TVA Case Files – Dr. Sage

I have recently been enthralled reading the records of the TVA that were recently made available on Ancestry. Genealogical research can be so dry sometimes. Names, dates, places and no color. The case files of the TVA are anything but dry and colorless.

If you had family in the areas affected by the programs of the TVA, these files provide a glimpse into their lives at that time. It’s useful even if your family is not among those reported on or directly impacted. The case workers documented information about an area of our country that would have been ignored and forgotten if not for their efforts. They took photos of buildings that would soon be gone and told of the homes and situations of the poor and not so poor farmers and sharecroppers in those areas. If you had family in the mountains and valleys of southwest Virginia you know how secretive they were and what little they left behind.

A fascinating example was the case file on a country doctor, John W. Sage, who practiced in the Harr Community of Sullivan County Tennessee. He was visited in May of 1942. The file describes his office on the second floor of a  two-story building, “..dilapidated, two-story, boxed structure, very unattractive, poorly arranged and crowded”. The photo in the file makes you wonder how any patient dared climb the steps to get there.  The case worker goes on to describe the office, “..inadequate furnishings, consisting mainly of : a squeaky cot or operating table, scattered obstetrical instruments of the oldest type, an old typewriter sitting on a table long enough for a desk in front of which is a swivel chair and several shelves full of dirty bottles containing chemicals used in general practice. An abundance of prophylactic medicines and the old type of syphilitic treatment are included.”

The case worker tells us that on each occasion he was visited he was wearing the same dark suit and tie and had the odor of alcohol on his breath. It was noted that he liked to talk about the families he treated in a profane manner. The details he leaves to our imagination. He goes on to say that for several months the doctor wore a piece of adhesive tape from his lower eyelid down to his cheek, explaining how it was allowing circulation to relieve inflammation. Obstetrics was his prized topic of conversation, “Some of the happenings he describes and the ancient manner he practices in caring for the confinement cases of the prolific mothers of the community makes one wonder how he keeps from losing a large percentage of his cases.”

It is then reported that the doctor is well-known in the community for answering every call no matter what time of day or the patient’s ability to pay. In looking at his books it showed only a third of his charges were collectible. The doctor was revisited in July 1942 and we learn, “In his typical profane manner, Dr. Sage reported that he was cooperating with the citizens of the community in criticizing the OPA (Office of Price Administration) in regard to the rationing of gasoline and food products.”  In December 1943 it is reported that Dr. Sage moved his practice to Ruthton, a community southeast of Bristol. Later records tell us that the Doctor died in 1948 and his wife went to live with her children.

All of this made me highly suspicious of the country doctor so I checked census records. In 1940 he was 61 years old and reported to be a medical doctor. However, in 1930 he was a mechanic on a railroad and in 1920 a travelling salesman of tobacco. Previous to that he was a farm laborer. I am curious as to where and when he obtained his medical degree. I would bet that he never did which would explain his archaic practices. My heart goes out to the poor women who trusted him at such a vulnerable time.