Polio epidemic

This photo shows downtown Wytheville in the 1950s and is part of the Wythe County polio epidemic exhibit at Wytheville’s Thomas J. Boyd Museum on Tazewell Street.

As Wythe County hunkers down with the rest of the country to ride out the coronavirus pandemic and hopefully slow its progress, many can’t help but remember: we’ve been here before.

It was 70 years ago, but people still talk about it. The local museum has an exhibit dedicated to it. In the summer of 1950, 20-month-old John Seccafico, the son of a local minor league baseball player, came down with polio.

The crippling illness swept through Wythe County like no other place in the nation, earning the town the infamous honor of having the highest number of polio cases per capita in the country. By the epidemic’s end later that summer, the Wytheville area reported 189 cases of the virus and 17 deaths, or almost 10%, twice the national average. Most victims were children.

As the virus spread, Wythe County locked down. Businesses were deserted and children stayed home.

At that time, Wytheville’s Main Street – Highway 11 – was the main road from Roanoke to Tennessee. People still traveled through town, but knew better than to stop.

“Everything going east and west and north and south went down Main Street,” Jean Lester remembered. “There were signs posted at each end of town saying don’t stop, but come back later. People would just fly down Main Street wearing face masks.”

If they stopped; they stayed.

John Johnson was 10 years old then. He remembers sitting in his Dad’s car at the Esso gas station across from the George Wythe Hotel (now the Bolling Wilson Hotel), and hearing a law enforcement officer tell a lady at the hotel that she couldn’t leave town.

“She argued and argued,” he said. “But they wouldn’t let her leave town. She stayed for 30 or 31 days.”

He also remembers swimming in military pontoons because the pool was closed.

“They used to blow them up like big balloons,” he said. “They were about four feet deep inside and they were open so you could put water in it.”

Johnson also remembers a freak accident that happened during Wytheville’s polio summer. There was a horse-rendering business nearby where dead horses would be used to make things like animal feed.

One of the trucks broke down on the corner of Seventh and Lexington streets.

“We witnessed a truck with eight dead horses in it and those horses stayed on that corner for about a week,” Johnson said. “Green flies were everywhere. I’ve never seen so many green flies. If you had holes in your screens, they would fly in your house. After a while, they fixed the truck and then took the horses to the rendering plant. But green flies and maggots were everywhere. You could smell them two blocks away.”

Out in the Crockett area, the then 13-year-old Lester and her three siblings, along with a cousin, rode out the quarantine.

“Our schools were closed; we didn’t go back to school until October,” she said. “I was No. 2 of four children. We were all at home. We stayed in our yard; we didn’t leave our yard for the summer. Of course, there was no TV or electronics. We read and played board games, but mostly, we read.”

Lester’s aunt owned a beauty store in Wytheville. She would buy comic books, wrap them up in brown grocery bags, bake them in the oven and then leave the colorful pages by the mailbox.

“She didn’t know if the heat helped or not, but now we know that heat kills it (the polio virus),” Lester said. “She figured 212 degrees is boiling and would kill germs, so she set her oven to 350.”

Radio station WYVE had just hit the airwaves the previous year and did its part to help out. Lester remembers gathering around the radio for school classes. And a lady would entertain young listeners with exciting stories.

“She would read these wonderful stories and she would stop at an exciting part and say, ‘I’ll finish up tomorrow,’” Lester said, adding that the radio was a lifesaver because the movie house closed.

Lester’s brother, Sid Kitts, remembers coming to Wytheville only one time that summer. He was with his grandmother and older brother.

“She said we could come with her, but couldn’t get out of the truck,” he said. “She parked where the Farmer’s Market is now and, of course, as soon as she was out of sight, we got out of truck. We ran up an alley to Main Street. We looked up and down Main Street and there was not a car on the street; it looked like a ghost town. We went back to the truck.”

Just like doctors on the front lines today, local doctors faced exhaustion caring for the polio’s young victims.

“I have a wonderful story on Dr. Charlie Graham,” Lester said. “My grandfather was ill and Dr. Graham paid him a home visit. He asked my grandfather, ‘Fred, do you have a telephone?’ and my grandfather said, ‘No, we use a neighbor’s phone, but if you need to make a call, I can take you.’ And Dr. Graham said, ‘No, I need to rest. I want to take a nap. I haven’t been in bed in days, and I’m exhausted. And if you don’t have a phone, they can’t find me. Give me two hours.’”

Lester remembers the doctor going outside and curling up on a quilt underneath the shade of a leafy tree.

“Dad made all of us come in and be quiet,” Lester said.

“We were lucky. We lived in the country,” she said. “We had our garden, our cows and our chickens. We were self-sufficient. All we needed from town was coffee and sugar. Country people were very lucky.”

Former Virginia State Delegate Anne B. Crockett-Stark remembers people being petrified of the virus. When her brother, Sonny, came down with polio, her parents took everything but a chest of drawers out of his bedroom and burned it – clothes, toys, books and more.

“They took everything that Sonny Crockett owned. They took it out to our garden lot and burned everything he had,” Crockett-Stark said. “His erector set, Lincoln Logs and comic book collection – of course, that was all that mattered to us kids. It was devastating to burn his stuff.”

Crockett-Stark still has the chest of drawers. Sonny recovered and went on to become a respected Wytheville dentist.

“I remember they came up to our house and did a spinal tap on him (to help diagnose),” Crockett-Stark said. “They held him on the bed and it must have hurt him a lot because mama screamed and ran into the back yard and laid in the grass and screamed and cried after finding out he had polio.”

Afterward, no one wanted to be near the Crockett family.

“Nobody wanted us to go outside,” Crockett-Stark said. “Our neighbors would shout if we came out to play, ‘Go back in the house!’ Mama would call Mick-or Mack or Piggly Wiggly and they would deliver our groceries. They would put them on the sidewalk and mama would go out and take them in. I guess they did it for all the polio victims. Daddy would send them a check because they didn’t want mama to hand them a check, either.”

Her family, too, ate from their garden.

Lester, Johnson, Kitts and Crockett-Stark are confident Wytheville will come out on the other side of the coronavirus, just like it did during the summer of 1950.

“We’ve done it before, and we can live through it again,” Lester said. “My love for books is because of that summer; I read everything I could find. When you know you aren’t going anywhere, you might as well hang on. It will be easier this time because I have a TV.”

“The only similarity I see is this self-quarantine,” Kitts said. “Back then, nobody left the house. Nobody went anywhere. It was a long, hot summer. I’ll tell you that.”

To reach Millie Rothrock, call 276-228-6611, ext. 35, or email mrothrock@wythenews.com.

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