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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Little vet clinic is slice of Le Mars history

Friday, July 6, 2012

Editor's note: This is a third in a series of stories looking at some of the historic buildings in or near downtown Le Mars. The Le Mars Historic Preservation Commission is leading an effort to list the district on the National Register of Historic Places.

From the days of the Great Depression when few farmers could pay bills for hog vaccine to the thriving days of the family farm, a small office building on Second Street Northwest served as a bustling veterinary clinic.

In a community where agriculture and livestock have been crucial from the very early days on, this building and its owners represent a vivid piece of Le Mars' history.

(Photo contributed/Sentinel photo by Magdalene Landegent) Dr. Ron Severson, (left) of Le Mars, stands outside his former veterinarian clinic, a historic one-story stucco building just off Central Avenue on Second Street Northwest in downtown Le Mars. The building, which features unique angled garage doors, was constructed in 1928 to be used as a veterinary clinic. The historic photo (above) shows the building circa 1960, when Severson was in business with Dr. Wayne Faber.
Hotel annex, laundry, vet clinic

The building at 26 Second St. N.W. had served as a veterinarian's office from about 1928 until 1972, according to retired veterinarian Dr. Ron Severson, who owns the building.

The first veterinarian to practice there was Fred Knoop, who was joined by his son Bill.

Fred started his veterinary practice in 1911.

The building was constructed in 1928 after Fred tore down the former Richards Hotel Annex at the site.

That annex was "one of the oldest landmarks in that part of town," according to a 1928 article in the Le Mars Semi-Weekly Sentinel.

It had been part of the Richards House hotel, which stood at the corner of what is now Central Avenue and Second Street Northwest.

The annex was an "old frame building" built in about 1870.

The next-door Richards House hotel was built in 1880, "completed in the palmy days of the city when the town was full of young Britishers who had money 'to burn,'" according to a 1900 article in the Le Mars Semi-Weekly Post.

The hotel itself offered "a fine bar, gambling tables of all kinds" and more, the article said.

The hotel was torn down in 1900, according to the article, which added "if the walls of the old building could talk, they could tell may strange stories that would be a great shock to the average residents of Le Mars 20 years later. What was then an everyday occurrence in Le Mars would now not be tolerated for a single minute."

After the hotel closed, the annex was converted into a laundry, run by German immigrant Leonard R. Wasmer. Then Wasmer's wife, Emily, who divorced him, took over, according to Severson.

Emily continued to run the laundry, but had to pay her ex-husband $12.50 a month, according to the divorce settlement.

In 1918, Emily sold the property to F. J. Smith, who sold it to Fred Knoop in 1926.

The Knoops' clinic

Then, in 1928, Fred wanted to replace the old building with a "modern building suitable for his work," according to the 1928 Sentinel article.

The result was the current building at 26 Second St. N.W. -- a stucco one-story with unique angled garage doors and wooden trim.

The front housed a main office room and a small side room, and the back was a garage with entry doors from both the east and west.

When Severson owned the building, the small basement held kennels and offered storage of animal medications and supplies that didn't need to be refrigerated.

Serving as a veterinarian's office for more than half a century, the building holds many memories.

In 1936, when Fred and his family were on vacation, there was an epidemic of hog cholera. Fred's assistant dispensed large amounts of the hog cholera serum, Severson said.

Farmers at the time were struggling, and many couldn't pay the vet. When the Knoops returned from vacation, the vet clinic's own bills came due.

"They had to sell their house to come up with the money," Severson said.

But Fred wouldn't give up practicing veterinary medicine.

Instead, he and his family -- including two married daughters' families -- moved into the back of the veterinary clinic, Severson said.

"They strung wires across there and hung up sheets to divide it into rooms," he said. "The three families lived there for about a year."

It was crowded, for sure, but Bill Knoop told Severson that didn't bother them too much.

"He said those were some of the happiest days of his life," Severson recalled.

Farmers unable to pay the veterinary bills were pretty common when Fred was practicing, but he kept his veterinary office open anyway, Severson said.

"Dr. Knoop thought the farm economy was never going to get better, so he actually discarded his books, because he figured he was never going to get paid," Severson said, laughing.

The Knoops later purchased two houses built by the Pew family just west of the former clinic.

Fred and his wife lived in one -- where Severson and his wife Joan now live.

Bill's family lived in the other.

New vet in town

Severson was a young veterinarian when he purchased the Knoops' veterinary clinic.

"A salesman called me and said there was a practice for sale -- I had to buy the house and the practice in one fell swoop," he said.

Originally from Moorhead, Severson was practicing in Storm Lake at the time, where he met his wife, Joan.

Just after they were married, the couple moved to Le Mars.

"From honeymoon to here," Joan said with a chuckle.

So in 1951, he took over the clinic.

"I wasn't supposed to start work until Monday morning, but they started calling on Saturday or Sunday," Severson said. "It was really busy."

Severson eventually paired up with fellow veterinarian Dr. Wayne Faber, and they worked together from 1954-85.

"There wasn't a veterinary at Akron, so we had to cover a lot of the county at the time," Severson said. "I had a lot of responsibility when I was about 25 years old."

The area he covered ranged from Akron to east of Sioux City to southern Sioux County, he added.

"I guess we thought it was our job to save the world," he chuckled. "There was six months once where I didn't have a day off."

Farmers would come in to the vet clinic to schedule work on their animals, to pick up medicine and to get advice, Severson said.

Veterinarians did most of the vaccinations in those days, not the farmers, he added.

"It used to be on Saturday night we'd stay open until 9 or 10 p.m., and the office would be full, and people would be waiting to come into my office," Severson said. "Saturday night was a big night in town."

Cows, hogs and an elephant

The majority of Severson's work was with large animals, but he did keep kennels in the basement and on the main floor of the Le Mars office.

Severson said he didn't do any renovation on the building he bought from the Knoops.

There was an operating room for small animals in the western side of the back garage, where light streams in from windows on the old garage door.

Severson also did a lot of work with chickens at the time.

"Farmers' wives used to get the egg money and spend that, so we took care of a lot of chickens," he said.

Joan remembers her husband doing some work with the circus animals when the circus came through town.

"One time I had to treat an elephant. It had indigestion," Severson said. "And I had to pull some teeth from a monkey."

Another time, Severson almost got into trouble because he was housing an eagle that had been injured and was nursing it back to health.

"I called the game warden, and he came in with an Iowa patrolman and said, 'you could be under arrest for harboring an endangered species,'" Severson said. "I didn't take that very seriously. I didn't think by saving that eagle's life I'd go to jail."

The majority of Severson's work, though, was on the family farm.

"I always say I practiced in the golden age of the family practice," Severson said. "We had the family farm, and the typical farm had milk cows, a few stock cows, chickens, sheep."

At that time, farmers would all help each other when they had jobs to do.

"We got so we knew all the kids, all the wives, all the husbands," Severson said. "It was right after World War II and everybody was really optimistic about the future. Farmers were doing well. Everybody was doing well."

In the later years of his practice, Severson moved his office to what is now the Christian Needs Center.

But the majority of his years were spent at the little stucco clinic on Second Street Northwest.

Severson said it was interesting living next door to his office.

"That was handy, and yet it wasn't handy," he laughed. "Basically you're always on call."

One man even told Severson, "Doc, I always call you at night because at night you come right out."

Severson said he is grateful for the Plymouth County farmers he worked with for decades.

They not only shaped his experience, but also the area's history, he said.

"The farmers in this area are very, very good farmers," Severson said. "I learned a lot from the farmers. And I hope I taught them a few things, too."

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