Walsh County, North Dakota

The Walsh County Poorhouse and Leprosy

The Walsh County Poor Farm

Park River, North Dakota

Park River Poor House (1)

Park River Poor House

What is a Poor Farm?

“Often the poorhouse was situated on the grounds of a poor farm on which able-bodied residents were required to work; such farms were common in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A poorhouse could even be part of the same economic complex as a prison farm and other penal or charitable public institutions. Poor farms were county- or town-run residences where paupers (mainly elderly and disabled people) were supported at public expense. The farms declined in use after the Social Security Act took effect in 1935, with most disappearing completely by about 1950.

Most were working farms that produced at least some of the produce, grain, and livestock they consumed. Residents were expected to provide labor to the extent that their health would allow, both in the fields and in providing housekeeping and care for other residents. Rules were strict and accommodations minimal.

     Poor farms were the origin of the U.S. tradition of county governments (rather than cities, townships, or state or federal governments) providing social services for the needy within their borders; the federal government did not participate in social welfare for over 70 years following the 1854 veto of the “Bill for the Benefit of the Indigent Insane,” by Franklin Pierce. This tradition has continued and is in most cases codified in state law, although the financial costs of such care have been shifted in part to state and federal governments. Anne Sullivan was raised in such a facility during the later 19th century before leaving it for the Perkins School for the Blind and before becoming Helen Keller’s teacher and later lifelong companion. The novel The Miracle Worker and subsequent movie gave descriptions of the harsh conditions that Sullivan observed in the Tewksbury, Massachusetts facility.”1

Poor Farms in North Dakota

There is record of six poorhouses in North Dakota: Barnes County Asylum in Valley City, Cass County Hospital and Poor Farm in Fargo, Grand Forks County Hospital in Arvilla, Richland County Poor Farm in Wahpeton, Traill County Poor Farm in Caledonia, and Walsh County Almshouse in Park River.  Some also served as homes for the insane or elderly as well. The table below shows the number of inmates listed on the 1910 Census for each poorhouse.2


Paupers in Almshouses: Enumerated January 1, 1910

Valley City:  4 inmates, 2 male, 2 female, all foreign born, 17 deaths in 1910.

Fargo: 28 inmates, 23 male, 3 female, 6 native, 21 foreign born, 1 colored, 3 deaths in 1910.

Arvilla: 32 inmates, 24 male, 8 female, 18 native, 14 foreign born, 8 deaths in 1910.

Wahpeton: 6 inmates, 1 male, 5 female, 3 native, 3 foreign born, 1 death in 1910.

Caledonia: 3 inmates, 1 male, 2 female, 1 native, 2 foreign born, 1 death in 1910.

Park River: 8 inmates, 6 male, 2 female, 1 native, no deaths in 1910.

ND Total: 81 inmates, 59 male, 22 female, 29 native, 31 foreign, 1 colored, 17 deaths.


The Walsh County Poor Farm in Park River

There are a few interesting pieces of information regarding the Poor Farm that was located approximately 1-1/2 miles north of Park River on the SW ¼ of section 22 in Kensington Township.  The land was owned by Hugh Loughead, who served as superintendent of the Walsh County Poor Farm. An article from “Walsh Heritage” states, “Hugh at one time ran the poor farm, located about one-half mile north of Park River. There they gave refuge, shelter and fed the poor and needy people around the surrounding communities. There were so many, that they often had to turn people away. On one such occasion, a man poorly dressed, unshaven and dirty came and knocked on the door. Hugh went to the door and told the man they could not possibly take him in as they just didn’t have any more room. Hugh watched as the man turned and walked away and it came to Hugh that the man walked so similar to someone that he should know. He called out to him, and when he came back he asked his name. Hugh stood in shock, because before his eyes stood the man who was his own brother whom he hadn’t seen since he was between the age of nine and eleven years old.”3

“HUGH LOUGHEAD, superintendent of the Walsh county poor farm, has served in that capacity for the past two years, and has made a success of the work there. He was also superintendent two years before, from 1888 to 1890. He is well versed in agricultural pursuits, having devoted his career to farming, and his keen observation and practical experience, together with his industrious character and good judgment, commend him to all with whom he has to do. He is owner of a pleasant farm in Kensington Township, Walsh County, where he located in pioneer days. He owns a five acre lot in the City of Park River, with a good residence.
Our subject was born in Gray County, Ontario, May 24, 1853, and was reared there on a farm, and in the spring of 1881 went to North Dakota. He pre-empted one hundred and sixty acres of land in Kensington Township, Walsh County, where he also had a homestead, and has followed farming continuously thereon since that date, and has made a success of his vocation. He has held his present position as superintendent of the county poor farm since 1899, and the farm of which he has charge is well developed and cultivated, and in every particular evidences careful management and painstaking work in its operation.”4

The Poor Farm in Walsh County US Census Records

A search of the 1900 US Population Census for Kensington Township shows evidence of the poor farm in Kensington Township at the farm of Hugh Loughead, along with his wife Sophia, his 2 sons and 3 daughters ranging in age from 9 months to 16 years. The four inmates listed consisted mostly of single older male immigrants:

JACKSON, Adolf J: age 34, single, birthplace Sweden, immigrated in 1875, occupation farm laborer, 12 months unemployed, can read, write and speak English.

KEHS, John:  Age 72, married 17 years, born in Ireland, immigrated in 1890, occupation shoemaker, unemployed 12 months, does not read or write, speaks English.

SCOTT, James: Age 69, single, born in Scotland, immigrated in 1880, occupation tailor, unemployed 12 months, can read, write and speak English.

NOVRAK?, Abe:  Age 47, single, born in Norway, immigrated in 1860, unemployed 12 months, reads, writes and speaks English.

A search of 1910, 1920 and 1930 census records did not reveal any obvious signs of poorhouse inmates in Kensington Township.  However, the 1940 census marks poorhouse residents very clearly. These residents consisted of 5 families with children ages 3 to 24. The heads of the five households were listed as renters not employed for pay, but they each worked approximately 40 hours a week as government laborers for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).5

SEBOE, Andrew: House 40, age 68, married, 6 children, 4th grade education, born in Norway.

DIBBLE, Byron, House 41, age 36, married, 10 children, 6th grade education, born in MN.

GUSTAFSON, Martin: House 42, age 47, married, 7 children, 4th grade education, born in ND.

NELSON, Fred: House 43, age 45, married, 3 children, 3rd grade education, born in ND.

FITAZIMMONDS, Wilbur: age 32, married, 5 children, 8th grade education, born in ND.

The Walsh County Poor Farm and Leprosy

There were a few cases of leprosy that popped up in northeastern North Dakota at the turn of the century.  The following information dated May 26, was received from Dr. J. Grassick, secretary of the State board of health of North Dakota: A case of leprosy has recently been found in Nelson County, in the person of a Norwegian who had resided in the United States for a period of 23 years.  The patient is a farmer.  He arrived at Larimore, North Dakota, in 1888 via Quebec.  The source of the infection is not known.  The last-known exposure occurred 23 years ago.  The father of the patient is said to have been a leper.  The type of the disease is tubercular, and the duration of the disease has been about two years.  The Nelson County board of health has ordered the complete isolation of the patient.”6

An article titled “Leprosy in North Dakota, by F.R. Smyth, published in the Bismarck Letter of August 27, 1897, also reports the 2 cases of leprosy:

     “Leprosy.—Dr. LeBarge, of Grafton, was called to visit a family living 12 miles west of Edinborg and found 2 cases of a disease which he pronounces leprosy.  The patients are young men, one married and the other single.  They are Scandinavians, and have been engaged in farming for some time.  The disease is well developed, and Dr. LeBarge feels quite certain of its nature.  The report received does not state what further steps have been taken, but the matter has undoubtedly been reported to the State Board of Health, and if the first diagnosis proves correct, it will be necessary to isolate the patients.”7

The following article titled “Park River and Leprosy,” by David Larson, printed in the Walsh County Press in 1910 gives a more detailed account of this chapter in Park River’s history, as follows:

“Leprosy being such a scarce disease, it was very surprising that another case soon came to light in western Walsh County, this time in Sauter Township.  The victim was an agricultural laborer, a 27-year-old Swede named John Oslund.  Park River’s Dr. Halldorsson reported that Oslund had been a resident in the country for four years.  There was no report of how Oslund had been regarded in Sauter Township after his disease was discovered, but he was promptly transported to the county poorhouse. The poorhouse more than once served as the final location for diseased wards of the county; it was a place where the utterly wretched could die utterly alone.

The initial report of Oslund’s malady did not cause great repercussions among the populace of Park River, at least at first.  When the situation was first mentioned in early August 1897, a Grand Forks news column from Park River only mentions that a case of leprosy had been reported two months ago in Silvesta Township and that the man was still living there.

Two weeks later, the column noted that the county commissioners had solved the problems.  (Sakarias O.) Aarahl, at county expense, was to continue living on the family farm, where his wife would look after him. Oslund, who had had symptoms for only a year, was to be located at the county Poor Farm, where he could remain isolated in a small house that would be built for him.  Meagher remembered that the initial solution had been to send Oslund back to Sweden.  When the Great Northern determined that the cost of shipping him just to the east coast would be $1,800, the commissioners began to look for alternative solutions.  In the meantime, he was to live in the loft of the poorhouse barn.

The hideousness of leprosy was enough to inspire concern; the seeming probability of contact was enough to inspire public panic.  George Elliott, the supervisor, must not have appreciated having to house a leper, but he must also have been a good-hearted soul.  He stated that Oslund would be happy for a Swedish Bible or other Swedish books.  And, since the leper was free of pain and not physically incapacitated, Elliott allowed him to exercise by walking along the railroad, a quarter mile distant.  Rumor, possibly accurate, had it that the victim was also allowed to bathe in the river.  This would easily have been possible, for the river was little farther from the poor farm than the railroad, and presumably the other inhabitants of the poorhouse would have reacted negatively to bathing with a leper.  If he had indeed bathed in the most proximate place from the poor farm, it would have been at some point upriver from Park River and its water supplies.

A week later, on 2 September 1897, the GFWPD reported that many in the Park River neighborhood were not happy with this handling of the situation.  One can infer that the situation led to a state of public panic in Park River.” 8 (end of part 2-see part 3 in the May 4, 2010 edition, not available on line.)

Evidently, a petition was brought forth, and Mr. Oslund was required to move into the residence of Mr. Aardahl, creating something of a small leper colony.

“The petition further called on the national government to establish a national lazaretto for the care of lepers.  The petition continued by stating that it was possible that there were other lepers in North Dakota, and it is known that there are sufferers in Minnesota and Wisconsin.  And it added that with “the rising number of Asiatic residents” in the United States there will be more sufferers.

In the meantime, Mrs. Aardahl was to be paid an extra $1.00 per day to take care of boarding and rooming Oslund.  In the meantime, the county built a new house for the Aardahl family, who remained free of the disease, while the two victims inhabited the old farmstead.

The two men brought no extra attention upon themselves when the census taker arrived in June of 1900.  He recorded the Aardahl family, consisting of parents Sakarias and Nikolaia, ages 51 and 49 respectively, and six children lived with the family, the oldest being 22.  The family had immigrated to Dakota Territory in 1883 or 1884.  Aardahl was listed as owning his farm.  His oldest son, Syvert, was listed as a laborer on the farm.  His three youngest children, ages 10, 11 and 13, attended school for three and five months.  Three month’s attendance was not uncommon in that area, and the maximum amount of schooling available in the township was six months.  The census taker listed one person living with the family…John Oslund.

This was not an uncommon situation.  Oslund is listed as “head” of a household living in a separate house.  He could have been a hired hand.  Even in the column marked “notes” the census taker noted nothing that would separate this family from the other families in the areas.  In the census sheets the family seems so normal.

This approach seems to have solved the leper problem for Walsh County.  “Out of sight, out of mind” seems well to reflect the public mentality in central Walsh County.  The only direct mention of leprosy thereafter was the Gazette editor’s reference to North Dakota’s divorce policy as moral leprosy.”

Otherwise, the only subsequent mentions of the incident came in the monthly reports of the County Commissioners.  Their public list of expenses for the next several years mentioned payments for “care of leper.”  Until 1903, Mrs. Aardahl is listed as the recipient.  It is quite possible that her husband died in that year, for there is no further record of payments to Mrs. Aardahl after October, 1903.

Payments for the same type of care are recorded to Maret Nordbye and Dan Bergman (or Bergsman) until 1907.  These were presumably for the care of John Oslund, who must have been moved into Adams Township, where the Nordbyes owned a quarter and where Bergman lived.

Sakarias O. Aardahl was born on September 19, 1817 in Norway and died Feb 5, 1903. He and his wife, Nekolaia are buried in the Silvesta Cemetery in Fairdale, Walsh, North Dakota.

John Oslund lived on until 1907, when it was reported that “the unfortunate man” had died on Sunday, November 3, south of Adams, where he had been living entirely alone. (John Oslund is buried in Sarepta Lutheran Cemetery in Adams, Walsh, North Dakota.) And so ended the story of Leprosy in Walsh County.”


1    En.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poorhouse

2    US Bureau of the Census, US Census office, 12th Census 1900, Bulletin #120, page 32, Table 1: Paupers in Almshouses, 1910: Summary by Individuals

3   “Walsh Heritage, Vol. 2, pg 700. www.walshhistory.org/publications/walsh-heritage/Walsh-Heritage-Volume-2/

4   “Hugh Loughead,” History Biography of North Dakota, transcribed by Sally Masteller. www.genealogytrails.com/ndak/walsh/bios.html

5   1940 US Population Census, Kensington Twp, Walsh, ND, enumerated 19 April 1940 by Bickford Hobbs, SD 2, ED 50-25, sheet 3A lines 9-40, and sheet 3B lines 41-49.

6   “Case of Leprosy in North Dakota,” Public Health Reports, Vol. 24, No. 23, June 9, 1911, pg 852.

7   “Leprosy in North Dakota” by F.R. Smyth. Public Health Reports (1896-1970), North Dakota News, from the Bismarck Letter, August 27, 1897, pg 977.

8   “Park River and Leprosy:  By David Larson, for The Press,” Part 2, Walsh County Press, Park River, ND, April 27, 2010, page 3.  www.Wal.stparchive.com/Archive/WAL/WAL04272010p05.php

9   “Park River and Leprosy:  By David Larson, for The Press,” Part 4, Walsh County Press, Park River, ND, May 11, 2010, page 3.  Wal.stparchive.com/Archive/WAL/WAL05112010p03.php


“History of the Poor House in the 19th Century,” http://www.poorhousestory.com/history.htm

“The Poorhouse:  America’s Forgotten Institution,” by David Wagner, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, c2005. Abstract at www.works.bepress.com/david_wagner_usm/3/

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