The Early Years

Local spirit builds the first hospital in Decorah

Original 1914 Hospital. Photo courtesy of James P. Ronan collection.

In the same era of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration as the 28th president, the founding of the Boy Scouts of America, and the historic sinking of the Titanic, local history was also being made because of the vision and efforts of a single man: Reverend Paul Koren.

In the early 1900s, Rev. Koren, pastor of Washington Prairie Lutheran Church, recognized the need for a hospital to care for the sick of Winneshiek County and beyond.  By reaching out to other like-minded citizens of Winneshiek County, Rev. Koren created a buzz that attracted the attention of local media.  In an August 10, 1910 article in the Decorah Public Opinion, the author wrote, “A county hospital is the best possible investment a county can make.  It will pay for itself in a very short time, and will pay its way many fold every year.  In the lives it will save, in the comfort, the convenience, and in the assurance of being able to have the advantage of modern surgery and treatment near at hand in case of necessity, we will soon wonder how we got along without it.”

Rev. Koren’s mission piqued the interest of a wealthy farmer, William H. Smith and his sister, Matilda.  Together, the Smith siblings developed a plan to provide a substantial “subscription” to initiate a county-wide effort to fund the new hospital.  From Matilda’s estate and with funds of his own, Mr. Smith gave the first donation of $10,000 on May 15, 1913.  As a condition of his donation, Mr. Smith required the community to raise $15,000 more, a task given to the Decorah Commercial Club.  The hospital committee of the Decorah Commercial Club consisted well-known businessmen of the time: Ben Bear as president, C.J. Weiser, E.J. Curtin, Rev. Paul Koren, L.S. Dale, G.F. Baker and H.J. Green.

The Commercial Club presented the hospital project as a duty of each and every citizen of Winneshiek County.  The Decorah Public Opinion printed on June 18, 1913, “We regard this hospital matter as a public duty, a proposition to which every good citizen owes his share of support, whatever he can afford in accordance with the blessings that have come to him from this community , or may come to him in the future.”

The Decorah Commercial Club exceeded their “subscription” goal through public and personal solicitations, and on July 23, 1913, the Decorah Public Opinion reported that the funds had been secured.  The hospital committee, with the new addition of Chief Donor William Smith, became charged with carrying on with the business of selecting a site and building the new hospital.

As reported by the Decorah Public Opinion on December 3, 1913, “It will be a structure that the people of northeastern Iowa may be proud of, and it our opinion one of the most commendable among the many public projects carried to a successful culmination by the people of Decorah in its history.”