Looking back: The History of Myrtue Medical Center

A farmer’s generosity and a community fund raising effort make hospital a reality

SHELBY COUNTY — The generosity of a Shelby County farmer and the fund raising skills of a community made Myrtue Memorial Hospital a reality.
 In 1880, Andrew Myrtue, his wife and 10 children came to America from Denmark. Chris, the Myrtue’s third son, was 10 years old.
In his early teens, Chris and his four brothers helped their father establish the Myrtue homestead in Lincoln Township in Shelby County.
He left home at 16, renting a nearby farm. Chris purchased a 160-acre farm near Correctionville, where he farmed for a few years and later sold to buy more land in Lincoln township. During the drought and depression years, it seemed Myrtue was able to make money farming while several others failed.
Myrtue never married, and was known as a somewhat eccentric, frugal loner. He continued to accumulate acres and owned five farms, but lived in very humble surroundings. His home had only the necessities. When relatives came to help harvest, they often brought cooking utensils and dishes from their own homes. He had an old range for cooking which used cobs and wood. He used an oil lamp in the evening, and his one luxury was a radio he would use to listen to market reports. It was stated he reluctantly hired  farm hands to assist him, one of the requirements were they had to know how to cook.
While his health worsened as he aged, Myrtue relied on relatives and spent several months recuperating at his brother’s home while he recovered from pneumonia.
Following his stay in the Harlan Hospital during the summer of 1944, Myrtue changed his will that August. His close friends and executors, attorney Lee White and local builder Morris Fredericksen, said Chris had often discussed the possibility of a new hospital in Harlan several years before he modified his estate.
Chris Myrtue died in January 1945 at the age of 75. His 779 acre estate sold, and  $200,000 in Government Bonds were offered first to Harlan, then Shelby County as a second choice, with the stipulation the community would provide matching funds for a new hospital, which would be called Myrtue Memorial Hospital. Harlan accepted the offer, but soon found insufficient matching funds to build a hospital large enough to serve the entire county.
 Myrtue’s heirs filed a law suit, contending that his wealth was more than enough to build a suitable hospital to serve the needs of the county. The court was asked to determine what the fair amount for building a hospital should be and to divide the remainder of the estate among the heirs.
 The suit was settled in 1948 on a motion to dismiss which was made by attorneys for Myrtue’s executors. The presiding judge ruled that the court had no authority to change, limit or restrict the terms of the will, and that Myrtue had the right to give his entire estate to a hospital project, if that is what he wanted to do.
The ruling garnered interest in the hospital, and the county began to support the cause.
In December 1949, a $200,000 bond issue was passed. Additional taxes raised $150,000 and federal aid of $350,000 matched the county contribution in late 1950. With total funds now amounting to $900,000, the Hospital Board of Trustees had Des Moines architects Dougher, Rich and  Woodburn draw plans for a 50 bed hospital.
When construction bids were opened September 12, 1951, building costs had spiked, and  it was realized an additional $150,000 was needed. One Shelby County resident said, “If one man can give everything he possessed to the county, surely the county residents as a whole can complete the job.”
“Operation Hospital” a whirlwind campaign to raise the remaining needed funds began. The October 26, 1951 Harlan Tribune reported “A staff of 9 to 12 women are busy daily in the assessor’s office in the courthouse. The workers and committee have a confident feeling about their mission - Operation Hospital.” The committee included farmer Julius Lensch, Mrs. R.E. Donlin, wife of a Harlan Doctor; and Bob Cosgriff, secretary of the Harlan Chamber.
The committee spread information about the project to the county’s 16,893 residents. The newspapers ran stories, and the group mailed out 4,000 folders. The night before the campaign began, 700 workers met in Harlan, including at least 12 workers for each township. Farmers, businessmen, home owners and renters were given a quota. Pledge cards allowed each contributor to make a three year pledge.
 The first two days, over $80,000 was collected. It took a total of 12 days to reach the $150,000 goal. Donations varied from 50 cents to $2,500. Harlan barber Lonnie Briggs gave his earnings for one day. George Jorgensen, a 74-year-old Veteran of the Spanish-American War donated $1,000. Nine-year-old Franklin Hopp contributed the prize money he and his pet pony had won at the fair.
Greer-Maurer Construction Co. from Grand Island, NE began breaking ground for the $1,050,000 structure on 12th St. in the spring of 1952.
In July of that year, approximately 50 people were present to view the placing of the cornerstone, including George Hurley, Chairman of the Hospital Board, and Lee White, Trustee of the Chris Myrtue Estate. White placed a certified copy of Myrtue’s will in a copper box which was sealed in the cornerstone.   
 A copy of the bond election results, a list of the “Operation-Hospital” donors, copies of the Harlan Tribune and Harlan News-Advertiser, and certificates with the names of both the original board members and the 1952 board members were also included in the cornerstone.
Nearly 10 years after his death, Myrtue’s dream was fulfilled with the opening of Myrtue Memorial Hospital in August 1954.
 The new hospital boasted a 50 person staff, hydraulic lift tables in the three operating rooms, an portable x-ray machine, a sterilization department with 16 steam sterilizers, a generator, five typewriters, stainless steel washing machines, a modern kitchen and laundry room, a nursery area featuring large windows and clear bassinets,  a solarium/visiting area and free parking.


Myrtue Medical Center is celebrating 70 years of providing quality health care to the residents of Shelby County.
A series of stories will be published in the upcoming months, culminating  with the grand opening of the newly expanded and renovated emergency department late summer.




Harlan Newspapers

1114 7th Street
P.O. Box 721
Harlan, IA 51537-0721

(800) 909-6397

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