A Real Character of Early Kossuth Co.
Some Pioneers Had Fun Just Plain Living
A history of Irving (both old and present) would not be complete without a chapter on Dr. J.R. Armstrong. All the old settlers, I’m sure, would agree. Some may possibly think that he is getting more than his share of publicity, but the fact is there is no phase of Irvington history which he did not help create. His activities, and the interesting incidents connected with them as they are found throughout early community life, remind one of a startling and extremely different weave and pattern, appearing often and unexpectedly in an otherwise plain and somber garment. Although his methods sometimes caused the chills to run up and down the spines of his neighbors, he continued to hold their respect, nevertheless.
Having come to this vicinity in 1857 he lived through the rise and fall of one village [and] had an active part in the early life of the other. He was a doctor, dentist, merchant, school teacher, postmaster, Sunday school teacher, and farmer. He served also as county superintendent of schools for a season and held many other public offices. He was a man who apparently had the ability to do anything that was required of him.
When Dr. Armstrong first arrived here the hardy pioneers did not require too much in the way of professional services, and he became a clerk in the Ransom Parmetter store. He bought the L.L. Treat store in 1863 and later bought the James Green building and continued the store there. (This is the same building that still stands at the top of the Irvington hill.) He discontinued his mercantile business in 1878, having been the last storekeeper and postmaster in the old village.
Shortly after coming to the community, Dr. Armstrong married Jane Fife and the couple were the original settlers on the land just east of the present village, now owned by Gerald Frank. Records show that the Armstrongs received a patent covering the land in 1860 from the President of the United States. The old house, now occupied by the Herman Lester family, is much the same as when the Armstrongs lived there except that at one time there was an addition adjoining the house on the south. This was later taken off and moved farther south where for many years it served as another dwelling. Within the last number of years it was sold to Carl Seip who tore the building down and hauled the lumber to his farm.
After Mrs. Armstrong’s death the doctor and two daughters, Lucy and Mary, moved from the old home to the house now owned and occupied by Mrs. Marie Frankl.
The other daughter Lavina and sons James and Charles had married. The doctor died there in 1911, having been in ill health for a few years, and is buried in the Irvington cemetery.
He was the only resident physician the town ever had. He was strict, harsh, and unrelenting as a school teacher — but women who were his patients in his later years say he was always kind and considerate. The Doctor could evidently be whatever the current situation demanded on him. On one occasion he amputated the right index finger of J.R. Robison, after it had been mangled in a can mill. The amputation was performed with the Robison meat saw, without benefit of anesthetic. The saw is still in use at the home of Mrs. M.L. Roney, daughter of Mr. Robison.
There are many stories of Dr. Armstrong and to older residents who knew the Doctor personally they are practically a tradition.
One of the Doctor’s peculiarities was that he was immune to jokes, especially those involving himself. He emphasized this very thoroughly one April Fool’s day. The story goes that a few young men who were “batching” in the Kendall Young house had made some soft soap pies for the occasion. The pies were beautiful to behold — the soap having been “doctored up” until it looked like pumpkin.
During the day most of the village men dropped in at the “batch hall” and were offered a piece of pie. Each one would accept with alacrity, unsuspectingly take a big bite and then react in a violent manner. Each victim would keep his experience a secret, wanting all his neighbors to get some of the same.
Above all else the boys wanted Dr. Armstrong to get some of the pie but as usually happens in such cases the Doctor didn’t call. After waiting almost all day they sent for Kendall Young to help them out. Young, who was a friend of Dr. Armstrong, sent word for the Doctor to come up to “batches hall” as he wanted to see him on business. The Doctor arrived and, as had been previously arranged, everyone was sitting around the table pretending to eat supper.
Armstrong sat down and started to talk with Young and it wasn’t long before the pie was passed. Young passed the pie to Armstrong who put it back on the table and continued his conversation. Not to be so easily thwarted, however, the boys saw to it that the pie was soon passed again. This time Young took a piece, pretended to take a bite, then urged the Doctor to try it. Armstrong took a piece saying, “Kendall, I never eat pie of any kind but as a special favor to you I’ll indulge just this once.” He then proceeded to bite off just about a fourth of the piece. The men, unable to retain their mirth any longer, burst into hilarious laughter, anticipating the Doctor’s reaction. They were doomed to disappointment for Armstrong, without altering his expression in the slightest, continued to eat the bite, remarking in between bites as to its deliciousness.
When he had finished every crumb he arose to go and looking around into the unbelieving and slightly greenish faces of his friends said, “Any time you boys have another pie like that one let me know. It is the best I ever ate.”
On another occasion the son Charles placed a tack on his father’s chair then requested him to sit down and demonstrate how a certain problem should be worked. The Doctor sat down, carefully worked and explained the problem, without giving any indication that he was are that he wasn’t sitting squarely on a tack.
The Doctor would not even let a skunk get the best of him although it has always been a question as to which one came out best in an encounter. The story goes that in some way a skunk got into the Armstrong basement. Instead of being diplomatic, opening the door, and letting the animal come out in his own good time, the Doctor grabbed a club and dashed into the basement after it. They both emerged at the same time — the Doctor holding a handkerchief to his eyes.
He complained a little about the odor and admitted his eyes burned. However, never one to come second best, he reported that his vision was much sharper after that. He never did recommend the treatment for his patients with failing vision, however.
The son Charles, although standing very much in awe of his father, was not above playing tricks on him when he thought he could get by with it. He made himself some extra work one time when he couldn’t resist the urge to get a laugh on the “old man.” It seems that dogs had been annoying the Armstrong sheep at night.
The Doctor decided to do something about it, and loaded his muzzle loader with a charge of fine shot, which he intended would scare the dogs but not seriously harm them. He placed the gun behind the door and went to bed. Charles, knowing what his father had planned, removed the charge and replaced it with buckshot before he too went to bed. In the middle of the night the usual bedlam of barking dogs and bleating sheep began. Doc escaped from bed and not waiting to dress raced out into the yard, grabbing his gun on the way. He took quick aim and fired at the nearest dog. Instead of emitting a series of short staccato yelps interspersed with long howls and running for his life, the dog dropped dead.
The look of surprise on the Doctor’s face was soon replaced by one of conviction. He looked long and thoughtfully at the dead dog, looking again at his gun, and turning gazed for a long time at the window of Charles’ upstairs room. At breakfast the next morning the events of the night were not mentioned until Charles, unable to control his mirth any longer, snickered. This was Doc’s cue and he thundered, “Charles, you bury that dog.” There is not the slightest doubt that Charles stopped laughing immediately and answered, “Yes sir.”
Source: Kossuth County Advance, July 1, 1954.