Pandemic Lessons From The Past – Traverse City Versus Leelanau County

Researched and Written by Karen Rieser

Today my twins turned forty. I can remember looking down at my precious babies and calculating that when they turned forty, I would be seventy. What I didn’t calculate was that on this, their fortieth birthday, I would be practicing social distancing. We have been thrown a major curveball, novel coronavirus, or COVID19. This moment is not the first time the world and specifically the greater Grand Traverse area has been subjected to this sort of event. The Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918 presented many of the same concerns to the area. During my time of social distancing, I have been looking back into history, refreshing my knowledge concerning viruses, and looking into the why’s of what we are being asked to do.

Looking back, I find that from July 1914 through November 1918, World War 1 dominated the political climate of Western Europe and the United States. The Spanish flu appeared in the early months of 1918, late in the war. For most of Western Europe and the United States, the media was closely monitoring and reporting the news of the war. The flu was given very little press. Spain did not enter the war and freely published on the flu; therefore, it was erroneously felt that the flu had originated in Spain, and it earned the name – Spanish flu.

The greater Grand Traverse area was not exempt from experiencing the Spanish flu pandemic. On October 24, 1918, the death of a fourteen-year Buckley boy was announced. Buckley schools were closed immediately, and public gatherings rescheduled. Within two days, billiard halls were closed and shoppers told to keep moving. Later the State Health Director, Dr. R.M. Olin, ordered households of flu-infected persons to be quarantined, and theaters, churches, and non-essential gatherings to be closed. Also, the Army recommended that soldiers, the first carriers of the virus into the general population, and civilians should choose not to sneeze and stop promiscuous coughing and spitting.

The gravity of the situation was still taking a back seat to reports of the war. November 8, the allied victory over Germany was announced, and celebrations commenced. A Traverse City police led the parade down Front Street attracted crowds numbering in the thousands. Sadly, within a couple of days of the parade, fifty new cases of the flu were reported. By November 20, two residents had passed away. The flu continued to spread, appearing in Traverse City, Kingsley, Cedar, Fife Lake, Maple City, Petoskey, and other communities in the region.

As the intensity of this epidemic was realized, changes were needed in the greater Grand Traverse area. Traverse City had only one public hospital at the time, amounting to a small apartment on the State Hospital grounds, which was insufficient. In response, the State Hospital dedicated a special wing to care for flu patients. Hospital personnel protected themselves using face masks. Households with infected people were quarantined.

Unfortunately, the flu continued to spread. Officials were puzzled and sent Red Cross nurses door to door to evaluate the situation. When the results came in, they showed that the rules were not being adhered to regarding the quarantine. Nurses from the State Hospital were removing their masks at night and going to theatres, dance halls, and restaurants. People quarantined at home were casually observing the rules, some even allowing guests to visit. Many new cases were discovered. As a result, all houses were marked with quarantine notices. Additionally, many people were not seeking medical attention, as it was too expensive. The Red Cross nurses located medical care for those not presently receiving it and ensured that quarantine rules were being strictly followed.

The county health doctor, Dr. E.L. Thirlby, eager to learn more about curbing the flu traveled to Chicago to attend a conference on the subject. He learned that the medical profession knew very little about curing the flu, however, he was told handwashing appears to hinder its spread. The Greater Grand Traverse Area continued to strictly observe quarantine rules and insisted that everyone wash their hands.

In the midst of all this, a medical border war began. In January of 1919, Leelanau County asked the state to declare the county quarantined as 200-300 new cases of flu had emerged. The county closed all public places except stores and allowed only five people in at a time. State police monitored all citizen movement and adherence to policy.

The new flu cases were blamed on the citizens of Traverse City. A county official was reported to have said, “We are satisfied that the disease was brought into Leelanau County from Traverse City and (Grand) Traverse County, and we are damned sore about it.” (Source: The Great Flu Pandemic of 1918, Patrick Sullivan, 12-15-2018)

Traverse City did not take this accusation lying down. The Record Eagle Newspaper reported that while Traverse City had a high flu count, Leelanau realized a drop in flu cases. A request was made to Leelanau health officials to allow a double wedding and dance to take place. The request was approved, and it was after these events that the new cases emerged.

Believing Traverse City had not properly handled their flu quarantine Leelanau County felt it needed to protect itself. After consulting with state health officials, the township health office, and the doctors of the county, the decision was made to set up a barrier between the counties. On January 17, 1918, a state police blockade was set up in Greilickville. As you approached the blockade, you had three choices available to you. First, you could turn around; secondly, you could wait at the blockade for four days, or last but not least, you could be arrested. Needless to say, this approach caused ill feelings.

Due to the accusations made by Leelanau County, a secret investigation was launched in Traverse City. The State Health Department Director, Dr. R. M. Olin, accused Traverse City health officials of making a joke out of the health department and not following their directives. Dr. Thirlby resigned defending the actions he took to protect the city but admitting to not reporting the proper number of cases to the State Health Department.

Photo by The History of Medicine

The blockade was taken down on February 5 by order of the State Board of Health. Most citizens of Leelanau county felt it had been a great success. It would not be until December 1, 1920, that the worldwide pandemic was considered over. Over the last one hundred plus years, much of the history of the county conflict has faded into the background.

I find history fascinating, however, I am living in this moment and have questions, one of which is: “What is a virus?” I require nothing more than a layman’s definition as I want to know how to avoid one, not research one. Simply put, a virus is a microscopic parasite smaller than bacteria. It is made up of RNA, ribonucleic acid, the messenger of DNA instructions, protein, and lipids (fats). A virus cannot exist on its own for very long, and therefore it must seek out a cell that allows it to survive and replicate. The virus enters the cell and replicates until the cell bursts, and its contents seek out new cells to enter or infect—what a mess.

It is our immune system that comes to the rescue. The immune system releases enzymes in addition to white blood cells made in our bone marrow. The white blood cells carry the antibodies that attack the virus by reprograming the RNA. The next time you have the same virus, your immune system remembers how to fight it, and your experience will be shorter. Amazing! One problem here: the CORVID19 virus is new, and our immune system has no experience fighting it. It does not mean the immune system will not try. The many individuals who have contracted the virus and survived will have created antibodies. Their antibodies will aid in creating a vaccine for the future.

What have we learned from the 1918 pandemic? Most importantly, I believe, is the importance of washing our hands regularly. Why is using soap and water such a game-changer? A characteristic of soap is that it dissolves fat. Remember, a virus cannot survive for long outside a cell and is made up of RNA, proteins, and fat. Soap dissolves the fat; the virus falls apart and never has a chance to enter a cell. Simple and effective.

To wash one’s hands properly, use warm water, soap, and scrub through two verses of Happy Birthday, about 20 seconds. Be sure to scrub each finger, your palm, and the top part of the hand to the wrist. Dry on a clean towel.

A second important lesson from 1918, self-quarantine: COVID19 cannot enter your home if you don’t go out and get it. Quarantine, as we learned in 1918, is effective. While out of the house, avoid touching as much as possible, stay a minimum of six feet away from others, sanitize your hands as you leave the area visited, and wipe down your steering wheel before driving home.

Upon your return to your home, be sure to wash and or sanitize your hands, wipe down doorknobs you used to get in before washing your hands, and your phones.

I believe that the knowledge gained from the influenza pandemic of 1918, in addition to one hundred years of scientific research, advancement in medical facilities, current medical expertise, and following CDC instructions, will bring us through this event. One critical lesson from 1918 – FOLLOW DIRECTIVES. We are an intelligent community….


There are other interesting articles on this topic:

Northern Express –

Record Eagle – | When Spanish flu came to TC

2 thoughts on “Pandemic Lessons From The Past – Traverse City Versus Leelanau County

  • April 2, 2020 at 10:49 pm

    Fascinating, Karen! And, as always, so well written!!!

  • April 2, 2020 at 10:56 pm

    Karen, I enjoyed the history. We are living in another historical time. Thank you for your gift of writing.


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