Local nursing home holds the living and the dead

By Karli Miller For the most part, Rice Lake Road is a semi-desolate area with few buildings and sidewalks. Maybe that’s why the large barn on the wayside is so appealing.  From the street view it sits on the hill peering through naked branches and pine trees that attempt to cover it.

The Chris Jensen Rehabilitation Center, located at 2501 Rice Lake Road, wasn’t always the rehabilitation center and nursing home it is today. It was at one point The Cook Home, a poor farm.

According to the Northeast Minnesota Historical Center, in 1864 it was made a Minnesota law for every county to provide a poor farm, or something of that regard. The poor farm was a place where the aged, unemployed, physically and mentally disabled were admitted by the County Social Service Department.

Four acres of Chris Jensen’s “backyard” is where 4,705 souls were buried in what is called the Greenwood Cemetery from 1891-1947.

In 1934 alone, 233 of the 565 tenants at the Cook home were not U.S. citizens. Starting in 1870, a large migration of Finnish people started making their way to the new world of riches and freedom. As the word spread about the land of riches, the migration number continued to multiply up until 1930, this is what is known as ‘The Great Migration. Many had no family in America and when they passed away, they were just a number.

“The people here were all poor, and a lot of them didn’t have family around to see that they got a proper burial,” UMD librarian/program director Pat Maus said. “They would just stick a wooden peg with a number to keep track of the people.”

All the records of the people who died here were handwritten. Handwriting can become illegible over time, and the names of those who rest at the Greenwood Cemetery may have their names misspelled, but they aren’t forgotten.

“We didn’t used to have a cemetery, we have a cemetery,” Facility Supervisor of public safety at Chris Jensen, Matt Seppo said. “It is a preserved cemetery, we would never build on it or anything.”

With a vault full of scrapbooks dating from now to the early 1900’s in his office, Seppo has researched pretty much everything there is to know about the Cook Home.

“I am a genealogist and I just love this stuff. I want to be able to pass this information on to those who are interested about this history of this place,” Seppo said.

Maus’s abundance of knowledge has been of service to the people in the community as well.

“I get calls from people asking me if I had the records of who was buried at the Greenwood Cemetery, and sure enough we find their great grandfather was buried there.”

The Cook Home believed that aiding their residents in the work in farming was essential for rehabilitation. They had good intentions. They thought if they could just break those “bad habits,” they could get them out of poverty.

In an article from the late 1920s, a former 45-year-old  veteran and Chief herdsman of the Cook Home, Charles Dubell, reinforces this idea and talks about the working life on the farm.

“For young men, there is a golden opportunity on the farm for jobs and making a living, if the person has the stuff to go ahead and not shrink at the responsibilities of the work before him.”

It was said that Dubell’s day would start at 2:45 AM and end at 9:00PM. Thanks to these long days and hard workers, the Cook Home was known for their purebred dairy cows.

Eventually, A.P. Cook, the secretary of the Poor Commission whom Cook Home was named after, was under investigation for killing off baby pigs in fear of slowing production. When a sow dies, it is the farmer’s responsibility to raise the baby pigs by a bottle. This process takes time and money, and many aren’t willing to do it. Management was also accused of feeding the patient’s oleo and skim milk instead of butter and whole milk. Cook was fired. Chris Jensen, a neighboring farmer, agreed to nurse the baby pigs with a bottle, and helped the farm get back on its feet. He was then named superintendent of the farm and was honored by having the Cook Home renamed after him, as it still is today.

It is a common stereotype to label all poorhouses as terrible, crowded places. At the Cook Home, it may have been overcrowded, but it seems the intentions were in the right place.

The labor was intense and the days were long, but it still gave the poor and lost a place to go. Today 2501 Rice Lake Road is still a place where the elderly go. They don’t work long hours or slave on the farm. However, the barn still stands isolated on the grounds of Chris Jensen as a reminder of what it once was, and the history it holds.

*The number of graves was incorrectly recorded in this article.  Originally, the article said that 1,667 souls were buried in the cemetery.  That figure has been replaced with the correct number of 4,667.   The Lake Voice apologizes for the error.

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