Charles B. Harris: Pioneer Doctor

by

Pam Surface

 

"A derby hat just think," remarked one passenger.

"Isn't he intelligent looking," sighed another.

 

It was five o'clock, March fifteenth, eighteen: eightytwo. The passengers on the small steam powered train thought they wouldnever reach their destiny. Perhaps because of the dreary day, but somethingheld the curiosity of every person on the train. It was something or someonein the front seat. It was the derby hat that the man was wearing. Derbyhats were unheard of in the days of 1882. This was when the Dakota Territorywas inhabited by only a few white settlers, and the rest of the populationwas made up entirely of the Indian race. This passenger in the front seatwas tall, dark and very intelligent looking.

He was born in Charleston, West Virginia on November 6,l857. This was not far from Harpers Ferry where John Brown shot his wayinto the pages of history. Dr. Charles Harris was graduated from a MedicalSchool of Physicians and Surgeons at Baltimore, Maryland. He was only twenty-eightyears old, and he had chosen for his first permanent location, the smallvillage of Pembina, North Dakota Territory. In 1882 that section was stillin the pioneer stage, and buffalo hunting parties came here from the East.

As the train chugged lazily on, Charles Harris realizedthat he was the center of curiosity. Many thoughts were running throughhis mind, but the one that stood out most vividly was, "Will I be successful?"

This young man was a success at once. Dakota Territoryaccepted him as their doctor and he became established as Charles B. Harris,M.D. He witnessed the transitions from the pioneer state to the present.All this time he steadily widened the scope of his influence and service.His reputation traveled far and wide. He led a life of self-sacrifice anduntiring work in pioneer territory.

Storms, floods, ice and rain did their best to discouragethe young doctor. Dr. Harris once said, "Yes, I have had some tryingexperiences. I have battled my way to patients through flood and winterblizzards. It seems blizzards used to be much worse than they are today.The country was thinly populated. There were poor roads and no telephonecommunications. In those days I had many narrow escapes."

Many times he was caught in blizzards on the prairie. Onone occasion, the only solution in saving himself was to throw a blanketover his horse and thus making a shelter for himself. Another time whenDr. Harris was on an errand of mercy, while crossing the Red River his horseand buggy broke through the ice. The only way he survived was to hang onto the horse's tail and the horse pulled both him and the buggy to safety.

An interesting comment that Dr. Harris once made was, "Ithought at first the automobile would never replace the horse. The first"one lunged" contraption I drove frequently stalled in the countryand caused me to lose faith in them, but as they rapidly improved, my confidencewas restored and I find the car indispensable today."

In spite of the harsh northeastern Dakota and northwesternMinnesota winter weather, he conquered hardships to become the oldest physicianand surgeon in the state of North Dakota and to be a fully licensed physicianfrom the time that licenses were used. At that time anyone could be issueda license in either state.

Romance also found its way into the young doctor's heart.Dr. Harris fell in love with Catherine Jane Abrams, a young school teacher.They were married September 29, 1886 at Pembina, Dakota Territory. The youngbride always used much dignity when she mentioned her husband. She alwaysreferred to him as "Charles" or the "doctor". However,when the young couple did find time to chat and visit, they would referto each other by their pet names, "Pud" and "Puddy".Neighbors tell of the short whistle greeting they had for each other. Theyoung bride also had several favorite songs that she sang for him. To thishappy couple, eleven children were born. But much to their sorrow, fiveboys died in infancy.

In the year 1936, the community of Pembina celebrated theGolden Anniversary of this pioneer couple. Hundreds of friends gatheredSaturday afternoon and evening to celebrate the occasion at the Harris home.

Gathered at the Harris home to assist in welcoming oldtime and new friends were the daughters, son, and grandchildren of the couple.

At a table located in the dining room, was a centerpiecewith 50 golden tea roses and golden tapers. Coffee and tea were poured byMrs. George Walden, Mrs. John Copeland, Mrs. James Munroe, and Mrs. J. Loure.Those assisting in the dining room were Mrs. George McConnachie, Mrs. KnightSchumaker, Mrs. Art Clinton, Mrs. Norval Ardies, Helen Douglas, and KateKneeshaw. In the reception line with Dr. and Mrs. Harris were John Trudell,Mrs. Donat Trudell, Mrs. Oscar Sonderman, Mrs. Emily Quakinbush, Mrs. HarryWoods, Mrs. Elmer Barry, and Mrs. Pauline Brennan.

During the serving hours Mrs. Frank Feldman, accompaniedby Mrs. Emily Booker, sang. The wedding march was played by a daughter,Mrs. Harold Stratte, and afternoon music was played by other daughters.Mrs. Molly Richmond was in charge of the guest book in which hundreds registered.

The six children that attended were Gladys, Kathryn, Pauline,Jeanette, George, and ~ Margaret.

Grand children attending the celebration were Georgia,Mary and Harold Stratte, Janet Holmquist, Charles, and John Wilkins andMary Marcy Schave.

Doctor Harris was a real bedside doctor. It made no differenceto him whether he was called to diagnose or give treatment in the nightor day. All Dr. Harris's patients were treated alike. It didn't matter tohim if the patient couldn't pay. They were always taken care of in the rightway. Many of Dr.Harris's nurses tell of the times that he stayed right inthe homes of his patients until the "blessed event" occurred,or the crisis in pneumonia had passed. There were times in his career thathe was called on to act as the priest or minister in blessing or prayingwhen death was near. At one time, he baptized a baby on the plea of themother when they knew the baby would die.

The doctor passed away on January 2, 1942. The cause ofhis death was said to be a heart ailment.

Dr. Harris was not an old man even though the date of hisbirth indicated otherwise. He was one of those philosophical men who didnot let the passing years slow their step or interfere with their technique.He was exceptionally active and always had a cheery smile and a greetingfor his legion of friends.

This fine person lives on in the minds of the pioneerswho are still alive. He also continues to live in the hearts and minds ofthe over three thousand individuals whom he brought into this world withhis surgical skill.

Bibliography

Berg, Jane-Granddaughter-November 13, 1971 Hebron, NorthDakota (Correspondence)

Schave, Margaret-Daughter-November 28, 1971 San Rafael,California (Correspondence)

Wilwant, Verlie Mrs. Kittson County Enterprise January11, 1972 Pembina, North Dakota (Correspondence)

Wilwant, Verlie Mrs. Kittson County Enterprise January11, 1972 Pembina, North Dakota