Dakota Datebook

Cass County Hospital

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

  Generations of North Dakotans have grimly joked about spending their last days in the cold charity of the poorhouse. A poem from 1871 told of going “over the hill to the poor-house,” a saying that has lived on in the phrase “over the hill.”

In modern times, we have lost track of the old system of welfare, when each county provided some measure of health care or groceries or coal for heating or a meager living at the county poorhouse. Some counties built a county hospital or had a county physician for to treat poor people who could not afford private healthcare.

The first county hospital in North Dakota was in Fargo, established in 1879. Sixteen years later, in 1895, Cass County built a larger hospital three-and-a-half miles north of downtown on an oxbow of the Red River – far enough away that an infirm inmate couldn’t walk downtown and find trouble in the saloons.

The Cass County Hospital healed sick paupers as best they could and also served as a nursing home for old people who had no family or means of support. Because the institution was situated on eighty acres, it was also a poor farm where able-bodied inmates helped with the farm work. Most of the food for the paupers was supposed to come from those vegetable gardens, and the field crops fed the animals raised for meat. The poor farm barn had twenty cows to provide milk, and the chickens provided both eggs and drumsticks as table fare.

On this date in 1916, voters approved the purchase of 53 more acres for the hospital so that the superintendent of the poor farm could produce more food for more patients as the county population grew. When a resident at the hospital or poor farm died, with no money for burial or a tombstone, the county paid for burial in cheaply-marked graves in the ‘potter’s field’ cemetery.

The Cass County Hospital and Poor Farm became less used after Social Security started in 1935, for elderly residents could then move to private nursing homes. In fact, the hospital became a nursing home in 1947, eventually changing its name to Golden Acres Haven in 1962 before finally being phased out in 1973.

7 acres of the old county hospital site along the Red River became known as Trollwood Park – operated by the Fargo Park Board. The city agreed to take care of the three cemeteries there – the old potter’s field. Few in Fargo now remember Trollwood’s former use as a poor farm where the people “over the hill” passed their final days.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.


Cass County Commissioner’s Minutes, Volume L, Cass County Courthouse, 17 November, 1916, page 129.

Will M. Carleton, “Over the Hill to the Poor-House,” Harper’s Weekly, XV, no. 755 (17 June 1871), 1.

Cass County Commissioner’s Minutes, vol. A, 1 January 1879, 192, 193; 16 January 1879, 201. The hospital existed since 1879 but was not mentioned as such until 4 October 1880, 296; and 6 October 1880, 298.

John M. Gillette, “Poor-Relief and Jails in North Dakota,” Quarterly Journal of the University of North Dakota 3, no. 2 (January 1913), 122. The legal description was “80 1/2 acres in SE 1/4 of SE 1/4 and Lot #5 of Section 19, Township 140, Range 48,” as listed in C.C., vol. E, 14 September 1895, 20.

“Biggest Robbery Of All,” Casseltonian, [Castleton, ND], 17 September 1895, 3.

“Cass Hospital Meets Fire Standards,” Forum, 1 January 1950, 32. “State Withholds License For Cass County Hospital,” Forum, 5 January 1951, 1; “Meeting Set on Cass Hospital Licensing,” Forum, 6 January 1951, 1; “Part Of Cass Hospital Due For License As Convalescent Home,” Forum, 10 January 1951, 1; “Saxvik Tells Cass To Seek Convalescent Home Type License,” Forum, 26 January 1951, 1. “Cass Hospital Name Change Campaign Afoot,” Forum, 6 June 1962, newspaper file collection; “It’s Official, Name of Cass Hospital ‘Golden Acres Haven,'” Forum, 5 October 1962, 2; also C.C., vol. O, 4 October 1962, 4,457.

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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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