If residents of the Swift River Valley needed more significant care than Willard Segur, the local country doctor, could provide in their homes, they might have gone to Mary Lane Hospital in Ware.
This history of the Mary Lane Hospital was published in February 2021 in the Ware River News. In January 2021, Baystate Health announced they will close Mary Lane Outpatient Center by 2023, just shy of the hospital building’s 100th anniversary.
With Baystate Health’s announcement in January 2021 that it will close the Mary Lane Outpatient Center by 2023, Ware is mourning the loss of a great institution. During its years of service to the community, Mary Lane has been a source of pride for the town as a top quality health care provider. The story of the hospital as we know it today began over 100 years ago with the Gilbert family and the Ware Visting Nurse and Hospital Association.
The Gilberts were woolen manufacturers and philanthropists at the turn of the twentieth century. Their influence is still felt today, from Mary Lane Hospital to Grenville Park, from the Young Men’s Library to the Gilbertville village of Hardwick. A look back at their legacy offers a glimpse into Ware’s history and a reminder of the signficiant impact one family can have on a community.
The Gilbert Family, 1841-1930
The Gilbert family’s wealth originated with manufacturing on the Ware River. In 1841, George Henry Gilbert purchased the property on the south bank of the Ware River along with his partner Charles Stevens. The company manufactured broadcloth and cloakings, its products so fine they were awarded the highest prize at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851. That same year, Gilbert & Stevens dissolved their partnership and divided their property, with Gilbert taking the buildings located at what is now 15 South Street, including the smaller church-like building (the company’s offices) and the mill building (where the corporate offices of Country Bank and the American Skate Company are currently located).
Gilbert’s new George H. Gilbert & Company manufactured high quality woolen flannels, and his nephew Lewis Newton Gilbert joined him in business in 1857. Three years later, in 1860, the Gilberts purchased land further up the Ware River in Hardwick and changed the company’s name to the George H. Gilbert Manufacturing Company. The Gilberts then expanded their mills at the Hardwick site — which they named Gilbertville — and built residences and company amenities for their employees, whose numbers had increased to 1,000 between its two locations by 1900.
When founder George Gilbert passed away in 1869, Lewis Gilbert became president of the company. Lewis married Mary Dwight Lane of Brimfield on Christmas Day of 1864 in Ware. He became prominent in civic affairs, serving as a member of the State Senate from 1877-1878 and as moderator of the Town of Ware from 1881-1911. During his time as president of Gilbert Manufacturing Company, Lewis oversaw the design and construction of the stone church in Gilbertville and paid for the building of the chapel, which was completed in 1885. He also helped to fund the Gilbertville Public Library. When Mary Lane Gilbert died in 1911, Lewis purchased the Deery home on South Street (now BHN Valley Services at 96 South Street) to be used as headquarters for the Ware Visiting Nurse and Hospital Association.
Another prominent member of the Gilbert family was George’s son John Humphrey (J. H.) Grenville Gilbert, who also joined the family business in later years. J.H. served as president of Gilbert Manufacturing Company after Lewis and remained with the company until it closed in the 1930’s. J.H. was a founding member of the Young Men’s Library Association in Ware and he donated the land on which the reading room of the current library is built. He also served as president of the Ware Savings Bank for a period of time.
J.H.’s only son, Grenville Brown Gilbert, died in 1901 of bronchial pneumonia at the age of 15 while away at St. Mark’s boarding school in Southborough, Mass. J.H. and his wife Grace Gilbert donated the land that’s now Grenville Park to the Town of Ware in their son’s honor. After years of construction, the park was accepted by the town in 1907. The Gilberts donated additional acreage to the park in subsequent years to enhance and protect what has been called “Ware’s loveliest adornment.”
The Ware Visiting Nurse and Hospital Association (WVNHA), 1903-1919
Around the time that Grenville Gilbert died in 1901, the average life expectancy in the U.S. was just under 50 years. Grenville’s bronchial pneumonia was among the most common causes of death, which were influenza/pneumonia, tuberculosis and gastroenteritis.
In the decades prior to 1900, visiting nurse associations were common in rural areas of the Northeast. Visiting nurses often provided free or low-cost in-home care to communities that might otherwise not have had access to quality healthcare. In 1903, Mrs. Henry K. Hyde, the president of Ware’s Social Science Club, engaged a visiting nurse to minister to the people of Ware. She paid the nurse an annual salary of $688, and visits were low cost at just $0.25. Six years later, in 1909, the Ware Visting Nurse and Hospital Association (WVNHA) was founded.
With significant advances in science and medicine in the first decades of the twentieth century, the American health care and hospital system experienced accelerated growth across the country. With the support of the Gilbert family, Ware was no exception.
Building The Mary Lane Hospital, 1919-1925
Upon Lewis Gilbert’s death in 1919, he bequeathed his large South Street home and property to the WVNHA along with $500,000 in trust to endow the hospital, so long as it “be forever known as ‘The Mary Lane Hospital’” in memory of his “beloved wife.”
Gilbert’s will states that with his endowment he wished to allow the WVNHA to “suitably and more effectively care for the sick especially of the Town of Ware and of the village of Gilbertville” and to “provide hospital grounds and buildings where the sick may be properly cared for gratuitously or at a reasonable charge according to the circumstances of each.”
On March 31, 1920, the Board of Directors of the WVNHA accepted the legacies and benefits bequethed in Gilbert’s will, and authorized the association to take steps to carry out Gilbert’s wishes to build “The Mary Lane Hospital” on his property using the donated funds.
In 1922, Gilbert’s Victorian home on South Street was demolished and H.P. Cummings was engaged to construct a new state-of-the-art hospital. The new twenty-five-bed hospital building was completed in September of 1924. A year later in 1925, the WVNHA board voted to change the name of the association to the Mary Lane Hospital Association in honor of Mary Lane Gilbert.
The Future for Mary Lane
From its founding and in accordance with Lewis Gilbert’s wishes, Mary Lane has served the need for affordable, quality health care in Ware and its surrounding communities for over 100 years. By 2023, just shy of the original hospital building’s 100th anniversary, Mary Lane as we know it today will no longer exist.
As of February 29, 2020, the Gilbert trust contained nearly $6 million. When contacted for comment about future use of the Gilbert trust, CEO of Baystate Mark Keroack stated that Baystate will seek appropriate legal approvals over the next two years to ensure that the continued use of the trust is consistent with Mr. Gilbert’s expressed wishes to provide health services to the residents of Ware and Gilbertville.
All of the Gilberts mentioned in this article are buried in Aspen Grove Cemetery, another town landmark that the family contributed to over the years. Even with the closing of Mary Lane, the Gilberts’ legacy will live on through the many institutions and individuals that have benefitted from their civic and philanthropic generosity.