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The courageous life of Michael Dowling

Overcoming big challenges to make a big impact


In March of 1919, Michael Dowling stood before an audience of 1,000 World War I veterans, many amputees, all struggling with the trauma of war. He approached the microphone. When the clapping subsided, he began, “Good Evening, I have a lot to tell you. I guess I’d better start at the beginning.”

This photo of Michael Dowling, showing his prosthetic legs, was taken in 1920 by Lee Bros. Photography. Photo republished with permission by the Minnesota HIstorical Society.

Every veteran in the New York Hippodrome Theatre was transported to the plains of Minnesota in the midst of a winter blizzard where driving wind, sleet, and snow can be relentless. Safety, just a few feet away, unseen in swirling snow, denies refuge from freezing temperatures.

In the 1880s, blizzards were a way of life that 14-year-old Michael had not experienced before moving to Minnesota. Born in Massachusetts in 1866, he traveled extensively with his father, working on riverboats on the Mississippi River and picking up odd jobs in Chicago.

The young man, who would come to be the epitome of entrepreneurship, had obtained a job with a cattle farmer near Canby, Minnesota. Having successfully herded 585 cattle across the plains in October, he experienced the danger of prairie blizzards. On Dec. 4, 1880, he hitched a ride on the back of a lumber wagon to the farm where his Indian pony was boarded.

The raging storm that covered much of southern Minnesota came up quickly, the horses were spooked, and the driver lost his way. The wagon bounced across a plowed field, and Michael was thrown off. He stumbled to a wood pile and began throwing blocks of wood hoping to hit a nearby building. Unsuccessful, he burrowed into a straw stack, waking in the morning with legs and arms frozen solid. He made his way, falling with each step and getting up again, until he got to a farmhouse. A doctor was called from Marshall, Minnesota. The doctor, who had experience with amputations on Civil War fields, removed both of Michael’s legs just below the knee, and his left arm at the elbow. There wasn’t enough chloroform to last through the surgery, so neighbors were called in to hold Michael down during the end of the surgery. While his right arm remained intact; fingers were removed leaving a thumb. He laid on the blood-soaked oilcloth covered table, and heard the doctor quietly explain that his patient would not live long, Michael called out, “You liars! I will live longer than any of you.”

The commissioners of Yellow Medicine County knew that they must deal with this young man, clearly in need of support by society. They came up with a plan that would finance his existence, providing for boarding. Michael had already begun taking high school classes, accepting rides to school in a baby buggy. When he was offered a lifetime of care, he came to a decision. He countered with an offer of his own. “Provide for me prostheses and send me to Carleton College for one year, and I will never be a burden on society again,” he said.

The three commissioners had no reason to believe that this 15-year-old boy would begin to fulfill the commitment he made, but after consultation, they agreed to one semester at Carleton College. And the artificial limbs were ordered.

Michael’s life story was vividly described and preserved in the 1997 book Blizzard, written by L. R. Lehmann. The rest of the story is recorded through stories told by Michael’s daughter, Dorothy Dowling Prichard. These in turn, were passed on by her son Barry Prichard, in books titled Bolos, Bandits, and Bamboo Schools, and We Blazed the Trail.

While Michael exhibited courage and tenacity, his sense of humor and self-deprecation are evident throughout his life. While he navigated the challenges of life better than most with full usage of their arms and legs, it was often his sense of humor that opened doors for him.

He continued his education at Carleton College. The artificial legs were ungainly, and he had difficulty manipulating them. When the hinge in his right limb froze, he fell to his side and then on his back. His books flew about him and girls gathered around him. He felt awkward but brightly greeted them, “Just studying the ants this morning, ladies. I always get a better look at them when I sneak up on them like this. It’s for biology.”

The years that followed brought remarkable changes to his appearance. He stood tall and navigated on wooden legs with great ease. His spirit grew in strength and in the ways of the world, but a sense of humor often carried the day. As editor of the Renville Star, he acknowledged an error in the local news. In his words: “Fred Gummert says that he didn’t marry Amelia Dahmer; that he married Minnie Dahmer. Of course, the Star doesn’t believe in compelling a fellow to marry someone else; therefore, we make a correction.”

On Dec. 10, 1898, following the Spanish-American war, the Spanish government ceded the Philippines to the United States. Conflict broke out between U.S. forces and the Filipinos as U.S. troops began to take control of the country, resulting in the Philippine–American War.

Michael supported Pres. McKinley, making a name for himself in American politics. He was called to Washington to meet with the administration, who offered him a mission. He was asked to travel to the Philippine Islands and study the educational system now overseen by the US military. While this study was considered the purpose for the trip, he often mysteriously reported back to his family about getting information, or “stuff,” about the intentions of the Sultan of Sulu of the Philippines.

The door to his investigation was the Sultan. Dowling’s letter to the Minneapolis Journal related his attempts to meet with the Sultan. Surrounded by the Sultan’s armed bodyguards, he had waited for an hour and a half for an interview when told that the Sultan was too busy

Dowling could take no more. He pushed his chair into the room to get the attention of the Sultan who was chewing betel nuts and accepting tax payments. He pulled up the leg of his trousers and showed the Sultan an artificial leg, then pulled up the other leg of his trousers revealing his other wooden leg. With all of the commotion, bodyguards and the Prime Minister rushed into the room.

Michael Dowling was the 25th Speaker of the Minnesota House of Representative, serving from 1901-1903.. Contributed photo

He then rolled up the left sleeve of his shirt and showed the Sultan his artificial arm. Panic ensued as he then took hold of his head, as if to twist it off. The Sultan laughed heartily, and waved his arms to stop.

The amazed Sultan then dressed for the occasion, and in the presence of the assembly, slaves assisted as he donned trousers, a sash, and a silk jacket. A turban was wound around his head, a shawl was placed around his left shoulder, and an interpreter was brought in to assist with conversation. Dowling had gotten the attention he desired, and the Sultan was prepared for an audience with his visitor.

Another one of Michael’s amazing adventures involved a three-car motorcade that blazed a trail from Olivia, Minnesota, to Yellowstone Park, from July 6 to Aug. 5, 1913. The exhausting 2,500-mile endurance test was made in a 1913 Oakland 660 with a right-hand wheel and an electric starter. Joining the motorcade were the Windhorsts in a 1911 Buick Model 39, and the Empeys in a 1912 Ford Model T. They traveled on narrow-graveled roads, open plains, rocky outcrops, and through streams all the way to Yellowstone Park.

According to his daughter, Dorothy, every morning Michael put on his legs and a smile, and a new adventure lay ahead. He saw the future of the Yellowstone Trail and declared that it would one day bring a “Golden Stream” of tourism to all the communities along its route.

One of Michael’s greatest gifts was the gift of encouragement and promise that he gave to the veterans of World War I that night at the Hippodrome. Soldiers who had lost arms and legs heard his message of courage and strength found through his own experience.

His words of encouragement were not limited to American veterans. He traveled to England and spoke to English veterans, too. As he did in the United States, Michael was anxious to share his experience and provide hope.

On one occasion, he arrived late for the presentation. He was directed to a chair on the dais where other speakers and dignitaries had already taken their places. He sat down, and turned his attention to those around him. He gestured to the man sitting next to him that was dressed in full military regalia.

“They call me Dowling,” he said. “What do they call you?”

The gentleman turned to him, somewhat chagrined, and quite surprised.

“They call me Your Highness.”

Michael was sitting next to the Prince of Wales, later crowned King Edward VIII, who abdicated his throne to marry the woman he loved.

The Dowling house as it looks today in Olivia. The community is currently looking at acquiring the property. Michael Dowling died in 1921 and is buried in Olivia. Contributed photo

Both of Michael’s grandsons, Barry Prichard and Michael Prichard, are fountains of amazing stories about their grandfather. Barry is a retired Captain with the U.S. Naval Reserve, and lives in Puposky, Minn., north of Bemidji, Michael Prichard is a retired attorney and avid conservationist who lives in St. Croix Falls, Wisc. Both maintain a relationship with the community of Olivia, Minn., where their grandparents lived. The community is considering the possibility of purchasing the Dowling home. Rather than making it a museum, the grandsons see the house as a resource to the surrounding area.

“The Dowling house should be promoted by the Renville County Historical Society,” Barry said. “There are seven communities located on the Yellowstone Trail and all should be highlighted as one group of attractions.”

Stories of their grandfather’s courage and wit provide insight into this model of incredible accomplishment. His advice to others who experienced disabilities was clear. A physical disability does not disable one’s value. He knew that the loss of two legs and one arm did not limit his potential. His frequent declaration, “Thank God I’m not a cripple!” may well have been intended for those for whom he provided the finest example.

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