Latest Acquisition: Alumna donates handmade frontier crib

The UConn School of Nursing’s Dolan Collection was visited recently by the Weinhold family, long-time friends of a 1955 alumna, Barbara Ann Contessa Madgwick, who has donated a handmade crib from her days in Frontier Nursing. The crib was made by a local craftsman, Alonzo Sizemore (Hydon, Essex County, KY) of hickory saplings with woven hickory bark for the bed.

Weinhold Family
Frontier Crib (1956) of hickory saplings and bark, donated by Barbara Ann Contessa Madgwick

This beautiful and unusual item has been added to the permanent sickroom exhibit in the Widmer Wing atrium.

Frontier crib in Dolan Collection permanent exhibit

Madwick and the Weinholds have done the curator’s job for him by providing the following explanation:

Barbara Ann Contessa Madgwick earned her baccalaureate from UConn’s School of Nursing in 1955. Immediately after graduating she joined the Frontier Nursing Service (FNS) in Hydon, Kentucky, as a staff nurse.  Her duties were primarily home visits by horseback or by Jeep to families scattered throughout the hills of southern Appalachia, one of the poorest and most inaccessible areas in the United States.  She assisted at the FNS hospital in her off times or when she was on call.  A clinic was located on the first floor of the old stone hospital.  Maternity services were on the 2nd floor.  The School of Midwifery was down the path from the hospital. (In the 50’s nurse-midwifery was not yet legal in most states so most of the midwifery students were training for overseas missionary work.) Staff nurses such as Barbara assisted the teachers with deliveries, post-natal care and home visits. The staff nursing team consisted of 4 to 6 young women supervised by a senior British nurse-midwife.

Poverty in that area of Kentucky was endemic. Many homes visited by Barbara and her colleagues were little more than shacks, lacking running water, electricity and indoor plumbing.  The largest medical challenges were chronic respiratory problems among the miners, a huge issue, and general malnutrition.

Toddlers and young children with disabilities were kept in cribs such as this one in order to protect them and keep them safely away them from the “far” (fire), either the open hearth or a potbellied stove.  Barbara remembers being sent into the hills to check on Jeannie, about 8 months old, for “failure to survive.”  Jeannie was kept in a crib like this one. Her family gave her Coke when she was thirsty. Children who were particularly vulnerable or fragile would be kept in the FNS hospital through the winter.  Such was the case with Jeannie.  Parents were comfortable with letting the nursing staff care for the children in this manner. Jeannie slept in a cardboard box while in the hospital and was carried around by the nurses who watched over her. Barbara recalls accompanying Jeannie by ambulance to a hospital in Cincinnati for evaluation and perhaps treatment.

Barbara commissioned this crib from a local craftsman, Alonzo Sizemore. Sizemore was the middle-aged maintenance man/ driver/jack-of-all-trades for the FNS and he made cribs as a side business. The crib is made of hickory saplings and the bottom is lined with hickory bark. This was important because hickory bark is impervious to moisture and thus resistant to decay caused by urine.  Sometimes a crib would be cushioned with a blanket.

The people of the area were very appreciative of the FNS—even if/when they frequently failed to follow medical advice.  In a region known for violent solutions to problems, and the sound of gunfire not unheard, the nurses were never in danger because their service and dedication were highly valued.

The FNS nurses wore uniforms, one for summer, another for winter. At that time the nurses were not encouraged to socialize or participate in local culture but they were always made welcome. They spent their free time cooking and singing hill country songs together.

Following her time with the FNS Barbara went on to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malaya (1961-1964), where she served on a yaws control team in rural and jungle areas. Here is where the young Weinholds met her (and each other). The latter part of her career was spent working in an early intervention program for infants in Loudoun Country in Virginia.

Mary Breckinridge established the Frontier Nursing Service in 1926.  Over the years the FSN lowered the maternal and infant mortality rate in southern Appalachia from one of the highest in the country to well below the national average.  Today the FNS still serves southeastern Kentucky, with a new hospital in Hyden, four rural health clinics, a home health agency and the FNS School of Midwifery and Family Nursing.  People have come from around the world to study this model of rural health and social service delivery.