No ghost stories here, say couple who now live on farm at former Lake Julia Sanitarium
Patients sleeping on thin mattresses next to open windows and waking up to frost on their blankets, an old, sagging building tucked in a remote part of the state, a nearby cemetery and a doctor named Ghostley all sound like elements of a classic ghost story.
Some in the area believe that these things do, in fact, add up to a haunting and that the former Lake Julia Sanitarium — now private property — is inhabited by ghosts. Some websites such as teardrophouses.com, a blog that records the “melancholy tales” of “abandoned houses and spellbound places” claim that the Lake Julia site was actually a facility for the criminally insane taken over by the inmates, including a nonexistent serial killer.
The author later said via email that the story was fictional but Anna Lauer, who lives on the farm that once produced dairy and food for the facility, was frustrated and believed the post was spreading misinformation.
“To those that really like the haunted stuff, I would say ask permission to go to these sites and if you are told ‘no,’ stay out,” Lauer said. “Do real research on what went into these places, do not just make up stories or pass on stories that you yourself haven’t fact checked.”
A column published in the Bemidji Pioneer itself tells a less sinister but still mysterious ghost story: that on summer nights three flickering candles can be spotted moving across the lake.
Closed in 1953
The reality of the sanitarium, created to treat tuberculosis patients during a time when experts believed cold, fresh air could heal patients, is much less sinister. The Lake Julia Sanitorium was the result of a joint effort between Hubbard, Beltrami and Koochiching counties. Half of the $55,000 facility was paid for by the state, with the other half paid for by the counties.
The sanitarium treated patients until other more effective cures such as chemotherapy became commonplace. It eventually closed down in 1953 and was re-opened as a nursing home a year later. After that closed in 1968, it became privately owned.
Lauer and her husband moved to the site from North Dakota in 2013 after the oil boom took over Bismarck. The couple has three children; two were born on the farm. They are working to turn the site back into a working farm and Lauer blogs about the process.
“I love the farm, the history and that I am able to start living my dream as a farmer,” Lauer said. “It’s quiet and calm here, and it has a real cozy homey feeling that we like to share.”
Cecelia McKeig, who works with the Cass County Historical Society and has visited the site of the sanitarium, remembers hearing stories about it as a child. Instead of ghost stories, however, McKeig heard about the things Dr. Mary Ghostley, the facility’s superintendent from 1929 until its close, did in service of her patients.
“We always hear about Mary Ghostley and the great things she was doing out there,” McKeig said.
Ghostley was one of the first female doctors in the region. According to Beltrami County Historical Society records, she graduated from the University of Minnesota’s medical school in 1909, at a time when male doctors were the norm.
Other Historical Society documents show that rather than becoming vengeful spirits, many patients left the sanitarium alive and well. According to a Pioneer article from 1927, 90 percent of patients showing early signs of tuberculosis recovered, as well as 45 percent of moderately affected patients and 16 percent of those with severe cases.
Pioneer photos from the time show patients playing cards with groups of friends, as well as picturesque views of Lake Julia seen from the sanitarium.
“The patients in those days had an awesome view of the lake, there’s a big front porch that ran the length of the building that faced the lake itself,” McKeig said. “It must have been really a pretty location.”
As for stories of ghosts haunting the site, McKeig is skeptical.
“It probably just added to the allure of the place,” she said. “I don’t think it really is (haunted).”
Lauer has only experienced one “crazy happening” since her family moved in three years ago. The head of her bed looks into a hallway and two windows that give a view of the barn.
“One night I woke up to a woman standing in the doorway,” Lauer said. “It was a very calm feeling like we were just being checked up on. On the other hand, it could very easily have been a dream.”