Rip Van Winkle and the Legend of Pill Hill

Just north of the intersection of Rtes. 22 and 23, the first road on the left is called Pill Hill. Ever wonder why?  Here’s the answer.

In 1945, President Harry S. Truman called upon Congress to address the severe lack of rural healthcare facilities around the country. Not long after, Senator Harold Burton (R, Ohio) and Senator Lester Hill (D, Alabama) sponsored the Hospital Survey and Construction Act (or the Hill–Burton Act), which passed in 1946.

Columbia County was among the regions deemed in need of assistance. Like many rural counties, ours did have a few country doctors, but there were few specialists and even fewer modern healthcare facilities. The Hudson City Hospital (renamed Columbia Memorial in 1949) was the premier healthcare facility in the county, but it was too small to adequately serve the needs of the county’s 42,000 residents. (There are 63,000 residents today.)

In 1945, Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn established the Rip Van Winkle Clinic in Hudson to provide area residents with affordable, high quality medical care. One of the clinic’s patients was Eleanor Roosevelt! (More on that in a moment.) Thanks to a Hill-Burton grant in the early 1950s, he was able to establish satellite clinics in Germantown, Philmont and Hillsdale.

“Essy” Esselstyn had no difficulty attracting excellent physicians from downstate to these clinics. The clinics provided doctors with the chance to make a significant contribution to the health and welfare of rural communities and allowed them to raise their families away from the urban and suburban sprawl of New York City and Westchester County.

The Hillsdale branch of the Rip Van Winkle Clinic was located in a stately Victorian house called Edgewood, which was built around 1880 by George M. Bullock. Bullock co-owned a feed, grain and lumber business called Bullock & Herrington, later and to this day known as Ed Herrington, Inc. (Edmond Herrington owned the house in the early 1900s.) Edgewood eventually became the Rip Van Winkle Clinic and was directly across the street from the Old Methodist (“Parla Foster”) cemetery, an odd pairing when you come to think about it.

In the late 1950s, several medical professionals joined the clinic with their families, including Drs. Stuart Cooper, Joseph Fusco, John Waldo and Irma Waldo, and Patrick DelGrande. The access road to the cemetery was extended, and construction began on several houses. (The Historians of Hillsdale now live in the house where Dr. Cooper raised his family.)

The new road was christened “Doctor’s Drive.” But it wasn’t long before it was nicknamed “Pill Hill.” In 1976, Dr. Fusco and several other Doctor’s Drive residents petitioned the State to officially change the name (which many felt was a bit pompous, not to mention a sort of “X-marks-the-spot” for burglars) to Pill Hill, and it remains so today. The clinic, however, closed in 1964, leaving recent arrivals to Hillsdale to wonder about the peculiar name. Now they know.

An item from the February 23, 1961 issue of the Chatham Courier featured the Hillsdale Clinic. The headline of the story was, “Blasts at Bunny, But Hits Friend.”

“A Bronx hunter who shot at a rabbit near Copake Wednesday morning missed the cottontail but loaded a hunting companion with buckshot.

“According to State Police, Daigo Mangano, 27, 1085 Rhineland Ave., the Bronx, saw the rabbit as it sped out from underneath a bush and he fired twice with a 12 gauge shotgun.

“The blasts failed to hit the quarry but penetrated the body of Nunviato Valenti, 32, 1951 Haight St., the Bronx, who was walking 125 feet ahead of Mangano. At the time of the shooting, the victim was hidden by a heavy undergrowth of bushes, State Police were told.

“Valenti was removed to the Hillsdale office of the Rip Van Winkle Clinic where he was treated by Dr. Stuart W. Cooper of the clinic staff. He was then taken to Columbia Memorial Hospital where the pellets were removed.”

And the bunny dined out on that story for months!

As to the Eleanor Roosevelt connection, she was a prolific newspaper columnist and wrote a syndicated column called “My Day” from 1936 until her death in 1962 – some 7,000 articles in all. In her May 11, 1953 column, Mrs. Roosevelt tells of her visit to the Rip Van Winkle Clinic in Hudson:

“NEW YORK, Sunday—I spent last Thursday visiting the Rip Van Winkle Clinic in Hudson, N.Y., which was set up to try to answer some of the problems of rural medicine. This clinic, whose medical director is Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, is now six and a half years old, and is an interesting example of group practice with branch centers in a rural county.

“The purpose of the clinic is to make available to rural communities the best medical care at a cost which at least 90 per cent of the people can afford. To do this, of course, it is necessary to create an atmosphere that will attract well-trained young physicians to rural areas.

“In my childhood I lived just south of the Columbia County line, and I am very familiar with some of the problems of this area of the Hudson Valley. The county, which is 35 miles long and about 25 miles wide, has a population of 42,000. The income of the area is derived largely from dairying and fruit farming. There are some mills and small industries. The roads are good and are kept open in winter. The level of income among the farmers is perhaps a trifle larger than in some of the other counties of the state.

“Care was taken not to disrupt the security of the already existing medical economic structure of the county. Those belonging to the group practice clinic replaced older physicians or physicians who were leaving. They did not come in as new competition.” (She went on to tell of her visit that day to Columbia Memorial Hospital, describing it as a “modern, fireproof hospital.” A ringing endorsement if ever we heard one.)

But in a later column, dated July 18, 1955, she was a little less enthusiastic:

“HYDE PARK—I think I can say that Thursday was for me rather a waste of time. I went for a physical check-up to the Rip Van Winkle Clinic in Hudson, where a most comprehensive and thorough job was done in what I think would be considered record time. Yet, is there anything duller than doing things about your health when you feel completely well and, as far as you can see, are completely well! They tell me, however, that when people reach old age they should go and have periodic physical examinations. Since this is the thing to do, I suppose I should feel satisfied that it is over, and perhaps I will never have to do it again.”

The Historians of Hillsdale wish you a wonderful rest of summer. We’ll see you back here in September. Click the “follow” button at the top and you’ll get new posts by email.

(As always, please leave additional information, corrections or amplifications in the comments section below.)

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15 Responses to Rip Van Winkle and the Legend of Pill Hill

  1. shared interesting since I grew up here in Hillsdale

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Howard Blue says:

    Very nice piece. Please consider sending it to the Columbia Paper. Let them know you posted it here in case they object to reprinting something that’s appeared on the Internet.

    If they do object, you might want to first send any future nice piece like this to the paper. Afterward, you can post it here.

    Also, do you have any objection to my reposting this piece in a week or so on my local history Facebook page which I informed you about some time ago? I will give proper credit to you and this forum.

    Howard Blue

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Absolutely fine, Howard. That’s an interesting idea about the CP.


  4. Chuck DelGrande says:

    As one of Dr. DelGrande’s sons, a few thoughts:
    – very nice initial article; thank you
    – every professional mentioned (Stu Cooper, Joe Fusco, Irma Waldo any my Dad) had amazingly supportive spouses, many of whom were also practicing professionals (Dr. John Waldo – Dentist) or RN’s (Isabel Fusco and our Mom, Yvonne) who worked tirelessly in the community. They too deserve mention in any piece
    – In many respects, “The Clinic” was a forerunner to what we know of as HMO’s today…
    – Dr. Irma Waldo is still practicing part-time in Columbia County. She, Isabel Fusco and our Dad, “Dr. Pat” still live on Pill Hill, and would be pleased to be interviewed as follow-up, if desired. I’m certain that Scott and Craig Cooper would also be willing to do the same. Our beloved Mother, Yvonne, has late-stage Alzheimer’s, and unfortunately can’t be interviewed, but in addition to establishing a pioneering Hospice Group (Compassionate Friends) in the County in the 70’s, Yvonne and Irma (who can provide a marvelous history) have touched countless thousands with their unique brand of skilled care, as can Isabel who worked alongside her beloved husband “Dr. Joe” for many years in Hudson.
    – Finally, each of the three (Isabel, Irma and our Dad) have over 60 years (individually) of love, respect, contributions and humorous stories (giving a dog a root canal?!) which can and (respectfully) should be chronicled while they remain as living historians in their own right on “Pill Hill”

    On behalf of all of us fortunate to have been raised in such a special community by truly remarkable parents, we encourage you to consider a follow-up with each of them.

    Respectfully requested,

    The DelGrande children
    The Fusco children
    The Waldo children
    The Cooper children

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your points are well taken, and our plan is to focus on many of the people who helped shape the hamlet we all love today. Thank you for this important addition to this small overview of the origins of Pill Hill. We’d love to write a more thorough look at the RVW Clinic and the people who made such a difference to the community. We need to know about the doggie root canal!


      Liked by 1 person

      • Charles DelGrande says:

        Thank you Lauren and Chris. A quick follow-up from our Dad, “Dr. Pat”:

        “Very interesting article. Dr. Irma and I were interviewed by the Roe Jan Historical Society 2 years ago and are on tape. Dr. Essestlyn’s patient was a Mrs. Prentice, an aunt of Gov. Rockefeller who lived in Germantown, not Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Prentice donated $100,000.00 every year to the clinic; this kept the clinic going. “Essy” thought( and wished) that upon her death she would leave a bundle of money that could be invested and the clinic would survive. She died in 1963 and left $100,000.00. The clinic declared bankruptcy in 1964 and I built the office that housed Dr. Irma and me, also Dr. Joe who later went to Hudson to practice. Dr. Cooper went to Albany Medical center before moving to Great Barrington. He retired from there in the early 1980s. Regina Cooper, Scott’s wife worked in his office. Mom (Yvonne) worked for Dr. Irma as well.”

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, this is very interesting. I guess it would have been more accurate to say that Mrs. Rossevelt was a patient of the clinic, as she says in her article.


  5. Bill Sullivan says:

    Thanks so very much for the great recounting. As late as last Sunday on my way to The Dodds’s Farm for some music I looked once again at the street sign and thought it an odd name – now it makes perfect sense.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Valerie Burgess says:

    Really interesting, thanks! I shared to Growing Up In Columbia County, a Facebook group.

    Liked by 1 person

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  8. Howie Lisnoff says:

    Great history of the clinic, the road name, and the needs of rural medicine. I loved Eleanor Roosevelt’s observations of the clinic. She has one sentence with a misplaced modifier, but that’s small potatoes, so to speak.


  9. Anne (Snyder) Mondelci says:

    I was a child of the 50s who grew up on a farm in Ancramdale. I was cowboy & Indian and horse crazy. The TV show Rin Tin Tin was popular and I was a rabid fan. One summer, running barefoot as all farm kids did, I developed a Plantar’s wart on the bottom of my heel. I probably was 4 years old. Well, my mother took me to see Dr Esseltyne up in Hillsdale to have the blessed thing cut off my foot. Needless to say, I was terrified and refused to let the Doc & his scalpel anywhere near my foot, especially when I saw Doc and his spirally, wild eyebrows. I called him Dr Eyebrows and only when he and my mom assured me they’d buy me a cavalry uniform, did I allow the wart to be sliced off. My mom and I went shopping for that uniform several weeks later, but there were none. I settled for an Indian costume, complete with a Winchester rifle and bow and arrows (children’s toys, of course)


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