Anyone who has lived in the Moosehead region for any length of time likely has heard of Henrietta Bigney. She was a very well known nurse who worked with Dr. Fred Pritham, but she was also an active participant in the local scene. In her youth, she was known as a good athlete, and was Maine’s canoeing champion.
Henrietta died on February 11, 1987. Molly Benjamin wrote a tribute, which was published in the Bangor Daily News on February 24, 1987. Here is a transcription of that article:
“A former woman’s canoeing champion of the great state of Maine died last week. Named Henrietta at birth, she was always called “Thomie,” a name that sprang from her position as the family tomboy. This nickname occurred in a family where “Charles” was always called Charles, and the women had names like Mabel, Marion and Alice. No contractions there.
Being the only one with a nickname, she was also the only spinster. The two events are possibly unrelated. Thomie was my great-aunt and I loved her very much.
She became Maine’s woman canoeing champion because a race had been scheduled, and some stolid Yankee realized all the entrants were “from away.” In all likelihood, the other entrants were probably all rich as well, but this is but an inferred truth. So my aunt was asked to compete “in order to make a race of it,” as she told the story. She did, and, of course, she won. My aunt was capable of awesome determination.
In high school, she was named to the all-state girls’ basketball team. Basketball in Maine is probably like football in Texas. It is something everyone does. The high school state championship tourney, held yearly in Bangor, holds more importance to Mainers than anything that ever appears on Page One.
Back when Provincetown was a big basketball town, they tell me someone literally had to check to see that enough people would be left in town to operate the fire, postal and police departments. Basketball is like that in Maine, and my aunt was good. Tall and rugged and quick, I bet she was.
Few Maine basketball players ever become stars, a f
act that holds a certain curiosity in a state where everyone plays. Perhaps understanding is found embodied in my aunt, who believed you do your best, you do a very good job at everything you do, but you never, ever expect or take applause for doing what is merely the right thing in the first place.
Fresh out of high school, my aunt taught school l for a time, crossing a frozen lake in the winter mornings by means of a moose sled. She quickly tired of that profession, it seems, and moved on to take her nurse’s training. For some reason, the nurses in my family — and they are legion — never went to university or got their schooling or any of those verbs usually employed around the attainment of higher education. Our nurses always took their training.
For quite a long time, Thomie and a pint-sized doctor, who also played horn in the high school band, were the sole medical outfit for Maine’s big woods. She would usually spare me the blood-and-guts details of those days, but just listening to the transportation they used to get where they had to go was spellbinding.
Great Northern Paper Company would lend them teams and a buckboard, the B&M would stop trains for them, and there were dogsleds here and there. They most certainly walked and snow shoed, and there are stories of hiking miles up the railroad tracks with two hard biscuits in a pocket for energy.
She went on to run hospitals, for that was one of the few professions open to women in the early part of this century, a century that opened without telephones, televisions and motors.
My favorite medical story was about delivering a particular baby back in the woods. Getting there required one of those take-the-train-to-the-buckboard-and-then-snowshoe affairs. The expectant mother’s mother was the region’s midwife, and not at all pleased that my aunt had been called in by her daughter.
Ordered out of the room, the elderly mother sat herself in a rocker on the line at the bedroom doorway and laid a shotgun on her lap. Just how the shotgun could have aided in the birthing was never made clear, but she held it at the ready.
The baby came out all right, and the elderly mother wanted to plunge the child into a pot of cold and then warm water. My aunt was horrified and snatched the child away, as she said, and I bet she did just that. She later admitted the system was a workable one and every bit as effective as patting the kid on the butt to get it to breathing, but at the time, my aunt did not know this.
Aunt Thomie went deer hunting but she never especially loved partridge shooting. There were pictures of her wearing what must have been a fashionable hat at the time, holding up a nice brace of birds. She would fish, but not well. She was not patient with fishing.
Later in life she took up cards, and was incredibly good. She was one of those people who could remember an entire bridge hand, how all the cards were played, and what was still out. They don’t make memories like that anymore.
Hundreds of times, Aunt Thomie and I watched the Red Sox on a television so snowy we often could not make out the ball until a fielder came up with the throw.
We sat together in our camp in the big woods to see Nixon talk on the telephone with the astronauts on the moon. I will never forget that, for the camp had only recently been wired for electricity, and here we were, watching guys walk on the moon.
The former Maine women’s canoeing champion died last week. I will miss her very much.”