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Granite Falls' Riverside Sanitorium was built to combat the 'white plague'

Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Renville and Yellow Medicine counties operated a sanatorium through 1962. Its administrators led a nationally-recognized campaign to conquer the tuberculosis, or the "white plague."

The Riverside Sanatorium was located along the banks of the Minnesota River on the outskirts of Granite Falls and cared for tuberculosis patients from 1917 through 1962. The counties of Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Renville and Yellow Medicine created a district to build and operate the sanatorium. It also cared for patients from Big Stone County for a time.
The Riverside Sanatorium was located along the banks of the Minnesota River on the outskirts of Granite Falls, and cared for tuberculosis patients from 1917 through 1962. The counties of Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Renville and Yellow Medicine created a district to build and operate the sanatorium. It also cared for patients from Big Stone County for a time.
Contributed / Mary Krugerud
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GRANITE FALLS — One story about the “white plague” made the rounds over and over in the newspapers of Minnesota in the early 1900s.

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Nearly every publication that Mary Krugerud looked at from the early 1910s carried a story telling how this plague swept through entire neighborhoods “like a white tornado,” and how every family in its path lost loved ones to it.

The oft-repeated story may have been more urban legend than truth, but it reflected the very real fear that people had of tuberculosis , Krugerud said. It was for good reason: Those who had advanced tuberculosis had a 50 to 75% likelihood of dying of it.

Krugerud , originally of Lac qui Parle County , has devoted years to studying the history of tuberculosis in Minnesota. She has authored two books: “ Interrupted Lives: The History of Tuberculosis in Minnesota and the Glen Lake Sanatorium ,” and “ The Girl in Building C: The True Story of a Teenage Tuberculosis Patient .”

Mary Krugerud
Mary Krugerud spoke to the Yellow Medicine Historical Society on Dec. 3, 2022.
Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune

Her research has brought her across the state to visit with former tuberculosis patients and their caregivers, and to view the former sites of the sanatoriums where care was provided.

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It led her to the Yellow Medicine County Historical Society on Dec. 3, 2022, to speak about the Riverside Sanatorium . It was located along the Minnesota River just outside of Granite Falls. Four counties — Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Renville and Yellow Medicine — jointly built and operated the 44-bed facility.

From its opening in April 1917 to its closing in 1962, Riverside Sanitorium treated 1,191 tuberculosis patients, recording the deaths of 377 over those years.

Two of its long-time administrators, doctors Kathleen and Lewis Jordan, were a husband-and-wife team of medical doctors. They very likely saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives through their work. 

Drs. Jordan Lewis and Kathleen Jordan 39 001.jpg
Medical doctors Lewis and Kathleen Jordan were known nationally for their help conquer tuberculosis. They were long-time administrators of the Riverside Sanatorium, where they also conducted their epidemiology work. Kathleen Jordan did outreach work and tested thousands of school children for tuberculosis as part of the effort to identify carriers and control the disease.
Contributed / Mary Krugerud

Under the auspices of the Easter Seal Society, Dr. Kathleen Jordan administered Mantoux tests to thousands of schoolchildren in the four-county area. The testing program made it possible to identify carriers of the disease to stop its spread.

When Jordan began her outreach work in 1930, an average of 13.9% of school children tested positive for the disease. Her work helped drop the positivity rate among school children to 1.8 to 2.7% by 1946.

Until the development of antibiotics, the only prescription for recovery was rest, and plenty of fresh air and sunshine. A belief in fresh air as a cure had brought Henry David Thoreau on a trip up the Minnesota River to watch Dakota dancers at the Upper Sioux Agency in 1861, Krugerud pointed out.

Minnesota built the state’s first sanatorium at Ah-gwah-ching near Walker in 1907. Later, legislation was adopted that provided funding to help counties build and operate sanatoriums for people closer to their families. By 1949, there were 14 county sanatoriums scattered across the state.

A view of the "back yard" of the Riverside Sanatorium leading to the banks of the Minnesota River near Granite Falls. The beautifully landscaped campus was part of the Riverside story from its start in 1917, as its first administrators devoted great attention to making the building and grounds comfortable and attractive for its patients and workers.
A view of the "back yard" of the Riverside Sanatorium leading to the banks of the Minnesota River near Granite Falls. The beautifully landscaped campus was part of the Riverside story from its start in 1917, as its first administrators devoted great attention to making the building and grounds comfortable and attractive for its patients and workers.
Contributed / Mary Krugerud

The sanatoriums were generally attractive facilities with sun porches and open, airy interiors. Most, including Riverside, were designed by the architectural firm of Sund and Dunda.

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The Riverside Sanatorium stood out. “Hands down, the most beautiful sanatorium setting in the state. No contest,” Krugerud said.

It featured its own garden and orchard. Its beautifully landscaped grounds included a small bridge leading to a picnic grounds on an island in the river. It had its own water treatment facility, kitchen and living spaces for workers.

Some of the workers started their days catching fish on the river for the patients' meals.

Patients stayed willingly, according to Krugerud. They realized this was their best hope for recovery. They knew, too, that they would be well cared for and fed. In the years of the Depression, sanitorium patients often fared better than their families, she explained. 

Dr. Kathleen Jordan and an unnamed woman look at a poster promoting the testing campaign conducted by Dr. Jordan.
Dr. Kathleen Jordan and an unnamed woman look at a poster promoting the testing campaign conducted by Jordan.
Contributed / Mary Krugerud

Care was provided free to the indigent. County boards determined who qualified as indigent.  It was not infrequently a point of contention, said Krugerud. Care was $7 a week for other county residents, and $10 a week if not a county resident.

The Riverside Sanatorium also cared for Native Americans, who were disproportionately affected by tuberculosis. Not all of the county sanatoriums would accept Native American patients, Krugerud said. 

Tuberculosis also disproportionately affected populations of farm workers from Texas and Mexico, and Renville County had a sizable population of the affected farm workers, Krugerud said.

Renville County also had a large number of dairy cows.

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In 1923, Minnesota approved a law to test and slaughter cows infected by bovine tuberculosis. It could be spread to children drinking unpasteurized milk and could cause skeletal deformities, such as shortened legs or a hunchbacked spinal column, according to Krugerud. (Renville County became the very last county in Minnesota to be accredited with a TB-free bovine population in 1934.)

An undated photograph of nurses who cared for patients at the Riverside Sanatorium. Living quarters for the nurses were part of the facility.
An undated photograph of nurses who cared for patients at the Riverside Sanatorium. Living quarters for the nurses were part of the facility.
Contributed / Mary Krugerud

Not surprisingly, Krugerud said she ran across many sad stories of those afflicted by tuberculosis.

The story of Clarice Olga Oellien was among them. She entered Riverside on Aug. 11, 1927 and gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, on Feb. 18, 1928. Her daughter was likely taken from her immediately to prevent transmission, said Krugerud. Tuberculosis disproportionately affected pregnant women, as the stress of pregnancy could activate tuberculosis.  

The young mother was allowed to come home before the year's end, but returned in 1929. Her death at 23, while at the sanatorium, was reported by her hometown paper on Aug. 1, 1930.

There were plenty of inspiring stories too, including those of patients who met at sanatoriums and later married. Krugerud said she interviewed a number of former patients who married and never had children. Infertility was among the side effects of the disease for some.

Dr. Kathleen Jordan
Dr. Kathleen Jordan
Contributed / Mary Krugerud
Dr. Lewis Jordan
Dr. Lewis Jordan
Contributed / Mary Krugerud

The Jordans eventually worked themselves out of a job, thanks to the success of the widespread testing program and of course, the development of antibiotics. 

The number of patients at Riverside had dwindled to 16 when it closed. The Jordans opened an office in Granite Falls and continued the nationally known and respected epidemiology work they had conducted through the years at the sanatorium. 

The once attractive sanatorium and landscaped grounds are no more. What is now Project Turnabout had its start in the building, but the chemical dependency center later moved to a new facility in Granite Falls. The sanatorium building was demolished in the late 1990s.

The Riverside Sanatorium was located along the banks of the Minnesota River on the outskirts of Granite Falls and cared for tuberculosis patients from 1917 through 1962. The counties of Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Renville and Yellow Medicine created a district to build and operate the sanatorium. It also cared for patients from Big Stone County for a time.
The Riverside Sanatorium was located along the banks of the Minnesota River on the outskirts of Granite Falls and cared for tuberculosis patients from 1917 through 1962. The counties of Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Renville and Yellow Medicine created a district to build and operate the sanatorium. It also cared for patients from Big Stone County for a time.
Contributed / Mary Krugerud
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Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoors reporter for the West Central Tribune.
He has been a reporter with the West Central Tribune since 1993.

Cherveny can be reached via email at tcherveny@wctrib.com or by phone at 320-214-4335.
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