Health Care In The Rim Country Was Primitive

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It is difficult to imagine what it would be like in the Rim country without a modern hospital in Payson with emergency medical people standing by night and day, and the ability to airlift people with serious illness or trauma.

But all this is very recent, compared to the decades of anxiety and suffering local families endured before such amenities were available.

One of the earliest stories of folk-medicine dates to the early 1880s when Fred Haught, the first of the Texas Haughts, came over the Rim in his wanderings.

Frank Gillette knew Fred and recounted how a cat-claw thorn lodged in his eye from a switched limb as he rode through the brush. The pain was excruciating, and when Fred reached Payson, he found there was no doctor. Kindly residents tried various methods of getting it out, to no avail, and Fred couldn't hold still for the more severe methods using a pocketknife or tweezers.

Then one of the folks on Main Street remembered Mercedes Belluzzi, wife of pioneer John (Bartolomeo) Belluzzi. They had settled on the upper East Verde River in the late '70s, and she knew a lot of Indian remedies from her Mexican heritage.

His informant guided Fred Haught to the Rim Trail Ranch, where the pioneer mother who spoke little English welcomed them with the gracious hospitality that was the custom.

Gillette tells it as it came to him. "Fred sat in a chair with his head back as Grandma Belluzzi studied the swollen, inflamed eye ... With her husband translating, she told him to lie down on a cot that had been moved under the window ..."

She went to the kitchen for a pitcher of milk and rinsed her mouth out three times with the cool liquid. Then returning she knelt by the cot. "Cradling Fred's head in her arms she spoke in a sweet, soft and soothing voice in a way that only a woman can speak.

"Though the words were in Spanish, Fred sensed they were words of sympathy and encouragement. Gently she stroked his hair. Fred relaxed ... Then in a flash, she moved her face, lashed out her tongue and licked it solidly across his swollen eye." Fred later reported how intense the pain was. He yelled and sat upright, holding his eye while Mercedes "walked quickly across the room to a mirror and stuck out her tongue. With a forefinger she carefully removed the thorn and took it to proudly show to her husband ..."

Fred's companion told him, "She got it! Licked it right out of your eye! You'll be all right now ..."

Next, Mercedes Belluzzi gathered some herbs and steeped them for a tea. Soaking it into a cloth she placed it on Fred's forehead. She then prepared a poultice to place over the swollen eye, and Fred sank into a deep sleep. By noon the next day he was awake, without pain and knowing his eye would be healed.

The Belluzzis refused any payment for their kind deed, but the story is retold to this day.

Fred Haught sent word to his relatives in Texas about the opportunity for cattle ranching in the Rim country, and the first to come was his brother, Sam Haught, along with his nephew, Sam Haught Jr. and his wife Dagmar.

It was the year 1885, and they settled down stream from the Belluzzi ranch at the mouth of what we call Dude Creek. After five years they moved on to Rye Creek, and established the H-Bar ("H" for Haught) Ranch.

One summer day in 1892 a traveling cowboy stopped by the ranch and was invited to dinner. He used the common water dipper, and unbeknownst to the family, he was carrying diphtheria.

Four of the Haught children died during that month of August, having contracted the disease from the dipper.

Today one can find the little family cemetery, still in use, on the old road that begins to ascend Ox Bow Hill from H-Bar Ranch. There, the graves of Ollie (age 8), Oscar (age 6), Otto (age 3) and Valda Haught (age 1) give witness to the tragic lack of medical care when pioneers first settled the Rim country.

Even during the days of Dr. Christian Risser, the Rim country's first resident physician, there was little that could be done in the face of serious illness.

Theresa Boardman was his nurse, and she recounted the time the doctor was out at one of the ranches when a Tonto Apache child on Indian Hill became very sick. Then a second got sick, and then a third. They died so quickly, and when the doctor returned to town he visited the families. "It was diphtheria, no doubt about it," he reported. "It was a lucky thing nobody else got it."

The children were buried on the hillside, and the houses burned down, according to Apache custom.

Mrs. Boardman told about the medications they brought in from Mesa. "Oh, we had castor oil, Doan's Pills and Lady Pinkhams. Oh boy! I'll never forget when the smallpox broke out, we sold more of that yellow medicine.

"One feller come in (to the Boardmans' store) and Guy and Billy (Boardman) knew that he had the smallpox. They figured he had finished peeling off [reference unclear], and they went out the back door like ghosts. They kept a bottle of that stuff in their pockets, but they finally both got it. Oh, that was something. My Lord and mercy, if that had been black smallpox, there wouldn't have been enough live ones to bury the dead."

Theresa Boardman was devoted to Dr. Risser, but in later years would comment on the crude ways of medicine in those days. Speaking to Margaret and Ira Murphy she said, "I'll never forget when Charlie Chilson cut his leg with an ax. Charlie said, ‘Aren't you going to wash it before you work on me?' So Doc Risser said, ‘What are you talking about? It's all sterile stuff.' Charlie said, ‘It don't look sterile to me.' And I'm telling you, Doc didn't own a pair of rubber gloves. And who do you think gave him his first pair of rubber gloves for a present? It was Marie." (Dr. Risser's wife.)

One time after the doctor had spent several days tending to a ranch family down in Tonto Basin, he rode his horse home through a rainstorm and contracted pneumonia. He never recovered and died in 1933.

Theresa commented, "I'll never forget the day. I never seen as many grown people cry I don't think in all my life. We thought we was all going to die; that was the end of us. He was a wonderful doctor. That man knew anatomy. I don't mean maybe ..."

(Next week, more stories of early Rim country medicine.)

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