TB touched almost every family in America, and a cure or treatment baffled early medical science

By Paul Gubrud 
Special Correspondent, 
History Columnist 

This photo of the Bernhard Olson family was taken in 1928, about two years before the youngest daughter, Beulah, was born. Over the next two decades, the “Forgotten Plague” would claim the lives of five of the family members. (Photo from the Olson family collection)

Bernhard and Nellie Olson emigrated to Otter Tail County from near Yankton, South Dakota, with their six young children by covered wagon in 1913. 

They carried everything they could to build a new life in Trondhjem Township. The wagon was crowded and overloaded, but they managed to find room for their precious piano. The 300-mile journey by wagon must have been agonizingly slow. 

The Olson family settled on a farm about halfway between Pelican Rapids and Rothsay, three miles east of the South Immanuel Lutheran Church. Bernhard and Nellie had a strong faith, and the family quickly assimilated into the congregation. The older children attended school just a mile away at District #78.

The gently rolling land was rich, and the farm prospered. Cream and eggs were sold at either the Rothsay or Pelican Rapids creameries for a good price, and the wheat crops were superb. The future looked bright for Bernhard and Nellie. As the Olson farm prospered, the family grew, adding seven more children over the next decade and a half.

Then disaster and heartbreak struck the Olson family. 

The farm economy went into recession in the 1920s when prices plummeted, and in the 1930s, severe drought inundated the Midwest. Farmers everywhere suffered. 

But the biggest tragedy for the Olson family was when Nellie fell ill with tuberculosis.  

Tuberculosis, “Forgotten Plague” that nobody talked about

The Otter Tail County Tuberculosis Sanatorium on Otter Tail Lake operated from 1913 to 1955. It was painted white when members of the Olson family were patients in the 1930s and 1940s.
(Photo from the collections of the Otter Tail County Historical Society, Fergus Falls)

Tuberculosis, or TB as we refer to it today, has afflicted humanity worldwide since ancient times. It is a chronic disease caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis. TB can affect any body part, but most usually the lungs, hence the chronic coughing and the name “consumption” as it was referred to in the past. It progresses slowly, often over several years, and the mortality rate is high when left untreated. TB touched almost every family in America, and a cure or treatment baffled early medical science. 

In the 1800s, European physicians experimented treating TB with bed rest, good nutrition, sunshine, and fresh air. They also realized that the disease was contagious, so isolation was necessary to slow the spread of TB. 

Tuberculosis sanatoriums came into existence where patients received the special care they needed, and the mortality rate was reduced. But only the more affluent could afford a stay at a private sanatorium.

Private sanatoriums for the treatment of tuberculosis became popular in the late 19th century, but they were generally located near population centers, and few people had the money to pay them. 

TB, for the average person, was often a death sentence, and no one wanted to talk about it, especially if it was a close family member.

In 1903, the Minnesota legislature approved public funding for the treatment of tuberculosis, and soon public sanatoriums to treat patients in the rural parts of the state were built. 

Second TB “sanatorium” in state was near Battle Lake

Although Beulah could not continue her education beyond 6th grade, she received a Christian education and was confirmed in 1944 at the South Immanuel Lutheran Church.
(Photo from the Olson family collection)

Otter Tail County was the second county to build a TB sanatorium in 1913. The 36-bed facility was located in the country on the west side of Otter Tail Lake near Battle Lake, hence the nickname “Battle Lake San.” The official name was the Otter Tail County Tuberculosis Sanatorium. It was staffed by nurses and a doctor as the medical director.

The treatment plan was to let the body heal itself and consisted of a nutritious diet, bed rest, sunshine, and fresh air. Patients spent hours resting outside in the fresh air, barely clothed on open balconies in all but the coldest weather and then under several blankets. Some patients improved, others did not, and many died. The mortality rate at the “Battle Lake San” was 32%.

Sanitation was paramount, with the staff wearing masks to avoid becoming infected, but some were and became patients themselves. Body fluids from coughing were collected in special paper cups to prevent the spread of infection to other body parts. The patient’s bedding and clothing were also thoroughly washed and sanitized.

Surgical treatment was used in the most challenging TB cases. It was usually to collapse the infected lung for a period of time to let it heal. Once tests indicated no active bacteria, the lung would be re-inflated. In the most severe cases, the lung was removed.

It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the antibiotic streptomycin and other anti-tuberculous drugs were developed that TB could be effectively controlled and sanatoriums soon became no longer needed. The Otter Tail County Sanatorium closed in 1955 and was converted into a nursing home. 

Tuberculosis still exists and plagues mankind to this day, with an estimated half a million new cases per year worldwide.

The Olson’s Tragedy: 13 children left without a mother

At one time, Beulah was at the OTC Sanitorium with her brother Clifford and sister Gladys. This picture of Clifford and Beulah Olson (right) was taken in 1943 at the sanatorium shortly after Gladys’ death. TB would claim Clifford’s life two years later, in 1945. The woman on the left is not identified.
(Photo from the Olson family collection)

In 1933, Nellie Olson fell ill and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She was admitted to the Otter Tail County Sanatorium for treatment shortly after, but her health continued to decline.

 Nellie Olson died on July 3, 1934, at the OTC Sanatorium. 

She left behind her husband and thirteen children, the youngest just four years old. Nellie was 49 years old.

Bernhard and Nellie’s 19-year-old son, Harold, who served as a pallbearer at his mother’s funeral, suddenly took ill a week later. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the intestines and sent to the sanatorium for treatment and then to the Fergus Falls hospital for surgery. The disease had already progressed rapidly, and he couldn’t be saved. 

He died on July 31, 1934, four weeks to the day after his mother. He was buried next to his mother in the South Immanuel cemetery.

The grief Bernhard and the children experienced must have been intense. But it would get worse.

Then a daughter, Bernice, just twelve years old, developed TB. She became the third family member to die at the OTC Sanatorium in 1940. Her older sister, Gladys, age 18, followed her to the grave in 1943. Both are buried in the Olson family plot at South Immanuel.

The “Forgotten Plague” hadn’t forgotten the Olson family yet. 

Clifford Olson contracted TB and entered the county sanatorium in 1941. He recovered after four years and was released for a time, but the disease returned, and he couldn’t be cured.

 Clifford died at the sanatorium in 1945, at the age of 32.

The Dark Cloud Had a Silver Lining, as two Olson children survived TB plague

Bernhard Olson must have thought that entering the TB sanatorium was a death sentence. He had lost his wife and four children to tuberculosis, and two more children had been stricken with it. 

The three youngest Olson daughters were all affected by tuberculosis in the following years, claiming the lives of Bernice (in the middle with the guitar) in 1940 and Gladys on the right in 1943. The youngest, Beulah, would survive the disease.
(Photo from the Olson family collection)

Did they have a death sentence too?

Fortunately, they both were able to recover. A son survived his fight with TB and went on to get married, raise a family, and celebrate holidays with grandchildren. He lived a long, happy life.

Beulah Olson, the youngest of the children who lost her mother when she was only four, survived TB as well, but it was also difficult. She was diagnosed with TB at age 11 when in sixth grade and sent to the sanatorium in 1941. 

The “Battle Lake San,” as she called it, became her home for the next 4 ½ years. She was a patient there when her siblings, Gladys and Clifford, were patients and died. It must have been difficult for her, wondering if she would die too. But she had strong faith, she prayed, and put her trust in God.

She learned how to knit and crochet from other patients. Beulah was unable to continue her education beyond 6th grade but was somehow able to receive a Christian education. She was confirmed in 1944 at the South Immanuel Lutheran Church.

Beulah’s health improved, and she was discharged, but only for a few years. She was forced to go back in the late 1940s. This time she met another patient who told her that a cousin, Marlyn Westby from Pelican Rapids, had just entered the air force. The friend suggested that Beulah send him a letter, so she did. A pen pal romance began with Marlyn frequently making the long trip from Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska to visit her.

After Beulah was able to leave the sanatorium and Marlyn was discharged from service, their romance blossomed. They were married in 1954 and began their family.

The “Walker San” operated after Otter Tail closed

Marlyn and Beulah Westby celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2004.
(Photo from the Olson family collection)

After the birth of the Westby’s first daughter, Laurie, the TB lingering in Beulah’s lungs became active for the third time, and she required sanatorium care again. But this time with a five-month-old baby girl she would have to leave behind. The baby needed more care than Marlyn could provide while holding a job. But fortunately, they had strong family support, and Beulah’s brother and sister-in-law, Ernest and Marian Olson, took over caring for the young baby. 

By 1955 the Otter Tail County Sanitorium had closed, leaving the Minnesota State Sanatorium, Ag-gwah-ching, near Walker, as the best place for her treatment. While she was there, she gave birth to another daughter, Penny. Now Ernest and Marian would have another baby to care for as well.

“Everyone cared for each other, and it was only natural to help those in need,” recalled Ernest’s daughter.

While in treatment at the “Walker San,” Beulah’s health improved, and she was discharged after a year. 

In 1956, the young Westby family wanted to start a new life and decided to move to Seattle, WA, where they added two more children to their home. Marlyn’s career at Boeing paid well, and they were able to retire to Arizona. Beulah and Marlyn both passed in 2012 after 58 years of marriage. 

They are buried in the Pelican Valley Cemetery in Pelican Rapids.

Paul Gubrud

Press Special Correspondent and History Columnist

I first heard of the Bernhard Olson family’s tragedy with tuberculosis when I was put in contact with Laurie (Westby) Cannon, the oldest daughter of Marlyn and Beulah Westby and the granddaughter of Bernhard and Nellie Olson.

She wanted to know how to donate an old family photo album to the Otter Tail County Museum because it has pictures taken of her family while patients at the county sanatorium in the 1940s.

Laurie told me the family’s story. I found it fascinating, tragic, and heartwarming at the same time. I suggested it should be shared as many other area families likely had similar experiences with tuberculosis. She agreed, and I thank her for contributing to this article.

If your family has a similar story to share, feel free to contact me through the Press office.