A Half-Century of Care

By ELAINE THOMAS  The ink on James Tiemann’s Doctor of Veterinary Medicine diploma was barely dry when he headed to La Grange in early August 1966. Shrugging off the conventional wisdom that a new vet should seek a fresh start, Doc planned to return home for good. 

“I was born and raised in La Grange and have never wanted to live anyplace else,” Doc says. “In a couple of weeks, I will have been practicing here for 50 years. I’ve met a lot of good people, especially the oldtimers who taught me a lot. They were the salt of the earth.”

Deep Fayette County Roots

Born May 1, 1943, at Fayette Memorial Hospital, Doc is the son of Leo Vincent Tiemann and Clara Hensel Tiemann. He grew up on the same place where he and his wife, Nita, live today. Tucked under the Bluff facing Hwy. 77 South, Blue Willow Farm is like a sanctuary bordered on the north by the Colorado River and on the west by Monument Hill State Park and the Frisch Auf! Golf Course.

The blue, two-story house next to the road belonged to Doc’s maternal grandparents, Paul and Helena Frerichs Hensel. As children, Doc and his two sisters, Martha and Margaret, and his brother, David, lived just a few hundred yards away in a house built in 1842. They regularly ran in and out of their Hensel grandparents’ home, making a beeline for the candy bowl that seemed to stay full.

“If you’re of German descent from Fayette County, I am probably related to you going back a generation or two,” Doc says. His Tiemann ancestors settled near Rutersville in the mid-1860s.

In their young years, Doc and his siblings spent a good deal of time floating on the river and exploring the woods along the original road to the old Krischke Brewery. The Tiemann brothers liked hunting and fishing, but their mother had a rule: “If you kill it, you eat it.” In that era, there were virtually no deer in or around La Grange, but plenty of possums, coons and wild birds. The family always grew a huge garden. Dinner, the main meal of the day, was served promptly at 12 noon. 

Doc’s parents operated a Grade A dairy of 50 to 55-head of predominantly Jersey cows. (Grade A dairies were held to a higher standard of cleanliness than Grade B operations.) Doc and his siblings provided part of the physical labor needed to operate the business. The children bottle-fed baby calves, hauled hay, loaded and unloaded silage and cleaned barns. For decades, the milk the Tiemann cows produced daily was delivered in cans to the South Texas Milk Producers Association located where HEB now stands. In the 1920s, when the first bridge was built across the Colorado River, Doc’s Hensel grandparents sold milk door-to-door in La Grange. People came to the farm and bought it for 10¢ a gallon. 

The Tiemann youngsters attended Sacred Heart School in La Grange from the first through eighth grades before graduating from La Grange High School. Doc recalls a revered teacher of that era, Rosa Meinecke, whom he had for one year and six weeks. She not only taught Doc but his mother, as well. 

“Mrs. Meinecke gave me an “A” for content and an “F” for grammar,” he recalls. “She was a good teacher, but we were all a little afraid of her.”

The Tiemann children were encouraged to get a higher education by their parents and grandparents, none of whom had attended college. La Grange high school guidance counselor Weldon Chambers gave Doc the nudge toward his niche in life. 

“I scored highest in science and outdoor-related activities on an aptitude test. When Mr. Chambers said, ‘Why don’t you become a vet?’ that’s what I decided to do,” Doc adds. 

Hurricane Carla Ushered in His College Days 

Doc financed his first semester at Texas A&M by selling $375 worth of cantaloupes he grew in the family’s fertile garden between the home place and the river.

When Hurricane Carla swept through Central Texas on September 12, 1961, Doc was on his way to College Station to begin his freshman classes. When he hitched a ride with Charles Lehmann of Winchester, he was carrying only one extra pair of pants and a couple of shirts with his gear. Doc thought he would be issued uniforms right away, but that didn’t happen for a week.

While juggling his classes, Doc took a 35-hour a week job in the Sbisa Mess Hall at Texas A&M, which served meals family style. 

“We had 15 minutes to serve about 4,000 students. I learned to run like heck. Of course, the upperclassmen ate first,” he recalls. Doc eventually worked his way up to head waiter, handling his silver tray with assurance. 

His studies were no walk in the park. 

“There were 140 to 150 freshmen and only 60 spots for pre-veterinary medicine students, so we were told to look at the guy on your right and the guy on your left because most of them wouldn’t make it. There was one woman and despite the odds stacked against her, she graduated,” Doc adds.

Two years into the veterinary program, Doc was flunking pharmacology. After Thanksgiving, he returned to his room and immersed himself in his studies. He managed to pull up his grade, but he still remembers the stress. Once the coursework switched to clinics where the students worked with animals, Doc could exhale. He found the practical side of his veterinarian education much easier and more to his liking.

Relying on Education and Intuition

Local veterinarian Dr. Norman (Happy) Fluitt offered Doc his first job when he returned to La Grange. (Dr. Floyd Gunn, who had served Fayette County for many years, had left to teach at Texas A&M.) In 1968, Doc bought the abandoned Sky-Hi Drive-in Theatre property in the Riverside addition on the west side of La Grange and opened Fayette County Veterinary Clinic. Although Hurricane Carla had toppled the movie screen in 1961, the concession stand building, which had been vacant for seven years, served as the first office. Over the years, the structure has been expanded several times.

“In the late 1960s, Fayette County was one of the top producers in the state of dairy, hogs, beef and poultry. There were 160 dairies here. East Radhost School Road in the Hostyn area had one dairy after the other,” Doc explains.

Since it is estimated that one dairy cow is 15 times more work than one beef cow, Doc never had to worry about how to grow his practice. Animal health issues such as milk fever kept him occupied. 

 “I remember going out to the Alois Janda dairy at Hostyn. The family only spoke Czech around the farm, so when I went into the barn and began speaking English, the cows got nervous. I learned I had to go back outside if I wanted to talk,” Doc says, observing he is proud to have served three generations of some Fayette County farming families. 

Early on, Doc depended heavily on the operators at the La Grange telephone exchange to help him manage his practice. Especially after hours and on weekends, customers who needed the services of a vet were in a crisis.

“A customer would call in, and the operator would say, ‘Dr. Tiemann is at a call at so-and-so.’ So the customer would call and catch up with me there. I remember the operators telling me an elderly Ammannsville lady, Agnes Stoltz, would say, “I want to get hold of that curly-headed vet.”

When telephone operators became a relic of the past, Doc relied on an answering service at the Oak Motel. Later, Glynis Porter provided answering service support. Finally, bulky bag cell phones were introduced enabling customers to make direct contact after hours and on weekends. Of course, over the years, cell phones have grown much smaller and more powerful.

“We used to install really big antennas on our trucks. There were a number of dead spots like one near Warrenton and another on the hill near Flatonia,” Doc recalls.

Taking x-rays and doing lab work also has changed. When Doc started, he had to go to Fayette Memorial Hospital to get results of tests. Now it is all done on-site.

Promoting Animal Health

Life cycles for pets have increased substantially over Doc’s 50 years in business. This culture shift gives him personal satisfaction. 

“With preventative care like heartworm pills for dogs and rabies shots, pets live a lot longer now. Nobody spayed or neutered their dogs or cats back then. Dogs and cats were easily replaced.”

Diseases have come and, from Doc’s point of view, fortunately (for the most part) gone. He has treated farm animals for Venezuela encephalitis, brucellosis, west Nile, blackleg, hog cholera, etc.

Doc remembers making calls in such dense fog that he had to drive with his head out the window. He set a personal record on a Sunday years ago when he visited 26 different farms. Nita, a registered nurse, who worked at the clinic for years, accompanied him. 

Once when a two-year-old horse he had roped pulled away, Doc hung on until he was able to lead the horse back into the pen. Sometime later on a TV show, he learned that was called “running down” a horse, a recognized breaking method, but all he wanted to do was save his rope. Doc recalls having crossbred cows packed so tightly in a pen that he had to walk on their backs to vaccinate them. He also has the dubious distinction of having caught a cow by the tail. He treated a bear with an abscessed tooth, too. 

“I wish I’d kept a diary,” he says, “But reading it just might make me tired.” 

“It’s no wonder he has rheumatism,” Nita adds. “I went with him once when he needed to pull a calf. There were only about four feet of room between the barn rafters and the buildup of manure on the floor, so he literally had to get down on his stomach.”

“If a farmer was short, chances were good that I was going to hit my head when I went in his barn,” Doc recalls. 

The Tiemann’s four children: Jason, Sarah, Jennifer and Josh, were active in FFA and 4-H, as well as school activities. Doc and Nita also have served the community in activities such as the Junior Livestock Show, La Grange Show Fund, Fayette County Fair Board, Round Up Club, Evening Lions and Backstage, which produced live theater. The Tiemann’s have 10 grandchildren, all of whom are animal lovers. 

Enjoying Each Day As It Comes

“I’m in no hurry to retire,” says Doc, giving high praise to the vets with whom he has worked over the years. 

Even though he has sold the Fayette County Animal Clinic to Dr. Doug Stribling and Dr. Jeremy Finch, Doc works weekdays and occasionally still answers weekend calls. Monday and Tuesday are his days off, but when the office calls to say a dog he has been treating isn’t doing well, he heads toward his truck.

Watching him go, Nita adds, “Doc hates to lose a patient.”

 

If you have comments on this story or ideas for future features, please contact Elaine at 979-263-5031, www.elainethomaswriter.com or www.facebook.com/ElaineThomasWriter.

 

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Fayette County Record

127 S. Washington St.
P.O. Box 400
La Grange, TX 78945
Ph: (979) 968-3155
Fx: (979) 968-6767