Wilk Hyer, left, and his cousin RB (Roscoe) Leavitt after a turkey hunting outing on Dec. 4, 1926. Roscoe went West in 1900 and asked Wilk to join him. Wilk did and became established with JC Penney in Walla Walla, Washington. Wilk had worked at the Leavitt’s General Mercantile Store in Houston from 1890 to 1900 as a clerk under the supervision of Roscoe’s father AE (Albert) Leavitt, a stern task-master. Albert’s wife, Elizabeth Hyer, was Wilk’s cousin from Lake Spring. Wilk became the primary shoe buyer and vice president of the JC Penney company. In the 1940’s Wilk was instrumental in bringing the International Shoe Factory to Houston. Credit: HOUSTON HERALD ARCHIVES (APRIL 26, 1951)

By Houston native MICHAEL DUFF

Lewis Wilkins (Wilk) Hyer became “greatly interested” in Rolla while visiting friends and his cousin Dr. Sid McFarland in May of 1929. Wilk thought Rolla needed a large, modern, and centrally located hospital like the one his friend Charles Dimmitt had built in Humansville, Mo., the same year.  

Charles and Wilk were executives in the JC Penney Corporation and able to finance such construction. They had known each other since 1911 when they both worked for JC Penney in Walla Walla, Wash. 

In October of 1930, Wilk and the state Geologist Dr. Buehler, JA Spillman, Dr. SL Baysinger and architect Eugene Johnson visited Charles and the newly constructed three story, 20-bed hospital with a modern operating room that had a skylight.  

“The Rolla committee was greatly pleased with the Humansville Hospital. It is regarded as one of the most completely equipped and best furnished hospital in the country.” (Rolla Herald, Oct. 23, 1930)

The hospital was named after Mr. Charles Dimmitt’s son George who was born in Humansville and had recently died in 1928. Wilk thought he’d like to name the new Rolla Hospital “The Mary Hyer Memorial Hospital” after his mother who had died when he was only 3. 

Mr. Dimmitt had paid the entire $100,000 to build and equip the George Dimmitt Memorial Hospital. Wilk decided he would put up $50,000 if the Rolla community would match his contribution.

The George Dimmitt Memorial Hospital. SUBMITTED PHOTO

In 1929 and 1930 the community rallied to the cause, promising to buy the $1.00 shares in the venture. These promises were called subscriptions. By June 2, 1930, the Rolla Herald reported the amount subscribed to date was $42,965. “It is now up to those who have not done their “bit” to step up and turn in their subscription.” The paper would print a list of subscribers and the amount promised to the cause. On June 12 the Herald reported that “subscriptions are coming in somewhat slowly, near the $45,000 mark, but sufficient to show that interest in this wonderful movement has not abated.” In September subscriptions reached $55,549 but the Board of Directors deemed it advisable to have $10,000 for emergencies and equipment, the goal was now $60,000.

While the subscriptions for a new and bigger, better hospital were coming in Dr. Sidney McFarland was still dealing with a large patient load in the cramped old hospital he had converted out of the Rolla Hotel on 7th Street which was almost 50 years old. 

A reporter noted, “Each day shows us the vital need of a larger and better located hospital than our present one which is doing such noble work and Dr. Sidney McFarland is to be highly commended. This hospital is practically filled with patients all the time and there is not a day that there is not a house full of visitors calling upon the patients.” (Rolla Herald, Feb. 13, 1930).

In October of 1930 the Chamber of Commerce’s 47 members voted unanimously to turn over to the Board of the Mary Hyer Memorial Hospital a portion of the fair grounds on which to place their building. The site chosen was a grove of trees on the fairgrounds adjacent to Highway 66. The Mary Hyer Memorial Hospital Corp. gave the Chamber of Commerce $5,000 and received back $4,250 as a donation. The lot cost $750.

In January 1931 Mr. Spillman assured the members of the Hub Club, a local business group meeting in the new Pennant Bus Terminal, that the Mary Hyer Hospital was an “assured fact,” and “all that is now necessary is for the subscribers to come forward with their payments as agreed to. Mr. Hyer has assured the Board that he is ready and willing to place his subscription in the bank at any time the terms are complied with and that he is even willing to go further as the occasion may demand. This was welcome news, and the Club gave Mr. Spillman a hearty cheer.” (Rolla Herald, Jan 8, 1931).

Why was this assurance needed? The Great Depression had started with the stock market crash. J C Penney had listed his corporation on the New York Stock Exchange Oct. 23, 1929, and the market crashed Oct. 29, 1929. The value of the JC Penney stock had declined from over $100/share to $13/share. Was Wilk Hyer able to cover his promised funds? Indeed he was and he had even helped JC Penney recover his fortune.

It soon became evident that for most folks it was easier to promise a subscription than to make a bank deposit. 

“The Board of Directors of the Mary Hyer Memorial Hospital met at the Rolla State Bank Tuesday night to discuss the matter of collecting the subscriptions from those who have subscribed to this Hospital Fund. It was finally decided to appoint 10 committees, two members to a committee, each committee to call upon 10 subscribers and ask them to make their payments in accord with their subscriptions. It is impossible to proceed with the work unless the subscriptions are paid.” (Rolla Herald, April 9, 1931).

How did Dr. Sidney McFarland feel about the fundraiser for the new Mary Hyer Hospital? He was an enthusiastic supporter and often went to fund raisers as the one in Anutt, where he had an early general practice, which raised $305 from the small community. During a Hub Club meeting in March of 1930 he supported the proposition. He and Wilk had dinner together at AC Donnan’s home in January of 1931 and discussed the proposed hospital venture. Mr. Donnan was the president of the Rolla State Bank and had married Dr. John Hyer’s daughter. Dr. Hyer had served as an inspiration to Dr. McFarland and Mr. Donnan had a mercantile store in Lake Spring where Wilk had his first job in merchandising. Dr. McFarland’s great grandfather was Sam Hyer. This was a family reunion.

The word was getting out in southern Missouri that a modern general hospital was going to be built in Rolla. One successful and talented surgeon who took note of this development was Dr. David D. Cox who came to West Plains and Pomona from Kansas City. He opened a hospital and drug store in Pomona but was attracted to the promise of a more modern facility. Citizens from Rolla had approached Dr. Cox and encouraged him. He moved to Rolla in May of 1930 and established a temporary 15-bed hospital in the old Love home in east Rolla waiting for the new hospital to open. When funding faltered for the Mary Hyer Hospital Dr. Cox returned to Pomona and West Plains in 1932. He died suddenly in 1935.

Tragedy struck Rolla on April 4, 1931, when Miss Mary McFarland was killed in an accident on Pine Street. The bread truck she was riding in the Saturday before Easter turned over and crushed her. Suddenly all thought and sympathy was directed to Dr. Sidney and Nellie McFarland. Mary had come to Rolla with her parents in 1918 and had gone to school there, graduating from the Rolla High School in the Class of 1929. She had attended a semester at the School of Mines and worked as a bookkeeper at her father’s hospital. 

“She not only looked after the books but went around the hospital doing whatever she could do spreading sunshine among the patients. Her visits to the sick room were a joy and a pleasure. Every Sunday morning found her at the Methodist Church engaged in teaching the infant Sunday School Class, and the children dearly loved her. Wilk Hyer came from Chicago to her funeral, the largest in the history of Rolla.” (Rolla Herald, April 9, 1931).

After this tragedy subscriptions were even more difficult to collect. The initial enthusiasm was waning. Times were hard, people were in the middle of the Great Depression. The stock market had crashed in October of 1929. Banks were failing, farmers were losing their property and unemployment was high. In addition, Dr. McFarland soon announced his move to the Baltimore Hotel, a larger more accessible facility and began plans for building the new Nellie McFarland Memorial Hospital by Highway 66. 

The Nellie McFarland Hospital was a 45-bed, four-story hospital that was said to have cost $25,000. This is a very low figure, remembering that the George Dimmitt 20-bed, three-story hospital cost $100,000. Where did this extra funding come from? When it became evident that the matching funds to construct the proposed Mary Hyer Memorial Hospital would not be forth coming did Wilk Hyer approach his cousin, Dr. Sidney McFarland and help finance his new Nellie McFarland Memorial Hospital? Wilk had a history of anonymous contributions and this supposition seems plausible. 

In 1946 when he was 77 Wilk fell at the Jefferson Hotel and fractured his hip. He was taken to DePaul Hospital where he spent the rest of his life, dying in 1957 at age 87. He had spent the last 11 years working from his hospital room.  It is unusual for a fracture to result in such a long hospitalization unless there are other illnesses present to prevent healing, and indeed there was, the dreaded Aplastic Anemia, a failure of the bone marrow to produce the constituents of the blood and the body’s stem cells.

After his death a portion of his $14.6 million fortune went to Skaggs Hospital in Branson, the Ranken-Jordan Home for Convalescent Crippled Children, Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children, and the Missouri division of the American Cancer Society. Most of his wealth was transferred to the School of the Ozarks at Point Lookout to provide an education for deserving children of the Ozarks.  

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