Printed in North Dakota Horizons Magazine
On a warm day in late July 1927, all of Dickinson shut down. Stores and businesses were empty, their doors closed. There was no heart to carry on business as usual. Crowding the cemetery people were saying goodbye to their beloved “Cowboy Doctor.” He didn’t just heal and console, he was a friend to almost every family in the region. He was remembered with overwhelming gratitude for his gift of love and 44 years of dedicated service to the people he came to cherish.
The “Cowboy Doctor,” Victor Hugo Stickney, was born April 13, 1855. He was raised on the family farm in Vermont, part of a respected and long-established Eastern family. Stickney had two sisters and seven brothers. The boys in the family were all given imposing names to live up to. Stickney’s brother, William Wallace, would one day be governor of Vermont and second the presidential nomination for their third cousin, Calvin Coolidge.
Stickney worked his way through college with an assortment of jobs, including shoveling coal and waiting tables. He was a census taker in 1880. Working in a mental hospital one summer, he met a scientist who hired him to work on a ship sailing to the Cape Verde Islands. This became quite the adventure. He experienced a mutiny and a hurricane, shot a whale and, due to short food supplies, lived on chocolate and water for two weeks. He never touched chocolate again!
Graduating from Dartmouth Medical School in 1883, Stickney went west to the Dakota Territory’s open spaces. This wasn’t as random as it might seem. His good friend Jeremiah Hayes was operating a blacksmith shop in Dickinson. With the railroad’s arrival in 1881, the town was growing rapidly. Hayes knew they needed a doctor and convinced Stickney to start his medical practice in this growing community. Stickney’s daughter Dorothy remarked, “the promise of magic and enchantment” lured him west. Periodically Stickney returned east to renew his skills, but never desired to stay. The west’s allure and its people had become a part of him.
When the young doctor headed west, he was engaged to Hayes’ sister Maggie. They and their six siblings, children of Irish immigrants, grew up on a neighboring farm. Stickney did not want Maggie joining him until he could establish a proper home, so she stayed behind working as a dress maker while she waited. Arriving in Dickinson, Stickney set up his medical practice in the local drugstore. Later, when he was able to buy a home, his office and an operating room were moved to the house. After two years Stickney felt he could bring Maggie west to start their life together. Maggie had used her skills as a talented dressmaker to meticulously make a beautiful wedding dress with lace and brocade, which she carefully packed in a box wrapped in tissue for the journey. On September 12, 1885, Stickney met Maggie at the train station in Mandan with the news they had to be married there, and they only had twenty minutes to do so before the train left. Mandan was the closest town to Dickinson with a Catholic priest. There was no time to change in and out of her traveling clothes. Maggie never wore her wedding dress but saved it in a large chest full of family memories.
Stickney’s patients were not just the townsfolk; his practice covered 50,000 square miles. He would travel as far north as Canada, west to Glendive, east to Mandan, and south into the Black Hills. He was often gone for days at a time when called to a remote camp or ranch to attend the injured or sick. He never hesitated, no matter the conditions he would find himself in. He would travel by horse or buckboard, and occasionally in a freight train caboose. Often working in primitive conditions, he would sterilize his instruments in a Dutch oven. He frequently slept on the open prairie wrapped in a tarp. If he was caught in the snow, he sought shelter near a butte or in brush.
Hermann Hagedorn described Stickney with awe in his book, Roosevelt in the Badlands. “Dr. Stickney was the only physician within 150 miles in any direction. He had a reputation for never refusing a call whatever the distance or the weather…He was a quiet, lean man with a warm smile and friendly eyes, a sense of humor and a zest for life. …it was a life of extraordinary devotion. Stickney took it with a laugh, blushing when men spoke well of him, and called it the day’s work…he was utterly fearless, and it seemed tireless. At grueling speed he rode until his horse stood with heaving sides…changed to another horse and rode on…Over a hundred miles or more he would ride relays at a speed that seemed incredible, and at the end of the journey operate with a calm hand for a gunshot wound or a cruelly broken bone, sometimes on the box of a mess wagon turned upside down on the prairie.”
“He never wore chaps nor a red shirt nor high heeled boots nor a revolver, but he made his calls on horseback or in a sleigh or in a buckboard to visit the sick or injured in the bleak and lonely obscurity of a ranch house or a cow camp, and if he got there too late, he often stayed on to help dig the grave or to read the burial service. He was as much at home on horseback as any cowpuncher on the range,” recalled Dorothy.
In the spring of 1886, a bedraggled and exhausted young man with badly bruised and blistered feet was in town looking for a doctor. He had walked 40 miles in water drenched shoes to bring three thieves to the jail in Dickinson. He met Stickney on the street not knowing who he was, and asked if there was a doctor nearby. Stickney took the man back to his office and did what he could for him. “When I went home to lunch an hour later, I told my wife that I had met the most peculiar and, at the same time, most wonderful man I ever came to know,” Stickney said. This unusual but enchanting man introduced himself as Deputy Theodore Roosevelt of Billings County. Stickney and Roosevelt became lifelong friends with great admiration for each other.
In 1893, the Stickney’s first daughter, Marjorie Ann, was born, followed three years later by Dorothy Hayes. Marjorie was a healthy baby, but little Dorothy had problems with her eyes from infancy. Over the course of her childhood there were many prolonged stays at the hospital in St. Paul, leaving Dr. Stickney and Marjorie at home. Dorothy would ultimately have seven operations to relieve her corneal ulcers. Dr. Stickney joined his wife and daughter when he could, and worried how his family was getting on when separated. Letters went back and forth between them with the news and their love. In one touching letter Stickney said, “I miss you and how your absence saddens me. My love for you grows every day…I gave Marjorie a good scrubbing last night…she looks quite sweet in her little blue dress, but I cannot fix her hair…”
When together, the family enjoyed going to plays and performances at the towns “opera house” and reading out loud. When Dorothy was 12 or 13, she discovered and relished the books of her father’s namesake, Victor Hugo. Dorothy went on to be a renowned actress with a long career. Her sister Marjorie studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music and married a young doctor from Wisconsin, Aloysius Nachtwey, who took over for Dr. Stickney when he retired from active practice in 1913.
Stickney never sent a bill to his patients saying, “I’m just a doctor, not a collector.” He figured people would pay him if they could. Examples of Stickney’s devotion abound. The people knew they had a jewel. Cowboys would talk about him over their campfires, one writing, “He was not only a doctor but a friend in need to these pioneer people, and they all loved him.” Four years after a particularly heartrending case, Stickney received a check from the Chicago stock yards. A carload of healthy steers had arrived with his brand, so the proceeds were his. Apparently, every now and then, cowboys would “brand one for the doctor.”
Always going the extra mile, Stickney contracted with the railroad in 1886 to serve as surgeon for all railroad employees in the northwestern Dakota Territory, holding this position for 26 years. In 1890, he was elected the Stark County Superintendent of Schools and was on the library board that acquired a Carnegie Foundation grant to build Dickinson’s first library. Stickney established himself as a rancher and was engaged in raising stock on a large scale by the turn of the century. In 1915, he was elected president of the North Dakota Medical Association. Stickney served as a captain in the Medical Corp during World War I; assigned as the medical aide to Governor Lynn J. Frazier. Maggie also served during the Great War through her work for the American Red Cross and worked tirelessly during the influenza epidemic of 1917-1918, dying only a year later in 1919.
After Stickney’s discharge, he assisted with the establishment of Dickinson State Normal School, now known as Dickinson State University. He worked to establish banks in the area, serving as vice president of the First National Bank of Dickinson. Stickney was director of the Roosevelt Memorial Association and for several years president of the Chamber of Commerce. Always at the forefront of the latest medical developments and other innovations, he was the first in town with a phone and one of the first to have an automobile. He became quite a car buff, and in 1907, built the first building in town exclusively used as an automobile garage.
In 1926, a year before his death, Stickney recounted, with joy and vivid descriptions, his 10 days on a fall roundup. “Ten glorious September days! Days of virile joy- rough, kindly companionship, and stirring events!” The story was published in volume one of the North Dakota Historical Quarterly. Other stories by Stickney included a semi-autobiographical article, The Pioneer Doctor, printed in the Lancet in 1921. In 1919 an account of the exploits of his good friend Teddy Roosevelt, How Roosevelt Outwitted Thieves While a Rancher, ran in numerous U. S. newspapers.
Dr. Stickney was honored as one of the first 10 North Dakotan’s in the National Cowboy Hall of Fame (NCHF). The “Cowboy Doctor,” inducted in 1966, is memorialized in the NCHF Hall of Great Westerners, for an exemplary life epitomizing the legacy of the American West.
Additional Illustrations from the Life of Dr. Victor Hugo Stickney
Openings and Closings: Memoir of a Lady of the Theater, by Dorothy Stickney, Doubleday and Company, New York, c. 1979
The Way it Was: The North Dakota Frontier Experience, Book Three, The Cowboys and Ranchers, edited by Everett C. Albers and D. Jerome Tweton, Grass Roots Publishing, 1999
Roosevelt in the Badlands, by Hermann Hagedorn
Notable North Dakotans, Erling Nicolai Rolfstrud, Lantern Books, 1987
Mornings on Horseback, David McCullough, Simon and Schuster 1982
North Dakota Counties and Towns, Part 3, Joseph Gavett, Judd’s Workshop Publications
Judd’s Workshop Publications, 2009
Dickinson Press, November 7, 1914, Marjorie Stickney weds Dr. A. P. Nachtwey
Dickinson Press, June 7, 2014, An old buildings fate: First motor garage in Dickinson may come down
Kilzer, Sharon, Project Manager, Theodore Roosevelt Center, Dickinson State University
Dickinson State University Archives
Alison Hinman, Collection Manager/ Joachim Regional Museum
Pitts, Joyce, Reference Specialist, State Historical Society of North Dakota
Schafer, Samantha, Digital and Institutional Archivist, National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum