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Flea market promotional knife kicks up memories

The Williams Sanatorium was located at 101 Third St. 1 / 7
Dave Swanson’s grandmother, Eva R. Apple, worked on the grounds at the Williams Sanatorium. 2 / 7
Above the Williams Sanatorium sat this gazebo overlooking the St. Croix River. This is a pre-1917 photo. Williams would visit the site for quiet time and reflection. 3 / 7
North Hudson collector Dave Swanson shows the knife he recently purchased at a flea market in Lake Elmo. He is also holding the picture of his grandmother, Eva R. Apple, who was photographed on the grounds of the sanatorium when she worked there. Swanson said he was surprised to find the knife tied to the Williams Sanatorium in Hudson.4 / 7
The inscriptions on the promotional knife tell the story. What is unknown is why a knife was a promotional item for a sanatorium treating cancer. 5 / 7
6 / 7
Dave Swanson’s great aunt, Marcella Lewis, worked on the grounds at the Williams Sanatorium. Note the giant peacock on the grounds. Williams maintained an exotic menagerie of wild birds and animals, including the largest collection of free roaming peacocks.7 / 7

Some people say there is a fine line between a person being a hoarder and a collector.

Dave Swanson of North Hudson is a collector — an avid one at that. He knows what he wants and he knows how it should be displayed. Of special interest are items that have some connection to either his life, or his community of Hudson.

“I like to find things that are tied to Hudson, or have some connection to my interests over the years,” said Swanson, a 1962 Hudson high School graduate.

At a recent flea market in Lake Elmo, Minn., Swanson ran across a knife and was surprised when he read the inscription which tied it to Hudson’s history and Dr. Boyd Williams:

—Dr. Williams’ Sanatorium

—Hudson, Wisconsin

—Established 1910 – Free Booklet

It caught Swanson’s attention for a number of reasons. His grandmother Eva R. Apple (1906-1972) worked at the facility in Hudson in the 1930s. His great aunt, Marcella Lewis, also worked there. Both did general cleaning at the facility. And, the knife had a great local connection to one of Hudson’s most interesting historical stories.

What was the facility? A cancer treatment center located at 101 Third Street in Hudson. It’s now a private residence located on the Third Street hill, just south of the Hudson Fire Department. 

The cover on the other side of the knife told the story:

—Treating And Curing Cancer

—Special Care, Comfort & Safety For The Aged

Of course, the entire scenario begs the question – who hands out promotional knives at a sanatorium for treating cancer? We may never know the answer.

“It is kind of interesting that this would be your advertising plan,” Swanson chuckled.

Dr. Boyd Williams

Williams was a very colorful, and somewhat controversial person. He led an interesting life and was considered to be quite famous. Money from his trust provided funding for Williams Park at the corner of Laurel and Eleventh streets, money for the first Hudson Hospital and the Hudson sign in Lakefront Park.

He was a native of Hudson, born in 1876 and graduated from Hudson High School in 1894. He then moved to Ohio, where he attended the Cincinnati College of Physicians and Surgeons until 1901, when he received his medical degree.

Williams returned to Hudson in 1907 and opened a private practice that ran until 1911. He then moved to Minneapolis to open the Williams Sanatorium for Cancer. There he specialized in the treatment and study of external cancer.

Although he continued this practice in Minneapolis for nearly 20 years, the state of Minnesota refused to grant him a license because he advertised his treatments (in those days it was illegal to advertise medical treatments) and in 1927 the state fined Dr. Williams for practicing without a license.

Eventually, Williams closed his cancer sanatorium in the cities and opened it in Hudson in 1932.

In 1930 Dr. Williams purchased what was known as the “House of Seven Gables” located at 101 Third Street. The house was built in 1860 by Charles Lewis as a wedding gift for his wife, Catherine. The Lewis family occupied the house for 40 years.

In early 1900s Dr. Kermott bought the house. The house was later occupied by the Mayer family prior to its purchase by Dr. Williams.

Williams converted the second floor of the house into his cancer treatment hospital and remodeled the lower floor into his office and family residence. It was Dr. Williams’ belief that “a doctor doesn’t know his patients unless he lives with them.”

He treated his patients with methods that were considered revolutionary at the time and left some local citizens dubious of his abilities. In later years, some of Williams’ methods became more commonly accepted practices. Despite critics, his treatments were popular, with patients coming from practically every state in the union and even from foreign countries.

Williams was stripped of his license to practice medicine in the state of Wisconsin in 1943. However, his sanatorium stayed open until 1947. He died one year later.

Regardless of public opinion of his medical practice, the citizens of Hudson held him in high esteem for his civic and naturalist efforts. He was elected councilman from the first ward in 1908. On his property he also maintained an exotic menagerie of wild birds and animals, including the largest collection of free roaming peacocks in the Midwest.

In addition to Williams Park, during his life Williams provided funds to help build the “Hudson Arch” at the end of Walnut Street that greeted visitors as they entered Hudson from the toll bridge – it still stand today in Lakefront Park.

Personal issues

His personal life also had plenty of turmoil, including four marriages and a fight over his will when he died. In 1936 Williams married his fourth wife, Ruth Geyman Mueller, who subsequently sued him for divorce just prior to his death on Aug. 9, 1948.

The Williams funeral was held at the Episcopal Church with burial in the Willow River Cemetery. Williams had two children: Christine with his first wife and David with his second wife. Just four days prior to his death, Williams made changes to his will and codicil, leaving one third of his approximately $400,000 estate to his wife, Ruth, some $50,000 to various individuals including $5,000 to his son, $500 to his daughter and $5,000 to St Paul’s Episcopal Church. The remainder of the estate was to be put in a trust to benefit “educational and charitable purposes for the City of Hudson.”

Christine Williams, daughter of Dr. Williams and his first wife Nellie Williams, contested the will claiming that he was not of sound mind at the time he changed the will on Aug. 5, 1948. A court battle ensued with testimony given by Nellie and others that Williams had a violent temper, was not of sound mind and had been a victim of undue influence.

Colleagues however, testified that he was of sound mind and that they had witnessed the signature of Dr. Williams on the documents. John D. Heywood, the local attorney who drew up the will, also testified to the competence of his client. In June of 1949 a Menomonie judge upheld the will.

Consequently the Hudson Hospital Fund received $30,000 from the Williams Trust. Also money from the trust provided funding for Williams Park.

After the death of Williams’ widow and her daughter, Ruth Kees, occupied the house at 101 Third Street, closing the cancer hospital and returning the home back into a single family residence.

Mayo display

A couple years back, the work of Dr. Williams was displayed at the Mayo Clinic Library’s History of Medicine Collection in Rochester, Minn. In the day, Williams proclaimed his library to be one of the largest on cancer and tumor disease. His collection consists of 161 books, many of which were displayed in the exhibit at the Mayo Clinic History Collection.

Before acquiring the knife, Dave Swanson already had a 140-plus page book that Williams published to promote his sanatoriums in both Hudson and Minneapolis. Williams made some lofty claims. On the bottom of each page is the notation: There is no serious disease so curable as cancer if taken in time and none so hopeless if it is neglected or treated by improper methods.

And, of course, there were no HIPAA privacy rules – the names and addresses of every patient were published in the back of the book arranged by state and town! The book contained many testimonies and many “before” and “after” pictures – some quite graphic.

The cost of treatment in about 1930: Exam and consultation, $5; small cancers, $25 and upwards; large cancers $50 and upwards; and room, board, dressings, medicine and nurse, $18 per week.

A full page in the books was devoted to why it should be legal to advertise medical treatments.

So, in the form of a little pocket knife, Dave Swanson has another little piece of Hudson’s colorful history. It gives us all an opportunity to reflect on the past!

Jacki Bradham and the St. Croix County Historical Society contributed to this story.

Doug Stohlberg

Doug Stohlberg has been part of the Hudson Star-Observer since 1973 and has been editor since 1987. He worked at the New Richmond News from 1971 to 1973. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota.

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