Dellie Craig at the Crawfordsville District Public Library knew I’d love the picture of this man and equally as important, his license to practice medicine in Montgomery County. I’m a freak on our early doctors – love to research ‘em and find out what they did, if they saved someone in unusual circumstances, enjoy discovering their family members – well, you get it - I love to write their biographies. So, I was enthralled when I discovered this fellow married the love of his life exactly to the day I was born (40 years later). Thus, I was thrilled to meet James O’Dell Rhea. Hope you enjoy him too!
Not a native of Montgomery County, James was born and raised in Eminence, Indiana, five days after our Nation’s birthday in 1874. Played a bit of a role in his life, perhaps? His parents were John L. and Nancy (Mugg) Rhea. Nancy was John’s second wife, his first also being a Nancy (Walters). No problem there to remember the wife’s name! James had a full sister (Nellie) and half one (Hattie). John had fought in the Civil War, Co B, 59th Indiana Volunteers and was a farmer and carpenter, living in the Eminence area all his life. General Jesse Lee of the US Army who had been with John most of the whole of the CW (during Vicksburg, Mission Ridge and other important battles) paid high tribute to John when John passed. Nancy Mugg also grew-up in the area (Owen County) daughter of John and Fanny Fiddler Mugg. Her father was a clergyman and farmer.
Having grown up nearby, JOR attended DePauw for his undergraduate work and while there became very involved in the local Militia training, joining the actual service, volunteering from Greencastle April 26th (1898) serving through about the end of November, mustering out as a 1st Sgt in Co I 159th Indiana in the Spanish American War. At least one time he was called out to help aide with a coal strike (June 1894) with orders to pack a knapsack and one day supply of food plus continual drilling, thus he had been ready for the War experience.
After graduating, he went on to medical school, showing as a 24 year old in the 1900 census living with his parents, and “at school.” The school was Indiana Medical College in Indianapolis where he graduated, taking part in the 32nd commencement exercises held in English’s Opera House. One of the graduates was Henry Mayfield Mugg who afterwards practiced in Clarks Hill until his death. Believe he was probably a close cousin to Dr. James Rhea as Dr. Mugg’s photo shot on FindAGrave (buried in Owen County where JOR’s mother, Nancy Mugg was raised) looks very similar to our good Doc Rhea. Total, there were 72 members of the class, including four women, one I wrote about not too long ago - Mary Widdop from Ladoga. Also from Montgomery County was Walter Lee Straughn, who was a physician in Waveland for many years. It seems JOR practiced in Greencastle for a bit, and perhaps Straughn told James Rhea about Linden being a perfect place to set-up shop. Thanks to Dellie you can see here when James came and applied for a license to practice in Montgomery County.
Although I’m not 100% sure how he met his wife, I would guess it may have been friends or family members. They both grew up fairly near each other. He was five years older than she, and finally, determined to establish an excellent practice, save some money back, they then married in Greencastle at the home of Rev. Chadwick as I stated on my birthday 40 years previous to my birth – Dec 15, 1909 their wedding day was a small ceremony. Iva Cloe Watson was also born near Eminence on September 29th in 1882. Her parents were Bluford Clark Watson and Sarah Michael and she came from a fairly large family. Found it interesting that her aunt married an uncle of the doctor’s. Oh, probably just found the meeting answer yet it may have been in school? Always questioning I am, I am!
Earlier that year, the doctor went through a traumatic experience that perhaps woke him up to the fact that if he were going to start a family it was time. His father grew seriously ill in late March in 1909, so serious that the doctor had others cover his patients and he went to care for his father in Martinsville (after a stroke later developing and severely suffering from a cluster of carbuncle boils under his skin at his neck). One of his sisters lived in Martinsville and the other came from the South to help. They were all there a couple of weeks but dad improved so his children returned home. Doctor James barely got home and was called back, this time for the death of his beloved father.
Thus, after his marriage, his life became a real fulfillment. Iva, herself, jumped right into the social life of her adopted town and when she passed away 18 years later, she was truly mourned as one of their own. She was a member of the first library board at Linden and still working diligently in that aspect at her death on November 15th in 1927. Her other civic concerns were the Women’s Club where she was serving as president that year, along with being active in the Ladies’ Aid, Royal Neighbors, Eastern Star and very involved in the church’s Missionary Society. Besides Dr. Rhea, widowed at age 42, the father, three sisters and two brothers survived her, plus their son, James Frederick “Jim” Rhea who would grow-up to become a Chief Petty Officer, retiring from the Navy. His son, James Nelson also served in the Navy. Jim worked for and also retired from CEL&P. Dorothy Nelson and Jim were married 47 years at the time of his death a few days before Christmas in 1985 – buried at Oak Hill, where his parents are buried in their adopted home town.
Jim and his dad had James’ mother, Nancy, come live with them when Iva passed away. Iva and the Doc had only the one child. Jim had been born November 29th in 1911, his mother passing just shy of his 16th birthday. His birth occurred at their Linden home and guess who his delivery doctor was? I thought that was awesome that Dr. James delivered his own son by the same name. When I research and write about anyone, part of the fun is to find similarities – my hubs is Jim and our son, a James (Jay), too.
Then a World event came right to the Rhea’s door when the Doc was drafted for WWI with seven other MoCo physicians. Nine were slated but Harvey Sigmond was denied and not sure why (okay, sounds like another research plan) but along with James O. Rhea were Crawfordsville doctors, three named George (Clements, Ramsey and Williams) and Austin Cary. From Ladoga was John Talmadge, Mace Henry B. Williams and Rhea from Linden of course. WW Munsell from C’v went to the Navy. Most of Dr. Rhea’s time was spent in Camp Logan in Texas. He surprised Iva for the Valentine holiday in 1919, coming home to stay. Jim and mom and dad visited grandma’ Nancy and other relatives in the Martinsville area for several days then returned to Linden, not only back to be a private doctor, but as Major James O. Rhea, as well.
After being a widower for more than a decade, Dr. James O’Dell Rhea married the local telephone operator at Linden. She had been a resident of Linden since 1911 as Myrtle Michael. Her first marriage was to Ivan Bowerman who passed away in 1927 as did Iva Rhea. I don’t believe she had children, but not long before Dr. Rhea got sick they were married – he passed later in the year on July 30th, 1938. His demise began as his father’s, with a stroke minus the carbuncle. A parishioner of the ME Church in Linden, the local pastor, AH Northrup officiated at Dr. Rhea’s funeral, with some of the most important men in Linden (McBee, Schwindler, Wilkins…) serving as pall bearers. One of my grandfather’s favorite old hymns was performed by a quartet – “The Old Rugged Cross,” accompanied by Mrs. AS Fraley. Just 64 years old, JOR was sick for two weeks, but had not felt well for two years. He was a member of the Masons. His second wife continued living at their home, but momma Nancy left almost immediately after the funeral. Thus is the life of a fine doctor, an extreme patriot from a long line of such, a wonderful husband and good father. Rest In Peace, Doc!

Karen Zach is the editor of Montgomery Memories, our monthly magazine all about Montgomery County. Her column, Around the County, appears each Thursday in The Paper of Montgomery County.