Early Pandemics in Richland Township, MI

This article delves into the harrowing experiences of early pioneers grappling with diseases in mosquito-infested swamps and forests, highlighting the grim reality of death as an omnipresent threat due to typhoid, diphtheria, swamp fever, smallpox, and more. With medical science in its infancy, the settlers faced these challenges with limited knowledge and resources, relying on traditional methods for diagnosis and treatment. The narrative underscores the establishment of makeshift hospitals and the community’s efforts to contain outbreaks, particularly the smallpox epidemic of 1873, through the actions of Dr. Hilary Savoy and others. It paints a vivid picture of the hardships endured, the communal response to health crises, and the evolution of medical practices in a time when every sickness was a battle against the unknown.

The Grim Reaper

by Lorenz H. Loesel

Tragedy, pathos, and inevitable death lurked in the swamps and mosquito-infested forests for the early pioneer. To this may be added the contaminated water and unprotected food that the pioneer consumed. Consequently, typhoid, diphtheria, swamp fever, smallpox, and many other diseases were the grim reapers among the defenseless victims. Sickness and death were accepted as a matter of events against which the individual had no recourse. Undrained fields, open wells, spoiled food, and other concomitant factors added to a high rate of mortality.

At this early date, medical science was still an abstraction. The diagnosis and prognosis of diseases were based primarily on tradition and guesswork. We must remind ourselves that the University of Michigan with its medical school was still struggling as a pioneering school and facilities were at a minimum. Even if a disease was identified, serums, antibiotics, and drugs were still in their infancy or had to wait for modern science to discover.

Turning back to our own community, we find that several early pioneers were labeled as doctors and presumably practiced medicine in this community. I am in no position to judge or appraise the competency of these men. The records indicate that as early as 1857 a certain Martin Cone had been a practicing physician in this area. Several other men were titled as physicians and apparently were accepted as medical men during these early days.

The first doctor of whom we have documented records is Dr. Hilary Savoy listed as a physician and surgeon. He played an important role during the smallpox epidemic which plagued this community in the year 1873. The records of the Township Board tell such a poignant story that it would be folly on my part to attempt to reword the course of events.

“Proceedings of the Board of Health of the Township of Richland in Smallpox Case July 12, 1873… On motion of Patrick O’Connor the following preamble and resolutions were adopted: Whereas it has come to the knowledge of the board that the disease known as smallpox exists in the township and whereas we deem it necessary for the public health that there be a hospital established where persons afflicted with said disease can be properly cared for and that certain limits shall be established within which no person shall enter and beyond which no person therein shall go… Therefore, resolved that the dwelling of Nathaniel Perkins and the shanty lately built on section 15 in said township about sixty rods from said Perkins’s house be and the same are hereby declared to be a hospital for cases of smallpox within the Township of Richland.” (This is the present place of Walter Bauer on the Lunney Road.) (1)

“Resolved that any and all persons who shall go within said limits or who being now within the same limits shall be prosecuted under the provisions of… Laws of Michigan… Resolved that Dr. Hilary Savoy now acting Physician for the Board of Health during the pleasure of the said Board of Health… Resolved that Mr. Fiting (August Fiting who was mentioned in previous chapters) cast a road around the Hospital limits the best and most convenient way, and with the least expense…” (1)

It is of particular interest to note and study the subsequent auditor’s report since it gives us the names and activities of the early township officials who had the responsibility of caring for the sick and enforcing the health code:

No.NameAmount ($)
1T. A. Porter8.16
2Dr. Savoy114.00
3J. Thompson5.00
4J. Campbell35.00
5J. King28.20
6J. Henry30.76
7J. Gaho2.50
8T. A. Porter13.78
9Dr. Jacob Myers16.58
Total amount of acts $255.91 allowed (1)

Resolved that a certain Mr. Phelps who now being well of Smallpox and wants to leave the hospital limits shall remain therein for the term of one week longer… Moved and supported that the supervisor be ordered to furnish and deliver 1600 ft. of lumber to rebuild a house or shanty as near as possible like the one destroyed by fire by order of the Board of Health….” (1)

This previous account of establishing and setting a limit for people to enter had special significance. Mr. Fiting, who had been a member of the Township Board and who had established the boundary for the township officials, asked the officials for permission to leave his farm. We turn to the record to gain the following picture, “His father bought the first reaper and mower ever seen in this township. When it was shipped in here the smallpox was raging in the neighborhood, and Mr. Fiting requested the Inspector (Dr. Savoy) to send the reaper into the neighborhood, assuring him that they would not expose the people outside, but the request was refused…. Upon going for it they were arrested and tried for exposing outside people but were afterward honorably discharged.” (2)

An additional report of the Township’s expenses for smallpox will give the reader a fair estimate of the severity of the epidemic. Furthermore, the list of names helps to establish the names which had been mentioned in other articles: J. King, owner of the store; J. Henry, sawmill proprietor, Dr. Savoy resident physician at Hemlock City; Dr. Myers, apparently a doctor from Saginaw; A. Bastwick, man who operated the Hemlock Hotel.

Township Clerk’s Report of Smallpox Expenses of 1873

DescriptionAmount ($)
To buy medicines and care of patients10.00
Order on Contingent Fund50.00
Goods furnished by T. A. Porter9.16
Dr. H. Savoy medical attention114.00
J. S. Campbell, Mrs.32.00
J. S. Thompson, making coffin5.00
J. King for groceries29.20
J. Henry for lumber30.76
J. Gaho work on shanty2.50
T. A. Porter goods furnished13.78
Dr. J. Myers as medical Council16.50
W. D. Pettit work on shanty2.00
P. Thomas hauling lumber7.00
George D. Anthony as committee60.75
Dr. H. Savoy medical service250.00
Mrs. C. Phelps28.00
J. Henry for lumber for Phelps19.00
Werner and Dreper as attorney15.00
T. A. Porter on Board of Health10.00
J. Porter as messenger5.00
T. A. Brown cost of lawsuit and court45.00
A. Bastwick Room for Board6.00
Allowed by County619.00
To be left on Town170.20

According to the township records, the small pox epidemic lasted from two to three months. It was rather difficult to give the number of deaths that occurred during this period. From my conversation with Mr, Earl and other people I gathered that each epidemic took a high toll of victims during these early years.

Next we come to the year of 1881 and we read a report in the township records as of February 18th. Dr. Hale directed this report to the township board since he was the practicing physician and health officer of Hemlock during ‘these years: “Pursuant to an enactment of the State Legislature, I hereby notify you {hat there are 8 cases of Diphtheria in the O’Conner Settlement. Mr. Perry’s people have 4 cases and one has died. There is no one to bury the dead and immediate help from you is needed.” (1)

Willam Petzer related to me that one of their neighbors had eight deaths in the family due to this raging disease. From records and reports, it seems that many more people died with diphtheria than with the previous disease of small pox. Since some of the men were in the lumber camps, it seems that some of the mothers were left alone when this dreadful scourge visited their home. In several cases they were unable to send word to their husbands informing them of the deaths within their homes. We must remember that during these days methods of communication, were practically unknown in the remote lumber regions.

As we examine the township minutes, we find that Dr. Hale’s place as Health Inspector was given to a certain Dr. Rinehart. Many of the older citizens of this community remember and recall the days of Dr. Rinehart.

During the turn of the century several other epidemics were creating great concern and worry among the people. However, the medical world and science had done much to improve their skill and technique so that these diseases were gradually conquered. Our community has been fortunate that it had competent and skillful doctors who contributed much to the health and welfare of the people. May we ever cherish and respect this noble profession in our midst.


  1. Richland Township Records
  2. History And Biographical Record, Chicago 1892.


Loesel, Lorenz H. Richland : its sons and daughters : a review of the first century of Richland Township, Saginaw County, Michigan, Hemlock, Michigan : Hemlock Herald-Merrill Monitor, 1962.

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