Janesville in 1919

Fred B. Welch was Janesville’s first health officer. He came to town in 1919 just as Janesville
began to experience the boom associated with Samson Truck and, shortly thereafter, General Motors. His recollections remind us that life was very different 90 years ago….

In the spring of 1919, I became Health Officer of the City of Janesville. In 1919, the City was undergoing a vast industrial expansion. The boom was on at the time, prices were high, and labor was dear. Hundreds of men were living in barracks at the Samson Plant and housing conditions were most deplorable. The great pan epidemic of influenza [the Spanish Flu of 1918] continued to take its toll, and to complicate matters, small pox occurred among the workers at the Samson plant. Vaccination eventually controlled this epidemic as it always does. Other common dangerous diseases of the day were whooping cough, diphtheria, and tuberculosis.

The outside toilet was a constant source of trouble during the summer months. In 1913 there were a total of 1528 outside toilets in the City and in the year 1919 less than 5 per cent of these had been eliminated, even after miles of sanitary sewers had been laid. Most of these outhouses were poorly constructed – not fly or rodent proof. The odor would be most offensive, and the contents would be exposed in a most unsanitary way—many times to overflow on the surface of the ground. From thirty to fifty complaints a month, on these nuisances, were common during the summer months.

During the summer of 1919 a study was made of the fly incidence. Fly traps were constructed and placed in different parts of the City. On a certain day each week they were uncovered and the flies that were caught during the day were counted and recorded. This study, which was conducted for the purpose of ascertaining the part played by horse manure and decaying matter in the propagation of flies, proved of far greater value than anticipated. Late in the summer of this year an epidemic of bloody dysentery and cholera occurred and caused at least eleven deaths. This epidemic came shortly after the height of the fly incidence. In a meeting with the Board of Health, I pointed out that up to late in July 1919 we had practically no flies because of the prompt removal of manure piles [from city streets] by farmers. Then, when the crops needed more attention, the farmers could not haul it, and the horse offal accumulated. Then in myriads came the fly. The unsanitary outhouse was the other reason.

The automobile has eliminated manure from the city, municipal collection of garbage and refuse have eliminated decaying matter, and the rapid development of sanitary sewers has reduced the number of unsanitary outhouses. These preventive measures have done much in the prevention of fly-born epidemics.

In 1919 there was no municipal collection of garbage. Garbage from the “down-town section” was collected by farmers for hog feeding. In the fall and winter months this collection was fairly regular but in the spring and summer months, when farmwork was pressing, it was most irregular. The uncollected garbage in our alleys was most disgraceful and presented a never ending nuisance. The householders in the business district had no other place but the alley to place their garbage. No metal cans were used and garbage dumps filled alleys. The police had difficulty in making their night rounds—to pick their way through these garbage piles.

A description of the early unsanitary conditions would not be complete without mentioning the banks of the Rock River. As there were no city dumps or municipal collection of rubbish and ashes, most of these materials were dumped on Goose Island [now Traxler Park] or along the banks of the river. Dead animals, refuse from meat markets, decaying vegetable matter from stores, manure and other objectionable material was hauled by private scavengers and either dumped into the river or along its banks.

….Within three years of my arrival, the Board of Health introduced an ordinance which was adopted, eliminating the outside toilet, when sewer and water were available. They directed a clean up of the river banks, under the direction of the sanitary inspector. Goose Island was put in sanitary condition.

This brief report of the three years of work of the Board of Health in the City of Janesville constitutes a record of health progress of which the people of Janesville may well be proud.

--LG, who edited and condensed Fred Welch's 14-page report discovered in John V. Stevens's
Medical History of Janesville, Wis: 1833-1933, available at Hedberg Public Library (610.977587 STEVE).