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JOHN EGGERS COLUMN: Learning more about Lake Julia Sanitarium

John Eggers

Bemidji has more interesting local and area history than most cities of similar size. One building of local lore that you already know about is the Lake Julia Sanitarium. Let me fill in some gaps for you that will make it even more interesting.

Should you happen to take a boat ride on Lake Julia, located north of Bemidji near Buena Vista this fall, go north from the public access and view one of Beltrami County's most unique and historic sites. Through the trees you will see a large stately looking building that was home to one of Minnesota's 24 facilities that were built to eradicate tuberculosis in the early 1900s. This year marks the 101st year of its opening and next year will mark the 50th year anniversary of its closing.

Envision Lake Julia 100 years ago. There is a picturesque little community to the south called Buena Vista and a small quiet community to the west called Puposky. Nebish is also located nearby. Farms and homesteads are scattered here and there nestled among woods and lakes. There are no speedboats or water skiers on the lake. Occasionally you might see someone paddle a canoe or row a small boat. Ducks and geese frequent its shores and in the front yard between the hospital and the lakeshore patients see deer and other wildlife. Can you imagine a more peaceful setting for a hospital?

The fresh-air-and-bed-rest treatment of tuberculosis patients often meant open windows, even during Minnesota's harsh winters. Lake Julia had uncovered porches running the entire length of the building facing the south, which are still visible today. The patients would lie and soak in the fresh air and sun. Sun therapy, called heliotherapy, was an essential element of early treatment at Minnesota TB sanitariums.

In 1915, Beltrami, Koochiching and Hubbard counties in northern Minnesota made a joint agreement to construct a tuberculosis facility on the shores of Lake Julia for a cost of $55,000. Lake Julia Sanitarium opened in July 1916.

A quote by Dr. J. A. Hornsby in Modern Hospital magazine in March 1917 reads, "Minnesota has provided institutional care for a larger proportion of her tuberculosis population than any other state in the Union. She has not merely provided this care; she has brought it to the doors of her citizens. Minnesota has devised and put into operation a system of county hospitals." One of these hospitals is the one at Lake Julia.

The first patient to experience the warmth of Lake Julia was Nels Saltness who was there from July 1916 to fall of 1917. The cost for staying at the sanitarium was $7 per week for county residents and $10 per week for non-residents. The hospital had a capacity of about 50 patients. In 1920, a log cabin was built to serve as a doctor's residence and it still stands.

In 1921, Dr. R. L. Laney was appointed superintendent at Lake Julia. He arrived to discover a typhoid epidemic. Several people, including a nurse and a physician-patient, had died. Dr. Laney traced the epidemic to a typhoid-carrier patient who had polluted the lake's water, which was being pumped into the sanitarium's plumbing because the well had malfunctioned. He arranged to have two wells drilled and stayed for nine years giving the hospital the stability that it needed.

Dr. Mary Chapman Ghostley was appointed after Dr. Laney left in 1930. She became the medical director and superintendent. She earned her Doctor of Medicine degree at the University of Minnesota in 1909 and practiced medicine at International Falls before arriving at Lake Julia. She became especially good at reading x-rays and contributed greatly to eliminating tuberculosis in the four-county area.

Dr. Ghostley was a groundbreaking female physician. She served as the Lake Julia administrator until it closed in 1953. She then became the director of the Public Health Department in Bemidji.

Known as "Dr. Mary" to her patients, Dr. Ghostley was widely regarded as one of the best tuberculosis health care professionals in Minnesota and was also active in the campaign for women's right to vote.

She traveled to St. Paul in November 1919 to support the cause, and later helped to found the League of Women Voters in Bemidji. Dr. Ghostley was committed to helping others. She may be most widely known for the 2,000-plus babies that she delivered, traveling alone by horse and buggy.

As the director of the Lake Julia Sanitarium, which served patients from four counties, Dr. Ghostley oversaw every aspect of life for the staff and patients. She traveled to schools in the area to perform Mantoux testing and advocated for safe sanitation practices. Dr. Ghostley was anything but a "ghost" to people in the four county area.

The sanitarium has been abandoned for many decades. Due to its ghostly (no pun intended) appearance it has become known as one of Minnesota's most mysterious buildings. The ghost of a young girl is said to have been seen peering out a second floor window. This Halloween you might want to take a boat ride and see for yourself.

The Sanitarium became Lake Julia Rest Home in 1954 and was closed permanently in 1968. The sanitarium has had several owners since its closing but it continues to be one of Beltrami County's more interesting historic sites.

Riddle: Have you heard the joke about the sidewalk? (It'll crack you up!) There are many cracks in the walls of the Lake Julia Sanitarium but it continues to whisper messages from its many patients long gone by.

John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.