William James Rollins, born in Alabama on February 9, 1892 was the grandson of John Rollins who fought with the Civil War’s Alabama Rebels. His parents were Elijah and Necie Oats. Young William was a young child when the family of five children, three girls and two boys moved to the Oklahoma Territory to an area that is now Shawnee: the address: 414 North Tucker St. After attending high school, William went to St. Louis University Medical School and graduated as a dentist in 1910. It was said he didn’t like to pull teeth so returned to the same school to receive a M.D. to support himself during this time he worked as a barber. While in St. Louis he met and married Ada Marie Russell, an orphan girl from Kentucky who worked in Kresses Department store. It is unknown where, or if, he practiced medicine before he came to Arkansas. During a visit to Arkansas it is believed that a church group convinced the young Dr. Rollins to set up his practice is Gassville, He and Ada moved there in the early 1920s. They had two sons, one died in infancy.
His first office near the Gassville post office was in a small “shack” which also served as his home. A year or two later he was able to move to the corner of where his hospital was built later. He bought the two properties next to his new office and eventually built a large building, maintaining a clinic at one end and renting the remainder to retail stores. His practice included many horseback house calls, as the roads were underdeveloped for other vehicles. Later he bought a Model T and finally a Terroplane. He was frequently paid in produce (rather than his fee of $2.00) from gardens and in pigs and chicken, even fish or moonshine. To preserve his larder he built a smoke house. The country at that time was know for outlaws and he was often called in the middle of the night to care for bullet wounds. (His grandson said he was paid real money for those.) His grandson also tells of a case “where a man had his arm severed by a hay baler and they brought the arm in a buck of spring water. Pop worded on him for several hours. The man lived and had limited use of the arm till he died several years later.”**
Gradually Dr. Rollins absorbed the retail stores to add hospital beds to his clinic. It was becoming a real hospital. “The popularity of the Rollins Hospital was the doctor himself who treated everyone who came to him. His attitude toward medical care was that the patients and his needs came before he considered whether they could pay for his services. —Dr. Rollins concern for his patients was his willingness to use his car for an ambulance — he often got stuck in creeks that he had to ford. At times, his grandson, Bill, was sent to a nearby farmer’s house to get the mules or horses to get the car out of the creek. —Dr. Rollins enjoyed the moonshine that he received as payment and kept a supply in the pharmacy — When the nurses say Mrs. Rollins coming they would sing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ to warn the doctor to put the moonshine away. —Dr. Rollins had a German Shepherd named ‘Sir Boss’ who was in the hospital daily making rounds with the doctor. —he took mail to the post office and brought the mail back as well.”**
Dr. Rollins introduces a medical insurance plan that was in use for several years. If offered surgery, physical exams, immunization, child birth care, x ray, and laboratory test.
Dr. Rollins was a long time member of the Arkansas Medical Society, and attended the state meetings in Little Rock. He was a Mason, member of te Methodist Church and was known as a popular speaker with a dry-wit presentation. At home he maintained a big garden and numerous fruit trees.
As Dr. Rollins practice grew he knew he needed help. In 1936 he recruited Dr. John Guethner, a surgical intern from Cook County, Illinois. The young doctor was offered $200 a month. He came and stayed (even though his new Buick couldn’t be driven on the rough roads). In 1937 the two doctors took back the last area rented to retailers in Dr. Rollins building and converted it to complete their twenty-three bed hospital, the largest one in three counties. At one time there were seven doctors on the staff. Patients came from a wide area in northern Arkansas and from Missouri. The hospital became known as the “Largest Hospital in the Smallest Town in America”
Dr. Rollins retired in 1946 when he sold his hospital to Dr. Guenthner. He and Ada moved to the little town of Cotter about seven miles from the hospital. Patients continued to come see him in his home. So he opened an office but seldom charged the people he treated.
Dr. William James Rollins died of a hear attack in Cotter in January 10, 1957 a month before his sixty-fifth birthday. His practice of medicine scanned thirty-four years in Arkansas. He was buried in the Gassville Cemetery. Ada Rollins died in 1968. She, too, is buried in Gassville.
Dr. Guenthner operated the hospital for several years, then sold it to Dr. J.A. Van Bebers. When he died a short while later it closed. For a while the building was operated as a nursing home, then for several industries. It was donated to the Baxter County Historical and Genealogy Society in 1992 and became a museum until it was heavily damaged by a tornado in 2008. Finally it was sold to a private individual. The building had been listed on the National Register of Historical Places in 2007.
*Excerpts from “Baxter County Historical and Genealogical Society – Rollins Hospital”
**Excerpts from “Doctor W.J. Rollins – An Extraordinary Man” written partially by Bill Rollins, Dr. Rollins grandson.
A telephone conversation on July 25, 2016 with Bill Rollins, Dr. Rollins’ grandson added additional information on Dr. Rollins insurance plan and other personal facts.
B.L. Battenfield August 13, 2016