If you are a Greenville, Rockwood, or Moosehead native then the name Pritham is a familiar one. This blog is, perhaps, more for the folks who are unfamiliar with the name and its significance to our area. But please, keep reading, even if you do know who I’m talking about. You may learn something new about ol’ Doc Pritham.
As you drive down Pritham Avenue do you ever wonder where the street name came from? Well, you can thank Doctor Fred J. Pritham. Due to his dedication and commitment to our community, our town felt it was necessary to honor him by naming our main road after him- and with good reason too! Dr. Pritham, or Doc as a lot of folks called him, did a lot for our community. He played in the school band, delivered about 1500 children, and of course, cured and cared for the sick and injured. He trekked for miles across rivers, lakes, and land, through rain, sleet, and snow, whatever he had to, to help the people of the Moosehead region. But his life didn’t start here. It wasn’t until 1905 he moved to the big town of Greenville.
Doc grew up in Freeport, Maine on his parent’s farm with his older brother Harry and half sister Frankie. He was born in 1880 and always had a sense of independence. He and his brother helped their father with farm work while they lived there. Fred enjoyed it much more than his brother, though. He considered it fun and for some time thought he’d be taking over the farm when he got older. His father, on the other hand, hoped otherwise. He wanted his sons to have a different occupation, than a labor intensive one that consumed all hours of their days.
All through their childhood, the Pritham boys witnessed each other getting sick or injured time after time. One of the most significant events that triggered Fred’s interest in human anatomy was when he sliced his leg open playing around with an old scythe in the barn with his brother. However, his brother was more accident-prone than he and provided numerous opportunities for Fred to see wounds get repaired, cut fingers mended, and bloody lips cared for.
When Fred was 15 he came down with Hay Fever. He was out of school for some time, putting him behind for graduation. He wasn’t upset about this though. Unlike his brother, school wasn’t all that important. He was glad not to have to trek the 5 miles to school. He believed he could make it through life farming and hunting ducks, which he loved to do, without knowing algebra and Latin. He stayed out of school for 3 years, working on the farm, doing summer chores, building roads in the area, and other tasks to occupy his time. It was then, at age 17, he came down with the measles. He had been hauling ice in a nearby pond causing him to be exposed to the cold, wet conditions. He was bed ridden with pneumonia and for 3 weeks he was close to death. This was probably the first significant event in the Doc’s life that changed his future. As Dr. Gray tended to Fred on a regular basis Fred became intrigued by the Dr’s equipment. The Dr. let Fred use his stethoscope to see what his heart sounded like. Fred was automatically interested. The Dr. continued to tell Fred he’d be a good Dr. after Fred figured out on his own what a chest sounded like with pneumonia.
Fred began to think about his future as he recovered. Would he be a farmer like he planned? Or was a new occupation in his future? A doctor perhaps? He tossed the idea back and forth, thinking of all the options he had and the pros and cons. There was a medical school in Bowdoin, within walking distance from home. He was way behind on schooling, though, and college was expensive. Plus he had always thought himself a farmer. His brother graduated high school and took a job with the electric railroad but soon announced he was going to attend the University of Maine. A neighbor commented about Harry being a “two cent boy” which angered Fred. Perhaps this is what caused him to decide to go back to high school so he could attend medical school to be a doctor- to prove his family was more.
Fred went back to high school and the next summer went to New Hampshire to work in a hotel. It was said that the mountain air was a good cure for Hay Fever. Sure enough, it was, and Fred was free of the illness as soon as he arrived.
During his time back at high school, with med school on his mind, Fred shadowed Dr. Gray on calls to gain a better understanding of the profession and to learn how Dr. Gray practiced. He soon found through assisting the doctor that “it’s a Dr’s business to go wherever he is called come hell or high water”.
Fred graduated as Valedictorian from his high school, however he couldn’t attend college in the fall because his brother still had a year left and there wasn’t enough money for both boys to attend college. Luckily that winter a huge snowstorm hit and Fred made more than $1,000 helping bring hay to folks who were stranded. This allowed him to pay for all his equipment and much of his tuition.
Fred registered for courses in 1901 and soon found that working on a farm proved useful in dissecting animals. He did well in all his subjects, but especially enjoyed surgery (perhaps from watching his mother stitch up his leg when he got it on the scythe!)
In 1902 he fulfilled another dream of his and joined the Freeport Harriseeket Band. He chose to play the E Flat alto horn because it was easy and they needed an alto. He played in the band until he graduated and used the money to pay for expenses. Later on in his life he would continue to play the horn for the Greenville High School band!
The last 2 years of his schooling was in Portland at the Maine General Hospital. He was unimpressed with how little experience he had acquired in his obstetrics course, though. So he sent in to be part of a course at the Boston Lying-In Hospital through Harvard. Luckily one of his classmates was unable to attend and Fred landed a spot in the program. It was a 3 weeks course that allowed him to complete 10 successful cases during the course. The course gained him a considerable amount of knowledge and experience in childbirth, so much so that he was able to write a 10-page thesis on Labor Abnormalus.
That summer, 1904, he faced death, once again, when his mowing machine rolled over and onto his face after crossing a ditch. It loosened some teeth and even knocked one out. He was able to push it off enough to slide out from under it, push his tooth back in, and continue mowing.
During his 4th year, Fred wondered where he would go next to put his schooling to use. One professor suggested he get away from the city and head into the woods. He found out that Dr. Hunt of Greenville was looking for an assistant. He immediately applied, remembering his father talk so fondly of the hunting in Greenville. He had a successful interview and would soon be trekking off to Greenville after exams. Unfortunately, in May appendicitis struck. His surgery professor insisted he have surgery, but Fred refused, as it would mean losing his diploma and having to attend for another year.
In August he assisted Dr. Gray and Dr. Hyde with a patient with gangrenous foot. During the operation he stopped breaking. While the other more experienced doctors tried to resuscitate him, Dr. Pritham was ordered to finish the operation- his first major one.
On August 31, 1905, Dr. Pritham arrived in Greenville. He liked Greenville and its mountains and huge lake. Most of all he liked that he could continue to hunt and fish like he had as a kid. He didn’t last long as Dr. Hunt’s assistant though. First of all, his appendix gave him trouble again, causing him pain for 3 days. Dr. Hunt was ignorant of his illness and accused him of being lazy. Second of all, Fred was not meant to be an assistant. As I said before, he was quite independent. So he returned all of the medicine he used for patients to Dr. Hunt and went back to his boarding home. His plan was to get his appendix taken care of and then figure out if he was going to leave Greenville or not. After all, the patients he was working on hadn’t seemed to want his help.
When he returned to his boarding home and rested for a day, a gentleman was brought to him. He wouldn’t eat or sleep. The man’s wife showed and Doc soon found out the man had a case of homesickness. After that Doc joined the couple on a hunting trip and enjoyed the lumber camps, as well as not having to wear a uniform. When he returned from his trip he went to Portland and had his appendix worked on. Once healed, he went back to Greenville where he decided to stay for the remainder of his career- ignoring his rough first months and deciding that Greenville needed two doctors.
He opened up an office in the old Crafts’ store, which happened to be central to every mode of transport he needed. He was also visiting the 3 Junction hotels (Mount View House, Push and Pull, and Moosehead Inn) on a regular basis to tend to injured or drunken lumbermen.
The Maine Central Railroad was in the process of connecting Rockwood to it’s other locations, forcing the Dr. to travel by foot, railroad, public steamboats, jiggers, motorboats, canoes, pungs, lumbering wagons, stages, horses, and eventually by car in order to reach his patients. Local guides often helped him get to his patients too. He looked at being a doctor as a man’s job to do.
In 1906 he married a woman he had been courting since high school- Sarah Ring (Sadie). Their wedding was in June at her grandmother’s house. After, she moved to Greenville with Fred but became very homesick. It wasn’t so much that the house Fred bought needed a ton of work done, or that their furniture took 10 days to arrive, or even that a family of 7 lived above them with chickens in their basement. It was the loneliness that got to her. Soon, though, she adjusted to her new life, made friends, and lived a happy life with her husband. The house the couple purchased is located in the Greenville Junction near the church. If you’re curious enough, you will find it three houses down from the Blue Loon Café. My mother actually grew up next door to the couple, but I’ll get into that later.
At times, Dr. Pritham was the only doctor available. Dr, Hunt went to Florida in the winter, causing him to see many patients a day, some at the same time. He also was faced with dilemmas when working on one patient and quickly another needed his help. He did it all between delivering children, surgeries, medicine, whatever need be. When it came time, he even delivered his own children. Carroll was his first son to be born and Howard was second. For 35 consecutive years he registered the most births at the town clerk’s office than any doctor in town. He worked for 65 years as a doctor and saw the whole industry transform before his eyes from vaccines to antibiotics to methods of treating patients. In 1912 Hollingsworth and Whitney had the town’s Y.M.C.A built in the Junction. It was a great addition to the town because not only did it offer a bowling alley and a hall for entertaining, it also offered a third floor where a hospital would be located. No longer would Doc Pritham have to tend to patients at the near by hotels. People could come to them now and be examined. And the best part was that they didn’t have to ship appendicitis patients off to Bangor any longer! They could perform the operations there! The hospital had enough room for a four-bed ward, an operating room, six single rooms, and an etherizing room. Later on in 1916, Mr. Charles A. Dean began construction of a new hospital. It was much needed as the Y.M.C.A was too small and more room was needed for war victims.
As I’ve said before, Doc did whatever he had to in order to treat his patients. He was quite fearless. If a patient was in need of surgery or other critical attention, he did it, regardless of where they were, whether it was a hospital, personal home or camp. Sometimes he would even go hours without food, traveling from patient to patient to make sure they received the attention and treatment they needed. You name it he did it. He even taught himself how to use X-ray without special training. The hospital needed someone who knew how to operate the equipment because the nearest radiology department was Bangor. He was also quite self-sufficient. He never really relied on the nurses to do work for him, including cleaning up his working stations. He did most of that as well.
Earlier in the blog I mentioned that my mom had lived next to Dr. Pritham when she was growing up. Her family lived there for a few years and had numerous run ins with ol’ Doc. My mom’s twin sister Debbie cut her hand on a rock one time and to treat it, she told me, Dr. Pritham used tar. “He used it often instead of stitches,” she said. “I remember when my sister got hit with a baseball bat and he used tar instead of stitches.” As she began thinking of her childhood growing up next to the Prithams she began to laugh. “He called Chicken Pox the Football Itch!” she said excitedly as I asked her about his different methods of treating people. She also told me that her family would always receive a basket of fresh carrots and radishes on their doorstep whenever the Doc’s garden was ready for picking. They returned the favor by giving him fish or other game her family had caught. “He never wanted it cleaned, though. He insisted on cleaning it himself. He liked doing it, I guess.” She continued her stories by telling me about Mrs. Pritham. “His wife was really nice. She thought she ran over my younger sister, Tammy, one time though. I thought Tammy had given her a heart attack. Tammy was always leaving her bike in their driveway,” she laughed. “I remember when Tammy rode into their driveway and Sadie was getting read to leave in their car. She honked for Tammy to get out of the way but instead Tammy just waved!”
Doc had a big impact on the Moosehead area. In 1955 the town of Greenville honored him for being with them for 50 years. He turned 75 that year. A parade was organized, in which Doc played and marched with the High School band. A Pritham Fund was also organized that year to put towards the installation of a new heating plant in the C.A. Dean Memorial Hospital. The goal was $25,000. Doc had done a lot for the town and its community and they wanted to recognize him for it.
Dr. Pritham was a hardworking and dedicated man. He went to the end of the world to help the people of this community. People even preferred to have him treat them over other doctors of the area. People respected him as he did them. His stories and accomplishments will be remembered for years to come as a local hero to the Moosehead Lake area and its community.