Ronceverte physicians leaders of medicine for Greenbrier Valley
By Doug Hylton
When incorporated in 1882, Ronceverte was becoming a prosperous town. Established as a rail center when the C&O Railway was expanded across the mountains from Clifton Forge in 1872, the town was a passenger and freight center for Greenbrier County.
As the rich timber from Pocahontas County was floated down the Greenbrier River to Ronceverte, the sawmills of the St. Lawrence Boom and Manufacturing Company, the Greenbrier Lumber Company and the New York Hoop Company turned Ronceverte into a lumber center. Also founded was the Ronceverte Flour Mill, which promoted the town as an agrarian center for farmers in the area as it had been when the Edgar family owned the property as a family farm.
Schools were established in 1875, and with the growth of the town, a larger facility for white children was constructed in 1882. Black children remained in the older facility until a new school was opened in 1887 called “Maple Grove Colored School.” Churches sprang up within the town. Meeting first at the saw mill, worshipers sat on the lumber for seats in the summer and met in the old depot in the winter. In 1881, the Ronceverte Union Church, located on Monroe (Pennsylvania) Avenue, was shared by the Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Baptists while the various congregations established their own places for worship; the Episcopal Church in 1882, the Christian Church in 1886, and the Baptist Church in 1883. The Methodists had established their building in 1878 on East Main Street.
The 500 residents of this new little community were also in need of having their health and welfare needs attended to. According to records, when Ronceverte was incorporated in 1882, the town was served by two doctors. Dr. Milan A. Gates and Dr. Phillip David “P. D.” Grove practiced medicine in the town. Dr. Gates was born in Lansing, Mich., on April 3, 1856 and died in Ronceverte on September 10, 1910. Dr. Gates practiced medicine and surgery in Ronceverte from 1880 until his death. For 25 years, he was a surgeon for the C&O Railway. He also served on the Ronceverte City Council for over 10 years, spanning from 1896 through 1906.
Photo 1: Dr. Milan A. Gates
Dr. Phillip D. Grove arrived about the same time as Dr. Gates and set up a general medical practice in Ronceverte. Dr. Grove died in 1889. His son, Dr. Jacob Paxton Grove, was a general practitioner in the community. His daughter, Julia, married Mr. James R. Johnson, cashier and later a director in the Ronceverte National Bank. They lived their entire lives in Ronceverte.
Photo 2: Phillip D. and Margaret Shields Grove
By 1885, the Ronceverte City Council determined that the city needed a committee to oversee the health and safety of the residents, and in February established a health board consisting of three doctors. By this time, a third doctor, Dr. William Campbell, had arrived in Ronceverte. Campbell’s office was located on West Edgar Avenue, which today is a private residence.
Photo 3: Dr. William Campbell circa 1883
Together, Drs. Gates, Grove and Campbell reported and made recommendations to the city council. Most responsibilities included reporting on the “sickness” in the town as well as making recommendations for attending to stagnant ditches, nuisance privies or unsafe areas were given. It was in 1888 that the group of physicians was joined by Dr. John Witt DeVeber, who replaced Dr. P. D. Grove on the health board.
The physicians were involved with ensuring the health, and the impression of health issues, of the town. On December 1, 1893, city council met to discuss the rumors coming from Lewisburg that there was small pox in Ronceverte. Apparently, there were small pox cases existing in Lewisburg. The council ordered that “guards be appointed to stand on duty at the three possible points of entrance on road to Lewisburg for shifts of eight hours each, to be released at the end of that time by other guards.” By February of 1894, the rumors had become so critical that the city council met in special session and voted to post the following notice:
Ronceverte, W. Va, Feb 10, 1894
To The General Public:
It having been brought to our notice that rumors are being industriously and maliciously circulated along the railroad and elsewhere that small pox was prevalent here, it was decided that some concerted action should be taken in exposing the falsity of the statement. A meeting of citizens was consequently held on Friday night, February 9th, 1894, for this purpose, A. F. Denning being elected Chairman and Wm. B. Blake Secretary, and a committee of five citizens was appointed to give expression to the facts in the case. The Committee reported as follows:
There is not, and never has been, a case of either small pox or varioloid within the town or nearer than three miles of it, and that from the arrangements and precautions being taken there is no likelihood of there being. The insulation at Lewisburg is now much more encouraging than it has been at any previous time for the effectual stamping out of the disease and we believe that all available precautions are being taken to that end and to prevent it reaching our town.
It is not our desire to unnecessarily expose any one to any danger from the disease, and should it reach here in the future we pledge ourselves to give prompt notice thereof publicly. On the other hand, it is only fair to our business interests that the falsity of the present rumors should be exposed. We earnestly request that every person who receives one of these notices will aid us in this matter by denying the false reports on every occasion that offers.
In support of the above we append the following certificates:
We, the undersigned, physicians of the town of Ronceverte, hereby certify that there is not and never has been a case of either small pox of varioloid in the town or within three miles of it, and that the statement made above by the Committee is correct.
M. A. Gates
J. W. deVeber
H. R. Johnson
I hereby that the above statement of the Committee and the certificate of physicians is correct in every respect. J. Geo. Reynolds, Mayor of Ronceverte
John Driscol Chas. N. Simms Robt C. Rodes