Sharing the past for the future: Winona and the 1918 flu pandemic


With COVID-19 overtaking most people’s lives, 2020 will certainly go down in the history books. However, this is not Winona County’s first experience with a pandemic. The influenza pandemic of 1918 hit area communities hard. The following is taken from the Winona Republican-Herald, chronicling the affects the disease had on Winonans and the world over 100 years ago.

During World War I, a great epidemic spread over the world taking the lives of millions of people. Known as the “Spanish Influenza” it spread rapidly in the United States, beginning among soldiers in the training camps in New England who were preparing for deployment to the war zone in France. By mid-September, influenza was widespread in many of the larger cities in the United States and schools were being closed.

By late September, the federal government recognized the urgency of the problem and began to mobilize in communities where influenza had gained a foothold. Masks were distributed in large numbers to physicians across the country. By the first of October, the Surgeon General recommended that public places be closed where influenza had developed. 

However, in Winona it was business as usual. At St. Mary’s College, located some two miles from Winona, 50 cases had been confirmed but classes remained in session. However, the Christian Church elected not to hold Sunday School classes until the epidemic had passed. The Williams Shoe Company reported a high number of absent employees due to influenza, but production was not hampered.

During the second week of October, Winona’s east and west ends were hit with mild cases of influenza and students attending St. Stanislaus School were barred from attending school if influenza was present in their homes. Generally, it was felt that children were safer in school because their teachers would recognize how to handle their illness if present.

By mid-October, an organized effort to combat the spread of influenza was launched in Winona by the local Red Cross as over 100 cases of influenza had been reported to the city health office with most of these cases on the East End of Winona. With so many cases, local business activity was crippled.

The local Red Cross and city health office called for help and issued some recommendations. Nurses were asked to volunteer to help with the sick and students from the Normal School volunteered to make masks for those who were treating the sick. It was also advised that theaters, schools, and churches be closed to prevent the spread of influenza.

By the end of October, influenza had put a crimp in all business activity with the exception of drug stores, and it was noted that Vicks VapoRub was in short supply. The City Council passed a resolution calling for the closure of all public buildings, but with no enforcement.

With the approach of November, the crisis seemed to have passed and few cases of influenza were reported and still fewer in December. By the end of the year, the city health office reported that in the last three months of 1918 that 85 deaths in Winona were attributed to influenza: 62 in October, 15 in November, and eight in December. Included was a priest from St. Mary’s College and a local doctor. In addition, apparently seven local soldiers also died of influence while away from Winona.

A few cases of influenza were reported in 1919, and it was not until September that Winona was free of the disease. In all it was reported that 7,392 deaths occurred in Minnesota due to the influenza epidemic. It was recommended that if a large number of cases developed again, a strict quarantine would be observed.

Local history becomes people’s collective history and the community knows its importance now more than ever. Future generations will learn about the historic COVID-19 pandemic through stories, accounts, images and video from you living it today. Please consider documenting your experiences, thoughts and feelings, and ways you have seen COVID-19 affect Winona County communities and donate them to the Winona County Historical Society for future study. Please either email or drop off/mail them safely later to WCHS Archives, 160 Johnson Street, Winona, Minn., 55987.

WCHS museums are currently closed through at least May 1. Without classes, events, ticket sales, facility rentals and field trips, WCHS’ operating budget is being hit hard. 

To help make up those lost funds please consider making a special online donation, or if you are not already, become a member of the Winona County Historical Society. People of Winona County are proud of their history and heritage. Organizers thank you for your support in ensuring that WCHS can continue to collect, preserve and share local history for everyone. You can find more information, get updates, take a virtual visit, stay engaged with local history, and donate at


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