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Town looks back on past challenges

Heritage Alliance Director Anne Mason looks back on Jonesborough’s history, which includes the cholera epidemic in the 1800s. (Photos by Lisa Whaley)

By LISA WHALEY

Publisher

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As Tennessee’s oldest town, Jonesborough is not unfamiliar with the idea of an epidemic.

According to Heritage Alliance Director Anne G’Fellers-Mason, the town has already weathered, for example, the 1873 Cholera Epidemic, as well as the 1918 Spanish flu.

And while things may have changed quite a bit in those more than 100 years, there are still some things that remain surprisingly the same.

“You see these pictures of China and Italy that are vacated right now,” Mason said. “And I thought that must have been how Jonesborough felt during the weeks during that summer in 1873.”

When cholera hit that summer, the trajectory was similar to today. Word had been spreading about a possible cholera epidemic in the nation, yet Jonesborough still felt fairly safe. 

“It’s the summer, pretty well into the summer. July through August,” Mason said. “The best source for this information is the Herald & Tribune because they kept really, really detailed accounts. 

In the July 17 edition, there were reports of cases in Nashville and Greeneville. 

A cholera notice is part of the Heritage Alliance’s collection.

“This particular cholera string is going to over through the Mississippi River Valley.”

It was following the railroad line.

“Today we get bugs on planes,” she said. “Then it was bugs on trains.”

Then came silence. The Herald & Tribune ceased publishing, re-emerging on Aug. 14. Out of a 1,000-plus population, only 100 remained. 

“Out of that 100 people, around 35 are going to die, so that’s like a third of the population,” Mason said. 

Eventually, the cases would taper off.

Strangely enough, a form of 19th century social distancing was part of the process.

“They really were already practicing a form of social distancing,” Mason said.

Cholera was caused by contaminated water and if families could get out of town before they got sick — distancing themselves from centers of illness — they might be OK. But so much of the scene was fear and confusion — a scene echoed today.

“Even though we know so much more about medical science, still how we respond is human nature,” Mason said. “Yeah we know more, but we’re still in the dark to an extent because this is so new. We don’t know the best treatment for it and all that.

“It was the same thing with cholera, where the response was ‘just don’t eat something.’” 

Two other things stand out in history, according to Mason.

First, the resilience of the human spirit was definitely apparent. Physicians stayed to help in the fight and neighbors were crucial in holding each other up.

“The people who stay, the people are sick and your amazing front line doctors,”Mason said.

Second, Mason said, there were always lessons to learn from these epidemics and pandemics. And she is eager to see how we progress.

“This definitely will be a very interesting chapter for Jonesborough,” Mason said. “I wonder what we are going to learn from this. Epidemics always teach you something. Sometimes it’s sanitation that spawned the Progressive Movement of early 20th century. Sometimes its vaccination.

“I think it will be interesting to see how this changes that process and in how we react to things. It’s going to happen. It’s going to teach us something.”