Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Three Generations of Country Doctors

James Francis Garrenton (1839-1913)
My position as an archivist at Laupus Library History Collections at East Carolina University puts me into contact with many interesting historical features and families of eastern North Carolina physicians.  It has been my pleasure recently to explore the Garrentons of Camden/Currituck and Pitt Counties.  Most notably, Dr. Cecil Garrenton (1883-1935) established the Bethel Clinic in the town of Bethel and very near to Greenville, the home of the university.  His son, Connell George Garrenton, continued the tradition at the Bethel Clinic until modern roads and communication had ended the days of the old traveling country or town doctor.  Incidentally, ECU is partnered with the Country Doctor Museum of Bailey, NC which has some artifacts displayed from many of these doctors in eastern North Carolina, some of which were donated by the Garrenton family. 

The Garrentons are of special interest to me because they represent three generations of country doctors, James Francis Garrenton (1839-1913), his son Cecil (1883-1935), and Cecil's son Connell (1910-1985).  They all represent various periods in the economic developments and technological advancements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in North Carolina.  Through these three men can be seen the advance of the remote country doctor into the modern physician.  


James Garrenton, originally born in Camden County, probably apprenticed to be a physician under a local doctor by the name of William Wilbert Griggs, a former Confederate soldier who used to live in Coinjock, Currituck County before the war.  After the war, he served the community of Indian Town as a physician while James F. Garrenton farmed and sold liquor there.  Afterward, James moved c1885-1890 to Coinjock to become a well-known country doctor who traveled the inland waterways in a boat, searching for white flags on poles, which indicated that someone was in need of a doctor, similar to other doctors who traveled by horse or buggy, which he certainly must have done himself on the narrow strips of arable land on which people lived in the northeastern North Carolina swamps.  His routes were rather complicated.  Eventually, he would donate land for and become one of the 18 founding members of the Coinjock Baptist Church.


1792 Compendious System of Anatomy inside cover, enhanced to reveal ink and pencil writing.

One of the books donated by the Garrenton family to Laupus' collections is a 1792 copy of Compendious System of Anatomy.  This book was probably owned at one time by James Garrenton, perhaps studied by him.  The book itself tells us that he was not the first owner.  Of interest specifically is the inside cover of this book, which shows the writings of previous owners, also from the Shiloh, Camden County (written in pencil) region: Mary B. Foreman, a teen in 1852, wrote in no uncertain terms that she owned this book.  Still, there are other names of two cousins: Lydia Ann and Jennie Etta Burfoot, born ten years apart around 1850 and who obviously used this book sometime after Mary Foreman. 


Cecil Garrenton (left) and another soldier in WWI

While still living in Shiloh, Camden County, not far from Indian Town, James' third son, Cecil was born.  Cecil was the first of the Garrenton doctors to receive a formal education, finishing his primary education while living with a relative in Washington, DC.  He then went to medical school in Richmond, as many doctors from this corner of North Carolina did for many years.  Finally he did his residency in Philadelphia and brought a wife back to the family home of Currituck just before his parents passed away and he came to Bethel to found the well-known clinic.  "Mother Bell" or Isabell Dunn Garrenton studied as a nurse in Philadelphia.

The most fascinating part of Cecil's history is his appointment in the Marines as 1st Lieut. and assignment to Evacuation Hospital No. 8 in Petite Maujouy, France during WWI.  He served there a year, was reassigned to Camp Jackson, SC before finally being returned to his community... a community that desperately needed him back:


Letter to Camp Jackson, SC by Bethel, NC community asking for the return of their doctor, Cecil Garrenton, dated 7 April, 1919.

Cecil's son, Connell also recieved the best education and also married a northern gal and brought her home to Bethel.  There, they tore down the old clinic and built the new one in which Connell would attend to his patients who could usually come to him, even if by buggy and mule.  Over ten years ago, his wife, Hilda Mather Garrenton provided us with these wonderful details and oral history as well. 



Bethel Clinic in the 1960s.  From Greenville's Daily Reflector photos in ECU's digital collection.

 A larger, more in depth article is planned on these interesting country doctor Garrentons, but this synopsis provides enough detail, I think to whet the appetite.  Again, these collections are the holdings of the Laupus Library History Collections in the Laupus Library on ECU's medical campus just between Stantonsburg Rd and 5th Street.  Check it out!



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