Cokato Historical Society's newsletter In the Midst Of, July, 2020, Vol. 40 No. 2.
Spanish Influenza, so named because Spain was the first to publicize the crisis, came from unknown origins. In a war torn world brought on by World War I, soldiers carried the disease from one camp to another. By the spring of 1918, the Spanish flu reached the United States with the first case appearing in Kansas. In September of 1918, the virus reached Minnesota and spread at analarming rate. What was so terrifying about the malady is that victims could be healthy one moment then near death after only a few hours. Symptoms included cough, chills, fever, congestion, body aches, exhaustion and bleeding. On top of all of this, the flu was often followed by a bout of pneumonia, that proved deadly to many. By the time the influenza epidemic waned in Minnesota during the spring of 1919, over 10,000 people were dead. Even small rural communities like Cokato did not escape the reaper. 1
News of the Spanish flu in Cokato emerged in early October of 1918. In response, Local Board of Health president Dr. O. L. Peterson quickly discouraged large gatherings of people as early as October 10th. Cokato’s business community also reacted, and locations like the Cecile Theatre announcing they would close for at least a week or so to help prevent the spread of influenza. The following week, the Cokato Enterprise reported the closing of schools, a preventative measure that would last several weeks.
Each week, Cokato obituaries showed that influenza did not discriminate as people of various ages and health were stricken down. Fear grew more prevalent in November, as some Cokato churches even announced the cancelation of services. By the 21st, the Board of Health printed stricter quarantine measures in the Cokato Enterprise, requesting cooperation in the community and that “No gathering or crowding on streets or in places of business will be allowed. Whenever any member or any family becomes ill, such illness should be reported in order that its nature may be ascertained.”
By early December of 1918, the Cokato Enterprise announced “Influenza on the Wane.” This brought relief to the Cokato Hospital, who throughout this wave of the epidemic, had treated 70 patients with the Spanish flu, many of whom were in critical condition. Thankfully, nursing staff of the Cokato Hospital were trained in contagious diseases. The nursing staff was comprised of Superintendent Pearl Dunlay, Night Supervisor May Doyle, Nurses Ellen Olson, Mrs. Dahl, and Miss Leaf. Of the 70 influenza patients, the hospital reported 17 deaths.
Numbers of flu cases continued to drop with the December 19th, Cokato Enterprise, which stated that no new cases had been reported for several days. In addition, for the past three weeks Cokato schools were operating at 75%. In fact, students, after winter break, would attend school every Saturday and during “usual vacation periods” to make up for lost time.
Although the newspaper mentioned a lull in cases, many people in December were still concerned about a second surge of influenza. One article written in the Delano Eagle and reprinted in the Enterprise railed about how, “Warnings against unguarded spitting, coughing and sneezing have been issued and re-issued…” The concern wasn’t unwarranted. By the end of January 1919, more cases emerged. In response, the Board of Health and Education instituted a stay-at-home order, closing schools and churches, and reinstating the ban on large gatherings.
The restrictions seemed to work against further spreading of the flu. According to the
February 13, 1919, Cokato Enterprise, the “The strict observance of the board of health’s stay-at-home order has had the desired effects, and as a consequence the stubborn epidemic of influenza seems to be under control.” The following week, schools and churches resumed their usual activities.
1. Laine, Mary. "Influenza Epidemic in Minnesota, 1918." MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society. http://www.mnopedia.org/event/influenza-epidemic-minnesota-1918 (accessed July 15, 2020).