Lessons from the past: How La Crosse responded to the 1918 pandemic

The way the city responded to the "Spanish Flu" is similar to how we're reacting to the coronavirus

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT)– What we’re going through with the coronavirus pandemic is strikingly similar to the one about a hundred years ago.  It’s estimated about 8,500 Wisconsin residents died during late 1918 and early 1919. Physicians raced to understand the “Spanish Flu” while rules were set to contain the spread.

It was September of 1918, and World War I was deescalating. American troops were headed home– bringing with them a deadly disease.

It was at the end of September when the number of “Spanish Flu” cases went from six to 97 in Wisconsin. La Crosse Public Library Archives Manager Anita Doering recently wrote about how the pandemic impacted the area.

Spanish Flu

Courtesy of the La Crosse Public Library. From the La Crosse Tribune: October 1, 1918.

“By October 1st of 1918, La Crosse County started to actually see its first cases,” Doering said.

Newspaper clippings and other city documents saved in the La Crosse Public Library’s archives detail the toll. West Salem bore the brunt in the beginning with more than 100 cases. Schools were closed.

“La Crosse was really dragging its feet and I couldn’t figure out why,” Doering said.

Even with 40 cases, La Crosse Mayor A.A. Bentley decided against closing schools.

The La Crosse Tribune Tue Oct 8 1918 (1)

The flu hits the city. From the La Crosse Tribune: October 8, 1918,

“The mayor decided he would leave it up to a group of city physicians. They thought, no– it might aggravate the situation,” Doering said.

Archivist Anita Doering believes that the general understanding at the time was this flu impacted otherwise healthy adults in their 20’s to 40’s.

“I think the doctors were thinking, ‘Well, maybe if young kids get it, that’s all right,'” Doering said.

They might not have thought kids could be carriers to those more at risk. But schools and businesses wouldn’t be open for much longer.

“There was a state health official, Cornelious Harper, who actually shut down the state,” Doering said.

The “advisory order” on October 10, 1918, instructed local boards of health to close all schools, theaters and other public gathering spaces.

“That was the first time ever that had happened,” Doering said.

Mayors Press Release Oct 10 1918 Full Size (1)

Courtesy of the La Crosse Public Library.

A press release from Mayor Bentley on that day told people congregating in large numbers should be avoided in places like stores, ice cream parlors, saloons, hotels and restaurants.

There were no penalties for those who didn’t comply, though the mayor’s letter told citizens to report to police any flagrant violations.

But Doering believes it was patriotism that kept people following the guidance.

“It’s the end of WWI, people are trying to do things on the homefront, trying to keep that momentum going,” Doering said.

Meanwhile, the city’s health commissioner, Dr. J.M. Furstman, began daily press briefings on the number of new cases.

The La Crosse Tribune Mon Nov 4 1918 (1)

An election notice. From the La Crosse Tribune: November 4, 1918.

And amid the pandemic– an election. The state order applied to parties campaigning, so they turned to mail campaigns. But in-person voting went on as planned. Election officials and police officers helped prevent crowds from gathering.

La Crosse officials lifted the ban on public places and gatherings at the beginning of November. But then, people celebrated Armistice Day.

“About 10 days after there was a huge spike all over the country because people had been out celebrating. And obviously, they weren’t practicing social distancing,” Doering said.

The La Crosse Tribune Mon Nov 11 1918 (1)

People celebrated in Riverside Park. From the La Crosse Tribune: November 11, 1918.

Local leaders had a mixed reaction to the news– whether to close up again or not. Doering said she found a notice from the mayor during this time. It said people could go out to businesses, but shouldn’t loiter.

“So it was like, get in, spend your money and leave. [laughs] Which I thought was kind of interesting. So he clearly did not want to shut businesses down,” Doering said.

While politics were playing out on the front page, others were making their own headlines.

Through her research, Doering found health officials and nurses were not just fighting the pandemic but other highly infectious diseases. To reduce disease, they helped create laws to manage waste disposal contracts, connect residents to city water and sewer systems and more.

“It hit everything so hard and so fast, but yet these people continued on, soldiered on basically trying to fight all these other contagious diseases,” Doering said.

A group of “656 mothers of La Crosse County” spearheaded an effort to hire a visiting nurse.

The La Crosse Tribune Fri Nov 22 1918 (1)

The headline read, “County gets nurse to conserve health of rural residents.” From the La Crosse Tribune: November 2, 1918.

The La Crosse Chapter of the Red Cross also offered a variety of services.

“They had women who were trained in basic nursing and I’m pretty sure those were the ones who were deployed out to the rural areas and families that were totally in need and had nobody else to rely on,” Doering said.

History repeats itself. While there are a lot of similarities to the past, our story is still being written.

There are many more articles and resources available from this time period. While the archives section of the library is currently closed, you can see clippings and more online on its website.