Social Distancing Helped Kalamazoo Fight The 1918 Flu

Mar 30, 2020

Stockbridge-Everard House was used as an emergency hospital during the epidemic.
Credit Courtesy photo / Kalamazoo Public Library

Kalamazoo’s experience with an earlier pandemic has a lesson to teach about the effectiveness of what we now call social distancing – and the dangers of ending it too soon.

The 1918 influenza, often called Spanish flu even though it probably originated in Kansas, killed millions of people around the world (though a precise or even a ballpark figure is notoriously hard to estimate). A milder version hit Kalamazoo in the spring and may have caused a handful of deaths.

Sometime over the summer, the virus turned into something much more dangerous, says City of Kalamazoo Historic Preservation Coordinator Sharon Ferraro, the author of an in-depth study of the city’s experience with the 1918 flu. The new virus appeared in Kalamazoo as the summer ended.

“Kind of like we have right now, it hit everybody pretty quickly,” Ferraro said. “It was a normal September, late September, a few people dying of this, that and the other thing. They’d just gotten over a minor smallpox epidemic, and then suddenly people start getting really sick.”

Flu wasn’t a reportable disease, so it took authorities a while to figure out why so many people were ill.

“Well into early October, Camp Custer, which is Fort Custer today, was still recruiting men from Kalamazoo to ride the interurban every day to go over and build more barracks,” Ferraro said.

Ferraro says Lewis Root might have been the last Kalamazoo victim, in February 1919. He served in the army and died after taking care of a brother with the flu.
Credit Courtesy photo / Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Record

As health officials caught on, the city eventually took steps to close down schools, businesses, bars, movie theaters, billiard halls and other public gathering places. Halloween was cancelled. A wave of cases subsided.

Then came the Armistice – the end of World War I – on November 11.

“Everybody rushed into the streets, to cheer and to be happy. There was a parade,” Ferraro said.

“People were coming in from all over Southwest Michigan, to come to Kalamazoo and celebrate in our downtown,” she added. “Not surprisingly, about a week later, another round of the flu began. The third round.”

“The deadliest day we had in the flu was during that third round and it was nine reported deaths on Christmas Eve,” she said.

Altogether about 229 people within today’s city limits, with cases appearing even in late spring 1919.