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Our 1918 Pandemic – the plague ends

We have been learning about the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic from its origins in Kansas; its spread across the nation, aided by the movement of troops during WWI; its mutation into a more deadly form over the summer; and its reaching our region in the fall of 1918.

October 1918 was an awful month in our region and the peak of the plague here. The epidemic continued to rage into November and December, but the number of deaths decreased. Reported illness and death decreased even more significantly through January 1919.

The Lyon County News-Messenger’s Jan. 17, 1919 edition reported the last influenza deaths in the region. The “Lyon County News-Notes” correspondent from Ghent reported that 17 year-old Ray Goodman died the previous Friday, January 10 after battling with influenza for a week. The same correspondent reported that all the local influenza patients were improving as of January 17.

Two pages later a Marshall reporter wrote of the death on Tuesday, January 14 of 26 year-old farmer, E.A. Adler, at his farm a few miles east of Marshall. He had contracted influenza a week earlier and had been improving before a sudden relapse took his life. His mother, who lived with him, was also sick with influenza, but recovering.

The “Lyon County News-Notes” sections for the remainder of the month mostly focused on the social news from the townships and smaller communities. When they mentioned influenza, they were usually reporting on patients recovering or coming home from hospitalization or treatment. Ghent’s correspondent reported that school resumed again on Thursday, January 16. The correspondent from Vallers Township reported School District 56 opened for classes again on Monday, Jan. 20.

The epidemic exacted a heavy toll on our region during its roughly four-month rampage. The Lyon County News-Messenger’s reporting identified fifty-two persons as having died from influenza or its complications. It also reported the deaths of another sixteen persons, usually of pneumonia, during the course of the epidemic, which suggests they too were felled by the epidemic.

Since Minneota and Tracy each had their own newspapers, the News-Messenger had relatively few stories from those regional population centers, so they likely suffered deaths that were not reported in the News-Messenger. Then there were the many hundreds of residents who were laid low after contracting influenza during the epidemic’s course, disrupting the region’s commercial, religious, educational, and social life for months.

There were also many cases of influenza deaths which, while not taking place in our region, profoundly impacted many in the region.

For instance, Minneota lost Private Fritz Gewitz to influenza in early October while in training at Camp Grant, Illinois. Balaton lost Private Howard Aurant to influenza the first week of November while training at Camp Cody, New Mexico. Private Albert Manemann, brother of farmer Fred Manemann of Sodus Township died of influenza in early October while at sea, enroute to France. Marshall’s Harriet Spong, a 25 year-old teacher in Alexandria and 1912 graduate of Marshall High School died of complications from influenza in December. Marshall’s Reverend E.A. Birkholz lost his sister-in-law, spouse to his twin brother in Olivia, to influenza in January.

Many Marshall residents mourned the influenza deaths of R.A. Shirmer of Pipestone, who had owned and operated a meat market in Marshall for many years, and of Gladys Bailor, a former Marshall school teacher, who had left to work in Washington, DC during the war and died there of influenza.

The epidemic, however, also brought out many acts of selfless care on behalf of those afflicted. The News-Messenger reported case after case of family members or friends moving in with families stricken by influenza to care for them, sometimes contracting the disease themselves. It also reported of neighbors who rallied to take care of farm chores when entire farm families were laid low by influenza.

Marshall’s Mary McNiven, a teacher at District 90 whose school was closed due to the epidemic, assisted Tyler’s Dr. Vadheim by helping care for his influenza patients for three weeks. Then there were cases of even more extraordinary sacrifice. Emma Bellman, a nurse from St. Paul, moved to Marshall to mother her five nieces and nephews when influenza took her sister, their mother. Amiret’s Mrs. Henry Whitman cared for a 15 month-old girl dying from influenza when her own parents were too sick to care for her themselves.

The News Messenger reported how physicians like Tracy’s Hoydale and Valentine, Minneota’s Anderson, Ghent’s Lanous, and Marshall’s Bacon and Grey made house calls throughout the area to tend to patients suffering from influenza.

The paper also reported how the region’s Christian ministers were busy offering comfort to suffering congregants and helping those who had to say their final farewells to victims of the epidemic. Sometimes, as in the case of Green Valley’s Reverend Fr. Schaefer, they contracted the disease themselves.

Our region was finally free of this plague by early 1919, but it had caused sickness, death, and social and economic disruption across the region. What remains is to assess how that experience from 1918-19 compares to our contemporary, COVID-19 epidemic.

I welcome your participation in and ideas about our exploration of prairie lives. You may reach me at prairieview pressllc@gmail.com.

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