article is the first in a two-part “Picturing the Past” series on Transylvania
County’s fight against polio in the first half of the 20th century.
the mid-twentieth century, March of Dimes fundraisers were a regular occurrence
in every community, large and small, throughout the United
States. This charity’s strategy was to collect small change to fund
research to prevent or cure the dreaded polio virus. In Transylvania
County, local businesses joined together with schools, clubs, and social
organizations to support these fundraising efforts.
|Mother’s March on Polio ad from The Transylvania
Times, February 1, 1951
One creative fundraiser held every year was the Mother’s March on
Polio. Women from all over the county would go door to door in the
early evening collecting donations. Various churches and
organizations participated including the Dunn’s Rock Club. Churches
and summer camps rang their bells to signal the beginning of the
march. All residents were encouraged to light up their homes to
indicate they wanted to make a donation.
|Dunn’s Rock Mother’s March on Polio Committee, January 28, 1955
These fundraisers were important in a world desperate
to find a cure for polio, a disease whose primary target is children. Sporadic
polio outbreaks were frequent throughout the first half of the twentieth
century. Images of afflicted children using crutches, in
wheelchairs, and inside iron lung machines were common in the
the common name for the poliomyelitis virus, affects the central nervous
system. It spreads through contact with fecal matter or droplets
emitted during talking, coughing, and sneezing. Similar to Covid-19, most
individuals who contract polio are asymptomatic and can infect others. A small
number have symptoms that include fever, headaches, and muscle stiffness, while
a tragic few are permanently paralyzed or even die.
virus thrived during the summer, known as polio season. Health
officials recommended parents quarantine their children at home or to practice
a form of social distancing we know so well today. Swimming
pools and beaches were often closed. Summer camps, picnics, bowling
alleys, movie theaters, restaurants, and church, any place people gathered in
crowds, were all to be avoided by children. Fall and winter was not as
dangerous, but rare winter outbreaks could occur.
Carolina experienced devastating polio pandemics between 1930 and
1955. The closest treatment center for people in the western
mountain counties was Charlotte Memorial Hospital’s polio ward. Due to the need
for more facilities, the city of Hickory actually constructed a polio center in
three days in 1944 by remodeling a summer camp, a feat that caused Life
Magazine to do a photo story.
Transylvania County, polio was often on people’s minds. Summer camps
lost business whenever there was a polio scare. In 1939, visitors
from polio-affected areas in Georgia and South Carolina were forced to
quarantine for two weeks if they entered the county. Schools closed
during some outbreaks. Polio cases in the community caused Ecusta to
cancel its Christmas children’s party in 1946, some baseball games, and its
annual Sapphire picnic in 1948. The personal columns in the
Transylvania Times often listed children who were sick or recovering from
polio. One local mentioned how strange it was to sit in church
without any children.
week’s “Picturing the Past” will recount how Transylvania’s health officials
carried out the first mass vaccination of our county’s first and second grade
and information for this column are provided by the Rowell Bosse North Carolina
Room, Transylvania County Library. This article was written by Joe Russo. For more information, comments, or
suggestions contact NC Room staff at [email protected] or