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This Illinois Department of Agriculture sign dating to the 20th century is held in the collections of the McLean County Museum of History. 

Classic swine fever, commonly known as hog cholera, was one of the most devastating livestock diseases faced by Central Illinois farmers for well over a century.

Hog cholera is a virus that causes fever, convulsions and skin lesions in swine, proving especially deadly to juveniles. The first reports of hog cholera in the United States date to the early 1830s. By the post-Civil War era, the virus was a most unwelcome but all-too-common visitor to area farms.

The Oct. 12, 1877, weekly edition of The Pantagraph, for example, reported an outbreak in Old Town Timber east of Bloomington, with Peter V. Weidner, William Bunn and William Scott each losing something like 100 hogs. “The disease has been very malignant,” read the dispatch, “and all remedies tried proving entirely worthless.”

There were costly, multi-state outbreaks in 1886, 1887 and 1896, among other years. The campaign against this scourge took a pivotal turn in 1907 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Industry developed a successful but rather involved treatment to inoculate hogs against cholera. Known as the double treatment, it required the injection first of anti-cholera serum followed by an injection of the cholera virus. This one-two punch of serum and virus — if successful — fully immunized hogs.

One of the last great outbreaks occurred in 1913 when an estimated 10 percent of the nation’s hogs were lost to “the cholera.” Locally, the epidemic began in late summer and raged into the winter months, which was typical for the virus.

“The hog cholera disease is widespread and fatal in Livingston County this fall and it has become a serious menace to the hog raising industry,” reported The Pantagraph on Oct. 31, 1913. “Entire droves have been and are being wiped out by this disease in practically every part of the county.”

By this time commercially manufactured serum could cost anywhere from 2 to 3 cents per cubic centimeter. With each hog requiring 10 to 40 cubic centimeters of serum, that meant spending around 50 cents to $1 per head for immunization (or around $12 to $24 today, adjusted for inflation), a not-insignificant investment for many farmers.

Given the threat posed by hog cholera, it’s no surprise that by 1913 the state manufactured its own serum, which it distributed free. That being said, demand often far outstripped the state’s supply. Furthermore, farmers grumbled (and some veterinarians agreed) that the state serum, at least in 1913, was less effective than commercially available ones.

In the meantime the virus continued to burn through the heart of the corn belt. “There has been a great deal of hog cholera in the neighborhood of Towanda,” noted The Pantagraph of Nov. 6, 1913. “Several farmers have lost large numbers of hogs and a good many are using the serum. Several out-of-town veterinarians are busy treating with serum. Price Jones treated 100 head. Louis Kraft lost 25 out of 80 head.”

Farmers were told to burn infected swine rather than bury them, which was good advice since the virus remained active for several months within a buried carcass of a rotting hog.

The Farmers’ Institute of McLean County held a two-day meeting at the YMCA in downtown Bloomington, Dec. 18-19, 1913. It was the first such meeting in several years and was spurred in great part by the confusion and fear swirling around the continuing outbreak.

Many were there to hear Dr. Alfred G. Alverson, a Bloomington veterinary surgeon (and blacksmith to boot!) He was a leading local authority on hog cholera, having vaccinated some 4,000 McLean County hogs from 141 herds over a two-year period.

Alverson was an enthusiastic proponent of the double treatment and he noted more than a few local success stories. “On the Lawrence Funk farm there was a herd of 267 of which several had been dying each day,” he said by way of example. “They were given the double treatment and only one died after that.”

Yet despite Alverson’s assurances, there remained plenty of frustration. “As soon as one man gets the cholera in the herd, he can ship his hogs to market and give the cholera to maybe a thousand other farmers,” noted the Jan. 19, 1914 Pantagraph. “The county is not organized in any way to prevent the cholera … We can’t even get enough serum when we want it.”

The following summer there was a more concerted effort among area farmers, veterinarians, business leaders and government officials to keep the cholera in check. In early June, the State Bank of McLean sponsored a demonstration of the double treatment conducted by Dr. Alverson and former USDA official Dr. John D. Thrower.

At the demonstration, held on the McFarland and Aldrich dairy farm on the south end of the village of McLean, farmers were told that the double treatment had already proved successful with some of their rural neighbors, including Lawrence P. Funk, Deane N. Funk and H.M. Palmer.

The following year, 1915, Hancock County farmers established a cooperative buying program to offer hog cholera serum at cost. This was the beginnings of what would become a decade later the Illinois Farm Bureau Serum Association, a group that helped beat back hog cholera in the prairie state.

For the first nine months of 1924, for instance, the association distributed 15 million cubic centimeters of serum to 35 county Farm Bureaus. That was enough serum to immunize 250,000 porkers.

A major problem with the double treatment was that it often proved fatal to already weakened hogs. This was so because unsanitary pens and shelters meant worm-infested hogs, and worm-infested hogs could not survive the double whammy of serum and virus injections.

Knowing this, it’s not surprising to learn that a USDA program for preventing roundworm infestations in swine herds, first tested in McLean County, proved a valuable ally in the long campaign to eradicate hog cholera.

The McLean County System of Swine Sanitation, as it became known nationally and even internationally, significantly decreased mortality rates in hogs treated for cholera. Cleaner pens and shelters under this system meant healthier hogs robust enough to survive the double treatment. “Sanitation paves the way to satisfactory immunization,” was how Dr. H.B. Raffensperger, a USDA veterinarian, explained the principle to local farmers in the spring of 1927.

On June 11, 1972, Illinois became the 44th state designated hog cholera free. Six-and-a-half years later, Jan. 31, 1978, USDA Secretary Bob Bergland declared the entire nation free from hog cholera. The disease remains a menace in South America, Asia and Africa.

Bill Kemp is the librarian at the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington. He can be reached at BKemp@mchistory.org. His Pages From Our Past appears every Sunday in The Pantagraph.

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