“It Can’t Happen Here Again”

as told by Frank Bailey


A boy growing up in Columbia County – the story of Dr. William Cady Bailey, physician,

of Chatham, N.Y. and his youngest son Frank Bailey


This story about the life of Dr. William Cady Bailey as told by his son Frank Bailey was submitted by Jane Wood, a descendant and frequent submitter to this website.  Enjoy reading about the life of a country doctor in Chatham, Columbia County, New York!



There is a time and a place to be born.  Frank Bailey chose well, coming into the world on January 5, 1865, in the little village of Chatham, New York.  The great fratricidal war was drawing to a close, the pent-up energies of the sprawling young country yearning to people the wilderness, to build the roads and railroads, to swarm into cities as yet unimagined, to create through tireless labor a brave new world, to grow up to its vast horizons.  Here, more than anywhere else on the face of the globe in the last half of the nineteenth century, was there the sense of being at the beginning of an expansion whose limits none could foretell.  Here, above all, men felt that that the future belonged to them and to their children.

In the date of his birth, and the place, in his parentage too, Frank Bailey was fortunate; in all else the cards were stacked against him from the start.  His earliest memories were of illness.  The bronchial affection with which he was born has persisted to this very day, eighty years later, and surrounded his childhood and youth with all those cares and admonitions that rob a boy of heedless confidence.  When he was eight years old the great Dr. Alfred Loomis pronounced him a consumptive and said that he had no chance to live.

Frank’s father was a doctor himself, noted for his “good ear” in the detection of pulmonary troubles at a period when more scientific methods of diagnosis were unknown, and although he had never been anything but tender with his youngest son, his solicitude thereafter knew no bounds.  With an understanding of respiratory diseases far in advance of his time, he rated the importance of fresh air very highly, and from Frank’s earliest years he would take the boy along on his rounds of the countryside.  In summer they would travel in a buckboard or a two-seater whose caked wheels after a long trip over the muddy roads could only be cleaned with a wooden mallet used with great vigor on the tires.  In winter, of course, they would set off in a sleigh, with straw strewn on the floor, soapstones to keep their feet warm, and a buffalo robe to wrap around them.  Winter or summer a shovel was stowed away in back of the vehicle to dig them out of mud-holes or snowdrifts, as the case might be.

Dr. Bailey began his daily rounds at nine or ten in the morning and returned home at about six.  Although highly indifferent to money or its appurtenances, he was not above plotting his route each day so that dinnertime, then in the middle of the day, would find him calling on a patient whose household was noted for its good cooking.  If Frank had really had tuberculosis, there was no better treatment for it than this regime of fresh air, rest, and plenty of food.

Sometimes danger would lie in wait for them at the turn of a road, as one evening in spring, after heavy rains, when they came to a bridge under a foot of water.  Night was falling swiftly; and if they had turned back it would be many hours before they reached the patient.  The doctor lashed the horse across the bridge without a moment’s hesitation.  There was no time for the boy to be frightened, nor did his father stop the gig on the other side of the stream.  Flooded with spring freshets, a brook can make more noise than an elevated train, but they were only a hundred feet beyond the bridge on higher ground when a roar like that of heavy guns rose above the hubbub of the swollen waters.  They stopped then and looked around in belated terror; the bridge had gone.

There were other adventures with his father, enchanting, lazy summer expeditions of which his mother could not approve.  For the good doctor was a passionate student of nature and, while driving about on his rounds, could never bear to pass a tree or shrub or stone that was unfamiliar to him.  As a youth he had studied botany under Amos Eaton and had gone on field trips with the elder Agassiz. Adding to his knowledge in later years, he gained some local fame as a naturalist and an authority on the apples of New York State.  His pleasure in the multifarious aspects of nature was so real and unaffected that his son caught the contagion.  The leaf, the bark, the habit of every rare botanical specimen met on their travels were carefully noted by the father, while the child learned to sharpen his own powers of observation.

The doctor’s alert eye watched not only the foliage above, but the ground below, searching for unusual stones and rock formations, samples of which would be stored in the gig and brought home to add to a large and ever growing collection of rare woods and minerals.  But his deepest interests were fresh-water algae and shells, little-known subjects in which he was one of the foremost students of his time.  Several of these have been named after him, as their first discoverer.  Whenever his rounds brought him to the neighborhood of a fresh-water pond he would rein in his horse and tie him to a tree-presumably for a rest- while father and son played about in the water, the one looking for algae and shellfish, the other splashing and wading until he got chilled.

As the collection of rare woods, minerals, shellfish and algae grew steadily, filling up all available space in their small house, the boy’s mother murmured in vain about the difficulties of housekeeping in a museum.  She complained too about the great tub of rare plants that filled the sunny spaces in her kitchen all winter, although she really took great pride in them.  The doctor cultivated many plants which could be grown outdoors in the summer and carried into the house in the cold weather, but even at that it took great ingenuity and special stoking of the kitchen stove to keep them from freezing during the bitter winter nights.  There was one plant Frank remembered vividly, a flowering pomegranate, so celebrated in the village that the neighbors always came to call when it exploded into brilliant scarlet blossoms.

His mother might scold about the doctor’s passion for collecting, or complain of his absorption in his nature studies and his indifference to money - she once told her son that his father had no more business sense than a mud-turtle, but it had been his studious character and unusual learning that had first attracted her to him, although he was twenty years older than she.  William Cady Bailey was a man of no worldly knowledge but with the deepest human sympathies.  His forebears had not been the daring, energetic, enterprising type who largely settled the New England coast, but rather the quiet, judicial sort; the first of his line in America had been one of the commissioners sent over from England in the seventeenth century to settle a boundary dispute between Rhode Island and Massachusetts. On his mother’s side Dr. Bailey was related to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose father was a noted judge in Albany, New York, and it was probably from this strain that he inherited a tendency to champion the underdog.

The father of Dr. Bailey was a simple farmer living in New Lebanon.  At an early age his son showed such promise that it was decided to send him to near-by Rensselaer Institute to study engineering. After his graduation the young man was offered a job on the Erie Canal, then so far away in traveling time that he could only come home at rare intervals.  His fond parents consequently pleaded with him to study some other profession that would enable them to see him more frequently, and since he was not opposed, they sent him to Pittsfield Medical Institute, then headed by Alonzo Clark.  It was a happy decision, for the advance of medical discovery kept the doctor interested in his profession all his life, while the demands and the opportunities of his work were exactly suited to his disposition and temperament.

Dr. Bailey began the practice of medicine in the village of Spencertown, a tiny settlement about six miles from Chatham.  Spencertown had figured as a station on the original plans of the engineers of the Hudson and Pittsfield Railroad, but the village folk were so fearful of the dirt and noise the railroad would bring that they refused to grant a right of way.  The company was therefore obliged to change its plans and make Chatham a station on the line in place of Spencertown.  And so Chatham has become a thriving, noisy railroad village, while Spencertown to this day remains a charming backwater hamlet.  Charming though it might be, however, for a young doctor there was no living to be made out of its three hundred inhabitants, and after a short time Dr. Bailey removed to Chatham.

There he practiced medicine for over forty years, not in the village alone, but in an area radiating out from the village sometimes as far as ten or fifteen miles.  There has never been a time when the life of a country doctor has been anything but arduous, but in the middle of the last century it required a versatility of accomplishment that this age of specialization can hardly conceive.  In his single worn ledger, still preserved by his son, can be found the record of a lifetime of work and devotion, the first entries in a neat, precise handwriting dating from the year 1845, the last trembling notation in 1888.  In addition to performing the usual duties of a doctor, Dr. Bailey acted as the local dentist, filling and pulling teeth, even making sets of the great clumsy “snappers” of the day for the entirely toothless.  Except for a few pharmaceuticals that could be bought from the Albany and New York drug houses, he compounded his own medicines, and so his children from an early age had to learn where the sarsaparilla and the slippery elm grew.  He was the district health officer, the county coroner, consultant physician for the Shaker colony at New Lebanon, and as if these professional preoccupations were not enough to employ all of a normal man’s time he was also a member of the school board, an elder of the church, and choir leader for twenty years.

He had married early in life, but after fathering a number of children, of whom only three survived, he was left a widower in his middle years.  In 1859 he married again, and by his second wife had five more children.  Two of this second brood died in infancy, and of the remaining three, Little Frank was not expected to live long.  There were many hungry mouths to keep fed, and with constant and unremitting labor the doctor was able to do only that.  “The more work he did,” says his son, “the less he collected.”  In adding up his bills for a year’s services he would often reduce the total out of timidity, friendship, or pity.  According to the ledger his fees were twenty-five cents per visit in his office; fifty cents on call unless the distance was very great, when they might amount to as much as a dollar; three to five dollars for a confinement, when paid.  Across some accounts is frequently written the comment," ran away,” or “Never paid,” or, with wry humor:” Matthew Bemas, $7.03, Refused to pay; did not think he got his money’s worth.” His charges for medicine ranged from thirteen to seventeen cents, while the silver used to fill a tooth might cost as much as thirty-three cents.  In order to assure any return at all for his services, Dr. Bailey often had to take his compensation in kind, and many accounts are balanced by receipt of butter, eggs, corn, apples, salt pork, a quarter of beef, chickens, a cord of wood, or a day’s work.

To the end of his life Dr. Bailey kept up to date on new developments in medicine through the medical journals to which he subscribed.  His willingness to try new methods was illustrated not only in the handling of his son’s bronchial trouble, but also in a very early application of Lister’s antiseptic technique to serious infection in his own hand.  This infection had refused to heal for many months, until his attention was drawn to an article in a medical journal describing Lister’s use of carbolic acid in surgery.  At the time, early in the seventies, few doctors anywhere in the world had anything but scorn for such unorthodox methods, but Dr. Bailey immediately proceeded to soak the dressings on his hand with carbolic acid solution.  The stubborn wound was healed in a few weeks.

He was a serious man, who found his distraction in serious pursuits rather than in relaxation.  His son never knew him to read any novel but E. P. Roe’s Barriers Burned Away, although there were many books in the house, mostly scientific works.  Throughout his life he opposed bigotry and oppression of one race by another, and regardless of current prejudices assumed that here was something he could do about it.  During the Know-Nothing riots in the late 1840’s he protected Irishmen from the fury of native Anglo-Saxons, who promptly transferred their indignation from the newcomers to the doctor himself.  Before the Civil War his house was a station on the Underground Railroad for escaped Negro slaves, and he was heartbroken when his offer to serve as a surgeon in the Union Army was rejected.  No amount of pressure by bigoted neighbors ever swayed his broad spirit of tolerance: he would count a Jewish clothier as his friend and persist in having his son tutored in Latin by a Catholic priest despite the strong disapproval of the members of his own church.

Such nobility of sprit must be its own reward.  Frank Bailey never knew his father to speak a harsh work to anyone, nor administer the mildest form of discipline to any of his children.  What discipline Frank did receive came from his mother, Dr. Bailey’s second wife, a spirited, able woman of no mean intelligence.  The boy loved his gentle father, but he worshipped his mother.  Mrs. Bailey was never able to reconcile herself to what she called the doctor’s “impracticality” or, in bitterer moments, his “shiftlessness,” which to her was perhaps most clearly symbolized by the fact that throughout her married life they never owned a home of their own, but lived in a rented house too small for their growing family.  She had a deep respect for the doctor’s integrity and learning, but early in Frank’s life she pinned her ambitions for worldly success on him, frail as he was.

Her education had been superior to that of most women of her time - she had been one of the early graduates of Mount Holyoke and taught school for a while – she had as well inherited from both her parents gifts for management, a certain strength of mind and will that we associate today with a “go-getter”.  With no outlet for her energies but the cramped life of any housewife of the period, she could only realize her longings in her sons, or look backward to the great deeds of her ancestors.  To establish the continuity of the tradition she often regaled her children with tales of the Eastman clan, her mother’s people, whose names are threaded through the early history of Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut, farmers, warriors, representatives in local assemblies, men of standing in the community if not always of substance.