Glendive women found employment at Northern Pacific Beneficial Hospital

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Pioneer Women

(Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a seven-part series about pioneer women of Dawson County.)

By Cindy Mullet

Ranger-Review Staff Writer

The Northern Pacific Beneficial Hospital was a major employer in Glendive for many years, and two of the women who participated in the 1985 reception for pioneer women, Ethel Wegesser and Irma Adams, worked for the NPBH.

Wegesser came to Glendive from Milwaukee in 1924 to work as a nurse. She was right out of school at the time.

“I was so glad to have a job, I didn’t even ask what my wages were going to be, but when payday came around I found out it was $68 a month. But that included the board, room and laundry, so it wasn’t too bad a job,” she said.

Since she was right out of school, she took her nurses training at the hospital. Her training day began at 9 a.m. and ended at 7 p.m., but at 6 a.m. the nurses gathered in the chapel, sang a hymn, took turns reading a Bible verse and prayed the Lord’s Prayer before going up to their work, she said.

The first four months she was a probationer so cleaned, scrubbed walls, shelves and cupboards, cleaned bathrooms, sterilized bedpans, took care of the patients’ flowers and put away the linens. After she got her stripes and cap, she learned to give baths and back rubs, change linens and give some medications. Later they went into surgery, obstetrics, pediatrics, dietetics and psychiatry.

They didn’t have many medicines except for “good old reliable aspirin.” They gave no vitamins. They didn’t do intravenous feeding and gave few blood transfusions, she said.

“After 44 years of nursing, I hope that I was of some help to my patients and my doctors and my coworkers,” she added.

Irma Adams was also associated with the NPBH, starting to work in the business office in 1926, filling in for the secretary and book keeper who had gone to Alaska for a month.

“I was 16 years old and just out of high school and so needless to say I was inexperienced and unsure” she said, adding that after surviving that first month, “I continued on month to month until January when I became a permanent employee at the salary of $40 a month, room and board.”

Before she became a permanent employee, the president of the Northern Pacific Beneficial Association visited the hospital. She was instructed to keep out of sight so stayed in her room on the fourth floor until she heard him and the hospital surgeon coming toward her room. Not wanting them to find her, she went into the closet and pulled the door shut, only to discover there was no knob on the inside.

“It was dark and airless in there and I learned the meaning of the word ‘claustrophobia,” she said, noting that she called and called until someone finally heard her and opened the door.

The NPBH was a landmark to railroad people in those days. Adams remembers a conductor on the east-bound train pointing with pride to the hospital building and people in the car getting up and looking out the windows to see it.

“It was an imposing structure, located on the hillside with beautiful grounds around it,” she noted.

The Glendive hospital was one of four administered by the Northern Pacific Railway. The others were in St. Paul, Missoula and Tacoma, Wash. In the Glendive hospital, the laboratory was in the basement, the X-ray room on the first floor, along with the chief surgeon’s office, the assistant surgeon’s office, other offices, a drug room, a dressing room and the hospital office which had a locked vault for valuables, she said.

The nurses lived on the east end of the fourth floor, three rooms on each side off a long hall they used as a living room. The maids lived on the west end of the floor and the delivery room, operating room and scrub room were between the two living quarters. A few nurses lived on the west end of the third floor but it was used mostly for ambulatory patients, often railroad men who seemed to come for the winter, she said.

In 1928, a three-story wing was added to the north side of the hospital and over time other changes were made. The building was torn down in the summer of 1976 after 63 years of use, she said.

(A full transcript of the 1985 reception for pioneer women of Dawson County will be available at the Frontier Gateway Museum.)

Reach Cindy Mullet at