Herald Journal - Enterprise Dispatch - Delano Herald Journal
Universal Labs in Dassel saved lives, now tells history

May 25, 2009

By Starrla Cray
Staff Writer

DASSEL, MN – Once the largest producer of ergot in America, Universal Laboratories is now home to the Dassel Area Historical Society.

“Ergot has been around since the beginning of agriculture,” Dassel Area Historical Society Director Carolyn Holje said. “It’s a very toxic and poisonous fungus that grows on grain in cool and damp years.”

Although the ingestion of ergot caused the deaths of thousands of people, the fungus went from “blight to blessing” when ergot-based medicines helped save the lives of many people, according to the Dassel Area Historical Society brochure.

In 1937, LR Peel opened Universal Laboratories in Dassel to supply ergot to pharmaceutical companies.

Drugs made from ergot were frequently used in the battlefield during World War II because of the fungus’ blood-clotting abilities. “When soldiers were wounded, it would stop the bleeding,” Holje explained.

“People all over the midwest and Canada sent their grain by train and truckload to Dassel,” Holje said.

Many different types of machines were invented to make separation of the ergot and grain easier. Some machines worked better than others, and they were located in different areas throughout the building.

The electrostatic machine, on the third level, was the one that worked the best, Holje said.

After the majority of the grain and ergot had been taken apart by a machine, women would separate the rest by hand.

“It provided an opportunity to do a different kind of work in Dassel,” Holje said.

The women worked on the second level. This area is a mezzanine, which means it is an intermediate floor that overlooks the first floor like a balcony.

The north end of the building was used to dry the grain and yeast. This open area allowed air to come through for the drying process.

In the mid 1970s, a synthetic version of ergot was developed, Holje said. As a result, Universal Laboratories closed. Now, the four-story building features an exhibit about ergot, as well as many other exhibits about people and events affecting the Dassel area.

The building has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1996.

“In 2006, the Minnesota Preservation Alliance named it as one of 25 of the most significant preservation projects in Minnesota,” Holje said.

The original building has a total of about 6,000 square feet of space. Recently, the amount of space doubled, with a 6,000 square foot addition. This new part was added so that the original structure can be used entirely as a museum.

Part of the new structure includes a community room, which is a project through the City of Dassel.

The new part also includes bathrooms, an entryway, offices, archival storage space, and more.

“It’s going to be a significant addition to the Dassel community,” Holje said.


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