By Greg Niemann
Almost everybody who traveled the unpaved length of Baja before the 1970s mentioned their experiences with a legendary dentist who plied his trade in and around the old French mining outpost of Santa Rosalía.
Dr. Charles S. (Mac) McKinnon was the notable go-to dentist in the Santa Rosalía area for over 35 years, from the late 1920s into the 1970s. He originally visited his patients on muleback, and later bought a truck, onto which he affixed a mobile workplace.
Later Mac settled into his office next door to the town’s famed Eiffel Church (Iglesia de Santa Barbara). The church was designed by Alexander Gustave Eiffel, who also created a tower that bears his name in Paris. The church was built for the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, was on display for a while in the 1890s, and then broken down into sections and shipped around Cape Horn to the French settlement in Santa Rosalía. It was reassembled in 1897 and has served as the Santa Rosalía parish church ever since.
It is fitting that the iconic expatriate Mac would settle next door to the iconic church. Locals and travelers alike had no trouble finding him seeking succor and/or advice.
It is said that no one would consider continuing their journey without consulting road conditions, etc. with Mac who was described as a one-man automobile club.
According to mystery author Erle Stanley Gardner, who first met Mac in 1947, the dentist knew every rancher, every water hole, and every twist in the road between Santa Rosalía and La Paz where he traveled with his skills and rudimentary instruments to continually bring relief to people.
Have drill, will travel
In his 1948 Baja-based book “The Land Of Shorter Shadows,” Gardner, the famous creator of the “Perry Mason” series, describes the extraordinary lifestyle of the dentist:
“McKinnon is a peculiar sort of genius. He quite apparently has a love of action and adventure, but he is a dentist and he has to make a living, so he compromises by having a portable dental office which he can load on a truck, and he dashes madly around the peninsula of Baja California. Coming to a town, renting a house, establishing a dental office, taking care of the toothaches in the community, then packing up and going somewhere else.”
The two remained friends for years.
In the early 1960s, the author was involved in an unusual McKinnon story. It seems two juveniles stole a car in the United States and drove it to Baja where they were apprehended by the police in Santa Rosalía. The car was in good condition and McKinnon wanted to buy it.
The dentist thus wired his author friend and asked his assistance. Gardner related that it took some time to find the owner and then convince the insurance company that it would be in their best interest (saving considerable travel expenses, etc.) to sell it there. Thus, a price was established and a happy dentist got a new car to drive around the Santa Rosalía area.
Another author, Ralph Hancock in his 1953 book “Baja California” said, “The man we enjoyed most in Santa Rosalía is Dr. C. S. (Mac) McKinnon, who always goes out of his way to help in a dozen little ways, who keeps us entertained with his stories of early days in Baja California (he has been a practicing dentist here for over thirty years and has never been out of B.C. in that time) and then sends us on our way with letters of introduction to everyone he knows from Santa Rosalía to La Paz. What he doesn’t know about the Distrito del Sur is hardly worth knowing.”
Don Hugh, author of “Solo Below” in 1958 reported, “Dr. C. S. (Mac) McKinnon, a dentist from ‘down under,’ is the man to contact at Santa Rosalía.” Hugh went on to call him an ambassador-at-large.
According to author O.W. Timberman in his 1959 book “Mexico’s Diamond in the Rough,” “Doc is a fluent conversationalist and there is never a dull moment when you are with him. He is well read and seems to know something about everything and a lot about some things. He has a beautiful and gracious wife (Rosita). One of Doc’s faults is his willingness to drop what he is doing and to be helpful in many ways to the travelers who stop to see him. He is never too busy to make your visit in Santa Rosalía pleasant.
“On this trip we had dinner with Doc at the French Hotel, where he knew what to order to assure us a tasty meal. He sent his assistant, Ramón, to the French bakery to procure our supply of bread and rolls while we did other shopping.”
Road travelers who came across the affable dentist concur about his willingness to help. They echo that he offered the most encyclopedic knowledge of roads, camping places, people, hunting, fishing, where to find good water, which wells to avoid, etc. of anywhere on the peninsula.
Several mentioned that he would take out his pencil and mark up their maps with all sorts of valuable information.
He was a one-person travel agency, guide, and often an interpreter. He served as a communication link in Baja California Sur and sent travelers on with notes and information to assist them with their needs.
Most amazing was his dental practice itself. He helped hundreds of people with the most basic equipment. Cliff Cross’s 1974 book “Baja” shows a photo of a patient in Doc McKinnon’s dental chair next to the antique drill, operated by a old-fashioned foot treadle that was still being used by him.
A former businessman and Rotarian who owned a hotel in nearby Mulegé once told me a good story about Doc McKinnon. It appears that Mac was hard of hearing and wore a hearing aid. One time at a Rotary Club meeting his fellow Rotarians pulled a trick on him. They pretended to be talking, but just mouthed the words. They enjoyed watching Mac get flustered. He proceeded to pull out his hearing aid and bang it a few times, thinking it had failed him. That brought on a good laugh, I was told.
As one who is now severely hearing-impaired, at first I didn’t know what to think about that incident. But I have found it’s best to make light of the impairment, as did McKinnon. They knew him and respected him enough to know that he would take it in stride.
Marion Smothers in her book “Vintage Baja” says, “If anyone deserved nomination for ‘almost-saint’ it was Dr. Mac. And if there could be a celestial need, I can visualize him now going from cloud to cloud with his little black bag, filling and extracting the teeth of angels.”
Mac, who was originally from Australia, had lived in Canada. He and his wife Rosita had a son who went to work in the States. The son has himself since retired and lives in Guaymas, Mexico.
It seems obvious that this one-man Samaritan made an incredible impression on so many people. The American writers can and did extol his area knowledge and prowess. And there have also been many simple and grateful people who may not have written flowery words in English but knew how to say “thank you” from the bottom of their hearts.
Greg Niemann, a long-time Baja writer, is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, Las Vegas Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit www.gregniemann.com.
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