The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in Northfield

By Stephanie Hess, Northfield History Collaborative, January 2018

The influenza virus that arrived in Northfield in early November 1918 was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. It spread rapidly, targeted young adults, killed in high numbers, and caused significantly stronger symptoms than ordinary seasonal influenza. People called the disease the "Spanish Influenza" because Spain was one of the first countries to report on it, since they were neutral during World War I and not under wartime censorship, but the disease was a worldwide pandemic. 

The first cases of influenza occurred in Minnesota during the last week of September at military camps. By September 30, 1918, both Fort Snelling and the Dunwoody Naval Institute in Minneapolis were under quarantine. The virus spread to civilians within a week, however, and then it started to travel south towards Northfield.

Northfield leaders were aware that influenza was spreading throughout the country and state and took steps to try to prevent the infection of the town. On October 11, 1918, the city’s Board of Health issued quarantine regulations to close public meetings, the churches, the public schools, the Grand Theater, pool halls, and the Community Club–anywhere that large groups of people would meet. Despite these measures, local physician Dr. W. Wilson noted his first Northfield case of influenza on November 3, 1918. The disease was finally here.

By November 14, influenza cases in Northfield numbered 40 at Carleton College, 29 at St. Olaf College, and 41 in the city for a total of 110. Most of these cases were considered mild, and so far, influenza had caused only one death–that of Minnie Marko, a 17-year-old local girl.

In response, city health officer Dr. J. G. Phillips and Mayor A. O. Netland mobilized town and college leadership to control the spread of both infection and fear. They organized a group of school teachers to conduct daily house-to-house surveys to get an accurate count of victims of the disease. If any people showed influenza symptoms, they had to remain at home and put a sign in their window. Northfield schools superintendent M.P. Forbes organized the local Red Cross Committee's nursing response in town. His volunteers distributed gauze masks and provided food to affected families. Public gatherings were discouraged overall, church services were canceled during the holidays, and the public schools remained closed until after Christmas break.

During this time, both St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges had companies of the U.S. Army’s Student Army Training Corps (S.A.T.C.) on campus. Leaders of the S.A.T.C. instituted quarantine measures for their student-soldiers, but could not entirely prevent infection. Carleton’s S.A.T.C. reported that about 70 students with influenza symptoms were removed to the gymnasium to separate them from those not affected by the disease.

At St. Olaf College, about 80 to 90 cases developed almost immediately during the first week of November among members of the S.A.T.C. Three doctors, 11 nurses, 75 S.A.T.C. men (as orderlies), and 2 Home Economics teachers cared for the sick patients. Several St. Olaf women also fell sick after caring for the student-soldiers. Although most of the students on campus recovered, St. Olaf president Lars W. Boe terminated the semester early on December 7, 1918 to prevent a second wave of infection and sent the students home.

Despite these precautions, several Northfielders did die from the disease–many at the prime of their lives. Anna (Kirkeberg) Roe, a St. Olaf College music teacher and the wife of Northfield News editor Herman Roe, died on November 18, 1918, after a week of illness. She was only 31 years old and left behind three young children. St. Olaf College also lost four freshmen S.A.T.C. students between November 21 and 25, 1918: Waldemar Schmidt, Oscar Mohagen, Peter Reinertson, and Joseph Tandberg.

On January 29, 1919, after most people assumed the worst of the influenza had passed, one of Northfield’s community leaders and Carleton College professor Fred Burnett Hill died after his influenza worsened and pneumonia developed in his lungs. Still, as quickly as it came, by late February the epidemic had left the Northfield area. Isolated cases would continue to appear in Rice County until the 1920s but not to the extent it did in 1918.

While it is impossible to get an accurate count, many experts estimate that influenza killed close to 10,000 Minnesotans, 675,000 Americans, more than half of the total U.S. Army World War I deaths, and over 50 million worldwide. The influenza pandemic spread fear, paranoia, and helplessness in addition to a dangerously contagious disease, but it also led to a rise in volunteerism, civic mindedness, and community service throughout the Northfield region.

Letter from Fredrick Heiberg to his family, September 28, 1918

Northfield News notice about Spanish influenza, October 11, 1918

Congregational Church Bulletin for November 3, 1918, restricting vespers service at Carleton

Letter to Arthur Persons from his mother Phebe A. Persons, September 29, 1918

S. A. T. C. soldiers moving the beds of influenza patients in front of Old Main Hall at St. Olaf College

Letter from George Mason to his son Homer Mason, November 27, 1918

S. A. T. C. soldiers posing while moving beds during the influenza epidemic at St. Olaf College

Northfield News column, November 22, 1918

Funeral procession for the Student Army Training Corps students at St. Olaf College who died in the influenza epidemic

Letter from Melinda Mason to her son Homer Mason, December 23, 1918

Tribute to Clifford H. Jensen in the Khaki & Blue Algol, Carleton College's Yearbook (1919-1920)

Program for the Community Vesper Service in memory of Fred B. Hill

Northfield News column, November 29, 1918

St. John's Lutheran Church Ladies' Aid minutes for December 1918

Parochial report on January 1, 1919 from St. John's Lutheran Church minutes

Discussion Questions

When you look at the individual items in the Northfield History Collaborative, use the zoom-in tool to view details in the images or more easily read the documents. Use the tab labeled “TEXT” to read full transcriptions of the documents.

  1. Imagine you were living in Northfield in 1918. How would you feel when you read about this terrible new disease that was coming your way? What would you do?
  2. Would you willingly follow the city’s regulations on your activities to prevent infection, or would you resist them? Why?
  3. Think about how the people of Northfield received news about the disease – through newspaper reports and also letters from friends and family. How are these sources of news similar, and also different? Which source would you trust more at the time, or now?
  4. Looking at the church documents, what do they tell us about how the epidemic affected community life and normal activities?
  5. Why do you think people called the disease the “Spanish Influenza,” when it was technically everywhere in the world?
  6. The influenza pandemic killed more young adults than regular influenza does. What effect would this death toll have on a community, especially on its future generations?
  7. Why do you think the S.A.T.C. students look like they’re having a good time in the middle of an epidemic? Describe some ways people have coped during times of stress.
  8. During times of war, people often let the government have more power over their lives than they would during times of peace – including checking in on them daily for signs of influenza infection. Explain why that is.
  9. Describe the ways the members of the community mourned those they cared about – siblings, daughters, leaders of the community, etc. What steps did they take to memorialize their dead? How is that similar to or different than we do it today?
  10. Imagine you are in charge of informing the public about a similar disease today. How would you communicate the facts so people know what to do without causing them to panic? Would you provide all the details or keep some known only to a few? Why?


Classroom Activity

Imagine that a new disease is spreading across the country, and it is only a matter of time before it reaches your community. What steps do you take to prevent it, or to reduce its effect? How do you mobilize groups and/or individuals within your communities? Think about the kind of expertise you will need to rely on to fight the disease and keep the community moving along as well as possible during the crisis. Create a flow chart identifying those groups that specifies their responsibilities.

Additional Resources for Research

Ayres, Leonard P., Col. The War With Germany: A Statistical Summary. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1919. Accessed online 12 January 2018.

Barry, John M. The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. New York: Viking, 2004.

Barry, John M. “How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread Across America,” in Smithsonian Magazine, November 2017. Accessed online 11 January 2018.

Benshoof, Sam. “Celebration of Armistice in 1918 tempered by influenza quarantine,” in The Carletonian, 2008 Fall Issue 7 (November 7, 2008). Accessed online 25 January 2018.

Byerly, Carol R. “The U.S. Military and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919,” in Public Health Reports, 125 (suppl 3) 2010, 82-91. Accessed online 12 January 2018.

The Deadly Virus: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918” online exhibit. National Archives and Records Administration. Web. Accessed online 31 January 2018.

Hanson, Dr. Alice M. “The ‘Spanish’ Influenza Epidemic of 1918 in Northfield, MN,” in The Scriver Scribbler, a Northfield Historical Society quarterly publication, Fall 2008. Original manuscript in NHS archives dated 2 Feb 2003. Accessed online 12 January 2018.

Homer Mason file at St. Olaf College Archives, accession number 3458.

Hvistendahl, Susan. “Carleton’s Beneficent Fred B. and Deborah Sayles Hill,” a Historic Happenings article in The Entertainment Guide, Northfield, Minnesota. February 2015, pp. 31-35.

Khaki & Blue Algol yearbook. Carleton College, 1919-1920. Accessed online 31 January 2018.

Northfield News issues, 1918-1919. Available online through the Minnesota Historical Society’s Digital Newspaper Hub [filter by city and year]. Relevant articles include:

  • “Precautions Taken are to Forestall Epidemic,” Oct. 11, 1918, p. 1.
  • “It’s Up to You to Fight Flu,” and “City Assumes Relief Campaign… Quarantine Rules Endorsed,” Oct. 25, 1918, p. 1 – note, most of the headlines of that issue relate to the devastating fires up in northern Minnesota, not the flu.
  • “‘Flu’ Spreads; Quarantine On,” and “‘Flu’ Survey Made,” Nov. 15, 1918, p. 1.
  • “Pneumonia Takes Mrs. Herman Roe,” Nov. 22, 1918, p. 1 and continued on p. 4.
  • “Obey the Ban”, Nov. 22, 1918, p. 4.
  • “‘Flu’ Situation Now Improving,” Nov. 29, 1918, p. 1 and continued on p. 4.
  • “Early Shopping Again Possible,” Dec. 6, 1918, p. 1 and continued on p. 4.
  • “Influenza Ban Continues,” Dec. 13, 1918, p. 1
  • “‘Flu’ Casualties Heavy,” Dec. 13, 1918, p. 1.

Ott, Miles; Shaw, Shelly F.; Danila, Richard N; and Lynfield, Ruth. “Lessons Learned from the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota.” In Public Health Reports v. 122(6); Nov-Dec 2007. Accessed online 12 January 2018.

St. Louis Park Historical Society. “The Spanish Flu of 1918“. St. Louis Park, Minnesota. Web. Accessed online 12 January 2018.

Thompson, David. “The Great Flu Pandemic of World War I: ‘Over Here’ and ‘Over There,'” in Allies, the newsletter for the Military Historical Society of Minnesota / Minnesota Military Museum, Vol. XXV, No. 2, Spring 2017. Accessed online 18 January 2018.

Victory Viking yearbook. St. Olaf College, 1919. Accessed online 31 January 2018.

World War I in Northfield and Rice County Collection Guide. Northfield History Collaborative. Web. Accessed online 31 January 2018.

NOTE: To see all of the World War I-era digitized items from the Northfield area, visit the Northfield History Collaborative’s online database.

Primary Source Analysis

Here are some tips for analyzing the primary sources found above and throughout the Collaborative. For each source, ask students to indicate:

  • the author’s point of view
  • the author’s purpose
  • historical context
  • audience

For inquiry-based learning, ask students to:

  • explain how a source tells its story and/or makes its argument
  • explain the relationships between sources
  • compare and contrast sources in terms of point of view and method
  • support conclusions and interpretations with evidence
  • identify questions for further investigation

Additional Tools

This publication was made possible in part by the people of Minnesota through a grant funded by an appropriation to the Minnesota Historical Society from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Any views, findings, opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the State of Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society, or the Minnesota Historic Resources Advisory Committee.