By Sue Moore
“The little guys did it!” read the editorial from the Kalamazoo Gazette on December 15, 1969, according to Water Over the Dam, a history of the Village of Vicksburg. Who the “little guys” were and what they did is the history of Franklin Community Hospital, the predecessor of Bronson Vicksburg Hospital.
Added the editorial: “If you ever want an example of people working for people, this is the story to tell.”
A look back at how far this community has come in supporting its own hospital, tells a lot about the dedication of the residents and the medical staff that struggled to make high-quality health care a priority in the south Kalamazoo County area.
Rudimentary hospital services became available in 1909 in a home on Kalamazoo Avenue in Vicksburg. It was a two-bed operation with a nurse who opened her home to patients on the first floor. It closed a few years later. In 1921, Molly Franklin willed her home on North Main Street to be the next hospital to serve the public. It opened in 1924 as a seven bed unit and struggled to make ends meet until the village of Vicksburg’s elected trustees voted to take it over in 1927. Even then, it was unable to meet its bills and closed in 1929. By popular demand, it reopened in 1931.
An excerpt from Water Over the Dam:
“Between 1924-1951, village taxpayers were levied from one to two mills annually for operating expenses of the hospital, a tax which was removed when the operation became self-sufficient in 1952. When the need for larger and improved facilities became apparent in 1941, a hospital auxiliary called the Hospital Guild was formed to add additional services. Its first project was to promote the building of an addition, which was completed the next year, bringing the capacity to 20 beds. Almost immediately, it became apparent that this expanded facility was already inadequate. In 1948, the Guild became a nonprofit and a building fund drive netted $55,000 within a month to complete a 16-bed addition, with the largest gift being $2,500 from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation.
“By 1960, the hospital was often blessed with wall-to-wall patients, with the downstairs halls holding the overflow. Then came a very real challenge. In December, 1962, an independent area survey by the University of Michigan’s Bureau of Hospital Administration dealt an acute body blow to Vicksburg’s as-yet uncrystallized plans for enlarging its plant. The report concluded, “If the opportunity to express an opinion occurs, Bronson and Borgess hospitals governing bodies and medical staffs should build enlarged facilities of their own and encourage closing of the Vicksburg hospital. Relying on Kalamazoo is preferable to the continued operation of the 25-40 bed facility.
“The stubborn, never-say-die spirit that made the students of Vicksburg High School choose the Bulldog as their symbol was now evidenced by their elders. The U-M was right–Vicksburg did have a big investment in its hospital, not just financial, but emotional. Years of tender loving care had flowed from the hospital to the community and from the community to the hospital.
“The hospital board initiated a fund drive to raise $500,000 for an addition to the hospital building which would enable it to meet the stringent new requirements of the Michigan Department of Health. Pledges came in totaling $450,000 in short order. But all activities came to a halt in 1965 with the advent of Medicare. A completely new building would be needed to provide adequate hospital facilities.
The New Hospital Takes Shape in a Cornfield
“Despite an undercurrent of dire prophecies and muttered comments as to the futility of sending good money after bad, or pouring money down a rat hole, the response by the general citizenry was again heartening. On a momentous day in October 1968, ground was broken to build a 50-bed hospital on N. Boulevard in Vicksburg that would ultimately cost over $1.3 million. Bonds were sold to meet construction costs to the tune of $650,000. Big chunks of the local share came eventually from foundations and corporations, and they all said they wouldn’t have given the money if the little guys hadn’t been behind it. But behind it they were, with payroll deductions at the schools and factories, and with meaningful, dig-deep-in-the pocket contributions from thousands of concerned well-wishers. The opening day dedication ceremony took place on December 14, 1969. The Gazette called the sprawling one-story building, ‘a crown jewel in a cornfield’ that was constructed to serve an estimated 18,000 people in a service area of eight townships and two small villages.”
Having a local hospital helped to attract Dr. Lloyd Appell, who arrived in Vicksburg in 1955, just as a tornado blew through the village. Fortunately, that did not deter he and Grace from settling here and becoming an integral part of the community. The same could be said for Drs. David and Paula Schriemer in 1989. Having the hospital close by meant they did not have to send their patients to Kalamazoo, where it would take a valuable hour out of their daily schedule if they had to travel back and forth to visit a patient.
Once the hospital was sold by the village in 1985 for $1, slowly some services ceased to exist and were moved to Bronson in Kalamazoo. It closed the primary care beds in late 2003 and mid 2006 but have continued to offer outpatient services to this day. The challenge for the future will be to find a higher and better use for the facility that is still in very good condition, thanks to the care that Bronson has given the building over the last 45 years.