It’s been almost a year since Gov. Tim Walz, in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, asked Minnesotans to “buckle up for a few more weeks.”

It was an unprecedented order for this time and place in history — but a call that was similarly made in response to the 1918 Spanish flu.

The News Tribune reported that there were 27 cases in Duluth in the Oct. 12, 1918, edition, with the headline announcing the lockdown of public spaces — “Duluth clamps influenza lid.”

The story reports the closure of all public buildings, churches, schools, theaters and places of public amusement, such as pool halls. Also banned: meetings, assemblies and gatherings. Those who violated the order could be fined, imprisoned in county jail or sent to a work farm.

An outdoor football game between the U.S. Steel plant and Globe Shipbuilding was allowed to go on — and ticket sales indicated there would be a record turnout.

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Duluth, then one of the three largest cities in Minnesota, was the first to adopt the closures; Minneapolis was quick to follow.

But St. Paul went rogue and, according to an Oct. 28 edition of the News Tribune, became an oasis for Duluth’s local actors who were faced with darkened stages back home.

St. Paul was a place “where they can again bump shoulders with other members of the profession, not to work, but just to be around the glitter of lightless nights where shows are allowed to run unmolested.”

Meanwhile: “Vaudeville acts which have been filled at the Orpheum and the New Grand theaters in Duluth for the last two weeks are all marooned at the Minnesota capitol, but in constant touch with the managers in this city should the ban be lifted to permit their appearance,” according to the News Tribune.

The decision to shut it all down, in 1918, came swiftly. Days earlier the News Tribune reported that officials were considering closing public spaces, but the commissioner of public safety didn’t yet think it was necessary. He did, however, advise people with symptoms to talk to a doctor, to avoid contact with people, and “do not cough in the faces of others,” he was quoted as saying.

On Nov. 20, Duluth’s Mayor Clarence R. Magney issued additional restrictions: the supervision of trains entering the city, one person per 200 feet of floor space in stores, the removal of seats in hotel and club lobbies.

Of course, the influenza quickly became a secondary headline compared to the deadly forest fires that swept through the region — starting the same day the News Tribune announced the closures.

The fires of 1918 ripped through the region, killing hundreds, wiping out 1,500 square miles and displacing tens of thousands of people — some who found temporary shelter in places like the Duluth Armory, where social distancing was impossible. The fires remain Minnesota’s worst natural disaster.

With schools closed, the Duluth Herald reported, more than 500 teachers went on to provide relief work for the Red Cross — in support of the victims of the fires.

It took about seven weeks for Duluth to reopen — and for pandemic humor to land on Page 3.

“Suggested Flu Ordinances,” by a character named Sneezer, appeared in the Nov. 22 edition of the News Tribune. Among the proposals: “Such words as ‘pickles,’ ‘people,’ ‘pimples’ ‘paper’ etc., are especially barred" and “carbolic acid spray fountains will be installed at every block on Superior St. and all pedestrians must be sprayed each block.”

It took about six weeks in 1918 for the News Tribune to print pandemic humor. (1918 News Tribune)
It took about six weeks in 1918 for the News Tribune to print pandemic humor. (1918 News Tribune)

In a story noting the opening of theaters, the journalist wrote: “Again over the table at some Duluth cafe, ‘sweet nothings’ can be whispered, tabooed by the order of one to a table, which has been in vogue.”

There was an announcement in the Nov. 26 edition of the News Tribune that the public libraries would reopen that day.

“All books from homes where there has been influenza should be returned securely wrapped in paper,” the notice said. “No overdue fines while libraries were closed.”

This story was told as part of Once Upon a Time in Duluth, a Wednesday feature on the News Tribune Minute podcast.