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Early Health Care Challenges

By Jill Evans, Administrator of the Stumptown Historical Society

In the days before penicillin, when inoculations were something new, there were frequent epidemics and people were in continuous fear of them.

In 1904 smallpox was most feared, and for many years there was a 10 foot by 12 foot “pest house” set up about where the Whitefish Lake Golf course is today. It was “an awful place” according to those who remember it, and “lots of money” was paid for drugs for it by the city. As late as 1917 the city council was paying bills for antitoxin for the pest house, and in November, 1917, a proposal to move the pest house to the old jail was defeated because such a house could not legally be located within the city limits.

There is a story about one J. Cook from the railroad camp who became sick in town. The local druggist, W.S. Dodge, took him to the timber south of town to await the health officer, who took him to the pest house. It was pointed out that there was no cause for worry over contamination or contagion because “his blankets had been stolen”

In 1904 also, Dick Willoughby, recently of Kalispell, was found to have a mild case of smallpox and was sent back to Kalispell. At this time guards were put on the trails to railroad camps to prevent men from coming to town or returning to camp pending vaccination. Notices in large type were posted stating that Whitefish was under smallpox quarantine. Businessmen of Whitefish put out denial notices, claiming that “the knockers on the outside are doing all they can to injure Whitefish” by the quarantine notices. By a state ruling in 1909 no more general quarantines were allowed, though signs were still put on afflicted houses. This move was to spur protection by vaccination rather than by quarantine. In December, 1909, there were seven known cases in Columbia Falls, and the Governor of Montana was investigating complaints against the non-quarantine ruling. However, the ruling stood, and with vaccination, fear of the disease rapidly lessened.

By 1910 during times of known smallpox danger, Whitefish school children who had no been inoculated were barred from school. The last serious smallpox “scares” was in 1916, 1921, 1923, and 1935. In June 1923, there were more than a dozen cases in Whitefish.

The early Whitefish Hospital at the corner of 4th and Spokane, ca 1907. Photo from the Stumptown Historical Society, Whitefish History, Whitefish Photos, Whitefish Museum


Scarlet fever closed the schools at least once in the early years and again in 1936.

In 1916 there was panic when a leper was discovered in the Japanese settlement of the town. He was Y. Honda, a railroad laborer who had lived in Whitefish two or three years in a shack near the river west of the tracks. Attempts were made to return him to Japan, but whether these were successful or not are uncertain. At any rate, he was removed from Whitefish and consequently disappeared from the pages of the Pilot.

In 1917, and probably in other years, there were short-lived scares because of deaths in the state from spotted fever and infantile paralysis. There were deaths from infantile paralysis in Whitefish itself, but the disease did not reach epidemic proportions here.

Tuberculosis was greatly feared throughout all the early years, and it was considered highly contagious and generally fatal.

Flu epidemics hit many times, and of course “Spanish flu” was particularly virulent in 1918 in Whitefish as over the country. Schools were closed for a protracted period. For a time so were all churches, saloons, theatres, and other meeting places. All social gatherings were cancelled. Articles on methods of combating flue-handling, nursing, and preventing it-appeared regularly in newspapers. The Masonic Temple and the school’s home economics building were used as stop-gap hospitals. Teachers and others helped with nursing, among them teachers Ida Murphy, Helen Stevenson, Tillie C. Thompson, Jessica Reed, and Mable F. DeWoody, Reverend A. N. Sanford, George Winans, Roy Koehler, and Mrs. C. M. Martinson.

Twenty-eight persons, the majority young men, died in Whitefish of flue in just seven weeks in the fall of 1918. Then cases were reported on a single day, November 7.

Other flu epidemics in 1919, 1920, and 1928 were prepared for thoroughly in advance, but all were much less serious. In 1920 the Booster Club organized the town, but though many were ill, only one death was attributed to flu. The 1928 epidemic was a long drawn-out affair, lasting through the winter and into April, when a school field meet was cancelled because of it, but there were no fatalities. The Pilot of December 14, 1928, highlights a side-issue when it states;

In 1919 thousands of emergency liquor prescriptions were written (for flue patients), Doctors were besieging O.K. Nickerson, Assistant Administrator of the District Prohibition Office in charge of permits in Helena for increased allowances of liquor. In 1928, however, no special liquor permits were issued unless the National Red Cross Director declared it necessary.”

See more of their story in the Whitefish museum, located in the Train Depot.

Stump Town to Ski Town book from the Stumptown Historical Society, Whitefish History, Whitefish Photos, Whitefish Museum

Note: The quoted material is taken from Stump Town to Ski Town, by Betty Schafer and Mable Engelter, written in 1972 and reprinted by the Stumptown Historical Society in 2003. It is available for sale in the Whitefish Museum located in the Train Depot or for purchase online.

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