NEWS

Canandaigua's VA hospital a real Depression-fighter

Julie Sherwood

The year was 1930. Herbert Hoover was president, a loaf of bread cost 9 cents, and 25 percent of Americans were out of work. People in Canandaigua — like those in every other city, town and village — were short on money and long on despair.

The Great Depression was just getting started, with the average American income down 40 percent from what it had been prior to the stock market crash the previous fall.

It’s no wonder, then, that Canandaigua jumped at the opportunity when the federal government put out feelers looking for an ideal location to build a veterans’ hospital in Western New York. It became one of several communities in heated competition to house the facility, which promised an influx of jobs and federal dollars.

That’s when Canandaigua dry-goods merchant Timothy Lynch came up with an idea.

“He said, ‘Why not use the Sonnenberg site?’” said Ed Varno, executive director of the Ontario County Historical Society.

The beautifully kept, expansive estate of benefactress Mary Clark Thompson, who had died in 1923, was now in the hands of her nephew, Emory Clark, and Clark liked the idea.

From there, he and Lynch teamed up with other business owners, politicians and members of the American Legion to lobby Washington.

“They came together, took public officials on inspections of the site ... they used patriotic fervor to rally community support,” Varno said.

They raised $9,000 toward their promotional efforts and, within a few months — by August 1930 — they had won over the feds. Even political pressure on President Hoover from the rejected Buffalo contingent couldn’t reverse the decision to make Canandaigua the chosen spot for a VA hospital.

In 1931, Emory Clark sold 118 acres to the federal government for the VA hospital; the government then acquired 346 more before the hospital’s groundbreaking that June 21.

The hospital officially opened Feb. 6, 1933, with 468 beds and the arrival by train of 224 patients.

“I can see those guys getting off the train on East Street,” said Korean War veteran Fred Schutz.

He had been one of the kids who supplied construction workers with drinks of water and watched in awe as the VA was built over the course of more than a decade.

Not long after it opened, 639 beds were added to the hospital, which included a huge farm that served as a source of food for the hospital and therapy for its patients.

The VA reached its current building size in 1944. At its peak, it housed 1,637 patients and in the era following World War II was filled to capacity.

“There had to be a lot of time and a lot of effort” put into the making of the VA hospital, Schutz said.

The 75th anniversary of the opening of the Canandaigua VA Medical Center will be celebrated with fanfare the week of Feb. 4. Staff at the Fort Hill Avenue site have been planning festivities for months, said VA spokesman Dan Ryan. The VA will host events during that week that include music, guest speakers and recognition for certain folks who have played a special role with the VA.

Contact Daily Messenger writer Julie Sherwood at jsherwood@mpnewspapers.com, or (585) 394-0770, Ext. 263. Do you have a photo of a friend or loved one who worked at or stayed  at the VA hospital? Mail it to Messenger Post, attention Julie Sherwood, 73 Buffalo St., Canandaigua, NY 14424.