Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Blending Fact with Fiction Part Two: Ah-Gwah-Ching Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Walker, Minnesota

When I began writing my latest novel, THE ONES WE LEAVE BEHIND, last year, I had no idea we’d be living in the middle of a pandemic by the time it was released. It seemed strange since a portion of my novel takes place during the tuberculosis epidemic. In order to write about it, I did a significant amount of research, which thankfully I enjoy.

In one chapter of my book, the main character, Anna, goes with her father to the Ah-Gwah-Ching Sanatorium in Walker, Minnesota to receive treatment. Since Anna isn’t infected, she can’t live at the sanatorium and is taken in by one of the doctors to work as a mother’s helper. I researched Ah-Gwah-Ching extensively and came up with some interesting facts about the sanatorium.

If you watch any of those ghost hunting shows, they’d have you believe that tuberculosis facilities were full of scary procedures and horrendous care. It was quite the opposite at Ah-Gwah-Ching. The setting was beautiful, the staff worked hard to care for patients, and many, many patients survived to live long full lives.

Originally built in 1907 to house up to sixty-five patients, the Minnesota Sanatorium for Consumptives (its original name before it was changed to Ah-Gwah-Ching in 1922) was founded. By 1927, it grew to 300 patients, and additional buildings had sprung up. Ah-Gwah-Ching – meaning “out of doors” in Objibwa – was built to be self-sufficient in many ways. Located two miles south of the town of Walker, it originally had its own train depot, farm for fresh food, and a dairy herd for fresh milk and other products. The idea was to give patients fresh food and fresh air in order to heal their diseased lungs. There were several types of treatments, such as aspirating the fluid from lungs, collapsing diseased lungs so they could heal, and placing patient beds beside open windows, even in the winter, so they could breathe in the fresh air while lying under warm blankets to keep their bodies warm. In the summer, patients were sent outdoors to lie in the sun because it was thought that the ultra-violet rays could also heal them. (When COVID-19 started this past spring, there was talk about killing the virus with UV light. It wasn’t a new concept – they’d used it for TB patients.)  

The first few months that a patient was at the sanatorium, they were restricted to complete bed rest. That meant never leaving their beds. If they had to be moved, it was done by moving the bed or in a wheelchair. As you can imagine, people grew bored lying in bed for weeks. Many used their time writing letters to family and friends, reading, knitting, crocheting, or tatting. Many of the men even learned how to crochet or knit in order to pass the time. On site, there was a craft shop where patients could sell their fancywork and other items they made to other patients. Some would sell items like gift wrap, bows, and stationery that they’d purchased for resale from companies found at the back of a magazine. A sound system with headphones for each patient was set up throughout the compound so patients could listen to music, prayer services on Sunday, and even sports.

The site consisted of several buildings for patients in varying stages of illness. If you moved from one building to another, it was a big deal. You knew you were healing. In 1934, the Chippewa Indian Sanatorium at Onigum on Leech Lake burned down, and the native residents were transferred to their own building at Ah-Gwah-Ching. A Penal Camp, connected to the St. Cloud Reformatory, was also set up at Ah-Gwah-Ching in 1935, and the prisoners worked the farm and dairy and other jobs around the campus. Unfortunately, because of its remote location, it was easy for many prisoners to escape, and they had to eventually end that program.

Because of the rural nature of the sanatorium, it was difficult to recruit and retain nurses and aides as well as other workers. The turnover was high. Many of the native nurses began working in the facility. Patients rarely saw friends or family because of the distance between the sanatorium and their homes. Many would go months, even years, without visitors. Because of that, the patients grew close to one another, almost like their own little family. If a resident died, they’d all mourn. If someone went home, they’d all cheer.

In 1964, Ah-Gwah-Ching became a state nursing home for patients with “challenging behaviors.” State offices were also located in the facility. In fact, my mother-in-law worked in the offices at Aw-Gwah-Ching in the late 1960s for a while. In the early 2000s, it was still being used as state offices, and a woman I worked with in the non-profit sector had an office there, too. I asked her once if the building was haunted. She told me that she’d heard it was but hadn’t seen any ghosts. So much for the sad souls haunting the sanatoriums.

Ah-Gwah-Ching closed, and all the buildings were demolished in 2008. Much like Diane in my novel, I find that sad. It would have been nice to have even one of the buildings left to remind us of the time when so many lives passed through there in its 100 years of operation. For me, though, it’s personal on a small level. Remember how my character, Anna, went to live with a doctor to care for his children while her father received treatment? That actually happened to my grandmother. Sometime around 1923, my twelve-year-old grandmother accompanied her father to Ah-Gwah-Ching so he could be treated. Her mother has already passed away, and she had nowhere else to go. A doctor kindly took her in for nearly two years, and she helped his wife by babysitting their children. Some of her fondest memories were of swimming in Leech Lake with the children.

While my novel is fiction, I strive to add as much truth as possible because I feel it adds depth to the story. That is the joy of writing historical fiction novels; delving into the past and hopefully preserving it, even after it’s long gone.

My novel, The Ones We Leave Behind, is available for purchase on Amazon in ebook, paperback, and audiobook.  https://amzn.to/3gxUa5c



  1. Hello, your book interested me so much that I bought it ( not the free offer) I recall waiting on a grassy lawn while my Mom and I visited my Dad. He was in a TB hospital for 3 years. He built ships in a bottle. He lived a very long life, died at 92 years.

    1. Very interesting. Thank you for sharing, and for buying the book. :)

  2. Thank you for the information regarding the sanatorium. I love historical fiction and digging deeper to gain a better understanding of an event or period of time. To me, that is the purpose of writing as well as reading this genre. I am always intrigued when I find a topic of which I am blantantly ignorant and come away with a wealth of new knowledge and understanding! Thank you so much for the joy of reading your books!

    1. Thank you for your nice comment. I love researching history too. You never know what you will dig up. :)

  3. I saw this book on Amazon and found the plot to be so interesting I had to buy it. Little did I know until I was in the middle of reading it that I had great personal interest in the story. To start, I grew up in Bloomington, MN, just across the river from Shakopee. When Anna went with her father to " the hospital in Walker", I knew at once "that's Ah-Gwah-Ching!" See, the reason this is so personal is that, my great grandfather, H.A. Burns MD, was the administrator of Ah-Gwah-Ching from 1928-1942! Thank you for bringing a little known place to life through your book!