George and Leonora Christian opened camp for tubercular children on Lake Street

George Henry Christian and his wife, Leonora, opened a camp for tubercular children on Lake Street and built the Thomas Hospital for tuberculosis patients in Cedar-Riverside. Photo courtesy of Hennepin History Museum

In this time of poorly understood disease and home baking, it might be a comfort to know that Minneapolis has been through this before. And one historic Minneapolis family can be found at the exact intersection of stress-baking and plague.

It started with the flour. Just after the Civil War, Minnesota’s farmers started producing a lot of wheat. Some counties seemed to have been planted in wheat from border to border. Millers responded by building mills that could turn out hundreds of barrels of flour a day. Our cold northern prairies produced spring wheat, and when that was milled, the bran was pulverized, turning the flour an undesirable brown color. Today, we call that whole wheat flour.

Hired by C. C. Washburn to run the biggest mill in town, a man named George Henry Christian brought in a process to blow off the bran and sift the cracked wheat before grinding. His flour was pure white, soft and perfect. Production grew to 50,000 barrels a day, sales went stratospheric and Christian joined the many whose fortunes came from flour.

Christian then turned away from running mills. He invested here and there, in railroads, mining and barrel-making. He and his wife, Leonora, enjoyed their wealth; they traveled and entertained. And first Leonora and then George turned their attention to those who had much less. Of their many charitable efforts, they made the biggest difference helping those with tuberculosis.

The first symptom might be a cough. Some people described it as “coughing oneself to death.” It was called consumption, because the sick became thinner, paler and weaker. Eventually the illness consumed them. Around the turn of the 20th century, 1 in 7 Americans and Europeans died of tuberculosis.

Known as the white plague, it was thought to come from bad air, perhaps. Or from unclean, crowded, small homes. It was thought to be hereditary, because so often several in a family had it and in other families no one got sick.

The same cold climate that grew exceptional wheat was thought to offer a healthful atmosphere, and so the sick came here to Minnesota to get well. By 1890, the disease was well-established in the state. That’s when a German scientist discovered the bacteria that caused tuberculosis. With testing, the asymptomatic could be identified. And there was no sure cure. Before antibiotics became available in the 1940s, the only treatment was rest, good food, sunshine and clean air.

At the turn of the last century, tuberculosis killed about 1,200 people in Hennepin County a year. One of them was George and Leonora’s son — Henry Hall Christian. He’d been sick for years when he died in 1905.

Leonora became involved with the Associated Charities of Minneapolis and its Anti-Tuberculosis Committee, which formed in 1903. Its objective was to assist the tubercular poor and to instruct the public in preventing the spread of the disease. Within months, clinics were organized and a visiting nurse program was set up. The Christians paid the cost of the nurse’s salary themselves.

These 1908 photos show the camp for children with tuberculosis that was set up in Glenwood Park (later renamed Theodore Wirth). Fresh air was the best available treatment for tuberculosis. Photos courtesy of Hennepin County Library

The state’s first sanatorium — a special hospital for consumptives — opened in 1907 up near Leech Lake. This was insufficient to help the great number of cases in crowded Hennepin County. Before Minnesota funded sanatoria for the counties, the Christians opened a camp for tubercular children at Lake Street and West River Road, where Leonora would visit both the children and their families. This successful camp was soon moved to Glenwood Park (later renamed Theodore Wirth) and run with Park Board involvement. The Christians also built the Thomas Hospital for tuberculosis patients, which would in time become part of Fairview Hospital in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. And then they persuaded the county to build Hopewell Hospital to care for tubercular patients as part of the public hospital. Leonora single-handedly convinced Minneapolitans to buy Christmas seals to support tuberculosis care. She bought thousands of them and re-sold them at Donaldson’s Department Store.

George and Leonora Christian accomplished all of this in just a two-year span, between 1907 and 1909. Their work built up to the Minnesota Legislature allowing county funding of sanatoria in 1909. Later, the Christian family also helped found the Citizen’s Aid Society, which had a strong focus on tuberculosis. They endowed the society with $2 million, and today it’s known as The United Way. Hennepin County sanatorium eventually opened its sanatorium in 1916, with the society funding separate children’s programs.

They left a legacy of public health and public help. Their oldest son, George Chase Christian, continued their philanthropy until his own early passing, and then his widow, Carolyn McKnight Christian, carried on the family’s good works. Nephew William P. Christian founded the Hennepin County Tuberculosis Association. The Christian mansion, on the east side of Washburn Fair Oaks Park in Whittier, now houses the Hennepin History Museum.

The Christians gave Minneapolis the process that lead to Gold Medal Flour, still made by General Mills. Coronavirus is keeping us indoors just now, so we bake. And we wait, as people did 100 years ago, for the cure. Tuberculosis was contained by testing and contact tracing and treated by several antibiotics. It is still with us today, though most of us cannot name someone who’s had it.