Bob Lind, Published October 26 2013
Lind: Reader remembers ‘Pest House’The official name of the two-story Fargo building was the Detention Hospital. But it was commonly known as the Pest House.
Forum columnist Andrea Hunter Halgrimson says the Pest House was a hospital for communicable diseases.
“My grandmother, who was a nurse, worked there from about 1911 to 1914 or 1915,” Andrea says. “It saved her life, as she was exposed to typhoid, which later killed her husband. But she escaped because she had been naturally immunized.
“The building still sits at the east end of 11th Avenue North across the street from Mickelson Field. At one time, it was used as a juvenile detention center. In the 1913 City Directory, it is called the Detention Hospital.”
Roger Butler, formerly of Fargo and now of Detroit Lakes, Minn., knows the building well because he spent time there in 1946; happily, not because he was a juvenile in detention but, unhappily, because he had polio.
No blankets, radios
Roger writes that the building had closed but was reopened because of the 1946 polio epidemic.
It housed children only: boys on the first floor, girls on the second. “It probably held about 20 of each in the wards; there were no private rooms,” Roger says.
“The beds had no pillows or blankets, just sheets, because it was summertime,” he says, “and we had no entertainment such as radio or TV (since it was 1946).
“All the patients had polio, some much worse than others. I was one of the fortunate ones who came out of it with only some spinal curvature; many of the others were permanently paralyzed, especially of a leg or arm.
“One farm lad was brought in in bad shape; he wandered deliriously among the beds, and eventually died a couple of beds away from me.
“Polio was a baffling disease to the medical authorities in those days,” he says, “and our care consisted of the Sister Kenny treatment of hot compresses only.
“After a few weeks of quarantine, some were sent home, such as me, to continue with physical therapy and many were sent to St. Luke’s Hospital (now Sanford) for further treatment.
“Our main form of entertainment at the Pest House was conversation,” Roger says, “except for the diversion and laughter provided by one teenager who blew up balloons and stuffed them under the bottom of a toddler in a crib next to him, who then bounced up and down on them until they burst, much to our delight.”
Twenty years later, Roger lived in Phoenix, where one day he went to a dental office for an examination.
He was given a medical questionnaire to fill out. It included any hospitalizations he’d had. Roger dutifully included his stay in Fargo’s Pest House.
The dentist who saw him laughed when he saw that notation. “Pest House, huh?” he said.
Roger told him he called it that because he couldn’t remember the hospital’s official name.
Then the dentist had a question for Roger: “Was there a boy there who put balloons under a toddler?”
Sure was, Roger said. “And then he said he was the teenager who did it. His name was Omer Reed, and I believe his father was a honcho with the Boy Scouts while in Fargo.
“It was one of life’s strange coincidences,” Roger concludes.
Right here in River City
This summer, Roger and his wife, Bonnie, were watching the movie “The Music Man.”
The story was set in River City, Iowa, in 1912.
The Butlers noticed that Robert Preston, who played the starring role, twice sat under a sign that directed people to a store which had moved next to – you guessed it – the Pest House.
“Apparently that term was fairly common for a medical facility used for the sole purpose of handling epidemics,” Roger observes.
Thankfully, Pest House is a term which, like polio in this country, is fading away. Except in the memories of those associated with it.
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