Another Madera Milestone awaits on the horizon


Madera County Historical Society

The new Madera Community Hospital as it stood ready to receive patients in 1971.

Sept. 26, 1971, marks a watershed in the history of Madera. On that Sunday afternoon, more than 600 people turned out for the dedication of the Madera Community Hospital. A few of those in the crowd remembered how the whole thing started in 1964, during a meeting between Darwin Shebelut, Dr. Jack Bick, Dr. Gilbert Daggett, and Elmer Rau to discuss the state of hospital care in Madera.

At that time, there were 3 hospitals in Madera, none of which met the needs of the community.

First there was the old Madera County Hospital, which supplied medical care to the underprivileged. In its last year of operation, it cost the county more than $1 million.

Then there was the Dearborn Hospital, a facility on East Yosemite Avenue. According to most Maderans, it was very nice, but it was limited in bed space for a town the size of Madera, with its 16,000 residents.

Finally, there was the Madera Sanitarium, which operated in an old home on West Yosemite Avenue. It had been put together by Dr. Dow Ransom. The operating room was on the second floor with an angular staircase, making movement of patients on a gurney very difficult.

Further, there were windows in the operating room, and when they used anesthetics there, one could smell it on the streets.

Clearly, Madera needed a new hospital.

Each of the four men who participated in that 1964 meeting had something to offer the community if it decided to build a new medical facility. Shebelut, in addition to his automobile agency, had been involved in several real estate developments around town. Rau owned the lumber company in Madera. Daggett had some entrepreneurial interests in addition to his medical practice, and Bick, as a physician, was naturally drawn to the project.

At their first meeting, the foursome decided to put together a committee and see what they could do. Each one contacted friends who were also community minded. Before long they had a group of about 20 people, out of which they formed committees and sub-committees and learned how to realize their goal as they went.

They organized a Madera Community Hospital Development Committee, and Shebelut became the chairman. Hundreds of meetings were then held to plan the facility, raise the money, negotiate grants, and acquire the site.

The hospital committee grew to include Mrs. Aubrey Baker, Frank Bergon, Mrs. Dave Byers, Howard Clemmensen, Mrs. Gail Hillhouse, Robert Melenbacker, Cesare Pierini, Mrs. Val Pinion, Chet Ridgeway, Dr. Coe Swift, and Sherman Thomas, in addition to Shebelut, Bick, Daggett, and Rau.

The hospital committee received $600,000 from the federal government and $600,000 from the state; then it raised another $1 million locally. At the end of the fund raising campaign, Shebelut said they were about $100,000 dollars short, so they went to various individuals in town in search of loans to make up the difference.

In the meantime, Daggett and Shebelut launched an airborne search for a site. Both men were pilots, so they flew all over Madera looking for the right spot, which they found in about an hour. They returned with their findings, and paid $60,000 for 40 acres.

Shebelut recalled “one crisis after another” in the hospital’s development. The project was hampered by two strikes, a tough federal money policy, changes in legislation, rain and fog at the wrong time, and various other mishaps.

Shebelut said he probably spent more time working on the planning of the hospital than he did on his own automobile business.

For five years, some of Madera’s most active boosters worked to bring the dream of a new Madera Community Hospital to fruition, and on that Sunday afternoon in 1971, it happened.

California Medical Association President, Dr. Jean Crumb, guest speaker for the occasion, intoned, “Here it stands, gleaming in the sun,” as he gestured toward the $5.2 million, 78 bed facility.

It was a happy day for Madera, one that we should perhaps be thinking about celebrating again — now that 49 years have passed.

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