Twentynine Palms Historical Society
29 Palms, California
Thomas H. Ince Memorial Hospital
5792 Adobe Road
Thomas H. Ince Memorial Hospital
Photo by Harlow W. Jones
Researched and written by Jennifer Thornton
The Twentynine Palms area has long had a reputation for its healthy climate and clean, dry desert air. Many of the pioneering homesteaders were drawn to the desert seeking a cure for chronic health issues: asthma, tuberculosis, or lungs damaged by mustard gas on the battlefields of World War I. Despite the high percentage of the population with serious health problems, the small and isolated community of Twentynine Palms did not boast a modern hospital until 1948, when Dr. William Ince opened the Thomas H. Ince Memorial Hospital.
Dr. Ince was born in St. Louis in 1909 into a privileged family. He was the oldest son of Thomas H. Ince, a silent film actor, director, screen writer and producer. As a youth, William Ince attended a military academy before studying at Harvard University. He received his medical education at the College of Osteopathic Physicians and Surgeons and also spent a year in England undertaking additional surgical training. After completing his residency at Los Angeles General Hospital and a brief stint serving with the California State Guard, Dr. Ince settled his family into a beautiful home in Beverly Hills and dedicated himself to his private practice.
By 1946, the family was looking for a change of scenery. Dr. Ince’s wife, Sally, remembers, “We were sick and tired of Beverly Hills because the smog was creeping in...and the kids were all sick.” With one child with asthma and another with chronic bronchitis, the Inces wanted out of the city. Sally got in touch with a high school friend, June Clark Atkinson, whose parents lived in Twentynine Palms. Atkinson encouraged the Inces to check out the small desert community, saying that the residents would welcome a doctor. She was right. While the Inces were visiting Twentynine Palms to see if they wanted to stay, word quickly spread that a new doctor was in town. Soon Dr. Ince was making house calls, before he had even officially moved into the community.
The Inces bought a small adobe home and moved to Twentynine Palms in 1947. After opening an office in a duplex behind the Paint Pot, Dr. Ince immediately began working on plans for a hospital. Ground was broken within the year, and the cornerstone was laid on November 19, 1947. Designed like a time capsule, the cornerstone held a variety of items, including coins, stamps, editions of the Desert Trail, and that oldest of medicines, a bottle of liquor.
Famous California architect Wallace Neff worked on the building. The hospital was a departure for Neff, who is best known for popularizing the Spanish colonial-revival style and designing mansions for Hollywood stars like Mary Pickford, Cary Grant, Claudette Colbert, and Darryl Zanuck. Today mansions designed by Neff sell for millions, and have been purchased by the likes of Brad Pitt, Diane Keaton, Jennifer Aniston, Madonna, and Guy Ritchie.
Assisting Neff in the design and construction of the hospital were local architect C. Phillip Zimmers and contractor Walt Berg. It would not be an exaggeration to credit these two men with literally building the town of Twentynine Palms. Berg came to the desert in 1928, and was soon busy building many of the young community’s first structures. Zimmers, who had studied architecture at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, moved to Twentynine Palms for his health in 1939. He designed many of the buildings that Berg built, including the theater, the Bowladium, and the old Post Office. Zimmers also designed the Little Church of the Desert and the Twentynine Palms Community Hall.
Construction on the 4,680 square foot hospital was finished in June 1948, at a cost of over $100,000. Billed as an “Ultra-Modern Institution,” the Desert Trail described the new hospital as “one of the most pretentious structures in Southern California [with] facilities rated among the best.” The medical facility was named the Thomas H. Ince Memorial Hospital in honor of Dr. Ince’s late father.
The pale green building was 78 feet long and 60 feet wide, and its flat roof with its three-foot overhand and aluminum cornice accentuated the building’s modern appearance. Sally Ince remembers, “We had the most beautiful equipment and we had the most beautiful rooms.” Instead of the typical white walls, every room was painted a different color, and one wall in every patient’s room was wallpapered with cheerful patterns. The hospital had five beds, a surgical room, modern X-ray facilities as well as a chemical laboratory, physiotherapy nursery, sun room, kitchen, examination rooms, offices and storage space.
The day before the hospital opened, the staff realized that they had all of the most technologically advanced equipment needed to run a hospital save one item: someone forgot to order bedpans. After a frantic scramble, bedpans were procured, and the Thomas H. Ince Memorial Hospital celebrated its grand opening on June 19th and 20th, 1948. Over 700 people toured the facilities, and many of the Inces’ friends from the medical community throughout Southern California made the trip to Twentynine Palms for the occasion. There was a large party at the Twentynine Palms Inn, and the out of town guests arranged to go horseback riding. One of the doctors’ wives, a woman named Jean Galbraith, fell off her horse and broke her collarbone, providing the freshly opened hospital with its very first patient.
Jean Galbraith was the hospital’s first patient, but not its most famous. That honor belongs to Maxwell Emmett Buttram, better known as Pat Buttram, a comedic actor who played Gene Autry’s sidekick in the Gene Autry Show. Buttram went on to portray Mr. Haney on Green Acres, and lent his distinctive voice to a number of animated films and television shows. In 1950, Buttram along with Gene Autry’s Flying A Productions were filming the episode “The Peacemaker” for the Gene Autry show at Pioneertown. While on location, a stunt canon exploded, sending shrapnel everywhere. Pat Buttram was split open from his chest to his stomach, and a number of others suffered less critical injuries.
Photo used by permission of Boyd Magers,
WESTERN CLIPPINGS, www.westernclippings.com.
Gene Autry himself phoned Twentynine Palms, and the operator put him through to Sally Ince. Autry sent his private plane to pick up Dr. Ince and bring him to the site of the accident at Pioneertown. Buttram was quickly transported to Ince Memorial Hospital. Sally remembers how Buttram’s boots were filled with blood, and that his wound was so deep you could see his lungs as he struggled to breathe. The quick treatment he received at the hands of Dr. Ince saved his life.
While Dr. Ince ran a modern hospital, he still filled the role of the small town doctor. He continued to make house calls, and Sally remembers occasionally accepting trade instead of payment. One prominent individual who paid his bills with trade was the well-known geologist, writer and painter John Hilton. Hilton would let his family’s medical bills pile up until they were worth the amount of a painting, and then would clear his debt by giving the Inces one of his works. The Inces amassed a collection of Hilton’s pieces in this way, and they jokingly renamed the paintings based on what medical procedures they paid for. For instance, a painting of the oasis was renamed “Kathi’s tonsils,” since it had paid for Hilton’s daughter to have her tonsils treated.
After more than a decade serving the Twentynine Palms community, the early 1960s proved transformative for the Thomas H. Ince Memorial Hospital. In 1962, the Twentynine Palms Hospital District was organized, with the goal of establishing a nonprofit, community-owned hospital in town. A feasibility study was conducted, which revealed that it would cost $300,000 to build an eleven-bed hospital. Purchasing and renovating the private Thomas H. Ince Memorial Hospital, which had grown to an eleven-bed facility, would only cost $185,000. The proposal to purchase the existing hospital and turn it into a community-owned facility was put to the vote as a bond issue.
The debate over the hospital bond quickly became heated. Those opposed to the bond were labeled “aginers,” and letters to the editor poured into the Desert Trail and the 29 Palms News. One of the most prolific writers in support of the bond was an anonymous resident who wrote under the pen name “Chief Long Time in Sun.” As perhaps the most outspoken proponent for the community hospital in the press, this anonymous writer voiced the opinion that without a hospital, the community would soon turn into an “Indian Cemetery.” He urged his fellow community members to activism, writing, “Much work must be done before Medicine Lodge can come to village; many YES votes are needed. Wagging tongues won’t buy Medicine Lodge, only YES votes will get Medicine Lodge doors open.”
When the results were tallied, 733 were in favor of the bond and 637 voted against it. Without the required two-thirds majority, the bond failed. Undeterred, hospital supporters brought the bond issue to a vote a second time in March of 1963. This time the bond passed 1,466 in favor with only 443 against. Interior renovations were quickly completed, and the hospital was officially reopened as the Twentynine Palms Community Hospital on July 1, 1963. Dr. Ince supported the hospital’s transformation into a community-owned facility, and remained on the medical staff until his retirement.
The Twentynine Palms Community Hospital originally employed nine doctors and two dentists. In the first six months of the hospital’s operation, this medical staff treated 4,512 outpatients, 460 admitted patients, and performed 84 surgeries. It provided 24-hour emergency room service, and maintained a community blood bank, which stored a minimum of five pints of blood. Throughout the years the hospital continued to expand its services and update its equipment. Remodeling in 1964 and 1965 added new radiological and emergency medical facilities to the hospital.
The hospital received considerable support from the Twentynine Palms community. Fundraisers for the hospital as well as individual donations were common. In 1968, Mrs. Hanisch donated a building located adjacent to the hospital for use as storage and office space. The recently widowed Mrs. Dorothy Luckie also gifted the hospital $17,000, in memory of her late husband Dr. James B. Luckie. Shortly before his death in 1965, the Twentynine Palms Community Hospital had appointed Dr. Luckie as an honorary member of the hospital staff.
On October 6, 1972, Dr. Ince passed away at the age of 63. Flags were flown at half mast over the Twentynine Palms Community Hospital in mourning. A few years after his death, the hospital Dr. Ince founded closed its doors. In the early 1970s, the Twentynine Palms and Yucca Valley medical districts merged, and plans were made to build a central medical center. In order to avoid expensive redundancies in service, this plan called for the Twentynine Palms Community Hospital and the Hi-Desert Memorial Hospital in Yucca Valley to be de-licensed within one week of opening the new facility. Thus the opening of the Hi-Desert Medical Center in Joshua Tree on December 6 of 1976 also marked the closing of the Twentynine Palms Community Hospital.
The building that was originally the Thomas H. Ince Memorial Hospital still stands on Adobe Road today. No longer a medical facility, it is now home to the Faith in the Word Christian Center. Its once flat roofline has been altered with the addition of a large gable and steeple, but the building is still recognizable as Twentynine Palm’s first modern hospital.
The Desert Trail
“Thos. H. Ince Memorial Hospital Dedicated, Cornerstone Set,” November 21, 1947.
“The New Hospital - A Job Well Done,” June 18, 1948.
“Official Opening Dr. Ince Hospital Draws Over 700,” June 25, 1948, p. 1.
“Friends Pay Tribute to Founder of Hospital,” October 12, 1972.
“District Central Hospital Plan Accepted Unanimously,” April 19, 1973.
29 Palms News
“Many Attend Hospital Open House Ceremonies,” July 4, 1963.
“Greasewood Telegraph,” September 20, 1962.
“Greasewood Telegraph,” October 25, 1962.
Pat Rimmington The Adobes of Twentynine Palms, second edition, Twentynine Palms, CA: Desert Spirit Press, 2009.
Progress Report: Twentynine Palms Community Hospital, December 31, 1964.
Pamphlet, Twentynine Palms Community Hospital Services Available as of April 6, 1967.
Interview with Sally Ince, 1979.
Misc. clippings and historic photos on file at the Twentynine Palms Historical Society.
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