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Kings Mountain Exhibit Recalls Health Care Of Yesteryear

Many of us dread going to the dentist. After all, having a cavity filled is no fun -- even  with modern equipment. But as WFAE's Mark Rumsey found out during a recent visit to Kings Mountain, North Carolina -- we 21st century citizens have it pretty good.   

A dentist’s drill used before the arrival of electricity is powered by foot, with a treadle pedal at the bottom of the machine. The drill on display at the Kings Mountain Historical Museum right now is from the early 1900s.   It’s part of the current exhibition, “Say Ahh!” The Incredible Medical History of Kings Mountain. The exhibit takes visitors on a journey through three centuries of medical history in the region.

Museum Director & Curator Adria Focht begins a tour of the exhibition in front of a cabinet stocked with medicinal wonders of another era, such as a ‘vegetable laxative” – harkening back to an era before such products were regulated in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration.

Next, Focht shows off an item brought in for the exhibit by a local resident. It’s an electrotherapy device known as the ‘Violet Ray’ machine, from around the turn of the 20th century.  

“It was said to treat thousands of things,” says Focht. “Anything from pain in the joints, to hair loss. They said it would stimulate breast milk for pregnant women – it was really a sort of cure-all.”

By the middle of the 20th century, medical technology was making some advances. But the state of health care in North Carolina was nothing to brag about. Rates of infant and childbirth deaths were among the highest in the nation, and in parts of the state a doctor or a hospital could be hard to find. 

Focht says Kings Mountain got its first hospital in 1950, at a time when dozens of North Carolina counties did not have a hospital. The state also ranked worst in the nation for its rejection rate for young men trying to enlist in the U.S. military. “We really had a health crisis on our hands”, says Focht.

The North Carolina legislature responded to the crisis by approving a new program called the “Good Health Plan.” It included building new facilities and expanding the UNC School of Medicine. The program also aimed to raise public awareness about the need for better health care.  

The Good Health Plan even got a boost from Big Band leader and North Carolinian Kay Kyser – along with a couple of young singers named Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore.  Their tune titled, “It’s All Up To You” was played on radio stations across North Carolina.


As more hospitals were built, it meant more medical equipment – right down to the bedpans – also on display at the “Say Ahh” exhibit. Focht explains how these items demonstrate how the materials used in the medical field evolved over time. “The early bedpans would have been made of metal,” notes Focht. “The later bedpans are ceramic .. they’re porcelain.” Focht says even a bedpan has a story to tell!

Artifacts telling these stories and more are on display until October 25 at the Kings Mountain Historical Museum (http://www.kingsmountainmuseum.org/.) The exhibit is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10:00 am – 4:00 pm. Admission is free.

Mark Rumsey grew up in Kansas and got his first radio job at age 17 in the town of Abilene, where he announced easy-listening music played from vinyl record albums.