Hospital Farm

The hospital had a farm?

A lightning storm in 1934 hit the Decorah Hospital farm barn, causing it to burn to the ground.  Photo courtesy of the Evelyn Schnitzler collection.

Farming has sustained many families in Winneshiek County since the original families settled in the area.  You may be surprised to find out that it also sustained the hospital for much of our history.  In 1916, the hospital’s first donor, William H. Smith died, leaving more than 500 acres of land in Bluffton Township to the Decorah Hospital – valued at $20,000 (nearly $430,000 today).  Various tenants operated the farm for nearly 20 years.

In 1933, the hospital farm had considerable debt, and the Hospital Board made a 50-50 share agreement with John (Sr.) and Edith Schnitzler to operate the farm under the management of E. F. Sellman: the Schnitzler’s shared 50% of income, livestock, crops and expenses with the hospital.   The Schnitzler family moved to the hospital farm in March of 1934, and within the month, lightning struck the barn, causing it to burn to the ground.  According to the March 16, 1934 edition of the Decorah Public Opinion, “About 40 head of fine cattle, 40 head of hogs, a well-equipped barn 40 by 90 feet, a granary with about 800 bushels of oats and a corn crib containing 1,600 bushels of corn were destroyed in a disastrous fire, caused by lightning, at the Decorah Hospital farm.”  The newspaper reported that the Schnitzler family was able to rescue 20 head of horses from the blaze, and the fire caused approximately $8000 in damage (nearly $140,000 today).

The hospital rebuilt the barn and other damaged structures, and the Schnitzler family went on to successfully operate the farm as they raised their family of nine children.  Within a few years, the farm was generating significant income and supporting the hospital through the difficult times of the Great Depression.  In 1940, the Boards of the hospital (Decorah Hospital Board and the Lutheran Hospital Association Board), invited John and Edith to a special turkey dinner held at the Green Parrot in Decorah to honor their contributions to the hospital’s financial stability.  A 1940 article reported, “The occasion was in the nature of a victory dinner in consideration of having cleared up the debt of the hospital, with special attention devoted to the hospital farm indebtedness.”  Notable names in hospital’s history spoke at the event: Rev. Paul Koren, Rev. O. Glesne and W.F. Baker.

Within a few years, a newspaper yet again reported on the success of the hospital farm:  “Schnitzler specializes in Black and Spotted Poland China hogs.  He has around 250 old ones on the place and about 150 fall pigs with 30 sows still to farrow.  Schnitzler raises Shorthorn and Hereford cattle, has about 135 head on the hospital farm at this time.  Besides the large number of hogs and cattle, the Schnitzler’s have around 100 head of sheep, 1,000 turkeys, and about 1,500 chickens.”  The author continued by writing: “Good management and sound farming practices have paid off the debt and brought the farm around to a dividend-paying proposition.”

Though John (Sr.) and Edith moved into town in 1962, the Schnitzler family continued to operate the hospital farm.  In 1969, John (Jr.) and his wife, Evelyn, bought the farm from the hospital for $118,000 – taking possession of the property on May 1, 1970.  The money from the sale contributed funding to a new project of building another hospital: the same structure that currently serves the community and region as Winneshiek Medical Center.

Special thanks to Evelyn Schnitzler for her assistance with this article.