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2008 Fall Issue 7 (November 7, 2008)

Celebration of Armistice in 1918 tempered by influenza quarantine

November 7, 2008
By Sam Benshoof

At around 3 a.m. on November 11, 1918 – a world historic day whose ninetieth anniversary will be marked at Carleton and nationally next Tuesday - the fire-bells of Northfield began to peal. The bells announced the end of World War I – the Great War - the conflagration that heralded a century of bloody global conflict that took 20 million lives in all.

Less well-remembered than the 1918 Armistice Day celebrations in Northfield, however, is that the town’s two colleges that month were locked down in a medical quarantine that lasted for eight weeks, restricting movement on and off the Carleton and St. Olaf campuses. The quarantine in fact prevented Carleton men and women from participating in Armistice Day parades in Northfield later that day.

The Carleton and St. Olaf quarantines were imposed to protect the campuses communities from the Flu Pandemic of 1918, which proved to be an even deadlier holocaust than the Great War, taking more than 40 million lives worldwide by 1920.

The Carleton and St. Olaf quarantines utterly transformed campus life for both colleges, and doubtless saved many lives. But they were not entirely successful. Five people from the two colleges died, four from St. Olaf and one from Carleton. The Carleton casualty was Professor Fred B. Hill, a beloved campus figure and religion professor who is memorialized today by the Hill House off-campus residence, and by the Sayles-Hill Campus Center.

Ironically, Carleton College archives record that on Armistice Day of 1918, Professor Hill, who died only two months later, gave a “very appropriate address” at the Skinner Memorial Chapel to mark the end of the war in Carleton.

Across town at St. Olaf, on Armistice Day of 1918, students gathered outside in the cold to celebrate. However, someone in the party had the flu, and just days later 29 cases at St. Olaf were reported in the Northfield News. St. Olaf intensified its quarantine and braced for the worst.

Lynette Iezzoni, in “The Great Epidemic 1918,” pinpoints the origin of the Flu Pandemic of 1918 – also called the Spanish Flu -- at Camp Funston, Kansas, in March 1918. Iezzoni speculates that the particular strain of influenza had been transferred from swine or birds to humans. In August, 1918, the flu started to wreak havoc in Boston.

By October that year, the flu had reached Minnesota. According to the October 1 Minneapolis Journal, one of the first appearances of the flu in this state was at the military training camp at the University of Minnesota. Despite the proximity of the disease, though, Northfield leaders initially remained confident the cit would be safe.

The October 11 Northfield News shattered that optimism, though, announcing that flu cases had appeared in the nearby towns of Kenyon, Castle Rock, Cannon Falls, and Austin, Minnesota. In response, Northfield closed public gathering places, and Carleton and St. Olaf imposed a quarantine on their campuses. The Carletonia, the predecessor of today’s Carletonian, explained on Oct. 22 that “Quarantine for the men began at 5:30 on the afternoon of October 1, and has continued ever since. Altho it is not known exactly what day the quarantine will be lifted, it has been rumored that the men may be out some time this week if, as at present, there are no cases of influenza in the locality.”

Yet people at Carleton remained optimistic that the college would escape the worst. In The Carletonia of October 29, a student noted that the “students of Carleton have thus far been most fortunate in escaping the influenza epidemic.” Yet the student went on to warn: “The most extreme precautions must be taken in regard to damp clothing, sneezing, and general care of health if we would continue in our present fortunate condition.”

By early November, however, that optimism dimmed.

On Armistice Day, First Lieutenant Frederic C. Lord, in charge of the Student Army Training Corps at Carleton, ordered that the quarantine be continued. Three days later, the Carleton News Bulletin reported forty cases of the flue on campus. Within ten days, there were eight more cases. The quarantine intensified: men and women were kept apart; the men’s dormitory became a hospital; and new living quarters were established in the gymnasium. Records from the hospitals mark students’ conditions as “excellent,” “very good,” “good,” “fair,” or “quite sick.”

The Carleton News Bulletin of Nov. 18 gave further details on the Carleton quarantine: “No public gatherings away from the campus are attended, and the girls do not go out of town for week-ends, receive out-of-town guests, nor go down town except on errands of necessity.”

Five days later, the Carletonia ran a headline announcing “Influenza Situation is Greatly Improved.” The number of cases on campus had decreased from the previous week, and no serious cases of the flu were reported. Several Northfield residents had died from the flu, but Carleton had yet to lose a member of the college.

Meanwhile, St. Olaf was not as fortunate. The November edition of the Carleton News Bulletin reported that, “in spite of most energetic and heroic work on the part of [St. Olaf] college and physicians, the lives of four students were lost” in the span of five days.

“It has been a hard blow for St. Olaf and certainly a harder blow for the parents whose boys have gone,” wrote President Lars W. Boe to a Northfield minister. “But these boys have not either lived or died in vain. By their death here at St. Olaf they have perhaps done more to impress upon the student body the seriousness of life than they could by a lifeswork.”

Ninety new flu cases were reported that week alone. When six St. Olaf women came down with the disease, St. Olaf abruptly ended the semester on December 7, and sent students home to avoid further losses.

When Carleton students returned to campus from Christmas break, the college feared a further flu outbreak, although these fears were not realized. The quarantine was lifted in January of 1919 and “the life of the college…settled into normal channels,” according to the News Bulletin.

The college did not escape unscathed, however. On January 29, the Carleton and St. Olaf basketball teams gathered for one of the first sporting events since the end of the quarantine, playing two games at the Northfield Armory. Between the two games, it was announced over the loudspeaker that Professor Fred Hill had died from complications of the flu. Hill had become ill in mid-January and was unable to improve after several days of high fever and pneumonia. “His death came as a huge shock to the college,” said Carleton Archivist Eric Hilleman, “especially because he was so young” – only 43 years old.

Born in 1876, Hill graduated from Carleton in 1900, during which time he pitched on the Carleton baseball team. A major financial benefactor to the school, Hill had been deeply involved in the Northfield community as the president of a Hospital association, serving on the school board, and also coordinating a Red Cross Y.M.C.A. and War Savings stamp drives.

In the weeks following his death, the Northfield City Council adopted a resolution of “appreciation and condolence on the death of Professor Fred B. Hill.” The community lost “a recognized leader,” the resolution stated, and referred to Hill’s death as an “irreparable and grievous loss.”

-Special thanks to Doug McGill for his assistance and guidance in completing this article

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