Why I Left Flowers at Trollwood Park

NIKKI LIGHT | PHOTO COURTESY
The long, complex history of Trollwood Park starts with an asylum and ends with a gathering place for performing arts — because of this, stories of its past abound.

There is truth hiding behind the legends of Trollwood Park.

The story starts on Halloween.

On Oct. 31, 1879, the Front Street Asylum opened on what is now Main Ave. It was a small hospital and asylum operated by Cass County for the penniless and forgotten.

For a brief time, the Front Street Asylum got along fine. However, some neighbors objected to what they viewed as an eyesore and a threat to their property values. A petition soon circulated to move the hospital elsewhere.

Soon after, Cass County purchased farmland three miles north of town and built a three-story, white brick building from the rubble of the Grand Pacific Hotel in Moorhead.

In 1895, the new facility opened as the Cass County Hospital and Poor Farm.

Today, the county hospital is long gone and has been replaced by Trollwood Park in North Fargo.

Stories circulate today of hushed whispers telling people to “get off my property” and mysterious figures appearing wearing 19thcentury clothing.

Some believe the forsaken spirits of the poor farm’s former residents gambol through Trollwood’s meadows and spy on visitors from the shadows.

The most infamous story is of a woman in a blue dress who dances in the pale moonlight by her favorite willow tree.

To understand the legends, one must understand the truth.

The Cass County Hospital and Poor Farm was a mixed-use complex. The front of the main building was a hospital owned and operated by Cass County for the poor and a few paying patients.

A family lived in a separate wing of the building and were paid $110 per month by Cass County to run the poor farm day-to-day.

In 1904, the Fargo Forum reported 200 people were treated at the hospital every year.

Residents of the poor farm — called inmates or paupers — lived in the back of the building in mostly separate rooms. The paupers were described in 1911 by a North Dakota poor farm inspector as “old men and women … the usual nondescript and paralytic class.”

The same report later noted the institution’s beautiful location, which “offers splendid outing opportunities for the old and infirm in mild weather.”

In addition to the main building, there was a barn, hog pen and a cold storage house on the property.

Everyone who lived at the poor farm was expected to work on the farm, and each person was given one or two jobs a day. Hearty contributions provided by the farm meant only limited outside purchases, like coffee and sugar, were necessary.

Most of the poor farm’s residents were elderly people with no savings. The others had some sort of physical disability or mental illness. Occasionally, a mother with children would come to stay at the poor farm, but rarely did any of the younger inmates stay for long as better arrangements were usually made with a family member.

Otherwise, those who came to the poor farm died there and were buried on the property in unmarked graves.

After the Social Security Act of 1935, the poor farm model became somewhat obsolete. The elderly could rely on a Social Security check and did not have to worry about getting brought over the hill to die at the poor farm.

By 1938, the Cass County poor farm was already declining.

In 1961, the county hospital became a nursing home named Golden Acres Haven, a name chosen via a naming contest.

Golden Acres Haven remained open another decade before the years caught up to the facility. Renovations to transform the aging building into a competitive nursing home would have been too expensive, so Cass County decided to get out of the nursing home business in the early 1970s.

By the mid-1970s, the former hospital building was a rotting wound in North Fargo.

By August 1974, the building that the Fargo Forum once called “the model for neatness and comfort” and the “ideal place for those who are unfortunate enough to be dependent” was a decaying shell littered with trash and marred with graffiti.

There was talk of salvaging the remains and converting the building into an alcoholic treatment center, but this plan was quickly dropped.

Soon after, Golden Acres Haven was demolished, clearing the way for Trollwood Park.

Today, a large picnic table shelter now occupies the spot where the main building once stood.

In August 1979, Trollwood Performing Arts School, a summer drama program put on by Fargo Public Schools, performed their first musical, “The Wizard of Oz,” in the park.

The memory of the battered nursing home faded, and the kids of Trollwood started a new legacy for the property.

That is until 1985 when dead bodies started rising out of the ground.

The oxbow Trollwood occupies has points on the east and west sides where the river cuts in and turns sharply, causing erosion.

Coincidentally, the cemetery used during the final decades of the poor farm’s existence was located on one of these sharp turns. The Red River simply consumed the land until pieces of human anatomy began poking out from the dirt.

This led to the removal and relocation of around 300 coffins from Cass County Cemetery #3, located at the Broadway entrance of Trollwood Park.

It is hard to know exactly how many people are still buried in Trollwood today, but it is easily in the hundreds. Today, the cemeteries are marked with large boulders.

Based on the timeline, 1985 is likely when the ghost stories started. Theatre ghost stories are common, and when a theatre is the site of a cemetery supposedly full of forgotten and unhappy people who should be willing to harass the living — the place ought to be haunted.

However, most of the Trollwood legends do not make sense.

The ghost of a pauper would never tell anyone to “get off his property” because Trollwood was never their property to begin with.

The poor farm only had 20 to 30 residents at a time, with only one or two dying per year. The majority of those buried on the property were people from Fargo whose family could not afford a better burial.

In most cases, they were parents.

The reality of the cemeteries at Trollwood is not that they are filled with vengeful, bitter souls rejected and isolated by society and confined to a poor farm. Almost two-thirds of those buried in the park are infants and young children. Most of them are under the age of five.

If Trollwood Park was haunted, one would expect to hear crying. Lots of crying. But you don’t.

The story of the woman dancing in front of a willow tree during Trollwood musicals is not a particularly scary story and it seems like a pointless thing to make up. This may be why it is so compelling.

The story first appeared online in 1998 — the same year Trollwood performed the 1930s musical “42nd Street.”

The music in the play was contemporary for a young lady buried in Cemetery #2 near the willow trees. Whether she was roused during the performance, I cannot say, although my guess is no. I can say that because since Trollwood Performing Arts School moved in 2009 to Bluestem in Moorhead, Minnesota, she has not reappeared.

The ghost stories have consumed the real and complex story of Trollwood Park.

It was a place of compassion for people who had nowhere to go and no one to rely on. It was a place where hymns used to glide across the lawn, taught to bedridden hospital patients out of love by a woman who buried her only son after he perished as a war hero in Guadalcanal. It was a place for the community to gather every summer to watch their children become stars.

You may find energy at Trollwood. An energy left behind by the hundreds of people who have shuffled through the property for immeasurable reasons, both good and bad, over the last 122 years.

But you will not find a ghost.

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