405 E. 6th St., PO Box 142
Blue Earth, MN 56013
Hours: Tuesdays and Thursdays from
10 to 12 and 1 to 3 or by special appointment.

Life of a Small Town Country Doctor

By A. B. Russ

      Homer Russ was born in 1901 and grew up on a farm north of Buffalo Center, Iowa. He attended school in Buffalo Center and graduated top of his class in 1919. Like many of his fellow male classmates, he went to work for his father after high school. Fortunately or unfortunately depending which way you look at it, his father was a man who didn’t like paying his employees and he disliked paying his sons even more.

At age 22 Homer decided that  he would follow his two uncles vocation and become a doctor. His uncle, Dr. Fred Russ was the local doctor in Buffalo Center, Iowa, and his uncle, Dr. Jesse Russ was the doctor in Rake, Iowa.

When the fall of 1923 rolled around he found himself enrolled at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City. He lived in a boarding house, which was common in those days, and he walked to the university for his classes. It was here at his boarding house where he met the love of his life.

In 1928 he did his internship at a hospital in Washington, D.C. This must have been a major cultural shock to a farm boy from Iowa. If he had seen or even spoken to a black person or a Jewish person before was very unlikely. By 1929, he had married Yvonne Rohlfs of Minden, Iowa, and the young couple set up housekeeping and his practice in the very small town of Swea City, Iowa.

The young doctor had more than enough patients come into his office to keep him busy but bad times had come to rural Iowa and money was as rare as hens teeth. By 1930 the Wall Street crash had caused much of the nation to slide into the so-called Great Depression.  Young doctor Russ decided that there was no future in Iowa and packed up his wife and infant son and headed north to Blue Earth, MN.  His uncle Fred Russ had moved to Blue Earth by that time and was semi -retired, his uncle met an untimely death the result of doctor’s error at Mayo Clinic.   Homer, his nephew ,took over what was left of his uncle’s practice and started what would become a fifty-year career as one of Blue Earth’s doctors.

Blue Earth was certainly larger than Swea City, but the people were no better off when it came to paying their doctor’s bill. The charge was .25 cents for an office call and often people couldn’t pay . Unlike the general practitioners of today, he not only had office hours and made rounds at the hospital, but he also made house calls and performed operations, delivered babies and set bones. Many a kitchen table became the delivery table for farm families and in many cases chickens and hogs became the mode of payment. As the years passed Doctor Russ knew about how much money the breadwinner was making in each household and he would charge accordingly. One large family paid their bill in strawberries, which presented a problem for Mrs. Russ. She had just a secondhand refrigerator which had room for two ice cube trays and one pound of hamburger. By that time the family included two adults and five children so they made many  strawberry dishes and Mrs. Russ put up strawberry preserves.

By the 1950’s Homer was charging $2 for an office call and when people asked him how did he make any money? He would respond “I have no nurse, bookkeeper, or receptionist, so I get to keep the whole two dollars”. Normally it was a first- come first- served system at his office and if you were bashful you might sit in the waiting room a long time. If you wanted an appointment, you set that up with him for after supper. The Blue Earth Clinic was the major competition by the 1950’s but they did not make house calls and Homer had agreements with the three major factories in town saying that he would come if they needed help, anytime, day or night.

He always drove a black Ford four-door sedan with stick transmission, no radio, no AC but he did have a spot light on the drivers side so he could find house numbers and farm houses. When asked why he had no radio he would say, “ the dog keeps me company and I don’t need AC because I just open the wing window and get all the fresh air I need.” His faithful companion was a female Doberman who slept under his roll top desk in his office during office hours and/ or waited for him in the car when he had a house call or made hospital rounds. He never bothered to lock his car because the dog would keep any unwanted person away.

For many years there was no requirement for the County Coroner to have a medical background and often morticians held the office. The job paid very little and so few doctors were interested in the job but it’s still a very important job in that it may be deciding if someone died of natural causes or perhaps foul means. Doctor Russ held this office for many years after Dr Wilson retired and never had another person file for the job. The fall season would often generate farmers playing tag with their corn pickers and loosing. One time he had to drive across a pasture to get to where the corn picker and deceased farmer was located. The grass was tall and the doctor didn’t notice the spike drag and  ran over it and the result was four flat tires! He submitted a bill to the County for four new tires and they said “no ,we only pay mileage”.

He enjoyed high school sports and went to as many athletic events as he could. When someone was hurt he became the doctor on call and seldom was paid for his services. If a boy or girl wanted to go out for sports he charged a dollar for the physical.  If you didn’t have the dollar he would say “forget it or pay me next time you’re in town”.  It was the very same physical that the Blue Earth Clinic gave but they charged twenty dollar for theirs.

When he died in 1981 he had served the town of Blue Earth and Faribault County for fifty years. The local school named a Wrestling tournament in his honor and several years after his death the City named a new street after him.