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Built to relieve overcrowding at Minnesota’s mental institutions, Fergus Falls State Hospital quickly became overcrowded itself

When the hospital opened its doors, it received two men from the Judge Probate of Otter Tail County. The next day, it received 80 more patients from the St. Peter hospital.

Main Building, Fergus Falls State Hospital, c.1928.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

When the Fergus Falls State Hospital opened its doors on July 29, 1890, it became the first state institution in northern Minnesota for patients considered insane. The hospital had a sprawling campus and large stately buildings, built according to the influential asylum plan developed by Philadelphia physician Thomas Kirkbride in the 1850s.

By 1885, Minnesota’s state institutions for people with mental illnesses were badly overcrowded. The State Board of Health declared in 1872 that the facilities at the St. Peter Hospital for the Insane were appalling and a disgrace to the state. Even after a second hospital was established in Rochester in 1877, conditions remained inadequate. In response, in 1885, the state legislature commissioned the Third Minnesota State Hospital for the Insane. Since the existing hospitals were in southern Minnesota, the new hospital was to be north of the Twin Cities. Fergus Falls was soon chosen as the hospital site, and the name of the institution was changed to the Fergus Falls State Hospital.

The Fergus Falls State Hospital was designed on a model established by physician Thomas Kirkbride. Kirkbride believed that building design was an important part of patient treatment programs. The typical Kirkbride structure consisted of a central administrative structure in the middle, with long, straight wings that radiated from it. Patients lived in the wings, which were uniform, precise, and austere. The bare façade was supposed to bring discipline into patients’ lives. Kirkbride asylums were designed to provide “moral treatment.” That included exercise, farming, entertainment, and classes like reading and sewing. Activities like farming and sewing provided occupational therapy and useful goods, but patients complained that they felt like chores.

Designed by architect Warren B. Dunnell, the Fergus Falls State Hospital was one of the last Kirkbride structures built in the United States. It opened in 1890, but only the West Detached Ward was finished in time for the hospital’s opening. The other wings and the main building were finished by 1912.

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When the hospital opened its doors, it received two men from the Judge Probate of Otter Tail County. The next day, it received 80 more patients from the St. Peter hospital. The first patients were all men, and most of them were farmers or laborers. Women were not admitted to the institution until 1893, when 125 women were transferred from St. Peter. As the institution grew, so did the town. The population in Fergus Falls more than doubled between 1890 and 1930.

The Fergus Falls State Hospital quickly became overcrowded, even though it had been intended to solve overcrowding problems. Patients could be admitted voluntarily but many were sent by court order. Most stayed for life. Over the course of the twentieth century, hospital leaders were on forefront of treatments like occupational therapy and shock treatment. Still, the court system treated the hospital as simply a convenient way to isolate social outcasts. Most patients were poor and had few resources in times of trouble.

After World War II, drug therapy led to better outpatient care, and the entire Minnesota hospital system was scaled back. In 1971, the hospital’s mission changed. The Fergus Falls State Hospital became Minnesota’s first multi-purpose regional center. That meant that it served patients based on where they lived, rather than what services they needed. Since its founding, the Fergus Falls institution had primarily served people with mental illnesses. After 1970, the institution began accepting patients with developmental disabilities and chemical dependencies as well because they lived in Northwestern or West Central Minnesota. In 1985, the hospital’s name was changed to the Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center to reflect its new mission.

The Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center closed in 2005, but it had been moving patients to smaller, community-based facilities for two decades. The state sold the land to the city of Fergus Falls in 2007. Preservationists fought to save the main building. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, and it is one of the only remaining examples of the Kirkbride plan. Yet the city of Fergus Falls argued that the building was too large for a small town to redevelop or maintain and considered demolishing it.

In 2013, after years of debate about what to do with the building, the city entered into an agreement with a private firm to explore plans to redevelop the site. In July 2015, negotiations between Fergus Falls and the firm ended, with the fate of the building undecided.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.