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(Seattle & Northern 1890)

Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
Subscribers Edition Stories & Photos
The most in-depth, comprehensive site about the Skagit.

Covers from British Columbia to Puget sound. Counties covered: Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan. An evolving history dedicated to the principle of committing random acts of historical kindness
Noel V. Bourasaw, editor (bullet) 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
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Dr. H.E. Cleveland, a Burlington legend

By Ray Jordan, in his book, Yarns of the Skagit Country, transcribed by Larry Spurling
(Dr. Cleveland and his 1935 Ford in 1939)
Dr. Cleveland and his 1935 Ford in 1939. Photo courtesy of Argus newspaper. See note below.

      He can't be true, but he was.
      The staccato beat of feminine heels sound on the stairway leading to the doctor's office in the old Knutzen Building and a young woman burst in.
      "Please doctor, could you do something for our dog. He's been run over by a car and he's injured terribly."
      The doctor, never startled by anything in this world looked up.
      "Why don't you take him to a vet?"
      "We've made the rounds and all the vets are out. Please, he's bleeding so badly that he won't live long if something isn't done soon."
      "Bring him up."
      The young woman and her husband tenderly bore the mangled little cocker in. The doctor took one look.
      "You're right. He won't last long bleeding that way. Lay him on the table."
      Then followed a masterpiece of mending. And this by a man who once read a paper he had written on the care of hip fractures to a meeting of eminent world doctors at Vienna, Austria.
      Once during the Great Dry Spell in the days before roads had penetrated the forests to any extent, the doctor took a camping trip on the South Fork of the Nooksack River. On the way out he was about pooped from boosting his generous bulk up the steep trail. As he stopped to blow, he delivered this profound remark to his wife:
      "Elvia, I'd give my soul for a drink."
      His prayer was answered. At this moment a gentleman extending a tin cup full of Mountain Ecstasy stepped out from behind a tree with this query:
      "Be you Doc Cleveland?" (From an unimpeachable source, but classified).

President of Washington Medical Association and country doc
      Dr. Cleveland was the only man in Washington coming from a city of less than 30,000 population who was ever elected president of the Washington State Medical Association (as of 1961). [Dr. Robert Hunter of Sedro-Woolley became president of the American Medical Association later.]
      Late one wintry night, he was making a rural call in is old Franklin car. While floundering across a field through the snow without a light he slid into a deep cesspool and had the devil's own time getting out. Hiram E. Cleveland, M.D., somewhat less fragrant than a rose and madder than a wet hen, stormed into the farmhouse with this [ultimatum].
      "If you don't get that dammed thing covered I don't care if you al die!" (And then broke his heart doing his best for the patient.)
      During World War II, a young soldier on furlough was out for a good time and on his way to a dance became involved in a minor car accident in which he received a nasty cut in his scalp. The doctor's office was closed so he drove to the residence where he was duly stitched up and sent on his way. Later, when his parents dropped by the office to pay the bill, the office girl could find no note of it. Finally, she asked:
      "Was he a service man?"
      "Then there'll be no charge, He often does that."
      In court as a witness he hewed to the line of integrity. If a state official or an insurance company wanted a battle they got it. Old Doc could sink them with a single broadside. He was awed by nothing that walked, flew or crawled.

Death of a sow and bedside manner
(Matthews Hospital)
Matthews Hospital, see note below.

      His comprehension of the reactions of the human mind and body was uncanny. A man with a bad heart was lying in the Burlington [Matthews] Hospital recovering from a goiter operation. This patient had a prize-winning, purebred sow at home of which he was very proud. Shortly after his operation the sow died from some cause.
      His wife felt that he should be told, but fearing the impact on the bad heart appealed to the doctor.
      "Do you think you could break the news without upsetting him too much?"
      Old Doc shoved the patient's door open and bawled:
      "Bill, that damned old hog of your died."
      Bill reacted just as Doc figured he would. Instead of disturbing his heart it merely made him angry. The string of cuss words that followed marked his turn for the better.
      Doc was a man of many facets. With his intelligence and versatility he could have succeeded in almost any line of endeavor. He could discourse learnedly on how to raise calves, the care of berries, how to swing an ax, or politics. No subject was too small to escape his notice. But for all this he remained a dedicated healer of man to the end. He took a particular pride in knowing a lot about the occupations of his patients. If one with an offbeat trade came in, Doc never let up until he had pumped the source dry of information, for this knowledge of occupational hazards was of immense benefit to his practice.
      Many a smashed-up logger had been heard to say, "Get me to Doc Cleveland. If anyone can patch me up, he can."
      A lady came into the office one day to have her ears pierced for earrings. Doc looked blank for a moment and then said that he had never done anything like that before, but added quickly, "I can do it though." He found an instrument and gleefully did the job. It made him happy because he had met a challenge and done something new.
      In another instance a man with a galloping toothache came to the dentist's office next door. Finding the dentist absent he headed for Old Doc who rustled a pair of forceps and yanked the molar out.
      "You know," he remarked afterward, "I couldn't let that man wander around in such pain when there was something I could do about it."
      When this writer was young and convinced that all the work had to be done in one day, Doc's stock preliminary diagnosis was:
      You're working too hard. Why don't you go on a toot for awhile and relax?" Then he would get down to brass tacks. And when making a call at our home after the business at hand was taken care of he would lower his big body into a rocking chair, rock contentedly for awhile and then say:
      "Get out your bottle of moonshine. I need a drink." He would always take a man-sized one, and neat.
      At the Darrington home of Dave Malone lay a very sick boy. There was just one thing to do: Call Cleveland. Darrington had a remarkable efficient doctor, but — well, in Dave's book he just wasn't Cleveland.Old Doc burned the road to the movie-like town. He threw back the covers, took on look at the boy's abdomen and roared:
      "Clean off the kitchen table! Boil water! Get going!" The operation was completely successful and added to Doc's legend, if that were possible.

Came from Minnesota in 1907
      Dr. Cleveland came to Burlington from Minnesota in 1907. His plan for the future was a clinic on the Mayo pattern. And although he soloed for some hears, he eventually saw his dream come true when the Cleveland's staff at various times were: Leo Trask (before World War I), W.V. King (1935-1942), M.T. MacAvelia, Roscoe McKinley, Floyd Baugh, and Walter Ebeling.
      For many of the early years he was a familiar figure driving hell-bent-for-election around the countryside when it was customary for a doctor to visit his patients. He was rougher than a cob on the then crude horseless carriages and always had two, one in the shop while he was making a wreck of the other on the road.
      He used to curse the bad roads and did his best to straighten out many a curve. He was a man in a hurry. "Dr. Cleveland has had another wreck," was familiar news around Burlington.
      For some time, "Very Poor People Free" appeared on his billheads. It was in fine print, and at the bottom, but it was there.
      "A martinet for cleanliness, he always said that regardless of a doctor's ability, he wasn't a real doctor unless he was sanitary.
      "Why do good surgical work and then let a patient die from infection?" he would ask.
      Around his office when things became too messy to suit him he would blow up a cyclone. Heads would roll, almost off the payroll.
      He was a master of precision surgery and expected others to conform. After a shave at Corley's Barber Shop one day, Old Doc rolled out of the chair, inspected himself in the mirror, ran a finger over his jowls and grunted acidly:
      "Well, a least you remembered for once to trim the whiskers out of the corners of my mouth."
      As he practiced and studied, he developed. In a back room of his office suite he set up a museum. There he pickled and exhibited just about everything that he had removed from a human body. One of his prized samples was a sixteen-pound tumor, which required a five-gallon container.

Innovator, known from Virginia Mason to Mayo Clinic
      Always searching for better scientific methods he was far ahead of his time. In the earliest days of colored movies he was quick to grasp its advantages and made many pictures of his operations, which he exhibited at medical meetings and hospitals. His reputation spread far beyond the confines of Skagit County. He became well known at the Mayo Clinic. For a long period he operated one day a week with Dr. James Tate Mason at the Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle.
      At one time or another he had patients from Alaska, Nebraska and other distant places under his care at the Matthews General Hospital in Burlington. With his prestige, he was down to earth and common as an old shoe, as the old saying goes, for he had know poverty and never forgot it, nor its victims.
      One display of surgical skill in which it is doubtful that he ever had an equal was Operation Stuffed Shirt. This he adroitly accomplished with a verbal scalpel, minus anesthetic. As far as known, Old Doc never lost a case of this nature, though sometimes it took a long time for an over-inflated ego to heal after such a puncture. Another innovation, perhaps unique in medical annals, was the use of whiskey in certain cases. After a tonsillectomy, if an adult patient complained of too much pain, Cleveland would administer a stiff drink. When the patient gasped that he was going to pass out, Old Doc would say:
      "That's what I want you to do. Then you'll be out of pain."
      In the operating room at the hospital he was The Dictator with his sharp commands and demands for exacting routine. But he shed much of this when he emerged from surgery. It is customary for surgeons, upon leaving the operating room, to clean up and appear neatly dressed before seeing convalescing patients, but Dr. Cleveland was a law unto himself. May times he never bothered until he had made his rounds.

Vucalus therapeutis, played no favorites
      Now Old Doc would be in his glory. Now he would put into practice what he called "vucalus therapeutis" for want of a better term. For some time here had been a titter from the rooms along the corridors as patients waited for the big diversion of the day, and often the impatient query.
      "Isn't he out of there yet?"
      He played no favorites. It bothered him not a whit whether it was his patient or not. Into each room he would charge, booming out laughing, pungent remarks and advice never recommended by sedate medical journals. From the rooms would come laughs, squeals, giggles, and sometimes-unvarnished strong talk.
      At times you would hear, "Hello butcher," or "Get to h _ _ _ out of here before my stitches tear out."
      One lady whom this humble scribe used to visit gasped one day after Doc had left and said weakly:
      "I'd die in this place if he didn't come in and insult me every day."
      Some people thought him too rough, but it was only a cloak to conceal the real man underneath. The purposed of his manner was to take people's mind off their ailments, and cover the soft heart in his big body.

Born and practiced in Minnesota
      Hiram E. Cleveland, M.D., Fellow of American College of Surgeons, and member of numerous other medical societies was born February 15, 1875, at Osakis, Minnesota [now a city of 60,000].
      He trained in Minnesota State teachers' college and taught in Minnesota schools for four years and then entered the University of Minnesota where he received his medical degree in 1901. He practiced in Osakis until 1907 before coming west to Burlington, Washington. During his practice in Osakis he was united in marriage (1903) to Elva Shake (sister of George Shake, who built and was the first operator of the service station now known as "Jeff's" (as of 1961).
      He had pleasant plans for the famous clinic he had fathered. In his later life he would turn the practice over to his staff, subject to his supervision. Then he would travel and take some much-needed rest. But this was not to be. World War II broke out in 1941 (for us) and in 1942 the Government called his staff doctors into service and he found himself back where he started, alone, but with a staggering practice. In spite of flagging health he doggedly continued to give all he had to his friends, the sick.
      For the last two years which were left to him he was plagued by a heart condition. Many times, due to shortness of breath and to conserve his failing strength, he was taken to the operating room in a wheel chair. Finally, he was confined to his home. His last doctoring was done flat on his back in bed. With building tenacity he continued to write prescriptions and give advice as long as his mind would serve him.
      On August 21, 1944, this great healer, benefactor of thousand, ended his mission of mercy on earth. Doc is dead, but we hope his fame never dies. He lies in the Acacia Cemetery in Seattle.
      If Skagit County ever gets around to erecting monuments to its most worthy sons, Old Doc should be high on the priority list.

      Ed. note: In 1924, Woodman "Granny" Matthews, a former schoolteacher at Hickson school, north of Sedro-Woolley, died and left a whopping estate. His heirs discovered that the bachelor had amassed a small fortune by investing in Samish-area timberland and one of his legacies was $10,000 to the Burlington Hospital, with the proviso that the name be changed to his last name. Apparently that did not happen immediately. Researcher Roger Peterson of Sedro-Woolley formerly owned a store in Burlington and he finds that the hospital did not change to the Matthews name until World War II, possibly after the death of Dr. Cleveland. We hope that a reader will know the history of doctors, nurses and medicine in Burlington, and can help us flesh out this story.
      The photo of Dr. Cleveland is from a special supplement to the Argus newspaper, which is part of the Skagit Weekly News Group, a division of the Skagit Valley Herald. This issue of September 2002, which celebrated the centennial of Burlington's incorporation and can still be obtained at the Argus office, featured photos from the collections of Mount Vernon barber Roger Fox and Burlington resident Georgia Stewart. She provided the rare photo of Dr. Cleveland. We are very impressed with these regular supplements, which are produced by Publisher Gregg McConnell and Rusty Robertson, among others. Robertson is the son of Dale Robertson, past president of the Sedro-Woolley Museum, and Rusty started studying local history and helping the museum when he was a freshman in high school. He volunteers many hours to help local history organizations and is to be commended. The Argus editor, Tony Flynn, also takes a personal interest in local history. Publications such as this one and the other county and city special issues from this group alone make a subscription to the Argus a very wise investment for lovers of Skagit county history.

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Story posted on May 17, 2003, and last updated on July 29, 2005
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