The musical mission behind Fergus Falls’ abandoned hospital

Story by John Lauritsen, WCCO-TV
Valley News Live at 10:00PM KVLY - VOD
Published: Mar. 17, 2023 at 11:11 AM CDT
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FERGUS FALLS, Minn. (WCCO) - For more than a century, the Fergus Falls State Hospital served mentally ill patients from across the state. It closed 16 years ago, and the hospital remains abandoned - but that doesn’t mean there’s no future.

If the former administration building is the castle, then the kingdom is the abandoned wings that go on for nearly a quarter mile. At one time they housed hundreds of patients, almost like a city within a city.

“There were literally hundreds of acres,” said Chris Schuelke of the Ottertail County Historical Society. “It was designed on the principles of Thomas Kirkbride, who was a pioneer in the treatment of the mentally ill.”

Schuelke said Kirkbride believed mentally ill patients could be fully cured if treated properly. When they were building the hospital in the late 1800s, Kirkbride pushed for dozens of windows.

“He believed in light and ventilation and work as parts of the therapy,” said Schuelke. “They had their own orchard. They had their own farm.”

The hospital peaked in the 1930s and 40s, and then patient numbers began to decline - in part because the state wanted to get away from institutions and focus on community-based care. The treatment center closed for good in 2007, but a few years ago it found an entirely new purpose, at least in the summer.

A place that once housed 2,000 patients now hosts about 2,000 concert-goers.

“Our very first concert was done on a trailer with two outlets and a tent,” said Michael Burgraff of the Fergus Falls Center for the Arts.

When some of the outbuildings were torn down for green space, Burgraff got an idea. He saw that the hospital and its wings formed a horseshoe, which was perfect for an amphitheater.

“And it just pushes the sound, so we don’t have to have a bajillion speakers to get the music out to the people who are here to listen,” said Burgraff.

Beginning in July, they’ll host five concerts on their new stage -- including tribute bands for Garth Brooks and Queen.

“And finishing up with a Rolling Stones tribute,” said Burgraff.

“I think it’s awesome. The concerts are really cool,” said Simon Erlandson from Fergus Falls.

With mold and other issues inside, the future of the hospital remains unclear. But for many, the outside is still a thing of beauty.

“The architecture is phenomenal,” said Anna Erlandson from Fergus Falls. “So much detail is in that building.”

There are those that believe the building may not be entirely empty. Ghosts or not, what they are sure of is that the hospital’s purpose has gone from medical to musical.

“My hope is that this not only continues to be a big draw for the community, but for the people around us,” said Burgraff.

Minneapolis architect Warren B. Dunnell helped build the hospital. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

For more information on concerts, click here.