Nearly everyone is aware that Oswego Hospital as we know it today was incorporated in January 1881. But does history suggest it had a predecessor? Yes and no. The Daily Advertiser and Times reported Nov. 15, 1869, that Oswego City Hospital was formed, adding, “This project seems fairly on its legs now, and will live and prosper.” Alas, Oswego City seems to have fallen victim to the infant mortality so prevalent in those times. Nothing further was heard of a hospital in Oswego until October 1880.
In 1880, a group of women joined forces to found a hospital. They formed themselves into an organization known as The Board of Lady Managers, and with some small assistance from the all-male finance committee established their hospital Jan. 11, 1881. The ladies occupied themselves with such matters as food, personnel, visiting hours, benefits and fancy dress balls. The men, meanwhile, were concerned with financing. How well the latter functioned is a matter for conjecture. News reports in 1890 related that “a major portion of the hospital’s assets is invested in the R. W. & O. Railroad.”
The women too had their troubles, as the benefits became more elaborate each year. By 1894, these opulent fund-raisers were abandoned, perhaps because they featured such esoteric entertainment as zither concerts and visits to the home of an unidentified matron who offered the public glimpses of her alabaster model of the Taj Mahal at 25 cents a look.
The first Oswego Hospital opened its doors in the Eagle House on West Second Street in April, 1881, providing six beds at rates ranging from $5 to $10 a week for private patients; $3.50 for “paying patients,” and $2.50 for “city poor.” Rental of the house was $175 a year; the Superintendent and Matron, Dennis and Hannah Dunsmore, were paid $25 a month and the cook received $2.50 a week.
Meanwhile, men of the finance committee were busy finding a site for a new, permanent hospital they realized was urgently needed to succeed the Eagle. Two sites were offered at no cost, the first being the Carrington estate on the East River Road, and the other a 100 by 200 foot lot on the west side of the West Fourth Street between Schuyler and Seneca Streets. It was the gift of Thomas S. Mott. There, in 1883, the new hospital was erected. Four years later a telephone was installed at a cost of $20 a year.
Despite elegant social affairs and generous donations, the hospital encountered tough sledding. Its 1894 operating profit was $616. But, resourceful as ever, ways were found to raise money. One device, pioneered by Diamond Match company and “other industrial groups,” involved deducting five cents per week from each employee’s wages for the benefit of the hospital. In another era a plan was conceived to enlist everyone in town to pay a penny a day toward operating costs, all $3.65 to be credited to a worker’s account in the event he or a member of his family was hospitalized. A newspaper noted with singular restraint, “It was not entirely successful.”
Oswego Hospital’s visiting hours, a source of vexation to this day, showed a remarkable elasticity. In 1881 family and friends could visit daily from 10 a.m. to noon. By 1895, the hours had shrunk to four per week – 3 to 5 p.m., Wednesdays and Saturdays.
In its early days, the hospital had strict rules about visitor and patient conduct, and the type of patients it would accept. Visitors were admonished not to bring in “edibles or bottles of any kind,” and those under care could be summarily discharged if they used “profane or indecent language, got drunk or behaved rudely.” By 1895, the type of care that would be delivered was defined as “all cases of injury or sickness excepting insane persons, inebriates, contagious, obstetrical, chronic and incurable diseases”.
Charter officers of Oswego Hospital were all women; namely, Mrs. Charles W. Pardee, president; Mrs. John T. Mott and Mrs. William R. Hosmer, vice presidents; Mrs. Sydney VanAuken, secretary, and Mrs. James D. McFarland, treasurer. Members of the board of Lady Managers were fined five cents for being tardy at any monthly meeting and ten cents for being absent.
About five years into the 20th century, it was clear to those associated with the hospital that the West Fourth Street building was overcrowded and obsolescent less that 25 years after it was erected by James Gibbs, a contractor, whose $8,214.00 bid was low. A search was initiated for another site, and in 1908 the DeWolfe property at West Sixth and Bridge Streets was purchased. After some modifications to the Victorian-style mansion, Fred Czirr was, on April 28, admitted as the first patient. Of more lasting import, the present site of Oswego hospital was established. A wing was added to the DeWolfe house in 1910; another in 1928; still another in 1949 and the final expansion to date was completed in 1969. DeWolfe, where it started, was meanwhile demolished.
The years 1915 and 1918 were memorable ones for Oswego Hospital. The former marked the introduction of the first x-ray machine, a gift of Benjamin T. chase, while the latter, of course, saw the infamous influenza epidemic strike here too in its nationwide trail of tragedy. The nursing staff was so decimated that volunteers and members of the hospital board were pressed into service to care for the scores of patients.
Among the World War 1 fund-raising drives was one entitled “Can for the Hospital.” The reference was to home-canned goods, of course.
The history of Oswego Hospital’s first 85 years is contained in a thoroughly researched paper presented before the Oswego county Historical Society in 1966 by Mrs. Charles F. Wells. It is from that paper and other sources at the society that these excerpts have been taken. This document is neither designed as nor intended to be definitive history in any way, or to do more that mention some of the more unusual sidebars to the story of the hospital’s fascinating past. It is a past in which many problems presented themselves, all of which were eventually solved. Yesterday’s determination provides inspiration for the future.