This year, a modest house on Centerville Lane will celebrate its 100th birthday (or so the assessment records say). And ironically, the word “birthday” holds a very special meaning for this old home. Think 159 of them . . . .
Options for pregnant mothers were limited in Gardnerville during the World War II years. You could have your baby the old-fashioned way, at home. But if you opted instead for a high-speed run to reach the hospital in Reno or Carson City, you took your chances on getting there in time.
After a few “hair-raising experiences” involving babies delivered by the side of the road, local doctor Ernest Hand figured there had to be a better way. He prevailed upon Mrs. Frieda Pitts to open a maternity home right here in Gardnerville in 1943.
That plan sounded great to Frieda Pitts. A widow, Mrs. Pitts had lost her husband, William, to kidney disease in March, 1940. Never mind that she had no formal training as a nurse. Or that the “maternity home” facility would consist of just two beds in her own house here on Centerville Lane – a home that initially had no indoor bathroom and no furnace.
Mrs. Pitts devoted her living room and a bedroom to the cause. Neighbor Lizzie Etherton assisted with laundry, courtesy of her wringer washer. And Dr. Hand taught Frieda all about labor, delivery, and maternity care.
And that’s how, you might say, Mrs. Pitts’ Maternity Home was born. When it opened in March, 1943, the facility was a welcome addition for Valley mothers indeed. Over the next eleven years, some 159 babies would enter the world there. Dr. Hand was just a phone call away.
Sometimes mothers would come to stay with Mrs. Pitts before the baby arrived. But “generally you would go to Mrs. Pitts when your contractions started,” a long-time Valley resident recalled. “You’d leave home with your little satchel and then you would stay there at Mrs. Pitts’s for eleven days. They wanted to make sure the baby had a good start. So that was considered the proper length of time to see if the baby did well and if you did well. And they kept you in bed for those eleven days. You didn’t get up and run around.”
Mrs. Pitts not only cooked meals for her patients, she also changed diapers, prepared formula, and cared for the babies at night so their mothers got a good night’s sleep.
Pitts Maternity Home became so popular that Frieda added an addition to her house in September, 1944. It must not have been a large one, however; as late as July, 1952, the facility offered only two beds. In a pinch, however, it was able to accommodate a small “baby boom.” The largest: five babies in a single week.
Babies of all sizes made their debut at Mrs. Pitts’ home. One of the smallest, a 4-pound daughter, was born to Mr. and Mrs. Andres Ortiz in 1948. For tiny preemies like this one, Mrs. Pitts created a make-shift incubator that was lined with flannel and heated with hot water bottles. At the other end of the spectrum, one baby boy tipped the scales at 10 pounds, 4 ounces! At least one set of twins was delivered at Mrs. Pitts’ home. And one impatient baby didn’t even make it in the front door, instead making its debut at her front gate! But of all those 159 children born at Mrs. Pitts’ home, not a single baby was lost.
The Record-Courier once noted that the names of those who gave birth at Mrs. Pitts’ home “reads quite a lot like the old Carson Valley telephone book.” But it wasn’t just Valley children born here. A few mothers came from Markleeville. And even a few moms-to-be who were just “passing through” availed themselves of Mrs. Pitts’ kind services.
So, who was Frieda Pitts, the kindly soul who tended to all these moms and babies? Well, she was oldest of the eight children of Fritz and Marie Sarman, born October 22, 1906. The Sarman family owned the “Ladies Best” flour mill south of Gardnerville, and Frieda was raised there. Frieda’s siblings included brothers Edwin and John; and sisters Mabel Marie (Mrs. James Perry) of Smith Valley, Mrs. Aldon Arigoni of Reno, and Edna Araujo.
Frieda married William Pitts in 1925, when she was fresh out of high school. He was 39 at the time; she was just 18.
Despite her lack of formal nursing training, Mrs. Pitts became a fine nurse, midwife, and caregiver. When Douglas County began registering all the registered and practical nurses in Douglas County in 1956 for “civil defense and disaster planning” purposes, Mrs. Pitts was the one they put in charge of the nursing registration effort.
But in 1954, state regulations changed. Hospital births began to be required, essentially putting Mrs. Pitts out of business. But she never stopped caring for others. Various younger siblings and nephews from Smith Valley lived with her over the years so they could attend Douglas High School. Dr. Hand’s granddaughter, Debbie Lambert, lived with Frieda for a while. She cared for her father when he became ill, and her mother eventually came to live in the house with her. Frieda was also in great demand as a local babysitter. Locals still remember the fine homemade bread and cookies she would bake.
Frieda Pitts died in 1991, and is buried at Garden Cemetery in Gardnerville. Although she never had any children of her own, she always said she felt a special kinship with every one of those 159 babies she helped bring into the world.