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Chelsea Private Hospital

Grace Shackman

The owners lived downstairs

Sixty years ago, patients at the Chelsea Private Hospital could give birth, undergo surgery, and recuperate from illnesses in a homelike setting while still enjoying the benefits of modern medicine.

The hospital occupied three upstairs bedrooms in an old house at 318 East Middle Street. Two of the rooms had patient beds; the third served as the operating and delivery room. An adjoining alcove was made into a nursery.

Home hospitals were found all over the country between 1870 and 1945. Also called "proprietary hospitals," they formed a bridge between doctors making house calls and the giant institutional hospitals of today.

The Chelsea Private Hospital was owned by Nellie Notten and her husband Ehlert, a well-established dairy farmer. The Nottens opened the hospital in 1926 in a house on Main Street, then relocated ten years later when the federal government wanted the original location for a post office.

The Middle Street house was built about 1885 for Dr. George Palmer and his family. (George's son, Leigh, started the Palmer Ford dealership, which is still in operation.) While Nellie looked after the patients upstairs, Ehlert commuted from the house to his farm. They lived on the buildings first floor and sold some of Ehlert's dairy products from the back door.

The Chelsea Private Hospital served the patients of Drs. Malcolm Sibbald and Joseph Fisher, who had their offices above Schneider's Grocery (now Chelsea Market). John Keusch, whose office was behind theirs, recalls that Sibbald and Fisher performed tonsillectomies and appendectomies at the hospital. Several Chelsea residents remember the care their parents received during their last illnesses at the Nottens' hospital. The two doctors, who were general practitioners, sent more complicated cases to larger hospitals or called on the services of a Jackson surgeon.

Anna Laban, who gave birth to her son Larry in the Middle Street hospital, recalls that Nellie Notten stayed with her in the delivery room, calling Sibbald when she thought the baby was about to be born. "It didn't take him two minutes to get there from his office," Laban says. She remembers Notten as "kinda heavy, middle stocky." Sibbald, she says, was a "feisty guy, quick-tempered, very outspoken—but he was always good to me."

Myrtle Smith, who lived in Dexter, chose to give birth in the Nottens' hospital at the recommendation of her sister-in-law, who lived in Chelsea. Fisher delivered Smith's daughter Bonnie and later gave her checkups in the back room at the Dexter Rexall drugstore.

New mothers were put in one of the two patient rooms and were usually the hospital's only patients. They stayed in bed ten days, not even getting up to go to the bathroom. "I'm telling you, when I was allowed to get up my knees were wobbly," recalls Laban. But all the mothers interviewed have very warm memories of the hospital, remembering that they received good food and good care.

Ann Wood, who had her son Don there, recalls that when Sibbald was nearing retirement age. Fisher handled most of the births, on the assumption that he would be the doctor caring for the babies as they grew up. However, World War II intervened, and Fisher left town in 1942 to serve in the military. (He returned after the war and practiced medicine until his retirement.) Larry Schrader, born on September 29, 1942, was Fisher's last delivery before leaving.

When Fisher went to war, the Nottens closed the hospital. After that, patients wanting to go to a home hospital were referred to one in Stockbridge, though it was considered to be not as well run.

Nellie Notten's health declined, and she died four years after closing the hospital. Ehlert remarried and sold the house. It was used for apartments and for a chiropractic clinic until 1991, when Jackie and John Frank bought it.

The Franks have been meticulously restoring the house to the one-family status and elegant look it must have had when the Palmers built it. But, in remembrance of the house's years as a hospital, the Franks have kept the sink in the former delivery room, which is now their exercise area.

On Labor Day 1998, they organized a well-attended potluck for people born in the hospital. "People were really moved to see where they were born, where their mother was," Jackie Frank says.

—Grace Shackman

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Grace Shackman