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Hickory's Miracle-The Polio Hospital That Was Built In Only 54 Hours


In 1944 an enemy struck America and the target was the children who were the future and the pride of every parent. The assailant was not human but the polio virus, Poliomyelitis which most commonly attacks the spinal system and leads to paralysis of the legs. While brave men fought overseas for the freedom of the world, parents back home were fighting for the lives of their little ones.

This common form of polio causes the nerve cells to become inflamed leading to damaged motor neurons. When they die, degeneration causes muscle weakness because they are no longer receiving nerve impulses. The muscle becomes weaker and weaker until it fails to function and finally becomes to a point of total paralysis. Equally horrifying, the person retains feeling in the limbs but cannot move them. So every pain, twinge and cramp is intense and deep.

The polio virus sometimes took hold in older people and even adults but this was rare. The most well known adult was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who was stricken in 1921 at the age of thirty nine. He became an advocate for a cure of the dreaded virus. But in 1944, perhaps a miracle was needed before a cure could be found.


The little town of Hickory sits in the foothills of Western North Carolina in Catawba County and is a peaceful and lovely place to live. It is on the direct route to the big city of Charlotte and the capital of North Carolina, Raleigh. In 1944, the little city had 15,000 people living on the banks of the beautiful lake appropriately named Lake Hickory. Life is laid back with lots of children having fun especially in the summer. And 1944 was no different-except for an outbreak of the deadly polio. It became an epidemic in the area and was to put this previously unknown and naïve town on the map.

The increased rate of infected patients brought desperate parents through Hickory on their way to seek treatment in Charlotte for their ill children. However polio was finding its way into the local population now and the first reported case was Linda Kiser, a toddler only seventeen months old. Only one day later another child, four year old Wands Scronce was taken ill. Both children were taken to Charlotte Memorial Hospital for treatment. Within a week two young boys were diagnosed with polio and also hospitalized in Charlotte and the total number swelled to ten from the Hickory area alone. The community fell in to panic and hysterical fear. Children under twelve were banned from public places including churches and schools. They were prohibited from entering swimming areas and parks.

The hospital in Charlotte reached capacity even though they had added tents wards and closed admission to new patients outside the area. The only other close hospital in Gastonia was also filled to capacity. And Hickory did not have a facility to treat polio patients. That was to change rapidly. A hospital facility was created in less than three days.

On June 22, 1944, three men involved in the fight to contain and eliminate the polio epidemic met to determine how they could help in this time of crisis. Dr. H.C. Whims, Dr. Gaither Hahn and Dr. C.H. Crabtree knew that Hickory was in the midst of it all and a treatment center was vital. They debated options and finally determined that a county owned facility was best preferred. Just outside the city and situated on Lake Hickory was a building made out of stone and set on 60 acres of woodlands. But there was a problem. Isn’t there always?

The chosen building was occupied by children, appropriately enough, was a camp for underprivileged children. The children were ordered to be returned home and subsequently packed up and the place was quickly vacated. This was Thursday morning and by Saturday afternoon the first polio patients were admitted.

The three men who were responsible for the creation of the “Miracle Hospital” worked hard to get everything ready and off the ground. Two Hickory architects were consulted and enlisted to design additions to the existing building. Literally within hours work began. Local lumber companies and tradesmen volunteered product and services and construction continued throughout the night, thanks to floodlights being donated and set up. Even a prison work team was brought out to help and the prisoners dedicated themselves to helping ill and dying children by hand digging a new water main. It stretched from Hickory to the hospital, a three mile trek.

The local Hickory Daily Record pleaded for assistance and the community responded beyond imagination. Like firemen the world over, local fire department members worked on their own time to install water hydrants. The telephone company provided and even installed a switchboard for the new hospital. Electricity was provided by Duke Power while trees, brush and debris were cleared from the site by the National Guard. Ladies from the Red Cross made gowns, masks and other isolation items. A polio essential, the dreaded iron lung even arrived from neighboring Morganton.

Just 54 hours after that meeting where three physicians came together in one accord, the Hickory Emergency Infantile Paralysis Hospital was finished and the first patients admitted for treatment. It was a miracle of loving volunteers and hard working areas folks from all over the area and was designated “The Miracle of Hickory.” It retains that to this very day. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis provided operating funds which help tremendously to offset the burden from volunteers and the community.

By Monday, June 26, 1944, sixteen children had been admitted and were in treatment. The staff was prepared to be inundated with sick children; the 12 nurses were kept busy and were all volunteers. Later on more nurses arrived which was great news because the facility was promptly expanded by the arrival of two military hospital tents. The kitchen was not finished or operational so local Hickory women prepared meals in their own homes to feed the hospital staff and patients. Volunteer efforts kept the place running efficiently as it continued to grow in size and influx of ill people. Within one week after opening, forty five patients had come through the admitting desk.

Many of the polio stricken patients were tiny toddlers and little children who required baby beds. The community again stepped up and brought in dozens of cribs for these little sufferers. But a grown man of twenty seven was the first to be placed in the iron lung, a machine which creates an airtight seal around a person’s body. Only the head and neck are outside of the device while the lungs have air forced through in a mimic of breathing. It is a frightening sight. Many who were placed in an iron lung never came out and lived that way until they died. A second iron lung was shortly thereafter received and put to use.

Three weeks later, the hospital had ninety two polio patients in its wards. Word was spreading about the emergency manufacture of this operational hospital and how it all came about through the hard work of dedicated volunteers. In July 1944, Life Magazine ran a feature on the little Hickory hospital that was changing the history of medicine and America was touched by the outpouring of local compassion and caring from Hickory residents. A documentary was also produced by Paramount Studios and the lovely movie star Greer Garson narrated the story that had been given the title of My Hometown.

As time passed, other, real, hospitals grew more equipped to deal with the polio and its victims. Nine months after opening the doors, the Miracle of Hickory closed. The 87 patients were transported to Charlotte Memorial Hospital. The caravan was a mile long, consisting of more than 70 cars and medical ambulances. A quick era had ended but 633 patients had been seen at the makeshift hospital. Of these, 528 had received the dread diagnosis of polio. It is to be noted that in a time of racial injustice, 55 African American and even one Native American were treated. The Miracle of Hickory did not discriminate as to color or gender. Though two thousand patients came through the hospital, there were only twelve recorded deaths. The combined strength and effort of a unified community saved many, many lives.

  • In 1955 the miracle vaccine of Dr. Jonas Salk overcame the ravages of polio. Children stood in lines at churches and schools to get the lifesaving drops that had not come in time to save siblings and friends.
  • The original stone building remains and became home to the United States Army Reserve Armory in 1957 and is currently part of the Hickory Parks and Recreation Department.
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Life In An Iron Lung

  • PMS-Poor Me Syndrome
    Martha Mason lived more than 60 years in an iron lung after polio left her paralyzed and unable to breathe.

Through Jesus We Are Healed

All photographs and text on this site are protected under United States and international copyright laws © Brenda Barnes.


Brenda Barnes (author) from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on July 31, 2012:

leahlefler, I am so glad you found this Hub. The entire polio epidemic struck fast and ruthlessly. Thousands of children died and parents were helpless. As you said, I cannot imagine such horror. We all should never forget the doctors who worked hard to develop vaccines and cures. Bless you. Hyph

Leah Lefler from Western New York on July 31, 2012:

Wow, what a story! I can't imagine the terror of watching your baby suffer with Polio - a disease people of my generation cannot remember. My seventh grade math teacher suffered from the after-effects of Polio and used special crutches to walk. What a terrible disease, and I am forever grateful for the development of Salk's vaccine!

Brenda Barnes (author) from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on August 12, 2011:

Hello Reynold Jay. I love that video to. And this whole story has just touched my heart. I am glad you liked it.

Reynold Jay from Saginaw, Michigan on August 11, 2011:

Yep, quite an amazing story. It's great to see everything coming together like this. I checked out the music video in your profile and loved it .

Brenda Barnes (author) from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on August 10, 2011:

Hi TinaV. Thanks so much. I felt the story should be visible in the public. I am happy that your friend survived and has a great life. So many were lost. Thank you for coming by this Hub.

Hello Simone. This really is an incredible story. I am glad you came by to read it.

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on August 10, 2011:

Oh my goodness, this is an incredible story!! Wow!!

TINA V on August 10, 2011:

This is a well-written hub. The details make it interesting, and it is really informative. I have a friend who grew up as a normal child, but he was struck with polio before graduating in high school. It really affected him, but he was able to survive the trauma. He got his Bachelor’s Degree, and now he has his own business.

This hub reminds us that polio is just a trial, but the important thing is the miracle of hard work out of love for others. Most of all, the goodness of God in our lives is still there.

Brenda Barnes (author) from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on August 10, 2011:

Hello ahorseback. I have learned that the effects of polio last forever in the body. It is an evil and insidious disease. I am sure sorry to hear about your friend. I will pray for him, for strength an healing. He has been a champion to work all these years. When I hear a story like this, I think about the people who carry on and let the slightest illness bring them down. Your friend is a hero.

Thanks for stopping by. I am glad this has found such interest in the readers. Have a wonderful day.

ahorseback on August 10, 2011:

Awesome writing! Hyph , I have a good friend that I have worked with for almost thirty years, he as a child was paralazed from the chest down temporarily, and now has post polio symtoms! The doctors know very little about the effects, but much of his paralysis seems to be returning at 62 now he is just about at his end for working at all . Great subject , and very interesting!......:-}

Brenda Barnes (author) from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on August 09, 2011:

Thank you Epi. We need rain here as the hot sun bakes the land every day. You are always so much fun and I adore getting comments from you.

epigramman on August 09, 2011:

....the ingenuity of mankind - it's just amazing what we can do when we put our mind to it ....and it's just equally amazing what you can do when you put your mind to it - another amazing story from you and as always your writing contains such passion and heart. Thank you for educating me and enlightening as you always do.

lake erie time 9:48pm a very rainy and wet day I woke up to with my first cup of coffee - this would be a good day to be inside baking cookies with you - how about just bakin' - where is Mister Boss these days - would he mind me samplin' some of your hot cross buns? lol lol

by the way after all of this Colinfoolery I am posting this most important hub to my Facebook page with a direct link back here

Brenda Barnes (author) from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on August 08, 2011:

Oh yes. Now I remember! Thanks for the mental boost.

mckbirdbks from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas on August 08, 2011:

You sent me to your Hub "PMS-Poor Me Syndrome", after reading one of my Hubs. Have a great day.

Brenda Barnes (author) from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on August 08, 2011:

Hello Eiddwen. This endeavor was truly a coming together of people who wanted to make a difference. And they did. I am glad you enjoyed my retelling of this amazing time in history. And thanks for the votes. Hyphenbird

Eiddwen from Wales on August 08, 2011:

I thoroughly enjoyed this beautiful hub told in your own unique style. It is so refreshing to read hubs such as this one, so refreshing to learn of all work,love and care that is also around.

Thank you again and i vote up wothout a doubt.

Take care


Brenda Barnes (author) from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on August 07, 2011:

mckbirdbks. Did you stay away because of your meeting with polio? I am sorry if this brought back unhappy memories. I don't remember us discussing that. I am so sorry and am truly apologetic if this caused you pain of any sort. And here you are so encouraging with your words just like you always do. You really are a loyal and wonderful person. Regards and joy, Hyph.

lily, thank you darling poet and friend of mine.

Lillian K. Staats from Wasilla, Alaska on August 07, 2011:

Very good, Hy... lily

mckbirdbks from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas on August 07, 2011:

Hello Hyphen I have stayed away from this Hub for a couple of days now. Funny it is in North Carolina where I met polio. I think we talked about this briefly. Great Hub, you always manage to select Hubs with great humanitarian essence.

Brenda Barnes (author) from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on August 07, 2011:

Hello skye2day. I also am thankful that a cure was found for this deadly disease. Satan brings things like this to destroy us and God imbues physicians with lifesaving skills. I am pleased you found it encouraging. As Holy Spirit brings me ideas to write about, I know He has a purpose. Joy to you always, Hyph.

skye2day from Rocky Mountains on August 07, 2011:

hyphenbird All I can say is WOW you have such a fantastic informative read here. Praise our LORD GOD a treatment was discovered. I feel so grateful for my health and any woe is me is pathetic. All Glory to God on High. You are truly a gifted writer. Keep on sister Keep on. GOD has you here for a reason, I was led to your pages for a reason. Hugs Galore In Christ, your sister, Love you.

Brenda Barnes (author) from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on August 07, 2011:

lambservant, yes He certainly does!

I had heard of this hospital several years back and as it came to mind recently, I was prompted to research and write about it. I am glad you enjoyed it.

Lori Colbo from United States on August 06, 2011:

What a great hub. I had never heard that story of Hickory. Great research and great writing. And yes, Jesus Heals.

Brenda Barnes (author) from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on August 06, 2011:

Becky, you are one of my most loyal followers and are appreciated very much. I understand that people are very busy and write in part for people like you. Thank you from my heart.

Brenda Barnes (author) from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on August 06, 2011:

always exploring, I am so sorry about Hazel. Such a tragedy and a loss for your family. This entire story has really become close to my heart and I am so glad you have found it encouraging. Joy to you. Hyph

Brenda Barnes (author) from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on August 06, 2011:

d.william. I appreciate you kind and compassionate comments. In today's times, someone would sue the hard working people over something crazy. It was so refreshing to write about people who put the welfare of others in the forefront. By the time I was born, the epidemic was over but many people still struggled with the after affects of being ill. And families mourned the deaths of beloved children. I suppose they still do.

Thanks for visiting my Hub. Hyph

Becky on August 06, 2011:

I know, I don't get by your hub as often as I would like but I get on certain ones every day. I wouldn't miss them. Unfortunately, that cuts down on others that I just can't make time for. Family calls, I have schoolwork to do, and housework.:( Have a blessed day. I will see if I can get by more often.

Brenda Barnes (author) from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on August 06, 2011:

Hi Becky. How are you today? It would be great to see this kind of union in today's society of me-me-me and lawsuits. These true stories inspire me also and I am going to look for more to write about. Thanks for stopping by. It is always so nice to see you.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on August 06, 2011:

Brenda, This story amazes me. How wonderful that people came together in a time of great need. Wouldn't it be wonderful if that were true today? Many years before i was born, i had a Sister die with Polio, her name was Hazel, she was five years old. She is buried in our family cemetery. Thank God for the Polio vaccine. Thank you for sharing this story with us. Makes my day complete.

Brenda Barnes (author) from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on August 06, 2011:

Hello Cloverleaf. I love how this community pulled together and showed love. And the women cooked in their own homes to feed the medical staff and patients. That really touched my heart.

Thanks for your visit. Hyph

d.william from Somewhere in the south on August 06, 2011:

What a wonderful article, and so well done. Gives the reader some feeling for what those folks went through and what they accomplished. Amazing.

I remember as a child, polio was the most dreaded disease out there, and the panic and fear was as real then over contracting polio as it was in the out of control days of modern day aids victims.

The only difference being that in the days of the polio epidemic people were more concerned with helping those afflicted, than blaming them for something they had no control over, as we do today. Mankind is regressing. Sad. Thanks for sharing those memories with us.

Becky on August 06, 2011:

Beautiful bit of well-researched facts. I really enjoy reading articles like this. The love of all for their children put them all on the same page, resulting in saving lives. Good job on this.

Cloverleaf from Calgary, AB, Canada on August 06, 2011:

Hi Hyph, what an interesting read, there's a great sense of community spirit here.

Cheers, Cloverleaf.

Brenda Barnes (author) from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on August 05, 2011:

You are welcome SusieQ. The entire community really came together in unity and compassion ever came ego. I wish our entire world was this way always. Thanks for the visit and I am so glad you enjoyed this. Hyphen

SusieQ42 on August 05, 2011:

Hi Hyphen! What a great story. It takes a great deal of commitment to work so hard for such a good cause, doesn't it? Well, they did it! Thanks for an interesting hub!

Brenda Barnes (author) from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on August 05, 2011:

attemptedhumour, how are you today? That account of your dad's illness would make an interesting and inspiring Hub. hint-hint

I hope this story helps readers to remember the importance of unity when a time of trial arises. Thanks for coming by. Hyph

Brenda Barnes (author) from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on August 05, 2011:

Growing, I agree entirely about the unity of that community and how the church should be even more so. The ones of us who are devoted to the Lord and crucify the old human self must step up and just do it. As that happens we glorify the Name of Jesus and help our fellow man who is in need. I so thank you for coming by and leaving your loving, spiritual and compassionate words.

Brenda Barnes (author) from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on August 05, 2011:

Happyboomernurse, you have the hands on experience for sure. During my research, I learned about Post-polio syndrome. That awful disease affected people forever. I know people are still affected and polio causes deaths even now. I told Alastar that one of my most challenging things is to stay on topic when I write. I love to tell EVERYTHING and it would ruin the integrity of the article.

Thanks for giving us a professional point of view. I appreciate you. Hyph

Brenda Barnes (author) from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on August 05, 2011:

Alastar Packer, How cool to know you were born so close. There was indeed a lot happening in Gastonia. I learned much about it, and abut Charlotte, when doing my research for this article. I kept pulling myself back because I always want to delve off into side trails and all the other fascinating stuff. Alas, one must be focused. I did discover this community has a ton of interesting history nuggets. Thanks for dropping by. Say hi to the cook for me. Hyph

attemptedhumour from Australia on August 05, 2011:

Hello Hyphen, what a great uplifting story emphasizing how important it is to pull together in a time of crisis. I remember having a polio shot when i first came to Oz in 77. Also my dad contracted polio myalgia about five years ago, and had to take steroids for two years. It did the trick as he's fine now. He couldn't lift his arms up and needed help to get up out of bed, or out of a chair. Oh well, must away.

GrowingDeeper on August 05, 2011:

Hyph- excellent little known story at least by my generation. These are the stories about America that need to be kept alive and retold not hidden in a local newspaper's archives. Great job both researching and retelling a great tale of small town America.

Couldn't help but think about this also relative to the church..

"...three men involved in the fight to contain and eliminate the polio epidemic met to determine how they could help in this time of crisis...after that meeting where three physicians came together in one accord...The combined strength and effort of a unified community saved many, many lives."

If Christians would only come together with one accord to see what we could do about the many problems facing America today, what could be accomplished. God help us to get it together and get serious about an outpouring of God on this country. I believe much is hindered because of the divisiveness of even those with great intentions. Several places in Acts the words "one accord" are mentioned when we see the power of God at it's greatest demonstration. God bless Hyph and didn't mean to change the tone of things, but it just hit me like a brick as I read.

Gail Sobotkin from South Carolina on August 05, 2011:

I thoroughly enjoyed this story of a community pulling together. So amazing what can be done when we all work toward a common goal without wondering what's in it for "me".

I was born in 1952 and was blessed that the polio vaccine came out just a few years later. Did know of children who became crippled before the vaccine, and after becoming an RN in the 1970's took care of some adults who suffered from post polio syndrome. Post-polio syndrome (PPS) is a condition that affects polio survivors years after recovery from an initial acute attack of the poliomyelitis virus. Most often, polio survivors start to experience gradual new weakening in muscles that were previously affected by the polio infection and also in muscles that seemingly were unaffected by the virus.

I also administered polio vaccine to many children when I was a Public Health Nurse and remember when the Americas were reported as having no known cases of wild polio in the mid 1990's. However, though great progress has been made there are still a few hundred cases of wild polio reported in some countries every year, despite great efforts to immunize every child on the globe.

Great hub. Voted up, useful, awesome, beautiful and interesting.

Alastar Packer from North Carolina on August 05, 2011:

Polio was a scourge then and you have written an excellent article on it. Thoroughly immersed in this history of the Hickory out-break. You've done your homework very well Hyph; and I have a personal stake in that not only was I born at Charlotte Memorial but my father caught polio at the age of 14. PS-there was another polio hospital in Gastonia that Roosevelt visited. Knew a woman who as a child was there; she met and charmed the president; wound up leading the parade in the town and visited the White House. Merci Ms. Bee

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