Dentistry in early days far different from today
(EDITOR’S NOTE — This vignette, written by Dr. FRANK THOMAS, a 30-year remember of First National Bank’s Board of Directors, was a part of HOWARD BAKER’s and JOHN NETHERTON’s Big South Fork Country, a pictorial review of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, published by Rutledge Hill Press of Nashville in the fall of 1993).
My father had been McCreary County’s only dentist for many years. From the time he died in 1946 until I was released by the Navy a few months later, there was no dentist in the county.
Establishing a practice back then was not difficult; the big problem was getting rest. Thirty-five years ago, when I left dental practice, you were expected to be on call twenty-four hours a day. There was always somebody wanting you to work on them because they had some sort of an emergency. The one thing my children remember about my practice is people coming by the house at night and on holidays and my going to the office with them. One Christmas Eve, when our twin daughters were less than two months old, I went to the office four times during the night to relieve pain. Between trips to the office and helping with the babies, I was exhausted. The next morning —just after my fourth trip to the office — I went to a friend who was leaving town for Christmas and asked if I could sleep at his house.
Nothing in the world made my wife madder than someone honking outside to call me to the door. If the phone rang, it didn’t upset her even if it awakened us. But someone honking infuriated her. Last Saturday, we went to pick up some friends and MARY suggested I honk to let them know we were there. "Oh, no," I said. "They’re not going to talk about me they way you used to talk about honkers."
MITCHELL THOMAS, my father, was a graduate of Vanderbilt and the first dentist here. Stearns was a new town and unusual for this part of the country. There was electrical service, water, and telephones in the homes. That was rare in small towns in Kentucky and Tennessee then. My mother, who was a thirteen year old girl in Huntsville when Stearns was founded in 1902, heard tales of rich men from Michigan building new towns, new mills, and a railroad. Most important, these people paid everyone on time and in full.
My father came to Stearns and stayed a couple of years, but he wasn’t getting the amount of dental practice he wanted. He was considering leaving when R. L. STEARNS urged him to stay. The company allowed him to pick the site he wanted and built a new home for him, a home my mother lived in for fifty-seven years. The rent for that eight-room house was $21 per month; the rent for the office was $7.50 per month, including heat and water.
A dentist was expected to make house calls on occasion. My first visit to a mining camp was when I tagged along with my father. I remember seeing rooms papered with old newspapers to keep cold air from seeping through the cracks in the walls.
My most humorous house call was to attend to a man well over eighty who was bedfast. My uncle, who was a physician, went along to check the old man’s heart. After doing what I thought was a pain-free extraction, the man relaxed and told us about his past dental experiences. He had worked on a steamship that traveled from Burnside to Nashville and he had visited several dentists along the river. He described in vivid detail their skill or lack thereof. Finally, he looked at me and stated that of all the dentists he had seen, one outshone them all. I puffed up and asked the obvious question, "Who was he?"
My uncle never forgot the answer: "There was a blacksmith who lived about a mile from here. He was the best tooth puller I ever seed."
FNB Chronicle, Vol. 5, No. 2 – Winter 1994
First National Bank
P.O. Box 4699
Oneida, TN 37841
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