201022ind history01

This property at 181 West Main Street was once home to the pediatric office of Dr. Bodhan Kuzma, who recently passed away at the age of 96. Kuzma practiced medicine in the building until moving to Women and Infants Hospital in Providence in 1970. It has served a variety of dentists since.

The death last week of 96-year-old Dr. Bodhan Kuzma has got me reminiscing. You see, Dr. Kuzma, who had his office at 181 West Main Street, diagonally across the street from the Cranston Funeral Home, my childhood home, was the first doctor I can remember. He was as kind and loving as any doctor I have ever had. He was perfectly suited to be a pediatrician; why, he even had a funny name that hinted at an extraordinary story. Born and raised in the Ukraine, he had wanted to be a doctor, and after beginning his studies at a Ukrainian university, he was continuing in Vienna when the “Iron Curtain” fell. He obtained falsified passports for himself and his family and, after a short stay in Innsbruck, ended up in New York City where he completed his education and hospital residency. He told the “escape tale” a lot better than I- so well that, to this very day, every time I see that ending scene in the Sound of Music, it’s the Kuzmas, not the Von Trapps, that come to my mind. He and his wonderful wife had children that were nearly the same age as my sister and I, and they too, come back to me as I remember this exceptional man. So, to honor Dr. Kuzma and the whole Kuzma clan, let’s take a look at the history of the place they called home throughout the 1960s.

This home was constructed in 1896 for Thomas Lewis, the youngest of the five fishing Lewis brothers, on land he purchased from his brother Isaac. Tom Lewis, who was married to Sarah Gardiner, along with his brothers John, George, Fred, and Bill were owners of the unique fishing vessel “Lewis Brothers,” which they used for decades in their careers as highly successful trap fisherman. Their fishing smack, Lewis Brothers, was constructed with a “live fish hold” which allowed them to bring their catch each day still alive and flapping to whatever fish market, from Boston to New York City and anywhere in between, that was paying the highest price.  Tom and all of his brothers did well, and all raised families here in Wickford. Tom Lewis fished for nearly all of his life and died at age 86 in 1952 as the last of the Lewis Brothers. Ten years prior, in 1942, he sold his home to William “Willie” Boone Babcock.

Willie Boone Babcock was born in 1873 on the family farm on Quidnessett Neck. This farm, known as the Nicholas Spink farm, had been in his mother’s family for many decades and Willie represented the eighth generation to farm the land. Sadly, he was also the last, as in the early 1940’s the US Government condemned his land and all of it around him for the construction of the Quonset/Davisville military complex. Willie, who also ran a clambake business on the property and was known as one of the premier bakemasters in South County, took what money was given to him by the US Navy, purchased this home and began a new life as an insurance agent for National Grange Insurance Company- a business in which he became very successful. William Boone Babcock, who was also known to proudly proclaim an unsubstantiated ancestral connection to pioneer Daniel Boone, was a founding member of the Quidnessett Grange and served as master of the RI State Granges from 1934 to 1938. He and his wife Annie Reynolds, daughter of Allen Reynolds, an influential textile mill owner in Davisville, never had any children. Willie died in 1952; in 1956 his house was sold to Gene Sawyer, who quickly resold it to John R. M. Phelan.

Doctor John Phelan was one of the area’s earliest psychiatrists and operated an office here for four years. In 1961, he sold the house to Doctor Bohdan Kuzma, who lived in the house with his family and practiced pediatric medicine from the first floor office created in the house by Phelan. Dr. Kuzma was born and educated in the Ukraine and told a harrowing tale of how he and his wife and small children escaped from that region just as the Soviet “Iron Curtain” fell across Eastern Europe.  He practiced medicine here in Wickford until 1970, when he became a well-respected member of the staff of Women and Infants Hospital in Providence. He sold the house to URI physics professor Charles Kaufman, who owned it until 1979. Since then it has been owned by a succession of dentists who have shared practice space on the first floor.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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