Why does this man live in Minnesota?

John Baird II
John B. Baird II lives in Oak Park Heights, MN. He was named after his grandfather who came to Lake Elmo, MN from Philadelphia in the 1880s.
MPR Photo/Jim Bickal

John Baird has lived in Minnesota for all of his 85 years, but it was not until recently that he really thought about why. He says it came up during a conversation at a college reunion on the east coast.

"I was sitting in the back of a bus," Baird says. "We'd been to a dinner. And there was this character sitting next to me who I'm sure must have been from one of the suburbs of New York. And he saw my nametag and I had written on it 'Stillwater, Minnesota.' And he turned to me and he said in all seriousness, 'Why would anybody want to live in Minnesota?'" Baird says.

"I didn't have good answer immediately, but I've been pondering that question ever since. And a flippant answer would have been: Because there aren't people like you out there," Baird says.

John Baird I
This photo, taken around 1900, shows John Baird who came to Minnesota in the 1880s because he was told that the climate would cure him from tuberculosis.
Minnesota Historical Society/Haynes

Actually, there are lots of other reasons that John Baird lives in Minnesota.

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For starters, his family has been here for generations. The story of how they got here is an interesting one. It begins in the 19th century with his grandfather, also named John Baird, who was living in Philadelphia.

"He married in 1881 and it turned out his wife had tuberculosis and died in 1883," Baird says. "The doctors assumed that my grandfather had tuberculosis and recommended that he move to Minnesota where there was a healthier climate in their opinion. So, he did that. He moved to Lake Elmo and lived during that summer in a resort hotel."

In the 19th century, tuberculosis, or consumption as it was first known, was one of the world's most deadly diseases. Until effective treatments were developed in the 20th century, there were lots of theories about what might cure the disease.

Shelia Rothman has written extensively about the history of tuberculosis. She says during the 19th century, women with tuberculosis, like John Baird's first wife, were instructed to stay at home. Men, on the other hand, were told just the opposite.

Lake Elmo Resort
This photo, taken in 1895, shows a resort on Lake Elmo. It is probably the resort that John Baird stayed in while he recuperated.
Minnesota Historical Society/Truman Ward Ingersoll

"With tuberculosis, men were told to travel," Rothman says. "The idea was that so much of the problem rested in climate. In the 19th century we were very big on climate, on the noxious odors that created miasmas, on the fact that certain constitutions, certain bodies didn't do well in certain climates. And so the idea was that if you put your body in another climate, and you strengthened it in another climate through outdoor exercise and so on, that you could be able to ward off the disease."

At first men were encouraged to take a sea voyage or go to a tropical locale, but as the railroads made it easier to travel across the country, other places became known for their beneficial climates.

"A lot of this was word of mouth," Rothman says. "I went out to the Rocky Mountains and the Rocky Mountains cured me. And Minnesota and the Great Lake state also became a place a certain amount of people from New England went and said that they were cured."

Railroad companies that were trying to lure settlers to Minnesota promoted the curative powers of the state's climate. The St. Paul and Pacific Railroad published a guide for immigrants which included this claim:

"The assertion that the climate of Minnesota is one of the healthiest in the world may be broadly and confidently made. It is sustained by the almost unanimous testimony of the thousands of invalids who have sought its pure and bracing air, and recovered from consumption and other diseases, after they had been given up as hopeless by their home physicians."

The pure and bracing air may not have cured John Baird's grandfather, but he did survive.

"I doubt that he really had tuberculosis," Baird says. "He must have suffered from something if he spent the whole summer at that hotel. And I don't know how he financed living there. Although, maybe he had some part-time occupation."

John Baird eventually found a full-time occupation as a stenographer with the Northern Pacific Railroad.

He re-married and started a family in St. Paul. His grandson, John Baird now lives in Oak Park Heights.