New exhibit focuses on origins of Laconia hospital

LACONIA — When Brenda Polidoro began researching the early history of Lakes Region General Hospital, she knew that she had already discovered a forgotten detail of the health care institution's founding. Jeremiah S. Jewett, whose exhaustive daily journal Polidoro had already transcribed, offered his family's farm land, located on a hill overlooking the city, for the creation of the hospital; not only did he sell the land for a friendly price, Jewett immediately donated half of the purchase price to the building fund.

What Polidoro would soon find out in her research was that there were many other stories of civic pride and personal generosity that wove together to make possible the creation of what has become Belknap County's health care network.
Polidoro, executive director of the Laconia Historical and Museum Society, performed the research with help from Patricia Rice, manager of Communications & Program Development for LRGHealthcare. The results of their work for the exhibit "Shall We Have a Hospital," on display at the Laconia Public Library. An opening reception for the exhibit will be held this evening, beginning at 6 p.m.
As Polidoro learned, Jewett's generous act, made at Old Home Day in 1905, was hardly the spark that set off the chain of events that resulted in the creation of a hospital for Laconia. In fact, that spark had occurred 14 years prior, in the form of an editorial printed in the Laconia Democrat.

The column, printed in 1891, noted that Concord had a hospital and that there were campaigns in Claremont and Exeter to build similar facilities. The editorial stated, "We want, in short, a place where sick people can go to recover their health and be sure of getting careful nursing and good, wholesome sanitary surroundings. We want beds for those able to pay and we want free beds for those who cannot pay and are deserving of charity."
The editorial is thought to have found accord with many Laconians, not the least of which was Rhoda C. Ladd, who died of cancer the following year. In her will, she gave her estate, including her Court Street home, to the city, on condition that her assets be held in trust until the municipality could raise $10,000 to create a hospital.
Though her gift was accepted by the city, it was held in trust for several years while the fund raising efforts struggled to reach goal.

Polidoro believes that a spectacular tragedy helped to underscore the need for a local hospital.
As reported in a September 3, 1897 news article, a young couple was out for an evening ride in a horse-drawn carriage. When the pair, Frank W. Clay and Minnie B. Johnson, both Laconia residents, were on Messer Street, their carriage was struck by the 7:45 Lake Shore train where it crossed the road. The victims were reported to be thrown a hundred feet by the impact, where they lay for a half-hour before being transported to a hotel in Lakeport to wait for doctors that had been sent for.
Clay died, according to the report, while Johnson was gravely injured. The following year, the town had raised enough to honor Ladd's request, and opened what is known as the "Cottage Hospital" in her home on Court Street. The Cottage Hospital, which had room for up to eight beds, was in operation until 1905, the year of Jewett's donation.

The opening of a hospital created a new problem in the form of staffing. Where would Laconia find skilled nurses to assist the patients? To address the question, a nursing school was immediately formed. From 1898 to 1968, the nursing school offered a three-year, 12-class program that graduated more than 500 nurses. Most of the graduates were from Laconia or nearby towns, and as far as Polidoro can tell, they were exclusively female. Her exhibit features many artifacts from the nursing school, including uniforms and photographs of graduating classes.
These are just a few of the stories Polidoro and Rice have uncovered. The exhibit includes many others, including the story of Mrs. John F. "Nellie" Zebley, a Weirs native who grew up to become a world-traveling, wealthy New York City resident, whose affection for her hometown was evident in the inventive ways she found to help the hospital become functional.
Polidoro said, of the project, "It's been exciting. There's so much information that wasn't known before."
Rice added, "Working on this project has been extremely rewarding for me, because of the sense of pride I feel about our community hospital. Not just as an employee, but also as a community member. We are so fortunate to have a hospital with roots so firmly planted in the community. And learning the details about the level of support and commitment community members had to open a hospital in Laconia is really inspiring to me. As we continue to build upon their legacy, I am so very proud to be a part of it.
"I also want to acknowledge how fortunate our community is," continued Rice, "to have the Laconia Historical and Museum Society, and dedicated Executive Director Brenda Polidoro. Her level of enthusiasm to this project was nothing short of amazing. I have enjoyed working with Brenda and getting to know her better. I can't thank her enough for helping LRGHealthcare and the community celebrate our legacy of caring."