Harmon’s Histories: Thornton brothers tended Missoula residents at Third Street hospital

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

Deputy Missoula County Attorney Fred Angevine asked the subject of the hearing, “Why did you ask me to have the nurse at the Thornton hospital arrested?”

The man answered, “Because I have never – yes, take this down, all of you – I have never kept company with any woman who so tampered with my heart that I bought her an engagement ring for $16 and also some moccasins … (but) she wouldn’t talk to me.”

The man’s rather bizarre responses in Missoula District Court on November 25, 1919 were not unexpected – considering it was a sanity hearing.

But I’m afraid I’ve gone a bit afield. The sanity hearing is not the subject of today’s column, interesting though it may be.

Today’s story deals with the reference to “Thornton hospital” in the sanity hearing. 

It turns out there were actually two hospitals just a few blocks apart on South Third Street West in the early 1900s. One existed for only a few years, but the Thornton hospital still exists today, albeit in another form, with another name. 

Let’s start by introducing you to the Thornton brothers.

In 1905, Dr. Charles R. Thornton (known as C. T. or Dr. Charles) moved from the Midwest to Corvallis, where he opened a medical practice and quickly became an expert in treating tick fever.

Dr. William T. Thornton (known as W. T. or Dr. Will) followed a couple of years later, establishing a practice in Stevensville in 1907.

Charles Thornton

The brothers were fascinating characters. C. T. “introduce(d) Chinese and Hungarian pheasants to the Bitterroot Valley (and) bred German short haired pointers to hunt” them. He also brought in “Belgian horses and Swiss dairy cattle.”

W,T. had been a medical professor and had worked with Dr. J. H. Kellogg to build a sanitarium in Michigan. (Dr. Kellogg’s brother, W. K. Kellogg, went on to make some famous corn flakes).

W.T. built Stevensville’s first hospital in 1910. He practiced there until 1917, when he moved to Missoula.

In early 1918, the Missoulian newspaper announced, “Dr. W. T. Thornton of this city is building a private hospital on South Third Street … remodeling a frame structure three stories in height.” A year later, C. T. bought a half interest in his brother’s new hospital.

The two served as the hospital’s “staff of physicians,” with Miss Iona Rickey assuming nurse-in-charge duties. According to city documents, William “resided in the building along with his wife Maude, their children and seven hospital employees.”

Outgrowing the building at 508 South Third West (these days called the Thornton Apartments), the brothers acquired a property at 307 East Main Street in April 1923, where they built a new 42-bed hospital.

Will (W. T.) died in 1943. Four years later, Charles (C. T.) announced his plans to retire.

A group of Missoula doctors and citizens bought the Thornton brothers’ private hospital in 1947 for $175,000, converting it to a nonprofit community facility with plans to expand it to a 100-bed facility.

William Thornton

The group renamed it “Memorial Hospital” – the forerunner of today’s Community Medical Center.

The second hospital on Missoula’s south side back in the early 1900s was a bit more mysterious. 

Generally referred to in the press as “Mrs. Parker’s private hospital,” it was known primarily as a birthing facility, although there were a few references to minor surgical procedures and patients “under physician’s care.”

The hospital was actually the private home of Mrs. Evelyn Parker, 306 South Third West. She routinely took out small classified ads in the local paper under the heading of “Maternity Hospital.”

Stan Healy, a longtime newspaper reporter/photographer and later a Missoula City Council member whose photo collection is now housed at the University of Montana, was born there (he weighed in at 10 pounds).

The hospital operated from the roughly 1915 to 1921. The last reference to Mrs. Parker’s facility was in a September 1921 newspaper classified ad, “Business Chances – Parker Hospital for sale. PH 1335.”

Thornton Hospital

Over the years, hospitals have come and gone in Missoula. One of the oldest, the Northern Pacific Hospital built near the rail line, morphed into Missoula General and was finally absorbed by St. Patrick Hospital in 1987.

Oh, about that sanity hearing that triggered this sidebar story on Missoula hospitals – Dr. Will and other doctors who had treated the subject testified the fellow should be committed to the state asylum.

To that the man declared, “I waive all examinations here and I demand a change of venue to Washington, D. C. …(adding) if Attorney General Ford isn’t working for me now, I’ll call him to act in his official capacity for me!”

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.