Winneshiek Medical Center traces its history back to the early 1900s. The Reverend Paul Koren, a minister at Washington Prairie Church, was intent upon establishing a hospital in Decorah. William Smith, a retired farmer, offered Koren $10,000 and through many individual donations, Koren raised $15,000 more. In 1914, Decorah Hospital opened its doors. The next 50 years brought a succession of additions, modernizations and new equipment. In 1957, the hospital incorporated as a non-profit organization and was renamed Smith Memorial Hospital in honor of its first donor.
In 1965, the Smith Memorial Hospital Board of Trustees felt a new hospital should be built and would need county support for its construction. On January 1, 1969, the Smith Memorial Hospital dissolved its ownership and donated the building, equipment and funds to the county. Winneshiek County Memorial Hospital at its present site opened for occupancy on February 3, 1971.
With dramatic changes in health care since 1971, Winneshiek County Memorial Hospital continued to expand services to provide a wide range of care options for patients, closer to home. Added departments included a Same Day Services area, Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine, and Home Health and Hospice, among others. In addition, through the hospital’s relationship with Decorah Clinic – Mayo Health System and Gundersen Lutheran – Decorah, expanded surgical services, such as orthopedics, ear, nose and throat, and urology became available locally to patients, as well as internal medicine specialists who worked in partnership with the hospital’s Special Care Unit. To reflect the scope of services available through the organization, the Board of Trustees voted in summer of 2004 to change the hospital’s name to Winneshiek Medical Center, effective January 1, 2005.
In April of 2005, Decorah Clinic became part of Winneshiek Medical Center through a collaborative partnership with Mayo Clinic Health System, which provides physician services for the clinic.
Because of continued growth in outpatient care, Winneshiek Medical Center embarked on a capital campaign in 2005. These funds provided for a $13.2 million addition to the medical center, which included an all-new Emergency Department, expansion to the Same Day Services area, and a remodeling of the Laboratory and Radiology departments.
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.”
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 information.