Recent data released from the Minnesota Department of Health and their partners with the CDC has shown a slight decrease in the number of reported COVID-19 cases, a trend that state officials attribute to the executive order signed by Governor Tim Walz mandating indoor mask wearing, in addition to ongoing social distancing efforts.
This isn’t the first time Minnesotans have confronted a global pandemic. Much attention has been drawn to the 1918 Flu Pandemic (misleadingly referred to as the ‘Spanish Flu’ because of wartime press restrictions). When all was said and done, the pandemic would kill an estimated 500,000 Americans alone, along with millions more around the world. A look at local history during this time sheds light on how people in the Granite Falls area reacted to the pandemic and the steps they took (and didn’t take) to turn the tide against the outbreak.
The first reports of the flu arriving in Minnesota come from late September, 1918 when the Minnesota Board of Health received an urgent telegram from Dr. H.M. Braken warning about “Severe influenza [in] Faribault County Wells Village — 100 cases reported following return of soldier from containment.” By October 1, there were 42 confirmed cases at Fort Snelling, with other metro localities reporting their first infections.
Similar to COVID-19, the flu put enormous strain on medical resources that were already stretched thin thanks to the ongoing war in Europe. An ad placed in the Minneapolis Journal, titled “The Nation Needs Nurses to Check Influenza,” stated that “owing to the rapid spread of the present epidemic, the safety of this country demands that all patriotic nurses, nurses’ aides, or anyone with experience in nursing place themselves a once at the disposal of the government.”
In the October 15, 1918 edition of the Granite Falls Tribune, the reality of the pandemic was grimly marked by a large banner notice running above the front page headlines advising people who to call for medical treatment. Directly beneath the banner is a news article reporting 200 flu cases in the Granite Falls vicinity. The article reports the grim news that two doctors succumbed to the flu (Dr. Berg and Dr. Hart) while another (Dr. Kerns) was in critical condition.
In other places on the front page are reports of the latest fatalities along with updates on recovering patients. Often, victims of the flu included whole families. One report from the October 29th issue of the paper is fairly typical and captures how the flu could even take younger victims. The article begins, “After a hard fight with the common enemy [the Spanish flu], Louie Morgan [...] was compelled to lie down in the path of life before he had travelled very far along its sunny ways. He, also others in the family, were sick with influenza, but he was the one selected to leave all earthly things and enter that door we call Death.”
The severity of the pandemic forced the Granite Falls City Council to take emergency action. In an article titled “Mayor and Council take drastic action,” the Tribune reported that a whole series of prohibitions on public gatherings would take effect to slow the spread of the disease. The Council voted to close “confectionery stores and soda fountains,” shut down “buses” and have residents “use open cars and buggies” instead, and put in place a “central place for all sick calls and attendance day and night.”
Among the more innovative steps taken by local officials was an order for the “Boy Scouts to keep people and boys off streets” in addition to having the scouts “deliver medicine but not to enter homes.”
The Council also took action to set-up an emergency temporary hospital at City Hall. “Plans are already underfoot,” the same article reported, “to turn the City Hall into a hospital in case the epidemic grows worse, thus making it possible for the nurses to care for a greater number in shorter time than if they are at their homes.”
The article concludes, “To aid in stamping out this epidemic, each individual should do everything in his power to help assist and aid the City Council by obeying the restrictions they have laid down to the letter [...] The situation is no worse in Granite than it is in many of our surrounding towns.”
Although there were widespread problems in implementing many of the preventative measures, and locals were handicapped by the needs of the war effort, the pandemic was ultimately defeated. Later in the year, the Tribune reported that “the influenza situation in this city has cleared up wonderfully the past week - no deaths, and but a few light cases reported.” The Tribune attributed the decline in cases to the fact that “the health and city officials have been taking all possible precautions,” adding that “all restrictive regulations will continue in effect until all danger from the spread of the disease is over.”
Although the end is not yet in sight for our current COVID-19 pandemic, learning the lessons from history will surely help us today overcome this modern plague.