PORTAGE PATHWAYS: 'Churchless Sunday' as Ravenna battled smallpox outbreak in 1917

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The church bells of Ravenna were silent on Sunday, Oct. 21, 1917. Not a single congregation gathered for worship.

Classrooms were empty that week, too. So were the motion picture theaters. Political events were canceled, just two weeks before a hotly contested election.

While an outbreak of smallpox didn't bring the community to a complete standstill -- factories remained in operation and stores stayed open -- it took a toll on community life as health officials imposed a ban on all public gatherings in an effort to prevent a growing number of cases from becoming an epidemic.

They succeeded, but not before threatening to cordon off smallpox victims and their families in a "pesthouse" if they didn't adhere to strict quarantine regulations.

Smallpox has been virtually eradicated on a global basis, but it once was a virulent scourge that disfigured its victims and could be fatal. Ohio experienced a statewide outbreak of smallpox during the winter of 1917-18 -- a record-breaking 2,111 cases were reported in January 1918 -- and the cases in Ravenna occurred while the disease was on the upswing.

The first two were reported on Oct. 11 at Chestnut School, where a 10-year-old boy and his 12-year-old sister took ill. The school was closed for fumigation and reopened the following morning.

Four days later, however, schools in Ravenna and Ravenna Township were ordered closed after it became apparent that the disease had spread. Seven cases were reported, mostly in the city, with one north of Black Horse in the township.

The city Board of Health and the school board closed the schools and required all students to be vaccinated before being allowed to return to the classroom. Youngsters in Ravenna wouldn't be back in school for nearly two weeks.

By Oct. 17, the number of smallpox cases had grown to 25. Health officials stepped up efforts to prevent an epidemic by ordering a ban on all public gatherings. In addition to schools being closed, the ban extended to churches, Sunday School classes, political meetings and motion picture theaters.

"For the first time in its history, Ravenna will have a churchless Sunday," the Ravenna Republican reported. The ban forced the Methodist Episcopal congregation to cancel the planned dedication of their new house of worship.

"Until the situation is thoroughly in hand, public meetings are manifestly conducive to the spread of the diseases, and the proverbial 'ounce of prevention' is worth all of the cures of the medical world," the newspaper commented. "How the disease came into the community no one seems to know, but that it is here in abundance is all that is necessary to justify the actions of the (health) board."

Schools were fumigated and 1,000 children in the city and township were vaccinated, but the outbreak continued. Health officials urged all adults who had not been vaccinated within 10 years to be reimmunized.

The Republican attempted to allay fears of an epidemic, assuring readers that there was no reason for panic or hysteria. "There is no quarantine against the town, the gates of which are wide open to the world and there is no ban on either outgoing or incoming citizens."

There was, however, a quarantine on 30 homes where smallpox had been reported. And, according to the Republican, that health safeguard was being weakened by residents who defied orders to remain in their homes and, in some instances, by doctors who questioned the need for quarantine.

It was reported that some residents under quarantine were leaving their homes to go to work. "Stupidly rebellious" actions were undermining efforts to isolate those with the disease, the Republican reported, and health officials were considering more dire actions, including opening a "pesthouse" where quarantined families would be confined. "Otherwise we may all wake up some morning and find that the town has been fenced in for the winter by the State Board of Health."

The threatened actions never came to pass. The outbreak ran its course, and the health board lifted the ban on public gatherings on Oct. 26 after deciding that there no longer was a danger of an epidemic.

Church bells rang again on Sunday, Oct. 28. Schools reopened a day later. No new cases of smallpox were reported.

"The picture shows are running full tilt and everything is in normal activity again," the Republican reported.

The crisis had passed. There was no need for a pesthouse. Or a fence around the town.

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