Text & photos submitted by Terry L. Ommen
For the first few years of Tulare County’s existence, there were no hospitals. The sick were cared for at home by loved ones, who oftentimes used old family remedies passed down through generations. If a doctor was available, the lucky patient might get a visit or two. If the infirm had no family or anyone else willing to provide care, or had no money to pay for it, the unfortunate sufferer had to rely on the county for assistance — all paid for from the “Indigent Sick Fund.”
By 1856, Tulare County had established a system that involved annually contracting with a doctor for care of needy patients. The physician provided room, board, medicine, clothing, etc., as part of the contract. Sometimes he was able to pay someone willing to lodge the unfortunate. Other times, he found a place that he could use to house several patients together, and that became the county hospital.
These early facilities were not always suited for good patient care, and the doctors were not always attentive to their responsibilities. As a result, physician care, or lack of it, actually put the lives of patients in jeopardy. For example, in 1862, after a hospital inspection, one Tulare County grand jury member was overheard to say, “One day in the county hospital and two days in the county jail would kill any man in the county.”
In 1864, county physician James Alonzo Webb used the second floor above the old brick church located in Visalia on Church Street for his hospital. One of his patients, Henry Smalltree, publicly complained about the care there. In an open letter to the Visalia Weekly Delta, Smalltree wrote, “The Dr. will go away and leave his patients two or three days at a time; men that are not able to help themselves, and men that need assis-tance. If they want anything to eat they must get it and cook it themselves the best they can. He comes home when he gets ready and the place called Hospital looks as if it had never been acquainted with water, and the rooms are full of sickening trash and the walls are lined with old spider webs….” So it wasn’t surprising that patients in county hospitals were frequently called “inmates.”
By 1873, Tulare County was ready for an upgrade. In February, the Board of Supervisors approved the purchase of a large lot in Visalia — nearly as large as a city block — on the northeast corner of Bridge and North streets (now called Murray Avenue) on which to build a county hospital. The following month, the $3,682 construction project was awarded to A. Beyer, and by July, Tulare County’s first county hospital was finished.
The two-story, 10-bedroom hospital had a “keeper,” who was responsible for maintaining the hospital building and caring for the basic needs of the patients, such as food and clothing, while the county physician was responsible for medical attention. For the next 16 years, the building served its purpose with occasional improvements and additions. But in the early morning hours on New Year’s Day 1889, a chimney fire started in the wood-framed building. Neighbors sounded the fire alarm and took action to rescue the patients. Miraculously, no one was injured or killed, but the building was destroyed.
A few months later, the county purchased a large house and surrounding acreage to be used as the county hospital and “poor farm.” The new site was in the county between Visalia and Tulare along the Visalia-Tulare Road. For the next few years, the location served as the county hospital then, in 1894, it too burned to the ground. Again, no patients were injured or killed. They were moved to temporary quarters in the Tulare County jail in Visalia.
In 1895, the Board of Supervisors authorized the building of another hospital. McDougall & Sons, architects from Bakersfield, drew up the plans, and Frank Sharples, a builder from Hanford, did the construction. The new $5,575 brick structure was finished in October on the old county hospital grounds back in Visalia.
The newspaper described the finished hospital: “On the first floor are several commodious wards with plenty of light and easy of ventilation. One of these rooms will be used for an operating room. The kitchen is on the north side, the hospital fronting the south. A large range will be put in the kitchen and connected with the hot water pipes that reach both floors. On the second floor are seven rooms besides the bathroom. These rooms are smaller than those below but large enough for every comfort. On this floor the family of the hospital will have their living rooms and also any female inmates who may be entered for care or treatment. The main part of the hospital is two stories in height while the east and west wings have but one floor. The doors from these wings to the main building are lined on both sides with heavy galvanized iron as a safeguard against fire. Steel laths instead of wooden laths are also used on the walls.”
As the county’s population grew, so did the need for more hospital space. In 1916, the county undertook serious planning for a new, more modern hospital. The existing site was deemed too small and the noise from the adjacent Santa Fe Railroad tracks added to the problem. Other Visalia sites were considered, but the site decision was made when the city of Tulare offered to donate an 18-acre parcel.
In November 1926, Tulare County entered into a construction contract for the new hospital. By 1928, the first phase of the project was finished. Tulare was the new home for the Tulare County Hospital.
The vacated Visalia hospital building at 408 E. Murray continued to be county property. It transitioned into the Tulare County Old People’s Home, providing care to about 100 elderly residents until about 1949, when it was closed.