History of Local Healthcare Illuminates Progression of Changes

Photo: Dr. Miner's hospital on Church Street modernized healthcare in the St. Croix Valley when it was built in 1917. The hospital was used to treat patients for decades until it was moved in 1954 to the Palmer Street location. 

By Lura Jackson

While speaking with Rod Boula, the CEO of Calais Regional Hospital, he conveyed that healthcare has undergone consistent changes in the 34 years that he has worked in the business – changes that have been happening faster and faster in recent years. With that in mind, it can be interesting to consider how healthcare functioned in the St. Croix Valley from a historical perspective.

The first doctor in Calais was a fellow by the name of Shelomith S. Whipple. Beginning in 1831, Dr. Whipple operated his practice out of the Holmes Cottage, which still stands on Main Street and is now open for viewing during the week. Like many in the town he performed a range of duties; the cottage still displays his original personalized fire bucket for putting out fires. Dr. Whipple would have made many house calls in his day as there was no hospital to speak of.

After Dr. Whipple came Dr. Cyrus Hamlin, brother to Hannibal Hamlin, who served as Abraham Lincoln’s Vice President. Dr. Hamlin served the town well, solving the mystery of the lead-poisoned sugar in the 1830s before passing away from what may have been tuberculosis. Dr. Job Holmes soon followed; he practiced well into the 1860s, mixing his own remedies from herbs collected locally in the valley. As Calais began to boom from lumber and granite wealth, more and more doctors arrived.

In the 1890s, Dr. Edwin Vose was a popular Calais doctor. Dr. Williard Bunker shares a memory of Dr. Vose from when he was 9 or 10 in his book, Salt Water Surgeon. Dr. Bunker recalled that when he was 9 or 10, Dr. Vose came to see his mother, who had rheumatic fever. They lived in Red Beach at the time and Dr. Vose would travel the seven miles in his horse and buggy. He would arrive, go down to the shore and dig a mess of clams, come up to see Dr. Bunker's mother, and have dinner with the family. He charged four dollars for the house call.

After he began to practice in the early 1900s himself, Dr. Bunker operated mainly by horse and buggy. He notes one case involving an appendix issue in Pembroke, which was forty miles round trip. He didn’t think his horse could make it. He contacted Charlie Colman, who ran the stables in Calais, to borrow a horse. The horse looked like a farmhorse with his head hung low - not very promising by Dr. Bunker’s estimate, but it was Charlie’s best long range horse. “That ugly horse started jogging and he never stopped - up hill and down,” wrote Dr. Bunker. He arrived in time to treat the patient successfully.

Another time, Dr. Bunker had to go out to tend a fellow on the Canadian Ridge Road. The horse became exhausted and collapsed into a snow bank before they got there and Dr. Bunker finished the trip on snowshoes. He successfully tended the man along with the exhausted horse. The man’s wife gave Dr. Bunker chocolate cake and Red Rose tea for breakfast.

Dr. Bunker was known as the “Salt Water Surgeon” for his ability to travel on local ferries to the islands all over the Passamaquoddy Bay. On one occasion, he was called out to amputate an arm that had been “badly macerated by some machinery” on Campobello. The seas were very rough that day, and Dr. Bunker and his nurse became very seasick. The woman attending the patient refused to let Dr. Bunker and his nurse operate because she thought they were drunk. They had to lay down on the ground for about an hour to recover, after which they successfully performed the operation.

When Dr. Bunker finally did get a vehicle – a Buick with brass headlights that ran on carbide gas and had to be lighted with a match – he didn’t use it in the winter. The roads weren’t plowed at the time, but were rather dragged clear by a team of two or four horses pulling a twelve-foot-long roller. The back streets were “almost impassable” and so he kept his horses and sleigh with a black bear rug inside it for warmth.

In 1917, Dr. Miner opened the hospital in Calais on Church Street. Local residents would stay at the hospital whenever they needed surgery or were giving birth, or had other chronic ailments like pneumonia. “In those days,” shared Jerry LaPointe, Vice President of the St. Croix Historical Society [SCHS], “if you were sick or old and you really weren’t doing well, or if you lived alone, they’d keep you in the hospital until you were ready or able to take care of yourself.”

In the 1940s, the hospital opened up an annex on Hinckley Hill to serve as a maternity ward for all the babies born after World War II. The annex was where the Methodist Church is now. “The neighboring towns would donate money to have a room,” said Al Churchill, President of the SCHS. “There would be a Woodland room, a Princeton room, a Danforth room, and so on.”

While LaPointe and Churchill were growing up in the 1950s, they both recall doctors making frequent house calls. “If you were sick, no one expected you to get bundled up and come out. They would come to you,” said LaPointe. “We had Dr. Stiles, a former army doctor. When I was young and I was sick for a long time, he would come twice a day. He came for four months every single day morning and night before he sent me to Boston to the hospital. When my father had a heart attack, he came in the middle of the night with his pajamas on and a raincoat thrown over it.”

Churchill’s mother, Eunice, was a nurse for Dr. Mitchell. Dr. Mitchell’s office was where Eastern Maine Electric now operates; later it was based in what is now John Mitchell’s office on Main Street. When the new hospital was built in 1954, Churchill recalls his mother’s memory of the situation. “They had to move all the patients into the new hospital,” Churchill said. “They worked fourteen to fifteen days straight, eighteen hours a day trying to get them from one place to the other.”

There were many more pharmacies in town at the time. One, located where Mercier’s Salon is now, was operated by “Frisky” Osborne. “That was an old-fashioned drug store, even when we were kids,” recalled LaPointe, describing the interior as having fixtures from the 1880s. “It had a soda fountain and a big mahogany free-standing wall that Frisky went behind to fix up the prescriptions. There were little ice cream tables and it sold toiletries.”

There’s no denying that healthcare in the St. Croix Valley has seem some dramatic shifts over time. Doctors no longer make house calls and care for the region largely takes place at the hospital’s new location or its nearby physician offices. Perhaps, to understand the nature of the driving forces behind the change, it is worth reflecting on Dr. Bunker’s observation: “It is my impression – right or wrong – that what used to be the most honorable profession, now has become a successful financial business.”