated to Dr. Susan, a wheelchair sits quietly in a corner, flanked by an old mattress and a medicine cabinet easily worth hundreds of dollars in an antique store. In the next room, is a maternity ward, complete with beds for mother and child and a scale to monitor the child’s progress before dismissal.
It’s not difficult to imagine the countless lives haunting this one floor of the hospital, built in 1912 and opened in January 1913, due in large part to the national fundraising efforts of Dr. Susan and her family. Author Norma Kidd Green said Iron Eye’s Family had “short lives which cast long shadows,” and now, even in their third generation, they continue to serve the community and the hospital board.
After reading carefully, the plaques, documents and photos chronicling Dr. Susan’s life, it’s easy to see why Joe Starita, professor of journalism and well-known author fell in love with the heroine of his latest book, Warrior of the People.
Monday evening in this space, I waxed poetic about Susan and Susette La Flesche as doctor, journalist and leaders of the Omaha Tribe. Today I was given the chance to learn more about the sisters, their six brothers and sisters and numerous nieces, nephews and stepmothers. It seems Chief Iron Eye had at least three wives and possibly four, as was common among Omaha leaders of his day.
The Susan La Flesche Picotte Memorial Hospital closed after World War I, likely in the 1940s. It was open as a nursing home in the 1960s and volunteer Charmaine Lahmann said her sister remembers working there in 1969, when staff destroyed the hospital’s records while cleaning out the basement. The board later recreated birth certificates for many of the children born there, both Native and white.
Susan and Susette La Flesche were two of Iron Eye’s six children by his first wife Mary Gale. Second wife Elizabeth had three children and some of their descendants serve on the Susan La Flesche Picotte hospital board today. No children are recorded of Iron Eye’s third and fourth wives. By the time Walthill was platted, many of the chief’s family had died, but Mary, Marguerite and Susan were pioneer residents of the new little village.
In 1906, the women belonged to all the right civic organizations — the Eastern Star and the Women’s Club. Soon they helped launch a national fundraiser to build the hospital to meet the acute medical needs of the community.
Dr. Susan had served her people, first as agency physician since 1889 and then as a medical missionary and crusader for public health. In 1905, she was the first Native American appointed as a Presbyterian missionary. Her husband Henry died that same year of alcoholism. They had two sons.
But, it was another seven years before Dr. Susan was able to realize her dream of a hospital for Walthill. Ponca land that had once stretched beyond Nebraska, into Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, South Dakota, Iowa and beyond was first constrained into the northeast quadrant of Nebraska and now a small reservation surrounding Walthill.
After Dr. Susan died, her sister led an effort to reopen the hospital. It later became the nursing home and then a museum, now available only by appointment.
The Omaha and the Ponca are sister tribes, descendants from a common tribe and Iron Eye’s brother was a chief among the Ponca.