The Southwest Virginia community of Wytheville is a charming Norman Rockwell-like town. Known for its unique landmarks which include an iconic water tower painted to resemble a hot air balloon and a massive No. 2 pencil hanging over Main Street, the Town of Wytheville is the American idea of what Small Town, USA, should be.
A decade following the Second World War, however, the rural Virginia getaway community was anything but the ideal place to visit.
In the opening days of summer 1950, a handful of local citizens became infected with infantile paralysis (polio), an infectious and deadly disease that attacks the muscles of one’s body.
An unfortunate characteristic with polio is that those infected with the disease can carry the infection for up to six weeks with no symptoms present — meaning that by the time the townspeople began showing signs of polio, it was too late. By the end of July, Danville, Virginia’s The Bee, reported, that at least 65 residents of Wytheville (population 5,500), had been infected with the disease. Roughly 20 additional Wythe County residents – living past the town limits – were struck with polio, bringing the community’s total number of polio cases to 84 at month’s end.
“There are signs that Wytheville’s virulent outbreak of polio — the worst in the nation — is spreading,” reported the Associated Press.
Sensing the danger of a nationwide pandemic, health officials from the Commonwealth of Virginia were dispatched to the area, where they called for a “voluntary effort to keep persons from uninfected areas away from Wytheville and adjacent counties.”
Their calls were heeded, as local churches cancelled services and the town’s Class D Blue Ridge League baseball team cancelled the remainder of their season.
The Town Council and county’s Board of Supervisors erected billboards at all five entrances to the county warning potential visitors of the epidemic and urging tourists to come again the following year.
Residents who lived east of the town, along the banks of Reed Creek, feared touching the water that flowed from Wytheville.
“People were scared out of their minds,” remembered one local resident who was just a young girl at the time. “My dad warned us that if we’d go near the creek we’d probably die.”
At the conclusion of summer, the town of 5,513 residents had 184 inhabitants who had contracted the disease with 17 fatalities.
As the epidemic progressed, ambulances drove victims approximately 80 miles to Memorial Crippled Children’s Hospital in Roanoke, Virginia. Hearses from local funeral homes were used when ambulances were unavailable. Black patients with polio were repeatedly denied admission to Roanoke’s hospital and were forced to travel approximately 300 miles to St. Philip’s Hospital in Richmond.
Just as quickly as the dreaded disease appeared, it disappeared. In the years ahead, the quaint rural Virginia community would return to being the tourist getaway it is celebrated to be today — but you’ll be hard pressed to find a lifelong resident of Wytheville over the age of 70 who won’t remember the Polio Epidemic of 1950.
This article is a collection of excerpts from a larger article that will be published in the Fall 2019 edition of the print magazine. Click here to learn more about receiving a year’s subscription of the print edition of Appalachian Magazine!
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