Quarantines in Mitchell County History

The Corona Times – April 8, 2020

by David & Marsha Biddix

NOTE: Special thanks goes to MCHS Office Manager Marsha Biddix for her help in researching and preparing today’s post.

While our current state of emergency that requires shelter in place in an effort to control the spread of COVID-19 is unprecedented in the lifetimes of most of our county residents, it is not the first time that quarantines were put in place in an effort to control the spread of disease in the county.

While we were unable to locate documentation of quarantines during the 1918-1919 influenza outbreak in the county, an article in the November 25, 1918 edition of The Wilmington Morning Star called the death toll from the flu in North Carolina in October, 1918 “appalling.” In that deadly month, an estimated 5,000 North Carolinians lost their lives to flu and flu-spawned pneumonia, even after infections had peaked in September of that year. The death spike occurred in the last week of October, with so many deaths occurring that doctors had not completed paperwork on several individuals who had succumbed to the virus. Locally, Mitchell County recorded 28 deaths from the flu, while Avery had 6, McDowell totaled 34, and Yancey recorded 14.

When the second wave of influenza broke out in 1919, the February 12th edition of the Asheville Citizen ran a story entitled “Influenza is Bad in Mitchell County.” Oddly enough, the story begins with a statement that “the influenza has been placed under the control of the health department here” which makes one wonder who was in charge of the September outbreak. It continues with the statement that “conditions in that county were never worse from the disease than they now are.” It concludes sharing the somber story of the Willis family. Mrs. Ira Willis and an infant passed away first, followed by two other brothers who died and were buried together. The father and another boy died two days later, and the next day it was reported that a 3 year-old boy was still alive but was not expected to live. The article concludes with the statement that “other cases are very serious in Mitchell County.” No number from the February outbreak is listed anywhere that we could find.

A total of 13,644 North Carolina residents perished from the flu. We do not have final numbers on deaths in Mitchell County.

The next major outbreak of disease that required quarantine (that we could find documented) was that of polio, twice in the 1940s, and we have stories from a Mitchell County native who remembers one of these outbreaks.

Photo of Iron Lung from the Williams Clinic

This iron lung assisted the breathing of polio patients at the Williams Clinic in Spruce Pine in the 1940s. It is now on display in Calvin Hall’s local history collection.

June, 1944 was a big month. D.Day took place June 6th and shortly after that, a wave of polio broke out in North Carolina. This was a feared disease as there was no vaccine available for the virus (that would come in the 1950s) and recovery or survival from the disease could mean anything from a normal life to one requiring special braces in order to walk all the way down to living in an iron lung for the rest of one’s days. Death was also a common occurrence. Plus, there was a constant reminder of the effects of polio as American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a victim in his 20s and could not stand on his own or walk while he was President.

By June 28th, The Charlotte News reported 104 cases of polio in North Carolina for the month of June.

With the worry that the virus would spread, the North Carolina Board of Health announced in early July that steps were being taken to keep the public informed of developments in the outbreak of polio. They suggested that children ages 15 and under should not visit places where people congregate.

On July 8, Burlington’s Daily Times-News reported that 224 cases had occurred since June 1 and that there were 10 deaths from the disease. On July 11, the Asheville Citizen announced a third polio case in Buncombe County had been diagnosed. It was at a girls’ camp at Montreat, near Black Mountain. This prompted rules for summer campers be put in place to protect them and control the spread of disease. On July 25, the Daily Times-News reported that authorities were hopeful of a downward trend in the epidemic in North Carolina, but that later proved to be wrong. Cases reported were 373 since June 1 and 48 Counties were affected. Mitchell County was not one of those with active cases. The Charlotte Observer reported on July 30th that the ban continued for children under 15 to gather where people congregate in accordance with the health board edict.

Photo of the Hickory Polio Hospital

Taken from the August 27, 1944 issue of The Asheville Citizen.

In August, the State Board of Education announced that the 1944-45 school year start would be delayed due to the polio outbreak after the executive committee of the State Board of Health requested a delay until September 18. On August 5, 453 cases reported in 48 counties since June 1 and 21 known deaths. had occurred. Just three days later, the Asheville Citizen reported a rise to 470 cases since June 1 with 22 deaths and 54 counties reported cases. Most of them were isolated in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, centering on Caldwell, Wilkes, Burke, and Catawba Counties. This prompted the rapid construction of a polio hospital in Hickory that served patients for nine months while other medical facilities were being constructed around the state. Only 12 patients died in the hastily constructed hospital while it was open.

On August 20, the Asheville Citizen said the spread of polio was higher than any year since 1916, and on August 24, the Asheville paper reported the first case of polio in Mitchell County, which was confirmed on August 23 and information was sent to state health authorities. The individual was not identified and there was not a death reported from polio in Mitchell County. The Citizen stated that there were 590 cases in 66 counties on August 24, with a death total of 23. On August 31, the Citizen reported there were 638 cases since June 1 in 72 counties. Deaths remained at 23.

On September 4th, The Charlotte Observer published a theory that railroads were how polio had spread throughout North Carolina. Others debunked the theory since there were pockets of infection that were far from any tracks. The same story noted that the number of cases had risen to 655 in 72 counties. On September 8th the Asheville Citizen noted that the number of polio cases in North Carolina had exceeded the record set in an an outbreak in 1935 by two cases. The paper reported 677 cases in 75 counties with 23 deaths. But the peak occurred six days later, with the Citizen reporting that there were 686 cases since June 1 with 26 deaths in 75 counties. The total for the year is 694 cases with 29 deaths.

On September 16, 1944, the Charlotte Observer reported that Jason Deyton, Superintendent of Mitchell County Schools, announced that the school year would begin Monday, September 18th for all county schools. For the rest of the fall, the outbreak declined and other schools began to open around the state with life returning to normal.

Photo of the interior of the Spruce Pine Pharmacy

The Spruce Pine Pharmacy was on Lower Street where the Central Park is today.

I had a special look into the summer of 1944 outbreak in Mitchell County given to me by my uncle, Bill Pittman, who today lives in the Ledger community not far from his childhood home. That summer, he was a 12 year-old whose older sister (my mother) had just gotten married and moved from their family home in the Possum Trot section near Ledger to Spruce Pine. He visited with the newlyweds that summer in their apartment on Crystal Street during the outbreak The Crystal Building still stands in Spruce Pine.

Uncle Bill told me about the restrictions, that basically kept him and my mom and dad in the apartment since he couldn’t go many places due to his age. He recalled slipping down late in the afternoon near dusk to the Spruce Pine Pharmacy where he purchased comic books, some of which he still has today. When my mother was alive, she said my dad and Uncle Bill got puzzles and worked them since he couldn’t go out in public. My mom also described going to an ice cream shop on Upper Street near the old Toe River Service Station where they bought ice cream and took it back to the apartment and put it in ice cube trays to keep until they ate it during the weekend. So, while there were restrictions on youth during this time, adults could still travel, go to work, and socialize. That was surprising to me since polio is not an age-based disease.

The 1948 Outbreak

There was another polio outbreak reported on  July 24, 1948 that resulted in restrictions on groups and young people. The Asheville Citizen stated that the record figure of 878 cases set in 1944 was broken by the 1948 outbreak. A total of 2,516 cases were reported statewide in 1948 with 143 deaths. This resulted in more quarantines of youth across North Carolina. There was one case in Mitchell County. Seventeen year-old Elra Jean Willis of the Wing community was reported in the August 7, 1948 edition of The Asheville Citizen as having polio. She contracted it in late July and was taken to an orthopedic hospital in Asheville for treatment. Mrs. Willis had improved enough to return home according to the newspaper report. Dr. Cameron McRae,, health officer of the Avery-Mitchell-Yancey Health District, stated that he was lifting the quarantine on children  under age 16 on August 8th, 2 weeks after Mrs. Willis became ill. The same article notes that summer clinics at Crabtree Bridge, Estatoe, and Altapass were being continued as scheduled on Monday, August 9th.

So, there have been restrictions such as what we are facing in the past, just not to the level that COVID-19 has brought.

Does your family have stories about any of these outbreaks and quarantines? Please share if they do!

We Want to Tell Your Story

If you have stories, images, or videos that you would like to include in The Corona Times, please e-mail mitchellnchistory@gmail.com with your stories and files for inclusion. If you have problems sending us videos, please e-mail and we will make arrangements for you to upload the video to us.

About the Numbers

You will note a series of numbers contained in the blog. They document the spread of virus through confirmed cases by the federal Centers for Disease Control and by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. These are the official totals provided by state and local government at the date of the post and do not include estimates or cases not confirmed by these agencies. This is our effort to provide an accurate gauge of confirmed virus spread as it continues during the pandemic.

3,426

Cases in North Carolina
4/8/20

53

Deaths in North Carolina
4/8/20

386

Current Hospitalizations
in North Carolina
4/8/20

335

Cases in Western North Carolina
4/28/20

11

Deaths in
Western North Carolina
4/8/20

374,329

Cases in the United States
4/8/20

12,064

Deaths in the United States
4/8/20

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