State hospital opened its doors in 1890

Contributed photo
The Fergus Falls State Hospital, later known as the RTC, had some trying times during World War II from 1941 to 1945.

By Tom Hintgen

Otter Tail County Correspondent

The Fergus Falls State Hospital opened its doors for patients in 1890, serving the mentally ill as well as people with developmental disabilities and chemical dependency issues. For many years close to 2,000 people resided at the facility, which closed in 2007.

This was a big facility, one of the largest in the state of Minnesota and located in the northern section of Fergus Falls. The complex had its own farm, central dining room with large kitchen, gymnasium and woodworking shop for vocational training.

“There were 1,800 patients at the facility in June 1940, just before the United States entered into World War II,” said Missy Hermes, education director for the Otter Tail County Historical Society (county museum). She spoke at the Fergus Falls Public Library on Tuesday evening, June 20.

Photo by Tom Hintgen
Missy Hermes, education director for the Otter Tail County Historical Society, spoke about the Fergus Falls State Hospital, later known as the Regional Treatment Center (RTC), on June 20 at the public library in Fergus Falls.

“It was tough going, at times, during World Wall II at the state hospital, due to food, clothing and gasoline rations, which were among many challenges,” she said. “Another example was the shortage of chlorine which affected the laundry work at the state hospital.”

Patients had fewer visitors during the war years, due to the gasoline rations. But staff members and patients rose to the occasion, said Hermes, doing more with less and even purchasing war bonds. Many members of the Fergus Falls community volunteered at the state hospital during those years in the 1940s.

Some state hospital staff members left and entered military service, among them Ed Drechsel who wrote home and had comments published in the weekly “Pulse,” a publication of the state hospital.

“I often think of you,” wrote Drechsel in August 1941 during Army training in California. “I have been given a position in the office at our canteen. I enjoy it since this is the type of work I was doing back home at the state hospital.”

Drechsel, after his discharge at the end of the war, returned to Fergus Falls to work at the state hospital. Ed and his wife, Lucy, had a son, Bob, who graduated from Fergus Falls High School in 1967.

“Some doctors at the state hospital also served in the military during World War II,” Hermes added. “Also joining the military were nurses who had been employed at the state hospital, and there were nursing shortages here in Fergus Falls and other areas.”

It was a happy day when things returned pretty much back to normal at the state hospital following World War II.

“During my days as a state hospital employee people were called residents because it was their home,” said Fergus Falls resident Sue Wilken. “I will always recall the laughter and tears as we at the state hospital cared for and loved people who struggled with their disabilities. Those were the days.”