With the way COVID-19 has swept across the planet since the start of 2020, people born after 1955 might think that this pandemic is unprecedented in human history.

But for people aged 70 and older, there are elements of life in a socially distanced world that seem all too familiar.

Poliomyelitis — more commonly referred to simply as polio — is a virus-borne disease that swept across this country in the early part of the 20th century, claiming the lives of hundreds of young people, and causing lifelong health issues for the thousands who survived. Though all but eradicated in the United States since Dr. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine against polio in 1954, its impact has a lasting place in the memories of those who survived it.

Detroit Lakes resident Donna Holmer, who grew up in Frazee, remembers staying at home a lot more than usual during the polio epidemic.

"Our parents just made us stay home ... they did the confining or whatever you call it," Holmer said. "Polio was a very very frightening thing for our parents. I remember we lived in a residential neighborhood where there were a lot of houses and a lot of kids. The routine was to do the supper dishes, then go outside and play until it was dark — (they played) all kinds of games, and we didn’t get to.

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"Our parents kept us confined right to our own yard, and nobody could come and play with us. It was real scary; the thing that scared us kids the most though, was the fact that people ended up in iron lungs, and that meant going away, not being with your mom and dad, or anybody else we knew."

Her parents weren't always so strict, however; Holmer distinctly recalls the whole family going to watch the circus when it came to Frazee that year, and viewing the show from the top of "a really high hill" near the venue.

Kathy Clemetson, who also grew up in the lakes area, said she doesn't really remember anything being closed down due to polio, "but we lived on a farm, so we really didn't go a lot of places anyway." Clemetson also said that she was "very young" when the epidemic was at its height.

Precautions and illness

Holmer and Clemetson may not remember it, but back in August 1946, children were temporarily banned from movie theaters in Becker County, as a precautionary measure.

According to the Aug. 29, 1946, issue of the Detroit Lakes Record, Mayor Jenson and City Health Officer Arnold Larson made the move because, as they put it in a statement issued to the newspaper, "We feel that it is our joint and mutual responsibility to do all that we can in every way possible to save our children from this terrible disease."

The Minnesota State Fair was canceled that year, and the opening of all schools in Becker County was pushed back to a week or two after Labor Day, also as precautionary measures.

The disease reached epidemic proportions in the county two more times, in 1949 and 1952; by 1955, Salk's vaccine was being distributed to students in schools across Becker County, and while there were a few isolated cases after that, the threat was largely over.

The Detroit Lakes Record published the name of the first Becker County casualty of the polio epidemic on July 25, 1946: It was Mrs. John G. Maier, a 26-year-old Richwood native who died less than two days after falling ill. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)
The Detroit Lakes Record published the name of the first Becker County casualty of the polio epidemic on July 25, 1946: It was Mrs. John G. Maier, a 26-year-old Richwood native who died less than two days after falling ill. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)

The devastating effects of the disease, however, were not: Clemetson recalled that her younger sister, Rita, who was born in 1950, experienced what they thought was a relatively mild form of polio when she was in the first grade. Her illness caused a spinal curvature severe enough that she wore a Milwaukee brace — an orthotic device that includes both neck and back supports, and is designed specifically for growing children — throughout her elementary and high school years.

Clemetson said that three kids in her sister's class ended up with some form of curvature of the spine, "but Rita's was the worst." She added that her sister had back surgery to correct the problem when she was in her 40s; the surgery required metal rods to be put in to help support her realigned spine.

"It was a scary thing," said Clemetson, adding that she was among those first kids in the county to receive an early form of the polio vaccine, which was first made widely available in 1955; the oral vaccine wasn't available until several years later.

" I remember when the vaccine came in 1955," she said. "I was in country school, and we all had to go to a different school to get the shot."

The same, but different

Holmer says that while some might have felt her parents were being unreasonable in keeping their children isolated during the polio scare, she didn't see it that way.

"I could see why they were scared," she said, adding that her parents had taken the time to explain to their children why they were placing so many restrictions on them, to make sure they understood how serious the situation was.

"The girl right across the street from us had polio, and she was crippled for the rest of her life," she added.

Today, in a bit of an ironic twist, Holmer says it's her children and grandchildren who are urging her and her husband to self-isolate during the COVID-19 pandemic, for similar reasons.

"It was scary then, and it's scary now," she said, adding that she is 81 and her husband, Harry, is 88 — which means that they are in a high-risk group for getting the disease.

"We had planned to go to Walmart one day at 6 a.m. and buy groceries," she said, but their daughter had called them the night before and urged them to reconsider. "She was just so emphatic that we shouldn't do this." They arranged to have their niece, who works at Walmart, deliver their groceries to them curbside.

The hardest part, Holmer added, is going so long without seeing anyone else; even when they go out for a car ride they often don't see anyone else.

"My husband’s nephew called from Kansas last night, to see how we were doing and stuff," she said. Their nephew was raised in the area too, and had a family member who died of polio back when the disease was at its peak.

"I said to him, 'Even the polio wasn't as bad as this,' and he said, 'No, it wasn't.'"