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Dr. Victor Hugo Stickney


It was on this date in 1883 that Dr. V.H. Stickney arrived in Dickinson. The newspaper reported he “arrived last Saturday from Ludlow, Vermont and has located here for the practice of medicine... He may be found at Davis and Fowler’s drugstore.”

Author Erling Rolfsrud wrote, “Victor Hugo Stickney, M.D. little realized on that (September) day that the area of his professional practice would embrace over 50,000 square miles of the old cow country – an area stretching from the Canadian border to the Black Hills; from Glendive, Montana east toward Mandan.”

One of Stickney’s first medical calls came from more than a hundred miles north of Dickinson. A young hand, Sidney Tarbell, was working on the Joe Woods ranch when he accidentally lassoed two wild horses at once. Tarbell was jerked off his horse so violently that he broke several bones; some protruded from his flesh.

One of Tarbell’s friends jumped on a horse and headed for Dickinson. At every ranch he passed, he stopped and exchanged his exhausted mounts for fresh ones. When he reached Dickinson, the boy was relieved to find the doctor in town, and Stickney quickly retraced the relay race out to the Woods Ranch. He found a rancher waiting with a fresh horse to take across the river when he reached the Little Missouri. By the time Stickney reached his destination, however, his intended patient had already died. Instead of tending Tarbell’s broken body, he read scripture over the first white person to be buried in McKenzie County.

Since many of Stickney’s calls were far out on the range, he often stayed with settlers and ranchers who started calling the “Cowboy Doctor.” There were also times when storms and blizzards would come out of nowhere, and he had to make do with an overhanging tree or the leeward side of a butte until the weather cleared. If he knew he was reasonably close to home, he would loose his reins and let his horse take him home.

Working with cowboys far out on the range was particularly challenging for Stickney, especially if he had just traveled a long distance to get there. He sometimes had to operate out under the sun. Makeshift surgery tables were made from overturned wagon boxes. He sterilized his tools in Dutch ovens over open fires and, if possible, instructed cowhands on how they could assist him.

One cold day, a man limped up a Dickinson street and asked Stickney if he knew where he could find a doctor. Stickney took the man back to his office and examined his injured feet. He was a deputy sheriff who had gone after two men who had stolen his boat. Once the deputy found the thieves, he couldn’t go to sleep, for fear they would escape. During the two-day journey to the Dickinson jail, they had to cross rivers filled with floating ice, and the deputy froze his toes. Stickney was impressed with the law man and later described him as the “most peculiar, and the same time, the most wonderful man I’ve ever come to know.”

Stickney married a dressmaker named Maggie Hayes, and they had two daughters – Marjorie and Dorothy. As a child, Dorothy was plagued by eye problems. She had to undergo seven operations for corneal ulcers, and while the little girl recovered in dark rooms, Stickney read to her. Dorothy later moved to New York and won wide recognition as a Broadway actress.

But, I bet you’re still wondering who the Cowboy Doctor’s frostbitten patient was. Well, his name was Theodore Roosevelt.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm