In the 1970s, local preservationists and authors Peggy Jemison and Virginia Dunaway embarked on a project for the Metropolitan Interfaith Association (MIFA) to document the histories of eight historic Memphis neighborhoods, including Cooper-Young. Published in 1980, their work was the first real history of the area, which at the time was in a state of decay.
Thirty years later, with the neighborhood having undergone a dramatic transformation, writers Lisa Lumb and Jim Kovarik updated the earlier work for the book Cooper-Young: A Community at Works: A History, published by the Cooper-Young Community Association.
In the fourth in a series of excerpts from the book, this month we explore another of Cooper-Young’s iconic homes and the role that medical professionals played in Cooper-Young at the turn of the last century.
In the face of today’s seemingly slow, impersonal, and unresponsive health care system, some people remember with affection the days of the country doctor, who served the community with a personal touch that is rarely seen these days.
In the early 1900s, one of Cooper-Young’s country doctor was Dr. Tom Watkins. He lived at Lamar and the Southern Railroad, and he would make his rounds in a horse and buggy, which could be a trek at the turn of the century when homes were far apart. He delivered Cooper-Young resident Longstreet Heiskell’s children. In those days, Heiskell later recounted, doctors would treat the sick, talk politics, and never clean their instruments after using them — just wipe them off against their britches and put them back in a little tin case.
Another well-known practitioner was Dr. L. R. Polk, who moved into his house on the corner of Cooper and Felix in 1907. His front door faced Cooper; the side door on Felix was for patients. At the back of the house was the dental office of Dr. Clyde Jennings. Dr. Polk did much obstetrical work and was on the staff of the Baptist and St. joseph Hospitals. The Polk family owned the house until the 1960s, reported Mrs. Verlie Polk Hudson, their daughter. When she was growing up in the neighborhood, the iceman came by every day, took 50 pounds of ice, and carried it in and put it in one’s ice box. The market man also came by every day in the summer, shouting, “Market! Market!” The women would go to the wagon and pick out their vegetables, though the Polks had a big garden with a lovely, large asparagus bed, a strawberry patch, and their own cow. Dr. Polk built one of the first backyard swimming pools for Hudson and her brother, the late Louis Polk. Mrs. Polk was very active politically during the Crump days and voting often took place in the Polk garage. Dr. and Mrs. Polk, charter members of Temple Baptist Church, were public figures in Cooper-Young.
Dr. and Mrs. Newman Taylor were also well-respected members of the community. He lived and practiced medicine in the white stone house still standing on the southwest corner of Cooper and Oliver, reported their daughter, Iska Taylor Duke. In 1930, the Taylors moved into Chickasaw Gardens, and he sold the home to another physician, Dr. Omar Smith, who ran a clinic there into the 1940s.
Their neighbors were the Hamers, originally from Salem, Mississippi, who moved to Memphis around 1906 because Mr. Hamer purchased a dairy farm near what is now the airport. Their home on Cooper was grey clapboard, two-story home with a wraparound front porch, recalled their daughter, Mrs. Clarence Banning. Her child, Mary Ann Frazier, played there as a little girl. The house was sold in the 1950s to an electrical company, which converted it into a business.