"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Monday, February 6, 2012

Nova Scotia Connections: A Day in the Life of Great Village: Dr. T.R. Johnson

A community is only as good as its citizens, and Great Village is blessed with many fine people. None are finer than the doctor, T.R. Johnson. He is the son of Mr. and Mrs. S.B. Johnson, who came to the Village years ago from Brule, where their son was born. After attending Truro Academy, where he was a top student, Thomas went to Dalhousie University and graduated from the medical school in 1904.

He came back immediately to the area and did a stint doctoring at Economy, but two years later he settled in Great Village and got married. He has been tending to the sick of the Village, indeed to many folks along the shore to Parrsboro, for ten years now.

Being a country doctor is no easy job — the travelling alone is arduous. Though there is an excellent road along the shore, Dr. Johnson often ventures into the mountains and there the going is rough at the best of times. But he goes about his work with enthusiasm and cheer, and a skill which makes him trusted by one and all.(1)

Dr. T.R.’s trusty companion for a number of years has been his magnificent trotter Lord Wallace, which he also races, his best time 2.28. Lord Wallace by Achilles (2.152) won his first race when he was two and a half years old on the track at River John in a five-heat event. Lord Wallace is a small horse, but big gaited, honest and good-headed, and a universal favourite among Dr. T.R.’s racing colleagues and his patients alike. You can say Dr. T.R. is as keen about racing as he is about doctoring.(2) This Saturday he takes Lord Wallace to the track in Truro to run with the other fine trotters in the area. Lord Wallace especially loves ice racing, and has been a consistent winner on the track at Little Dyke.

Ask anyone and they will say that seeing Dr. T.R. driving Lord Wallace is a comforting sight. He also has other race horses and several pure bred Clydesdales on his large farm, which supports his other passion, a prize herd of pure bred Guernseys. The rich milk of the doctor’s herd goes straight to the Great Village Creamery, owned by Mr. T.D. Blaikie. He and Mr. Blaikie have two of the best Guernsey herds in the Village. Mr. Blaikie is also Dr. T.R.’s chief rival in horse racing, though it is a very friendly rivalry.

If all these activities are not enough, Dr. T.R. is also involved in many community organizations and societies, especially the Masons and the I.O.O.F. He is the treasurer for the first and the Noble Grand of the second. Both brotherhoods do much good work for their members and the community generally.(3)

While Dr. T.R. continues to take Lord Wallace on some of his rounds, especially in the winter, in 1910 he moved his practice into the modern age when he bought an automobile. He was one of the first people in the Village to have this means of transportation. Though automobiles are becoming more common, they are still rare enough to cause something of a sensation when they noisily chug through town. Some horses still shy and bolt at these vehicles when they pass by. Dr. T.R. says that at a good head Lord Wallace is faster than any automobile, but he wants to save his pride and joy for the track.

Dr. T.R. in his automobile

On this pleasant late June afternoon, Dr. T.R. plans a run down the shore to Bass River to check on an elderly man who had a bad fall from his wagon last week. On his way home he stops in to see a young wife expecting her first baby in two months, and to see a little girl recovering from a bad case of the measles. Back in the village he visits the druggist to order a new supply of medicine. He meets Dr. Peel Doherty, Great village’s genial dentist, at Layton’s Store, and chats with him about I.O.O.F. business, as they walk back to Dr. Doherty's office. He stops at the post office before heading up Hustler’s Hill to his farm. His wife wants him to take her out to Londonderry Station to meet the evening train heading to Montreal. An old school friend is coming to visit her for a few days. It is a lovely day, not too warm, and the drive will be fine. After an early tea, he heads to the barn to check on the milking and to brush down Lord Wallace. He will take the carriage to the station and give Lord Wallace a good run in anticipation of Saturday’s race. Dr. T.R. is not upset about the drive, even after driving all day, because it means he won’t have to sit through the missionary lecture at the Presbyterian church this evening.

However, before his busy day gets fully underway, Dr. T.R. stops by the Bulmer house rather early. It is a sad call because today Gertrude is going to the Nova Scotia Hospital in Dartmouth. He has known Gertrude for a long time. They went to school together. He was there with Dr. Shatford a couple of days ago making out the papers. He has been to the house a number of times during the past winter and spring because Gertrude has been so upset. The tonic he prescribed for her just hasn’t helped. He was reluctant to write up the papers, but thinks that maybe at the hospital she will get help. Her bad episode last March was deeply disturbing. Her agitation about suffrage hasn’t helped either. He actually feels much the same as Gertie, that women should have the vote. He sees how hard all the women of Colcester County have been working for the war effort. But old ideas are hard to change, and Gertie takes everything so deeply to heart.

He feels sad for Gertrude’s daughter, Elizabeth, a pretty little girl who is quite bright. Dr. T.R. likes to chat with her about her chickens. She likes to tell him about gathering warm eggs.(4) He stops by first thing in the morning to check on Gertrude, to make sure she is calm enough to travel. He is surprised by just how calm she is. He is comforted to know that Grace, who is a capable nurse, is going with Gertrude to the hospital. He spends about half an hour talking with them. He helps Will put the suitcases on the wagon; they chat a bit about old Nimble, the Bulmer’s gentle work horse. Will says he must get Mate to put new shoes on him. They chat about the election. The Dr. is especially enthusiastic because Murray’s Liberals have prevailed in the province, though he would rather have seen a different result in Colchester. Then he gets into his car and heads off up the shore road thinking he will stop in to see Grace in a day or two, as she will be able to give a detailed report on how Gertrude is doing.


1. Dr. T.R. continued to practice in Great Village until the early 1940s. In 1919 he had a telephone installed in his house, linking him more quickly to his patients. His family grew to include two daughters and three sons. Two of his sons, Aubrey and Arthur, became doctors. Dr. Aubrey returned to the village and practiced there for decades. His third son stayed on the farm and eventually took over operations at the Blaikie creamery. Dr. T.R.’s daughters became teachers and married doctors. It was said that when the family gathered at home it was like a medical convention. Dr. Johnson held the office of the County Medical Health Officer and County Coroner for many years. In 1939 he was elected President of the Colchester-Hants Medical Association and for many years sat on the Executive of the Nova Scotia Medical Association.

2. Dr. T.R. continued to be involved in raising and racing horses. In 1920 the horse owners of Great Village got together and constructed a race track. The Cobequid Driving Club Ltd. was formed with Dr. T.R. as the President and T.D. Blaikie as secretary.

3. Dr. T.R. also had a taste for politics. In 1933 he contested one of the seats in the County in the provincial election. He lost. A life-long Liberal, he was active in the party long after he retired.

4. In February 1917 Elizabeth Bishop was sick with bronchitis, and was attended by Dr. T.R. Years later, she told her friend Frani Blough Muser about one of her encounters with the doctor: “Elizabeth said she always thought that the first time she got the idea of poetry was from a doctor. She was about four or five or something like that. She had the incipient asthma that was going to bother her later. She has suffered from a lot of colds. Elizabeth was in bed with something or other, and the doctor in telling her what was wrong with her or asking her to put out her tongue made a couplet, made a rhyme. It surprised her. She was tiny and she had never heard anything like that. She laughed. Elizabeth said she had never heard something so wonderful in her life. So then she began thinking about words that rhymed.” (Fountain and Brazeau 7)

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