The lack of association and entertainment is something that soon began to pall on the average person.“The Exponent,” 1918.
Comparisons are being made of the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918 and the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. We know how the coronavirus is impacting the United States and Chagrin Falls today. Schools are closed, as are churches. Playgrounds are cordoned off with police tape. No mass gatherings. Social distancing is the order of the day and masks are today’s fashion statement. Only “essential businesses” are open but with limited access. There are reports of some of our neighbors catching, or should we say, being ambushed by, the virus, but fortunately there have been no deaths of village residents to date.
Let’s look at Chagrin Falls in the fall of 1918. The population was approximately 2, 237 according to the 1920 census. The village was not yet a bedroom community although the Interurban made commuting to or from Cleveland and the eastside convenient. The country was in the midst of World War I and industries were placed on a war time footing. The Exponent newspaper printed letters written home from young men from the village serving overseas and in training camps in the U.S. and along about October of 1918, the village began to feel the effects of the Spanish Flu.
The Public Health response to the epidemic originated with the State of Ohio. In early Octoberof 1918 the state issued a statement saying that while physicians were not required by law to report cases of influenza to the health authorities, they were requested to do so “as a means ofhelping guard the public and to prevent interference with war industries.” Up to that point, there were no large outbreaks reported in Ohio although graduate nurses and nursing students were ordered to register with their local Red Cross (our chapter was known as the Squaw Rock Chapter.)Advice given back then sounds familiar today, including the following:
1. Avoid crowds
2. Avoid the breath or expelled secretions from people suffering colds
3. All those caring for flu patients should wear masks
4. Don’t spit on the sidewalk
Two weeks later, life in the village changed drastically. The Oct. 17 Exponent reported that the previous week, a large Liberty Bond parade was held by students and teachers who walked through town, followed by an enthusiastic rally complete with speeches and musical numbers in Assembly Hall. Shortly thereafter, Chagrin Falls Public Health Officer J. B Huggett, citing orders from the State Board of Health, ordered the “picture shows, churches, lodge meetings, dances and other public places of assembly in the village closed for two weeks.” Huggett wanted to close the schools as well, as had been done in Chardon, Burton and Cleveland, but since there were no confirmed cases of the flu in the village, although there were some suspected cases, closing was briefly deferred. A week later the schools were closed for at least two weeks. Two confirmed cases were reported which was considered “remarkable in view of the continued travel to and from the city (Cleveland) where the malady is epidemic.” Local shops and businesses remained open. In fact, the Adams Bag factory continued to advertise for employees to replace the men who had gone off to war.
On Nov. 4 it was reported that, “Undue haste in reopening places of public gathering closed because of the influenza epidemic was decried by the State Department of Health. Premature relaxation of closing orders may wipe out most of the good which such orders have accomplished.”
That being said, when news arrived of the cessation of fighting in France on Nov. 11, the town went wild. An impromptu parade was held early in the day with another held that evening. The cannon was dragged to the top of Grove Hill and fired. The day was declared a village holiday and all thoughts of a general quarantine were gone.
State officials strongly advised extreme caution in lifting the bans on mass gatherings in favor of a gradual relaxation of those bans. The order banning mass gatherings was extended and the schools remained closed. By the end of November there were 13 reported cases, probably more unreported cases, and one death attributed to the flu. Henry Manzer, 39, left a wife and four young children. He was a carpenter who worked in Cleveland. A week later, there were 40 cases and another 10 the following week.And 21 additional cases the week after that. Mr. Huggett suggested placing quarantine placards on houses where flu victims were recovering.
By the end of December, the number of new cases tapered off. The closing orders were still in place; there were no Christmas church services to attend in 1918. The closing order for the schools and the general quarantine was lifted on Dec. 30. “The Exponent” reported that the disease itself was bad enough but “the lack of association and entertainment is something that soon began to pall on the average person.” Yet, it also reported that “the village has been fortunate so far, no doubt largely owing to the prompt and extensive closing order.” About 3 percent of the population caught the flu, with only one death.
Life in the village quickly returned to normal with picture shows, club and lodge meetings, school athletic games all taking place regularly. Chagrin Falls avoided the worst of the epidemic which took the greatest toll in congested cities and in rural areas and small towns that did not have the means of instituting public health policies.
Ms. Gorretta is the archivist for the Chagrin Falls Historical Society & Museum.