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Dave Olson, Published October 30 2011

Kirkbride’s friends hope to preserve Fergus Falls icon

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. – The Kirkbride has been a towering fixture here for more than a century.

And if Gene and Maxine Schmidt have anything to say about it, the iconic structure will be sticking around for many years to come.

“This is a major part of the history of Fergus Falls, and to lose that building would be a tragedy,” said Maxine Schmidt, who with her husband founded Friends of the Kirkbride, a group devoted to finding a new use for the mammoth complex named for Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, a psychiatrist who was instrumental in its design.

The Schmidts have hosted Friday afternoon tours of the long-vacant, former Fergus Falls State Hospital for about the past six years, with their visitor count recently topping the 4,000 mark.

They plan to continue their tours until December, when cold weather has traditionally suspended exploration of the unheated building.

The tours have a waiting list of about a month, and anyone wishing to add their name to the list may register for a tour by calling the Schmidts at (218) 736-5328.

The city of Fergus Falls owns the property and has invited developers to come forward with ideas on how it might be used.

The deadline for letters of intent is Nov. 18. The city wants to have final proposals in hand by Feb. 1.

“This is our last, gallant effort at finding a reuse,” said City Administrator Mark Sievert.

No proposals have come in. Sievert said if that remains the case, demolition would have to start shortly after Feb. 1 if the city is to take advantage of state funds set aside for the purpose.

If no use is found for the sprawling property, the city might decide to preserve select parts, such as the main tower, but Sievert said that will be something for the City Council to decide.

In addition to the Schmidts, the Otter Tail County Historical Society also conducts tours of the Kirkbride.

Those visits, which explore mysterious aspects of the building’s history, are over for the season.

Despite the Kirkbride’s imposing image, Maxine Schmidt said she finds little to fear when walking its halls.

“We talk about spirits, but they’re good spirits,” she said.

“We know bad things happened there,’’ she added. “But the thing that is spookiest to me is finding unlocked doors that shouldn’t be unlocked.”

“We know vandals are still getting in. We never know what we’re going to encounter,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555