HOSPITAL DISCUSSION OF 40’S LEADS TO GAME-CHANGING DECISION
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the speech that Jeremy Waltner prepeared and presented for the Freeman Regional Health Services Gala as a way to look back on the history of health care in the town and the remarkable vision by both leadership and community residents that continues today.
A number of years ago — maybe 10 — I was asked to give a program at the Freeman Senior Citizen Center. Knowing my audience, I figured something having to do with history would strike a chord, so I decided to create a program called, “The 10 biggest stories in the history of the Freeman community.”
It was a daunting challenge, but one I was up for.
Because of my long association with the Courier, I have developed both a solid grasp — and love for — our town’s history.
An appreciation and respect for the past is sort of built in for community journalists — or at least it should be. To this day, not a week passes when I’m not digging into the newspaper archives to research a story I’m working on — or whenever curiosity strikes.
Just when did the Lions Club begin?
When did Fred Haar Company move from Main Street to the highway?
When did Orville Huber resign as fire chief?
How many terms did Mayor Leonard Wiens serve?
When was Pioneer Hall built?
Who played Tevya in the 1972 production of “Fiddler on the Roof?”
And how many different restaurants and bars have operated out of the original VFW building on Third Street since the VFW closed?
(The answer is six.)
Those are the kind of questions that inherently come up, and the only true source for answers is found in the newspaper archives. Journalism is, as somebody once said, history’s first draft.
Not only do those yellowed newspaper pages provide tremendous context for intentional research, but I also page through them every Thursday morning for the history section that will be included in the following week’s edition. Each time I spend several hours pouring over items from 120, 100, 75, 50, 30, 15 and one year ago — something I’ve been doing every week since I returned as a full-time community journalist 25 years ago.
Because of all of this, as I was thinking about my “top 10 stories in the history of the Freeman community” list, I reasoned that if anybody had the knowledge, energy, interest and resources to pull it off — other than perhaps my dad or Norman Hofer — it was me.
And so I embarked on my journey through more than 140 years of community history, and as I did so, I set a few basic ground rules for myself.
I would not state the obvious.
Obviously, the decision by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad Company to make Freeman a stop on its rail line in 1879 was a top 10 moment.
Obviously, the decision four years later to incorporate as a city — thus establishing a municipal government — was a big deal.
Obviously, the arrival of telephone service, electricity and other essential utilities was a big deal.
In terms of “the biggest stories in our town’s history,” these were no brainers which I excluded from consideration.
Rather, I started thinking about the more subjective stuff — the things that have really given the Freeman community it’s color.
And, other than the obvious, all things were considered using two specific criteria:
Emotional weight and long-term impact.
I would consider business developments like the growth of Fensel’s, memorable triumphs like the citizen-led establishment of the Freeman Swimming Pool or Valley View Golf Course, community tragedies like the devastating automobile accident on Spitzberger Hill in 1962 that claimed the lives of five individuals, and thrilling sports stories — yes, Bob Pidde, 1975 Class B boys basketball state championship made the cut, coming in at No. 6.
Community festivals like the first Schmeckfest, and monumental anniversaries like the 1979 centennial celebration, were all on the table, as were notable once-in-a-lifetime events, like the time George H.W. Bush came to town during his presidential campaign of 1988.
Narrowing the list down to 10 was a daunting — and subjective — task that I delighted in.
And as I considered all the possibilities, there were two obvious choices.
One of them was the decision in 1900 to establish South Dakota Mennonite College in Freeman — a bold move that was the start of this community becoming a regional hub, prompting families from the surrounding area, who maybe lived closer to Marion or Dolton or Bridgewater or Menno, to identify more closely with Freeman.
You know what the other obvious story in my Top 10 list was?
The decision to build a Freeman hospital.
It came during a time when the community was experiencing considerable growth. The people had rallied following the uncertainly and difficulty of the Great Depression, and the 1940s unfolded with unparalleled excitement.
There was rural electrification and a municipal light plant, construction of a voter-approved sewer system, the development of a rural fire district, business openings downtown and the expansion of housing to the east toward Highway 81 — then known as the PanAmerican Highway.
It was during this time of general optimism that chatter began to emerge about building a hospital here in Freeman.
It’s not that medical services had been unavailable. On the contrary, Dr. A.A. Wipf had a vital presence in the community early in the 20th century up until his death in 1933 — the same year that Dr. Ernest J. Hofer established his practice in Freeman and began serving the community and surrounding area. And in 1948, Dr. Irvin Kaufman started his practice in Freeman.
But these were independent physicians, much like independent contractors who worked on job sites as needed. While Wipf and Hofer and Kaufman all maintained offices here, much of their professional lives were spent on the road serving people as needed through house calls.
That was well and good.
But as lifestyles evolved, roads improved and transportation became more accessible to the average family, the idea of putting medical services all under one roof was becoming more and more popular in cities large and small. The development and success of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. around the turn of the 20th century certainly provided a model for others to consider, and by the time the conversation reached Freeman, community hospitals were beginning to pop up in South Dakota.
One of the biggest public advocates for a facility in Freeman in those earliest years was Freeman Courier publisher J.J. Mendel.
Not only was Mendel well known in town because of his work with the newspaper, he was also one of the communities boldest boosters. He was a young schoolteacher before taking ownership of the Courier in 1902 and frequently used its pages to talk in favor of hard work in the classroom, parental involvement at home and the value of good teachers.
When it came to the general well-being of Freeman, Mendel was all in. He championed clean yards and nicely painted buildings, loved community baseball, wrote tirelessly during election seasons about voters being informed and was quick to remind the residents of town to be sure to keep their chickens out of the neighbors’ garden.
And Mendel was all about civic pride, often noting the growth in the business community and the rapid expansion of housing as the 20th century wore on.
It’s no surprise, then, that the establishment of a hospital — and all that it could mean for Freeman — was near the top of his wish list.
Mendel wrote about it in March of 1944, the same month that 16 leading citizens of Freeman had gotten together and voted unanimously to erect a community hospital that would “Be open to any doctor who wishes to use its facilities.”
The group also decided to hold a community meeting at City Hall on March 17 to discuss the project; there would even be an architect present.
“For a number of years Freeman has had the advisability of erecting a hospital under consideration. Last week just before going to press a committee handed us a notice of a meeting to discuss the undertaking. It was like a flash of lightning from a clear sky. We hope this undertaking will be handled very wisely. The two most dangerous elements in a move like this are the extremists for it and the extremists against it. Feeling, not reason, guides them.”
Several months later, in August of 1944, Mendel continued the dialogue as a way to drum up support for the endeavor:
“Last week we said Freeman should and could have a hospital that would serve the demands of this community adequately. The writer has been very hospital minded for the past 10 years or more. On our annual vacation trips we’re always fishing for information and found many towns the size of Freeman have hospitals… more than 80 percent of their cases are maternity cases and tonsillectomy cases… We need a hospital and can have a hospital like so many other towns this size.”
Another strong advocate for a hospital during those early discussions was Dr. Ernest J. Hofer, the family practitioner who had become a valued medical professional in the community starting in 1933.
Dr. Hofer had a vision for a hospital the moment he arrived in Freeman in 1932, and by the end of the decade he had established a maternity home here, where babies were delivered and mothers given post-partum care.
The maternity home was a major development in the community. In fact, in an interview with the Courier in 1994, Dr. Hofer — 80 years old at the time — said that the maternity home was “the biggest thing that moved the hospital along.”
There was one other factor at play that may have contributed to the momentum of the 1940s, and that was a different conversation that was also taking place — an idea by local Mennonite church leadership to build what was originally referred to as “an old people’s home.”
The idea was exactly as it sounds — establish a place of residence that would provide lodging and communal care for those of retirement age and beyond. The idea was born at a ministerium meeting in 1943, a board of directors was established two years later, and in 1949 the Salem Mennonite Home for the Aged — a two story wooden-framed house — opened and was ready to accommodate 12 residents.
There is not necessarily a direct connection between the move to establish the Salem Home and the move to build a hospital here, other than those conversations were taking place at the same time.
But you have to wonder if one helped push the other along, creating an unintended partnership that would ultimately pay dividends.
Put a pin in that.
As I suggested earlier, Dr. Hofer’s energy and influence as a physician serving Freeman and the surrounding area — coupled with J.J. Mendel’s platform in the Courier as a strong community booster — really did set the groundwork in 1944 for what was to come.
It’s interesting to note, however, that throughout the rest of the 1940s, little was said publicly about the hospital project. We can assume that the solicitation of funds — which had started with Dr. Hofer earlier in the decade — was probably continuing and there was no doubt talk about the nuts and bolts of what a facility should look like and where it might be built.
But many of these conversations were being held outside of the public eye.
You can put a pin in that, too.
By the end of 1950, however, the simmering pot finally boiled. A final fundraising goal of $75,000 had been set which would be matched by a Hill Burton Grant, according to an announcement in the Courier, which concluded with these words:
“So let’s put our shoulders once more to the wagon; we are almost to the top of the hill.”
And this, from Jan. 18, 1951.
“The Freeman Community Hospital is no longer a vision. The fact that it will become a reality is well established. The bids for its construction are advertised. A final drive to reach the small goal of $75,000 is made. Everybody in Freeman, from the mayor on down, and everybody within a radius of 25 miles, should feel it his moral duty and welcome it as a rare opportunity to erect a hospital that will stand as a monument for generations to come. Solicitors will call. They do so without pay at their own expense. Encourage them by paying your unpaid pledges. Those that have not contributed yet, kindly do so with a liberal donation. Those that have already pledged and paid, kindly put your shoulders to the project again; for the suffering humanity, help us to make it a reality.”
A groundbreaking ceremony featuring music by the Freeman High School band and the Freeman College A Capella chorus was held on Sunday afternoon, May 17, 1951 at the site that had been chosen for the hospital which was, at the time, on the eastern outskirts of Freeman.
Remember, the town grew from west to east — from downtown toward the highway — and the eastern portion of Freeman as we know it today was back then countryside. In fact, an early aerial photo that shows the original footprint of the hospital foundation includes farmland on both the east and west sides of the construction site.
The decision to build the hospital on the outskirts of town was likely made with foresight in mind — similar to another major building project that had taken place 20 years earlier.
A quick aside:
At the turn of the 20th century, a school building to house the Freeman Independent School District had been constructed in what was originally the heart of Freeman — on ground that today serves as Lions Park. But disaster struck in 1923 when a fire consumed and destroyed the school, prompting a controversial discussion: Where to rebuild.
Some in town felt it made sense to build a new school building on the same location, close to where the school children would be coming from, while others thought the better move was to build to the east, out of town, where there more room.
This hotly contested issue was ultimately put to a vote of the people, the majority of whom favored the new location 250 to 158.
And in February of 1925, the school that I knew as Freeman Elementary — located right over there — opened to students.
I often wonder how the development of the town would have been different had the school been rebuilt on the Lions Park location, and there’s little question in my mind that building to the east only spurred additional growth in that direction. How could it not?
Choosing to build the hospital to the east as well — also out of town and three blocks south of the school — may have been a byproduct of that decision, but we’ll never know for sure.
What we do know is that it was full speed ahead as construction pushed forward in 1951 and 1952.
A Freeman Community Hospital Women’s Auxiliary had also been established by this time, with its first mission to solicit the donation of staple groceries and canned goods to help stock the hospital kitchen pantry. The women also had assisted in helping with the trimmings, painting, providing linens and hanging drapes.
Then — finally — in late summer of 1952 — the original 16-bed facility had been complete, with an open house held on Sept. 4 of that year.
More than 2,000 attended — a staggering number considering the Freeman Census of 1950 was just 944 that goes to show just how much enthusiasm there was for this big step forward.
Yes, health care in Freeman had reached a high gear, and the hospital was the toast of the town.
This, from the Freeman Courier:
“All have read and heard about the seven wonders of the world and if you would ask about the seven wonders of Freeman the $200,000 hospital would be one of the seven wonders.”
From the beginning, emphasis was placed on Freeman’s hospital being a community hospital, so it’s not surprising that the word community was used in the facility’s official name. There was also a strong invitation for area doctors to practice medicine here. After all, it was said, a hospital is nothing without its medical staff.
Dr. Ernest J. Hofer was, of course, among those who helped christen the new hospital, as was Wilbert E. Heib and LeRoy Kaufman (brother to Dr. Irvin Kaufman), and others who saw patients there in those earliest years came from Menno, Parker and Scotland.
By 1956, Dr. Irvin Kaufman had returned from military service, and Jose Villa and Dennis Epp joined the local medical staff, as well, and it wasn’t long after that that it became apparent that a 16-bed hospital was simply too small to serve Freeman and the surrounding area.
In response, a 14-bed addition was built and dedicated in 1960 at a cost of $88,684, which included funding from a second Hill Burton Grant.
In addition to bringing the total beds to 30, the expanded hospital also included new equipment like an incubator, oxygen tent and humidifier, cardiograph machine and X-ray.
Indeed, the Freeman hospital had come a long way from those slow burn years of the 1940s, but the growth wasn’t done. Not by a long shot.
A new clinic building opened in 1963 across the street to the south of the hospital and by 1968 Drs. Lonnie Waltner and Bruce Beier had joined the growing medical staff.
And conversation had started about adding a rehabilitation center and extended care facility — a nursing home — to the campus.
While it might not carry with it the emotional symbolism of the establishment of the hospital, the nursing home proposal was the most ambitious to date in terms of both physical size and cost. As proposed, it would double the footprint of the campus, would include 30 beds, a physical therapy department, relocated laundry and new kitchen facilities, and would be attached to the east of the hospital. It would also include a new entrance facing the south.
But bad news came in July of 1970 when bids came in approximately $150,000 higher than expected and brought the total cost to $680,000 — just under $5 million in today’s money.
And a Freeman Courier editorial asked: “Has the bubble burst?”
Here’s what then publisher Glenn Gering wrote:
“This week the Freeman community is facing a dream which may vanish into thin air as if the possibility of its realization had never existed. The question is, can our community raise the additional funds needed? If we in our community were able to raise another $150,000 in funds, we could soon witness the realization of a $680,000 facility right here in our own community. Can we do it? I surely wish we could!”
In the weeks that followed, Gering was aggressive in his editorial support in favor of the project in spite of the higher-than-expected price tag and urged the community to step up.
“I can think of no other situation in our community during my experience with public projects where a dollar invested in a community project could yield more returns than in this situation,” he wrote on July 30, 1970. “When you are approached regarding the rehabilitation center project, bear in mind that on that day you are a very important person.”
One month later, after a last-ditch desperation effort to raise the necessary funds, the Freeman Community Hospital board of directors announced that it would proceed with the rehabilitation and extended care facility, and in January of 1972, the Freeman Community Hospital became the Freeman Community Hospital and Nursing Home.
Seven years later, a 29-bed skilled nursing addition was built on the east side of a campus that — in fewer than 30 years — had expanded to fill one entire square city block. The 29-bed addition cost $455,000, with a community fundraising drive well exceeding the $100,000 goal.
So let’s review:
16-bed hospital opens in 1952.
14-bed addition opens in 1960.
Clinic built in 1963.
30-bed nursing home opens in 1972 with a 29-bed addition in 1979.
Myself, being born in 1976, doesn’t have any memory of those five major projects.
But I do of the sixth.
That would be the Connection Project of 1993-1994 — a major update to the health care campus in terms of both new construction and equipment.
Freeman Community Hospital and Nursing Home leadership gave the project a greenlight in the summer of 1991 after several years of discussion, and ground was broken in the spring of 1993.
Coming in at just under $2 million, the “Connection Project” would extend the hospital wing to the south and physically link it with the Rural Medical Clinic building. It would house a new consolidated emergency room and operating room and would greatly enhance X-ray and laboratory services.
Most notably — at least as far as the public was concerned — it would permanently close off a full block of city roadway to allow the “connection” to take place and provide another entrance to the facility.
Dennis Wollman, who was chair of the board of directors at the time, said the project was critical to the future of health care in Freeman and this was no time for complacency.
“It’s simple,” he said at the groundbreaking ceremony in May of 1993. “Either you go backwards or you go forward. It’s one or the other.”
The Connection Project demonstrated two things that the entire history of this health care facility has proven, not once, not twice, but multiple times over:
1. Leadership has had the foresight to recognize and act on a need, and;
2. The Freeman community and surrounding area has supported every one of those endeavors. In the same way that more than $100,000 was secured for the nursing home expansion of 1979, $750,000 was raised in local funds to help make The Connection Project possible.
And here we are, 30 years later, and much has changed.
Freeman Community Hospital and Nursing Home is now known as Freeman Regional Health Services;
Physicians have come and gone;
Some services, like OB, have been lost while others, like dementia care, have been added.
Specialty providers have become part of the rotation;
Walnut Street and Dewald Street villages have provided independent living opportunities for those in a transitional period later in life;
Cosmetic and equipment updates have been ongoing all the years;
And while Freeman Regional Health Services remains an independent health care organization, it has been an affiliate of Avera the past few years.
And just over a year ago, Freeman Regional Health Services merged with the Salem Mennonite Home, formalizing a partnership that was unintentionally started back in the 40s, when both facilities were only just a glimmer in somebody’s eye.
Meanwhile, the impact of local health care in this community can be seen elsewhere. We have pharmacy services, chiropractic care, dental and vision, Meals on Wheels, counseling services through Wellspring and outreach through Community Health.
We still have the auxiliary holding annual fundraisers to raise money for various projects, and we have the Freeman Regional Health Services Foundation that is now in its 15th year working to raise both funds and awareness for our local health care cannon.
Without the establishment of the Freeman hospital almost 75 years ago, it’s unlikely we would have all that we have here in our community.
If that’s not at the top of a “top 10 list,” then I don’t know what should be.
So where does that leave us?
Well, it’s January 27, 2024, and if we are following the advice of Dennis Wollman — which we should be — then all eyes need to be looking toward the future.
Thankfully, they are.
Thanks to skilled leadership on both the administrative and board levels, Freeman Regional Health Services continues to look at what will be the biggest building project to date — an entirely new health care campus, with everything all in one spot, built from the ground up.
In the same way that many of those conversations back in the 1940s were taking place out of the public eye, it’s happening today, in a case of history repeating itself.
We know that land has been secured, and that the plan is to build the new campus on a swath of farmland east of Stadium and Wynken Drives.
We know that leadership has been visiting other communities and health care facilities there.
We know that a fundraising effort will be forthcoming.
And we know it’s likely that, within a matter of a few years, plans will be formalized and announced.
It fits with the timeline and the story of a people who once upon a time turned a vision into a reality, and then turned that reality into something more, time and time and time again.
We are here tonight because of those who came before us.
And for those who come after us, enjoying the safety and security of top-notch health care in this town, it will be because of what we do today.
As Dennis Wollman said, “Either you go backwards or you go forward.”
This entire journey has been a forward one.
I can’t wait to see what comes next.