BEMIDJI -- Gov. Tim Walz closed Minnesota’s restaurants and bars to dine-in and drink-in customers this week. A similar thing happened a century ago, when a headline in the Oct. 12, 1918 edition of the Bemidji Daily Pioneer blared this message in all capital letters:
PUBLIC PLACES ARE ORDERED CLOSED
Bemidji Mayor Charles W. Vandersluis had asked the newspaper to announce that all schools, churches, motion picture theaters and all places of public gathering in Bemidji would be closed as a precautionary measure against the spread of the Spanish influenza pandemic.
About 500 million people -- one-third of the world’s population -- became infected with the Spanish flu virus. About 675,000 Americans were among the 50 million people worldwide who died from the virus.
In a 2018 Bemidji Pioneer article, Cecelia McKeig wrote about how the Spanish flu impacted Beltrami County. It was written as part of our partnership with the Beltrami County Historical Society. Readers might have been surprised to learn that Baudette was part of Beltrami County at the time. The first death in Beltrami County was that of Alma Boquist, a waitress at Baudette. Lake of the Woods County broke off in 1922, and Baudette then became its county seat.
Boquist died on Nov. 1, 1918. The second Beltrami County death was that of Edward Noft, born in Russia. He was a merchant in Baudette and was ill only six days before his death on Nov. 6, 1918. Unfortunately, Bemidji eventually had its deaths, too. Between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31 of 1918, Bemidji had 37 deaths. Seventeen more residents died from the flu or its complications in 1919.
Here’s more from McKeig’s story:
Bemidji at first thought that it was a haven from the flu, but in the fall of 1918, it, too, experienced the effects.
The 1918 pandemic was unusual in that it killed many healthy 20- to 40-year-olds, including millions of World War I soldiers. The virus itself did not cause most of the deaths. Instead, many individuals, infected by the virus, succumbed to pneumonia due to a secondary bacterial infection. In an era before antibiotics, pneumonia could be fatal.
“Bemidji has been lucky in many ways. Bemidji has no Spanish influenza,” said Dr. E.A. Shannon, city health officer, on Oct. 3, 1918. He assured the residents that although the new disease was spreading in 43 states, Bemidji was in no immediate danger. One week later, the state board of health discussed the possibility of closing the schools throughout the state. Bemidji felt that it was not necessary, as the school nurse had not discovered a single case among the pupils, and Shannon assured the public that he had heard of no Spanish influenza in the city.
“Bemidji should be exempted under any contemplated influenza decree,” he said.
The next day, Crookston started to close its schools and motion picture theaters. Fargo had already reported 2,000 cases of Spanish flu with a total of 110 deaths. That’s when Mayor Vandersluis decided that all places of public gathering in Bemidji would be closed as a precautionary measure against the spread of the epidemic.
Not only were all schools and theaters closed, but church services were also discontinued. Bemidji’s Carnegie Library also came under the closing order. The reading room of the Crookston Lumber Co. in Bemidji was closed. The roller-skating rink and wide-open card games were also banned. Any place where people could congregate was included in the ban, which they expected to last about six weeks.
All children were to be kept at home and “not allowed to roam at will.” Chief of Police John Essler said the best bunch of children in the city were those of Nymore, and he complimented the children and their parents on their cooperation. When the chief went out to the Fifth Ward to round up any youngsters who were in violation of the order, he failed to discover even one child on the streets.
The Ojibwe people at Red Lake were hit hard by the epidemic, and Brenda Child has pointed out that the Ojibwe Jingle Dress Dance stems directly from that epidemic. She has written about the dress, dance, songs, and associated stories that link the jingle dress to the global influenza epidemic. The Ojibwe women who experienced this epidemic were the first to recognize the therapeutic power of the jingle dress, wrote Child in her book, “My Grandfather’s Knocking Sticks.”