First county physician was active, compassionate
(Editor’s Note: This is the second of two parts)
Robert M. Hunt was the first county physician, and the developer and first supervisor of the Nevada County Hospital. He practiced medicine in Nevada City for nearly 50 years and still found time to be involved with many civic projects, including the original Citizens Bank and the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Dr. Hunt worked at his private medical practice and also tended patients at the county hospital. He prospered in the early 1870s, acquiring a large tract of land extending from Nevada Street to Willow Valley Road that continued to Deer Creek behind the county hospital.
The physician contracted with the county Board of Supervisors to maintain each patient with “clothes, food, heat, tobacco, light and medicine for the sum of 40 cents per day …” To do this, he raised on his acreage dairy products and vegetables for the kitchen and hay to feed his cattle, which in turn were sold to the county.
In 1871, he sold a portion of his acreage to Felix Gillet, the barber turned nurseryman who built the Barren Hill Nursery. Gillet came to Nevada City from his native France by way of Boston and was successfully plying his trade as a barber when he entered the nursery business and began experiments to improve fruit and nut tree production.
In later years under different ownership, the name was changed to the Gillet Nursery. Today, all that remains is a bronze plaque on a rock column at Nihell and Nursery streets recounting briefly Gillet’s contributions to agriculture.
In the mid-1870s, Hunt married Jennie Welsh, a widow with two children, and built a spacious brick home on his Nevada Street property for his new family. The doctor suffered from rheumatism and was convinced the bricks in the house walls held moisture and were responsible for his malady, and had the house demolished.
He then built a showplace, a magnificent two-story frame house on a three-acre parcel. He had the grounds planted with fruit trees, including varieties of apples and pears, and many interesting shrubs. He installed the now century-old bronze deer and dog statues that still grace the front lawn at what today is 316 Nevada St., Nevada City.
Hunt’s medical practice took him to all parts of the western county and at all hours of the day and night. His fee for delivering a baby (which could last a day or two, depending on the complexity of delivery) in town was $15; out of town, $20. He collected from those who could afford to pay and those who couldn’t, he just carried them on the books indefinitely! He was, for the time in which he practiced, a typical caring country doctor.
His driver and confidante, R.J. Ronchi, tells of an unheralded act typical of Hunt’s compassion.
“One rainy Sunday afternoon I drove him out toward Rock Creek … A family was traveling through with a wagon and two horses …. The (wife) was (pregnant). All that they had for cover were a few ragged blankets … in a very short time the baby arrived. It was a pathetic scene for a new arrival. The doctor hardly spoke … all the way home. He said, ‘I … want you to go out there … with some stuff for that family. I am not going to see (them) want for anything.’ In a short time, I was on the way with a tent, food, linen, blanket and (other) things … In a few days they were gone and (he) treasured a letter (of thanks) from that woman more than anything that he had ever received. It was so full of appreciation.”
Hunt was never too busy to be active in civic affairs. He was a founding director and vice president of the original Citizens Bank and was an organizer/director of the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad. On May 26, 1876, in the snow and rain near the Nevada City depot, he drove home the last spike fashioned of polished steel he had designed for the occasion that signified completion of the 22-mile shot line railroad.
Robert Menzo Hunt died at his Nevada Street home July 18, 1902. He was 74. His ashes are interred near his parents at Utica, Herkimer County, N.Y., his birthplace.
The Nevada City Daily Transcript editorialized: “Dr. Hunt has passed from this life, but the memory of his many kind deeds which emanated from a great heart full of love and charity to his fellow men will always live in the hearts of the people of Nevada county … no other man has ever been taken from … our midst who will be more universally missed … than Dr. R.M. Hunt.”
Bob Wyckoff is a retired newspaper editor, an author of local history, a lifetime student of California history and a longtime resident of Nevada County. He writes history stories twice a month. You can write him at The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.
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