Laona, Wisconsin – The choice for the Northwestern medical school graduate had been difficult, a partnership with a noted Chicago surgeon, or a practice in a small northern Wisconsin lumber town.
Dr. Ernest Ovitz, a star pitcher in the Big Ten and briefly a Chicago Cub, startled friends with his decision. It would be the timber country.
Now, it was 1914, and the doctor, wearing snowshoes, was trudging through snow drifts that piled six feet deep. He followed a ribbon of a road that cut through the virgin timber toward Cavour. The icy air cut into his face and stung his hands. It was almost 40 below zero. A raw wind showered snow from the tops of pines into the solitary figure below. Miles away, a Cavour woman was about to have a baby. Howls of a wolf pack echoed through the woods. Doctor Ovitz shrugged, adjusted the heavy medical pack on his back and battled on.
Needed Iron Will – “This job may be more than I bargained for,” he thought. But he persevered, finally getting to the cabin at mid-night and warmed his numb fingers at the fireplace. Then he delivered a healthy little child.
The harrowing journey would be only one of many he would make in the next few decades.
As the years slipped by, his job got tougher - yet his love for the sawmill town grew. It took endurance and an iron will to attend to his patients during the long, severe winters. An ex-athlete, he was in condition to do it.
Besides his medical practice, he served as company physician for the Connor Lumber and Land Company and he had a contract with the Flanner Lumber Company, which operated a mill and three logging camps in the Blackwell area, five miles from Laona.
“Those Blackwell calls were the bane of my existence,” he recalls. “With no plows to clear the roads after a snowfall, whenever I got a call that some woodsman was killed or injured in Blackwell, I had to saddle my Indian pony or ride down the railroad tracks on a section Peed.”
Had to Break Trail – “The slightest irregularity of the rails could make the contraption jump the tracks and one night I landed in a snow bank with the machine and both companions on top of me.”
“When the snow got deep I rode the pony. There were times when the drifts were so deep I had to dismount and break trail for the horse. It was often so bitterly cold that my legs would be numb from my thighs to my boots and after trips like this the tears would be forming icicles on my lashes by the time I came within sight of Laona.”
Hired by the government to treat Indians living in the woods, Ovitz was often guided in to snowy woodlands by Henry Richie, a Potawatomi interpreter. They traveled over the wilderness trails by horse drawn bobsled. Several times while they were racing a woman to the hospital the stork beat them and they had to deliver the baby on the bobsled.
“In those days,” Ovitz reminisced, “the Indians preferred to be treated by tribal medicine men. They were suspicious of doctors and, as a result, I would seldom be called unless all else failed and they were virtually at death’s door. Then a member of the family would go on foot or horseback to the nearest town or camp to relay a call for help to the Indian agency office in Laona. Richie was employed by the agency to keep the stable of ponies ready for such emergencies and guide me to the homes in the backwoods.”
Primitive Conditions – When the Indians were too ill to be moved, the doctor had to care for them under the most primitive conditions. He delivered several babies as their mothers lay on balsam boughs.
But there were lighter moments for the country doctor too.
One day Chief Shawn Shabodock dropped into his office to ask for a quart of castor oil. A week later, the chief returned with the same request. “I was puzzled that a quart hadn’t been sufficient,” Ovitz said, “so I told him I’d better give him an examination.” Aghast at the suggestion, the proud chief declared, “Medicine not for me; for wagon wheels.”
“Shawn was one of the aristocrats of his race,” Ovitz says. “He was over six feet tall and stood straight as an arrow. Regal in bearing, he never came to town without his headdress and tomahawk. One of the last to cling to native customs, Shawn was nonetheless a shrewd fellow and no one took advantage of him. I’ll never forget one of the early stories circulating about his banking.”
“Shawn had one of the last large herds of Indian ponies in northern Wisconsin and – hard pressed for cash one year – he went to the bank to ask for a loan. A banker in Crandon asked him what collateral he could put up as security for the loan. Shawn told him about the herd of horsed. Six months later when the chief went back to repay the loan, he was carrying such a large roll of bills that the banker asked him if he didn’t want to put the money in the bank.” Looking sternly at the banker, the chief replied, “How many horses you got?”
As he earned the respect of Indians, the Forest county physician was invited to watch native dances performed around the campfire. And grateful patients began bringing him gifts of fancy beadwork and handmade moccasins.
Fetched the Doctor – One Potawatomi was especially thankful for the way the doctor had fashioned a steel plate to reinforce his badly broken thigh bone. “You like to fish?” the Indian asked Ovitz. “Sure do” Ovitz replied. “Will return in spring” said the Indian.
True to his word, the Potawatomi pulled up in his wagon several months later and marched
inside to fetch the doctor. They rode in the wagon to Wabikon Lake, west of Laona, and
tied the horses. “He pulled a canoe out of the bushes, ” the doctor said, “and he paddled
me across the lake to its inlet, then up a corridor to the source of the stream. It was the
wildest, most beautiful country I had ever seen. I caught 35 trout in one pool!”
Favorite Retreat – When they beached the canoe on their return, the Indian pointed to it
and said: “Yours.” The stream teeming with trout became the doctor’s favorite retreat. He
grew to be as proficient with a fly rod as he was with a scalpel. He learned to tie trout flies
that fish scarcely could resist.
Life in the sawmill town had its good moments - and bad ones, too.
Husky lumberjacks came to celebrate every Saturday night and the saloons saw plenty of
action. Several times the doctor was called to a saloon “snake room,” where drunks dried
out, to perform surgery by lamplight on a wounded lumberjack.
Got Stuck in Mud – This tough breed of man disappeared almost as fast as the virgin
timber. Ovitz remembers the days when the sun could barely penetrate to the forest’s
floor through the canopy of branches. “When I stepped out the hospital door I faced the
forest which stretched out for miles,” he said.
“Many of the roads were scarcely more than wagon ruts blazed between the stumps.
Today motorists skim over blacktop roads crossing swampy sections where my King
car used to get mired down every spring.” “Many’s the moonlit night that I spent hours
jacking and prying the car out of mud to the yodeling of coyotes circling the hills.”
Laona battled typhoid, smallpox and flu epidemics in those early days – some so bad
that the doctor literally went from house to house to treat patients. Fires were a problem,
too, leveling a number a number of wooden buildings there. A blaze destroyed the three
story hospital in 1919 on a winter day so cold that the water froze in the horses of the horse drawn firemen’s wagon.
Slept in Canoe – The burden on a doctor was great. Some nights after an emergency call, he would set out for his Indian Springs fishing hole and catch a string of trout. “Then I’d curl up in the canoe and sleep there until dawn, when I’d get up and make my hospital rounds,” he said.
Over the years the stress took its toll. Nineteen years ago the doctor came to a sad realization: he had an ailing heart. Long noted for his diagnostic ability, Ovitz was one doctor wise enough to abide by the verdict of another.
Freed by retirement to pursue the outdoor life he loves, Ovitz worked hard to improve his secluded cabin overlooking his favorite stream. Today it’s furnished with many of the items he has turned out in his woodworking shop. He raised vegetables in a small garden behind the cabin and entertains his wild callers - like deer and bear - with its produce.
His wife Annabel, a former school teacher, joins him occasionally at the retreat to hunt, fish or paint.
“Here, in the midst of my sportsmen’s paradise, I can really appreciate nature, he says. “On warm days, when I drift down the stream in my canoe, I think back of my choice to settle here a half century ago and I’m convinced I was right.”
~ End of Story ~