A disease, a sanitarium, and an unusual minister

In the early 1900s, tuberculosis swept through Carlton County, long before a vaccine was approved for general use in the 1940s. Unfortunately, FDL Band Members became ill and died from the disease. I did not find any record that gave the number of FDL deaths from tuberculosis.

But I did learn of an interesting connection between the Nopeming Sanitarium and a FDL Band Member who was also a Christian missionary.  

Tuberculosis, also known as "TB", "Consumption" and the "White Plague" are all names for the highly contagious disease that primarily attacks the lungs. Victims coughed blood and white phlegm.

Christmas Seals

Fundraising campaigns popped up. "Christmas Seals" were introduced in Denmark in 1904 to raise money for a sanitarium operated by the Danish National Association to Combat Tuberculosis.

The idea caught on in the U.S. in 1907 after a Delaware woman, Emily Bissell, read about the Danish Christmas Seal campaign. Christmas Seals grew to become a national program in 1908. The first seals were sold in Delaware post offices at one cent per stamp. In December, 1907 Bissell took her story to a major Philadelphia newspaper. The story, with the headline "Issued by the Delaware Red Cross to Stamp Out the White Plague" increased the popularity of Christmas Seals. The advertisement read as follows:

For this stamp with message bright on every Christmas letter; Help the tuberculosis fight and make the New Year better; These stamps do not carry any kind of mail but any kind of mail will carry them. Wishing you a Happy Holiday Season

TB took many lives. Some patients were treated at the Nopeming Sanitarium, which was located at the intersection of Interstate 35 and Midway Road in St. Louis County.   

"Out in the woods"

In about 1910, a contest was held to name the new facility. The Rev. Frank H. Pequette from Sawyer won the contest by submitting the word "nopeming" which means "out in the woods" in Ojibwe. In 1909, 25 out of 181 deaths from Carlton County were from tuberculosis. Between 1909 and 1930, 400 people in Carlton County died from TB.

The photograph shows the initial building where TB treatment took place, known as the Hart House. It was named for Dr. William M. Hart from Saranac Lake, N.Y. who once had tuberculosis. Dr. Hart and Jean Poirier selected the sanitarium location above Gary-New Duluth off Highway 61. The land was purchased on Sept. 1, 1909. The facility on a 260-acre site bordering the St. Louis River valley opened for patients on May 23, 1912.

Suspicion at first

At first many people did not wish to receive treatment at the Nopeming sanitarium. However, TB was very contagious so they were forced to live there. Some patients recuperated and even returned home. Some died.  Others regarded Nopeming as a beautiful, wonderful place of hope.


Story behind the story
Deborah Locke

When Christine Carlson filed the story on the Nopeming property near Duluth, I asked her to include a paragraph or two on the current status of the land. Readers will want to know what is going on today, I said.   

Christine made a few calls. No answer. Then she located a news story tying the facility to the Tom Petters alleged Ponzi scheme case, which is being tried in federal court in St. Paul. The case started in mid-November.

We wondered how the property evolved to become involved in such a complex matter. One news story led to the reading of many others. The four-story, 212-bed facility on 140 acres has an unusual past. At the same time, the land features one of the more beautiful vistas and bluff areas in the region. This story will give a few details from Nopeming's surprising past.

FDL connection

The former Nopeming Sanitarium for tuberculosis patients - and later a nursing home - still carries mixed memories for many FDL Band Members. At one point former RBC members considered purchasing the building and its picture-perfect landscape until a group of Band Members heard about it. They came forward and expressed their hard feelings about Nopeming -- a place for many with memories of illness and sadness and restive spirits. Don't buy it, they advised. FDL placed no bid at that sale.

St. Louis County closed Nopeming in 2002 after years of emotional debate about its fate. At that time, the nursing home had about 150 patients; 49 of those had severe dementia and were assigned to the building's locked second floor unit.

Before its closure, County Board members spent years wrangling over costs and the placement of the Alzheimer's patients at Nopeming. The patients eventually were moved to a new wing of the Chris Jensen Center in Duluth.

After the building was put up for sale, a few potential buyers proposed a restaurant at that location, or a culinary school. In 2005, a Twin Cities developer bought the property with plans to turn it into a troubled youth Christian facility.

In an unexpected twist, the developer, Frank Vennes Jr., had his assets frozen in 2008 by federal agents who suspected that Vennes profited by funneling investors to businesses owned by Tom Petters. Petters is a Twin Cities businessman accused of a multibillion-dollar investment fraud scheme. Vennes has not been charged with participating in the alleged Ponzi scheme, but his estate was put in the control of a court-appointed receiver whose job it is to liquidate assets for a possible distribution to victims.

An October 2009 story from the Star Tribune reported that Vennes did time in 1987 for money laundering and drug and firearms charges. Federal affidavits claim that Vennes convinced investors to put $1.2 billion in Petters' companies. Vennes received more than $28 million in commissions from Petters.

The tentacles of twisted finance that reach to the Nopeming facility may be of idle curiosity to some Fond du Lac Reservation Band Members. For most, however, the buildings and facility more strongly represent the final years of loved ones. A check of obituaries from the Duluth area shows last names like Martineau, Zacher, Houle, Dufault, and many more, all of whom were Nopeming residents.

We will always have family ties to the sanitarium and nursing home, and before that, to the land with its breathtaking beauty.

The "war" on tuberculosis was both local and global in scope. A May 29, 1909 story from the Carlton County Vidette featured this headline: "One Million Women in White Plague War -- Rich and Poor Unite Against Consumption." Below is an excerpt from the story:

One million women representing cities, towns, villages and isolated rural settlements in every section of the country are today enlisted in a campaign against tuberculosis according to a statement issued by the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis.

Pequette's lineage

Frank H. Pequette, who was also known as Opiniwabo, was born in Michigan about 1857. He was married around 1886 to Georgianna (Bedell), whose Ojibwe name was Ishquaahchebequoquay.

Georgianna was born about 1856 and her family was from the L'Anse Band of Chippewa in Michigan. Records show that the couple did not have children. However, Frank went on to have 11 children with Lizzie (Connors) St. John, while he was still married to Georgianna. Records show that at one point, Lizzie was referred in the 1922 U.S. Census as Lizzie St. John Pequette, the mother of nine Pequette children at that time.


This arrangement between a Methodist Episcopal minister and two women may appear unusual for the early 1900s, especially since it's likely that Georgianna and Lizzie got along. One of Frank and Lizzie's children was named after Frank's first wife, Georgianna.   Lizzie was born in Minnesota about 1881. The 1922 U.S. Indian Census from Fond du Lac lists Lizzie St. John Pequette's nine children: Kate, Annie, Georgiana, Alice, Dulcie, Kate Celia, Lily, Clifford and Ruby.

In 1909, Frank Pequette was employed as a traveling Chippewa Indian missionary in Duluth and Moose Lake. He was also the minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Sawyer.

That same year Pequette organized the Epworth League, a Sunday evening devotional service for young people. Joseph Northrup served as League President. Two children assisted with the ministry by singing hymns in Ojibwe and English at the services. They were Lucy Connors, also known as Bemosoqua or Walking Lady and Ellen Peterson, also known as JeBad or Little Mischief. Ellen's oldest sister, Angeline, later married Joseph Northrup.

FDL TB victims

Heartache struck the Peterson family when Susan (Peterson) Whitebird died of tuberculosis on Dec. 16, 1929. Susan was followed by Nelson S. Peterson, who died on Jan. 25, 1942 at the Ahgwaching TB sanitarium in Walker, Minn. The parents of the Peterson children were John Peterson and Mary (Baptiste), who was also known as Nokahsunoquay.

The Carlton County Vidette of Feb. 9, 1912 states:

Rev. F. H. Pequette, Indian missionary of Sawyer, was in the city on Wednesday and was a visitor at The Vidette. In a few minutes of very pleasant chat with Rev. Pequette, it was plainly evident that he is a thoroughly good man, and one who is working always toward the uplift of the human race and especially that of his fellow Indians.

In 1913, Rev. Pequette was in charge of the Sawyer, Orr and Tower Indian Missions, and was assisted by the local preachers of each charge. Clearly, he was regarded as representative of the Fond du Lac Band's interests. That same year, Pequette traveled to Washington, D.C. with John Roy and Chief Moses Day of the Bois Fort Chippewa. The Carlton County Vidette of Feb. 28, 1913, reported this headline: "Indians have $100,000 Coming from Government on Back Claims, etc." The story said:

The Indians claim arrearages of some $46,000 from the government on appropriations which they have not as yet received, and they want to get it. They also claim another item of $70,000 back pay for the same reason.  This makes about $116,000 which the delegates say would come in mighty handy to their red brothers at this particular cycle of their existence.

Christine Carlson continues to research old Fond du Lac families. She wishes you a safe and healthy New Year.

Duluth News Tribune and Star Tribune news stories contributed to this story.  

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Family Ties to Nopeming

My late husband's mother and father had been patients at the sanitarium in 1939. Men and women were kept separate, even though married, but he was conceived in the garden there one night. She was sent home to the country, the dad stayed at Nopeming until he died there at age 39.