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The Baby Farm

Labor days at a Port Henry landmark

Nearly a century has passed since the chambers of the “Baby Farm” echoed with the wails of its first newborn. Bertha Farwell Bigalow, farmwife and mother of four girls, hung out her maternity-home shingle in 1905. She had only one taker that year and none the next, or even the next, but she persevered. Even though Port Henry was a small industrial village, it was prosperous and growing. In time Bertha found herself swaddling the babies of babies she’d helped deliver a generation before.

The New York State Department of Health certified Bertha’s place as the Bigalow Maternity Home, but locally it was always the Baby Farm. Really it was just a room or two or three, as needed, on the second floor of the three-story farmhouse her husband, Truman, built in the 1880s, high on what is now Edgemont Road. His father operated a large sawmill nearby so wood was cheap and the house was, therefore, quite spacious. Behind it, a red barn and small coop sheltered horses, cows and chickens. From a rise to the south a mountain spring flowed to the taps in the barn, bath and kitchen. A veranda skirted three sides of the gray clapboard house. From there, Bertha and Truman enjoyed a view of Lake Champlain, rolling Vermont fields and the Green Mountains. A prominent bay window endowed both the first and second floors with the pastoral view. Crowning the lofty window, a lonely balcony extended from a third-floor bedroom.

At first the Bigalow home was known as the Bay Window House. Truman and Ber­tha reared their family there, but theirs was not a happy marriage. Once the children were grown, Truman moved into the home of his late father at the foot of the hill. Relatives say he and Bertha loved each other but could not live together. But Bertha had all she needed: her grown daughters, a sound house, a strong will and vision, and a viable business in a growing town. And she still had her youth. Having married at sixteen and borne her first child at nineteen, Bertha was only thirty-four when she started the Baby Farm.

After giving birth four times herself, Bertha had solid ideas about the kind of care mothers and their newborns needed. Her granddaughter Rhoda Henry Collins (herself a Baby Farm baby) wrote in her memoirs, “It was the custom then for a new mother to stay in bed for two weeks after giving birth, and during this time Grandma pampered them. Every new mother had lots of fresh milk from Grandma’s cow. Grandma made puddings and delicious hot stews and soups to start and keep a mother’s milk flowing. Her garden produced fresh fruit and vegetables in season.”

In 1941 Carolyn Henry gave birth to her son, William, at Bertha’s. “Gramma Bigalow served two big meals a day. She’d struggle up those stairs with these huge trays of food, lunchtime and supper,” Henry recalled. “The des­serts were covered with staggering mounds of whipped cream. We’d never eaten whipped cream when I was growing up; my mother thought it was unhealthy. After a couple days I said I couldn’t eat one more particle of whipped cream, but all she did was add a glass of baking soda and water to my tray! Finally we compromised: she would leave off the whipped cream and I wouldn’t drink the baking soda and water. . . . The mothers always had the larger front rooms with the view. At night Gramma Bigalow kept the babies with her. She had a small room on the same floor but in the back. During the day she’d bring the babies to the mothers. I was the only mother there when Bill was born, but she’d often have all three rooms full. After about four days I tried to get out of bed and she told me, ‘Swing your legs right back up there and stay put.’ I was in bed for the whole two weeks! I could barely walk when I got back home my muscles were so weak.”

Bertha’s granddaughter-in-law, Rhoda Baker Henry, gave birth to Bertha’s first great-grandchild there in 1938. She remembers the wheeled cradles that Bertha used to shuttle her daughter, Carol, and other babies to and from their mothers. Carol re­members swinging on the gate across the street three years later, waiting for her brother, Jimmy, to be born. It was Halloween and she wanted to scare him with her costume.

But Bertha wouldn’t allow that. She saw to it that babies were nurtured quietly. If mothers seemed to be re­covering properly she let them “dangle” after one week, which meant they could sit up and hang their legs off the bed. Leaving bed was out of the question though. The routine was sponge baths and bedpans.

Baby Farm grandchild Edwin Henry wrote in his memoirs, “Over the years I heard so many mothers rave about the meals and attention at Grandmother’s that I began to wonder if they didn’t look forward to their next visit.” They probably did. What new mother wouldn’t crave a vacation with a bay-window view and three meals a day served bedside by a twenty-four-hour doula attending to a laboring woman’s physical and emotional needs, and two weeks with no chores, no screaming kids, no whining husbands underfoot?

In the early twentieth century hospital births were not common in the region, which had only a few small hospitals (in Ticonderoga, Mineville and Elizabethtown) anyway. Not surprisingly, a 1940s Port Henry phone directory had no listings for obstetrics and gynecology. The few general practitioners were typically overworked males who had no time for and perhaps little concept of labor support or post-partum care. There was a lot to be said for midwifery and maternity-home services in those days—and there still is.   Today, a hundred of every thousand babies born in the United States are delivered by certified nurse midwives, though most are born in hospitals. Only five out of a thousand are delivered by midwives in birthing centers or private homes. But midwifery still em­braces many of the same concepts of patient support that Bertha and her contemporaries held dear. Even then they worked with physicians like the highly regarded Dr. Thomas Cummins of the hospital in Mineville. Each respected the other’s role in patients’ well-being.

Bertha’s business grew in fits and starts. Back then the state classified maternity homes by religious faith. Bertha was Protestant, so word of the excellent care she provided spread through the churches, drawing more and more expectant mothers. The birth rate declined during World War I, but Bertha’s census soared after the war. Her busiest years were 1922–24, when she cared for upwards of twenty patients per year. But that was also when the local iron industry began to experience severe competition from open-pit mines in Minnesota. As sales plummeted, Witherbee, Sherman and Company shut down temporarily, forcing many residents to leave town in search of work. Bertha lived frugally as the economy slumped for about two years. At last a modest turnaround occurred, and Witherbee reopened its mines. She enjoyed a few busy years before the Depression, but Bertha persevered. In fact, life at the Baby Farm was very good in many ways.

Early twentieth century women were always on the go, caring for families, farm animals, vegetable gardens, home, yard and kitchen, educating children, and maybe working an outside job. Babies were often smaller in those days (eight pounders were rare), which meant easier deliveries. Department of Health regulations were simpler too, and there weren’t as many malpractice issues—people just tried to maintain high personal and professional standards.

Expectant mothers had to make prudent choices to keep the household on track before and after delivering. They had to decide whether to hire a doctor or midwife to attend to the delivery in the family’s home or in a hospital. Or they could make ar­rangements with a maternity home like Bertha’s to ease the strain. Among her clientele were women whose husbands were miners, farmers, loggers, teachers, merchants, engineers, mine superintendents, railroad workers and mid-level Witherbee Sherman managers.

A woman would usually be in early labor when she and her husband arrived at the Baby Farm. Bertha would greet the couple, then escort the mother-to-be upstairs for rest and every possible comfort. At the last minute Bertha would summon the mother’s doctor to the Baby Farm to “catch the baby” and manage any difficulties during delivery. If the doctor couldn’t get there the mother and Bertha would go it alone. Husbands and other family members would wait in the sitting room or on the porch overlooking the lake until Bertha fetched them to welcome their new relative.

During the next two weeks Bertha prepared her famous meals and presented them artistically with elegant china and crystal. She adorned each silver dinner tray with embroidered napkins and a fresh flower in a glass vase. Naturally, the babies’ meals were simpler, although their schedule was not: Bertha brought them to their mothers day and night for breast-feeding and cuddling. She tended to other nursery needs herself, including changing, bathing and dressing. For the mothers, those first two weeks with a baby could be an ordeal. Little conveniences and courtesies made the difference—that was Bertha Bigalow’s credo.

The Baby Farm had become an important part of the community by the 1920s. Bertha was a respected professional. Collins wrote, “The house was spotless and Grandma always wore a clean starched white uniform and apron. Fresh linens, washed, bleached and ironed, were on the beds. In her spare time she tatted or crocheted beautiful edgings for the pillowcases.” For many families, the Baby Farm had become a part of life. When people thought about babies, they thought about Bertha. In August 1922 an unexpected delivery of a different sort changed the dynamics of the Baby Farm household. “[A] horse-drawn wagon entered my grandmother’s driveway and stopped by her back door,” Collins wrote. “Mr. Maye climbed out of the wagon, carefully lifted out a shoebox and knocked on the door. . . . In the shoebox, wrapped in a piece of flannel cloth, was Mr. Maye’s newborn daughter, Edythe. Her mother had died in childbirth. Would Mrs. Bigalow please take care of her? Mrs. Bigalow would do her best but the tiny baby weighed only two pounds. Edythe was still in the shoebox when Grandma Bigalow placed her in the warming oven over the wood stove. Grandma warmed some milk and fed it to Edythe with an eye dropper.”

According to Collins, Edythe survived and stayed on as one of the family, residing with Bertha and her youngest daughter, Rhua. When she was older Edythe was paid to help with chores. The bedroom on the third floor with the balcony became Edythe Maye’s. Meanwhile Mr. Maye, who operated a busy grocery and meat market nearby, spent Sundays with his daughter, until she graduated from high school and left town to seek employment, eventually retiring after a long career with AT&T.

Bertha’s oldest daughter, Raeburn, lived with her husband and six children across the road. Some of Raeburn’s kids became playmates of Edythe Maye. As a result the Baby Farm was alive with youngsters even when there were no patients on board. In the late thirties Bertha and Rhua fostered another baby girl, Mickey Burns, who sustained the household’s youthful spirit for another generation. Holidays often brought visits from Bertha’s two middle daughters, Roma, who worked for a senator in New York, and Rena, who had become a child psychiatrist. Picky the cat and Jerry the dog were two equally playful and beloved members of the Baby Farm family.

Over the years Bertha helped de­liver all six of her own grandchildren, even her first three great-grandchildren. The last Baby Farm baby, a girl named Jane, was born November 12, 1943. In the end there were 282. Very few infant deaths are noted in Ber­tha’s journal; the mothers fared even better. Two months after helping deliver baby Jane, Bertha Bigalow passed away. At seventy-two she be­came the only woman to die at the Baby Farm.

Tom Henry is a great-grandson of Bertha Bigalow.

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