Peeking Into Lake City's Past

Pioneer Doctor was Civil War Hero and Statesman

On a cold winter day during the month of February, 1844, a United Brethren minister and his wife were blessed with the birth of a healthy baby boy. They named him Josiah McVay. Little did this humble man of God and his good wife realize that their newly born son would grow up to be a civil war hero, a colorful and highly respected member of the Iowa Senate and a dedicated pioneer doctor, performing sacrificial acts of mercy beyond the call of duty in his effort to heal sick people in Lake City and Calhoun County.

During the years Josiah was growing to manhood, his father changed church assignments quite often. He moved his family to Jefferson County, Iowa, when Josiah was seven years old, then later to Keokuk. When Josiah reached military age he joined the U. S. Union Army, enlisting in Company B, 36th Iowa infantry, on August 6, 1862, just 120 years ago. The commanding officer of the 36th Iowa was F. M. Drake, who was later to become Governor of Iowa.

History records some heroic events in Josiah McVay's military experiences, one such event taking place when his entire regiment was captured and taken prisoner by the Confederates. Josiah's company was interned in the prisoner of war camp at Andersonville, Georgia. Life in Andersonville was virtually unbearable. Armed guards patrolled the barbed wire enclosure and food was scarce. Prisoners received only one small cup or corn meal per day, which they were forced to cook with polluted water from rain barrels and ponds, over a bon-fire. Life was so hard over 1,200 Union soldiers died there during 1864 and 1865.

When Josiah was interned the war was in its later stages. Finally, word came that certain Union prisoners would be exchanged for an equal number of Confederates from Union prison camps and Josiah was happy to learn his name was among them. However, being the compassionate son of Godly parents, he allowed a fellow prisoner who was near death to be released, using his name. This meant, of course, that Josiah was stuck there for the duration or until his death, whichever would come first.

Luckily for Josiah, the war soon ended. He came out a living skeleton of skin and bones. Soon after leaving the Army he made preparations to study medicine. He began by working in the office of a well established physician in southeast Iowa, after which he received his medical degree from the Keokuk Medical College.

Josiah, like most young men, fell in love. His bride was an attractive young lady named Lucretia Morris. They were joined in matrimony and she became his life partner in 1873, after which they moved to Lake City to become the second doctor to set up a lifetime medical practice.

When the McVays arrived there was only one physician in Lake city. His name was Dr. F. C. Stewart, for whom our present Stewart Memorial Community Hospital was named. Dr. Stewart was the first permanent resident physician in Lake City, and Dr. Josiah McVay was the second. Three doctors came her before Stewart but none of them stayed very long, leaving to locate in more populous communities.

Doctors had a hard life during this time in history, contagious diseases were rampant in Calhoun County at certain times. Living conditions on the prairie were primitive, our land was swampy, insects were abundant. Unlike today, people were subjected to health trying exposures during both winter and summer. During epidemics, it was necessary for a young doctor to travel many miles to see patients, traveling over unimproved prairie roads and trails. To meet this challenge, J. D. McVay purchased the best horses he could find, using them to power his buggy in relays. When one team gave out he would exchange it for a fresh one. Josiah was a hard worker. He always said he wanted to die in the harness, and that he did.

Because money was scarce in Josiah's day he administered medical therapy to sick persons, regardless of whether or not they were able to pay for his services. He would accept nearly any commodity patients would offer in payment for services, such as honey, beef, pork, or feed for his horses. Alpha Owens wrote a story about an aged man named Clow who became violently ill. He told his family: "I'm so sick I may die. Send for McVay because if I die he will cancel his charge and if I live he will let me work out his fee." She also told of a personal experience involving the good doctor. "When Rockwell City was founded, my parents left Lake City to build a store in the new settlement. We lived on the second floor. I was then a child who contracted diphtheria, considered a fatal disease during the 1800's. I started having convulsive seizures, so in desperation, my father called our closest doctor in Manson. After his visit he told father not to call him again because I would die anyway. Father was so shaken by the doctor's analysis that he drove his team 14 miles to Lake City to get Dr. McVay, who told him there was about one chance in one hundred to save me but he would try for that one chance. There were no antitoxins for diphtheria, but Dr. McVay knew that yeast would help. He brought me through the ordeal and I grew to become a healthy women."

However, Alpha's illness caused her family to lose their business because people were afraid to come to their store. With such existing conditions, the Owens moved back to Lake City where they built an addition on their home, stocked it with groceries and were back in business.

During Dr. Josiah's career, small pox was one of the most terrifying epidemics. Among the many unfortunate victims was the Miles family. None of their neighbors dared to go near the family for fear of contracting the highly contagious disease. The word finally got to Dr. McVay, but by this time the stricken family were either bedfast or dead. Our pioneer doctor served the family as doctor, nurse, cook, housekeeper and undertaker. Dr. McVay personally buried the dead near their house. The Miles family burial ground is a vivid reminder of the tragic experiences of our pioneer ancestors. The Lake City community experienced one of the worst scarlet fever epidemics in the winter of 1892. Schools were closed for nearly two months and no one went anywhere. Numerous people especially children, lost their lives or suffered from the after effects of the malady.

It seems our subject was not only a dedicated medical man, but also an ardent politician. He was elected to the State Senate in 1885 where he served four years. He became recognized as one of Iowa's leading legislators, holding positions on important committees where he helped sponsor legislation for the benefit of Iowa's middle class citizens. In Josiah's day, the legislature convened every other year and was in session for just a few weeks or until urgent business was processed. Big government we know today has only been with us during the past forty years, it did not exist when McVay was in the Senate.

Stonebraker's "History of Calhoun County" tells of Lake City's first two permanent resident physicians, Dr. F. C. Stewart and Dr. J. D. McVay. Both graduated from the same medical school the same year and both were veterans of the Civil War. Dr. McVay was the president of the first medical society organized in Calhoun County and was a progressive member of the Central District Medical Association of Iowa, finally becoming president of the Iowa Association in 1886. The recommended fees set by the large association in 1876 were: office consultation, $1.00; first house call $2.00; each subsequent house call, $1.50; house calls over one mile from the office, $2.50. These fees were endorsed by 30 central Iowa physicians which included F. C. Stewart and J. D. McVay.

When Dr. J. D. McVay landed in Lake City just after Dr. Stewart in the year 1872, he built a new wood-frame office building on South Center Street. The structure was originally on the corner and later moved to its present location. It is undoubtedly one of the oldest structures in Lake City and is presently occupied by Lenny's Barber Shop.

Dr. Josiah McVay died in 1904. He lived an active, constructive and compassionate 60 years. When it was announced that Dr. McVay has passed away, it was an occasion of extreme sorrow. He had not been feeling well for several weeks but it was supposed by his family and friends that he was regaining his usual robust health. He had been working several days before his demise. On Sunday evening, April 10, 1904, he spend time at the home of his daughter, Mrs. A. B. Loosee, returning home after 8 p.m. when he was stricken with the heart attack that took his life.

Very few men in Calhoun County, according to The Graphic, were more widely known and respected than Dr. J. D. McVay. For more than a quarter of a century he was prominently identified with the best interests of Lake City community. He was the personification of loyalty to his many friends and to the principles of justice. Josiah McVay gathered a substantial financial net worth even though he experienced a most humble beginning. Josiah McVay was a competent man.

Dr. McVay's funeral was held in the large Woodlawn Christian Church (the one that burned in 1926) where he was an active member. His service was preceded by the Masonic order in their regalia, the local post of the Grand Army of the Republic, and the Women's Relief Corps, who came to conduct their brother and friend to his final resting place in the Lake City Cemetery. The cortege moved from his residence to the church where a large number of seats were reserved for their use. The marching line extended for over 1 blocks. The old church, large as it was, could not begin to hold the crowd. The casket bearers were: Samuel T. Hutchinson, A. C. Curtis, H. W. Crawford, Sam Cretzler, A. B. Roberts and W. B. Long.

It can be truly said that lake City is a better community because of strong roots like the McVays. In the tradition of our great country and especially rural America, the McVay lineage continues in Lake City. His daughter, Mrs. A. B. Loosee, was the wife of a Lake City businessman who operated a mercantile store in the building currently occupied by the Chalet dress shop on Main Street. Their descendants, some of whom still reside in this community, will be the subjects of next week's article on Lake City history.