Rochester’s Pest House Was an Early Answer to Outbreaks of Disease

As we cope with the various levels of disruption in our daily routines made necessary by the response to the COVID-19 virus, it is interesting to look back at the way contagious disease was handled in our community in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In small communities like Rochester, there were no hospitals at the time. A village might be fortunate enough to have a physician or two in residence, but there were no cures and few effective therapies available for the primary scourges of the day. These included smallpox, typhoid fever, scarlet fever, cholera, tuberculosis, and diphtheria. The role of microorganisms in the spread of disease was not well understood by the public, and the measures taken by local governments to ensure public health and sanitation were often inadequate.

An old map of Rochester with an arrow pointing to the location of the Pest House.

The pest house is shown on this 1908 map of Rochester

In order to halt the spread of infectious disease, boards of health in cities, townships, or villages enforced quarantines upon afflicted persons and their families. Depending upon the severity of the illness, a patient might be quarantined in a pest house (a name derived from the word ‘pestilence’). Because smallpox was highly infectious and had a mortality rate of over 30 percent, those contracting the disease were usually confined to a community’s pest house until they recovered—or died.

The pest house in a small town like Rochester was typically a cabin or shack, often located in the woods or another area that was isolated from the general population. It was sparsely furnished and may have had only a cot or pallet for the comfort of the patient. A caretaker would bring food, water, and medicines to relieve symptoms, and would tend the stove in winter. If the patient was isolated because of smallpox, the attendant would usually be a survivor of the disease who was immune, or someone who was fortunate enough to have been vaccinated.

In March 1904, the village of Rochester and township of Avon agreed to split the $475 cost of building a pest house. The location chosen for the building was south of the village, along the millrace for the Curtis-Barkham grist mill. The pest house was built at the east end of Quarter Street, where it intersects Hacker. This site is immediately north of the former Rochester Packing House building that still stands at the corner of Quarter and Hacker streets.

We have no images of the Rochester-Avon pest house, nor any description of the building. Its location beside the old Barkham millrace is marked on the 1908 plat map of the village, but little else remains to inform us about it. The last mention of the pest house in the Rochester Era appeared in the issue of October 24, 1913, and said this: “Something like a year ago the pest house on ‘Poverty Flats’ was closed up, strong locks being placed on the doors. Last Sunday a young fellow and girl smashed two locks and the door, gaining admission. As soon as their names are ascertained they will be made an example of.”

No follow-up story appeared in the newspaper to report the identities of the pest house vandals, but it likely made little difference. By 1913, vaccination was becoming more accepted and commonplace, and public health and sanitation initiatives improved through better understanding of the way that disease spreads in communities. Also important for Rochester residents was the opening in 1909 of the first hospital in Oakland County, then known as the Pontiac City Hospital, but later renamed Pontiac General Hospital. Medical care was advancing, and the day of the pest house was over.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

Comments

  1. Robert A. Lytle says:

    Another great article–well-timed and well written.

  2. Lemon Karen says:

    Deborah,
    You never cease to amaze. I have never heard of a “pest house”. Very interesting.
    A true and devoted fan,
    Karen

  3. Thank you that was very interesting and also reminds me of how grateful we should be.:)

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