WALTHILL, Neb. — For decades, the mostly vacant structure with the leaky roof at the top of a steep hill was known mostly as “the old hospital” or simply the “old white building.”
Few people knew the amazing backstory — that it was once a hospital, founded by the nation’s first Native American physician, a humble woman who braved harsh weather to minister to her tribe, as well as the white settlers, on northeast Nebraska’s Omaha Indian Reservation.
Now, a new effort is underway to restore the three-story, 33-room building to honor the legacy of Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte. Officials say it could also help improve relations between whites and Natives, as well as inspire future generations.
“If this produces one child to follow in her direction, then the Omaha people won, they’re happy,” said Michael Wolfe, the chairman of the Omaha Indian Tribe.
The new push was inspired in large part by a recent book and a Nebraska Public Television documentary about La Flesche, who was born in a teepee before Nebraska became a state, but graduated at the top of her medical class in 1889 in Pennsylvania.
The doctor, the daughter of the last traditional chief of the Omaha Tribe, Iron Eye or Joseph La Flesche, passed up more lucrative offers to return to the Omaha Reservation, where she did house calls in a horse and buggy and wrapped in a buffalo robe.
But the hospital she founded in Walthill in 1913, eventually known as the Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte Memorial Hospital, has slowly deteriorated over the years and is rarely used now, except for an occasional school tour.
Over the past year, the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs has brought together a new group interested in bringing the old hospital back to life. A $1 million fundraising campaign is in the works to revive a museum in the building, and create full-time offices for the Omaha Tribe and other organizations.
“The building is symbolic of this great Nebraska hero,” said Judi gaiashkibos, the executive director of the Indian commission. “If we didn’t protect it, it would be tragic.”
Besides tribal members and descendants of the famous doctor, the new group includes architects and Ross Greathouse of Lincoln, who was instrumental in establishing a hike-bike trail honoring another famous Native American, Standing Bear. Also pushing for the renovation is Joe Starita, the author of “A Warrior of the People: How Susan La Flesche Overcame Racial and Gender Inequality to Become America’s First Indian Doctor,” and Christine Lesiak, producer of the documentary “Medicine Woman.”
For the past 30 years, a small group of Walthill residents has been struggling to maintain the building, which had become overgrown with weeds and was purchased when the structure was put up for sale due to unpaid taxes. But members of that group are aging and dwindling.
Keith Mahaney, a Walthill farmer who was part of the group, said the new push is greatly welcomed.
“We needed some help. We didn’t have the expertise this group has,” Mahaney said.
A recent tour of the building found fallen plaster in a couple of its rooms, and a light fixture lying in a bed of broken glass. Mahaney said the structure sorely needs a new roof, new windows and an overall updating. A crew from the Omaha Tribe recently made emergency repairs to the roof, stopping the leaks.
The next step is developing a strategic plan, including determining the best uses of the 105-year-old structure, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Last week, the group applied for a federal planning grant. Once a plan is finalized, gaiashkibos said that donations and grants will be sought to finance the restoration, and to set aside funds to cover future operating costs. About $30,000 has been donated already. The early donors include the Omaha Tribe and Dr. Bruce Sheffield, a retired Lincoln pediatrician who was inspired by a talk Starita gave about La Flesche.
“So many people, when they hear Dr. Susan’s story, they want to be part of it,” gaiashkibos said.
Wolfe, the Omaha tribal chairman, as well as other residents of Walthill, said the story of La Flesche was barely known in the community until the 1980s, when the first effort was launched to save the old hospital, which had become a private residence after being used as a nursing home for several years.
Nate Merrick of Rosalie, a great -grandson of the doctor, said he’d been told some things about La Flesche as a child, but never fully understood her importance.
“She’s never gotten the recognition she deserves. Now it’s finally coming about,” Merrick said.
La Flesche was an early advocate for public health, campaigning for the removal of communal drinking cups at town drinking fountains. She insisted on an airy porch on her hospital, to provide fresh air for patients, and advocated for temperance.
She died of cancer in 1915. The obituary in the Walthill Times said her life was marked by “the nobility of its intensive effort,” and stated that she “never sought notoriety.”
“In her death, the Indians lose their best and truest friend ... the county and the state sustains an irreparable loss,” it said.
Unlike in the past, the Omaha Tribe is fully engaged in the latest effort to restore the hospital. That involvement is viewed as a game -changer in Walthill, population 870, which has seen its main street dry up and a couple of major businesses close in recent decades. Some hard feelings in the past are going away, those involved said.
“It seems like we’re all coming together,” Wolfe said. “They say it takes a whole village to raise one child. It’s going to take the whole village for this to come together.”