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Before COVID-19: A history of public health in Otter Tail County

Missy Hermes with the Otter Tail County Historical Society returned to the History Museum of East Otter Tail County for her final presentation of the summer: "Internal Ailments: A History of Public Health in Otter Tail County."

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A display about the history of public health in the Perham Area can be found in the History Museum of East Otter Tail County.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus
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PERHAM — When someone hears "public health crisis," one of the first things to come to mind is the COVID-19 pandemic. Health crises, epidemics and even pandemics, however, have existed since long before the time of COVID-19, even in Otter Tail County.

Missy Hermes, an education coordinator with the Otter Tail County Historical Society, visited the History Museum of East Otter Tail County in Perham on the evening of Wednesday, Aug. 17. Her visit marked the final installment of Perham's 2022 summer history series. The presentation covered the history of public health in Otter Tail County.

"The more I worked on this program — the more I felt times changed — the more things stayed the same," Hermes said. "There are so many similarities with today and what happened in the past."

In her research, Hermes found that the earliest reported Minnesota epidemics often occurred in fur-trading posts, logging and lumbering crews, and mining camps. The diseases known to cause these historical epidemics sound long-lost to the ears of many young folks today: typhoid, scarlet fever, diphtheria, tuberculosis, smallpox and cholera. Many of these were related to sanitation issues.

In the early days of Otter Tail County, medical care was slim pickings, Hermes shared with the group attending her presentation. The first health officer and doctor known to be in the county was Dr. Reginald M. Reynolds, who treated people outside of his Fergus Falls log home alongside his wife, Helen Reynolds.

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"Can you imagine going to the doctor there?" Hermes asked her audience, amazed at the idea of a medical practice in a log home. She believes, however, that the Otter Tail County community was happy to have any doctor, especially when the first known and widespread epidemic hit the county in 1882.

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These signs on display at the History Museum of East Otter Tail County used to be hung in the homes of those quarantined with dangerous diseases, such as small pox.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

That year alone, 67 people died from diphtheria, 34 people died from typhoid fever and 22 people died from tuberculosis. Hermes also made sure to emphasize that, at this time, some people may not have even reported deaths to the county office, so this may not represent all the fatalities.

This devastating spread of disease certainly wasn't the last either. In 1883, there were 10 deaths from diphtheria in just a single township. Then, in February 1884, a single township reported 90 total cases of diphtheria and 30 deaths.

"That is a lot in one township," Hermes said. "This is in the 1880s. It was not the most populated township by any means. And to have that many people sick? It was shocking."

Though diphtheria devastated a lot of Otter Tail County during this time, the first public health law in Minnesota addressed the deliberate inoculation of smallpox. Fergus Falls dealt with a few outbreaks of this disease beforehand, including a dance that caused around 30 people to contract it due to skin contact.

There was yet another smallpox outbreak throughout Fergus Falls in 1904, and the city built a pest house to house and quarantine those afflicted with the disease. Another known outbreak occurred in 1906.

Much like what happened at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hermes shared, there was a population against the enforcement of vaccinations and quarantining to mitigate the spread of disease, dating back to the 1880s. Because of this, the state eventually abandoned required quarantining for the original 1906 outbreak by early 1908.

Another outbreak of smallpox returned to the county in 1913 alongside diphtheria and whooping cough. All public gatherings and schools were closed until the scare was over.

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Missy Hermes, an education coordinator with the Otter Tail County Historical Society, recently visiting the History Museum of East Otter Tail County to share the history of public health in the county.
Perham Focus file photo

Though smallpox devastated the Otter Tail County community, the infamous 1918 influenza also had a huge impact on the area. Between the years 1915-17 — prior to the flu epidemic — the average death rate at the Fergus Falls State Hospital was 54 people per year.

During the flu outbreak of 1918, there were 108 deaths, including 54 in the month of October alone.

While public health crises continue in modern times, access to healthcare is more widely available in rural areas like Otter Tail County. In fact, a lot of information is accessible in Otter Tail County due to educational resources like the History Museum of East Otter Tail County. Hermes emphasized the importance of community museums.

"I would just like to thank the Perham community for their support of the history museum," she concluded. "This is an important resource for the community."

For more information about the history of public health in Otter Tail County, visit the History Museum of East Otter Tail County at 230 First Avenue North. You can also visit their website at historymuseumeot.com .

Elizabeth (she/her), 23, graduated with a degree in Journalism and Communications from the University of Wisconsin–Stout in 2020. Elizabeth has always had a passion for telling stories about people and specializes in community features, which she uses for her Perham-centered content.
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