1918 Influenza Pandemic
During this unprecedented time in the United States, in the World, as we all sit isolated in our homes in an attempt to stem the tide of a virus of unknown danger and risk, the topic of the Spanish Flu, or the influenza of 1918, periodically pops up in news stories and conversations.
Years ago, I read The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History with my book club. I know, not a stereotypical book club choice. But we weren’t a stereotypical book club! Yes, we drank wine, and yes we gossiped. But we read heavy, important books. I miss that group!
When I mentioned to my dad that month’s book, he told me he wanted to send me something. A few days later, I received a think envelope in the mail. Inside, was a copy of his Aunt Clara’s diary. Date? 1918.
His aunt Clara was his father’s younger sister, younger by six years.
He wrote a cover letter to provide me with some context. Included was this paragraph:
“Consider that Cresbard, South Dakota was a very small town. Population can’t be much more than 200-300 now, and I doubt it was larger then. Of course, Clara, et al., lived on a farm several miles from town. You might get the impression that Aunt Clara was an uneducated country girl. A clue she was not – translating Virgil.”
And I feel compelled to provide even more context.
First, Aunt Clara.
Clara Mae Horen was the third of four children born to George Horen and his second wife, Florence. The story of the first wife is a bit murky and potentially ugly.
My great-grandfather, George Horen, was an early settler in the Dakota Territory in 1884 thanks to the 1862 Homestead Act, which promised Americans a free 160 acres if they built a home, cultivated 10 acres, and lived there for at least five years. George brought his first wife Mary and their son to the territory to stake his claim, where they built a sod house on the unforgiving plains. Within two years, the couple also had a second child, a daughter.
Here’s what my dad had to say about the sod house:
“Because of the lack of trees, homes were built of strips of sod laid on top of each other, as for bricks. Floors were dirt. Lumber was used to hold up the roof, which was covered with sod.”
My dad continued, describing a bit about the difficult life they had:
“Life was very hard. The climate included sub-zero temperatures and heavy snow. Summers were hot, sometimes very dry, and agriculture was impeded by grasshoppers and other insects. Families were often isolated for long periods of time.”
From another family letter:
“Grandpa told us about earlier years [in South Dakota], when the farmers tied ropes from the house to the barn, so they wouldn’t get lost during a blizzard. He said they didn’t find people till the snow melted in the spring (often they’d be found only a few feet from the house).”
Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for his wife to decide that she had no interest in living in the harsh conditions of the Dakotas. So she left her husband and returned with the children to her parent’s home in Michigan. Word has it that her parents were opposed to the pioneer life in the first place. Apparently George did go back to Michigan to try to mend things, but it was not to be.
Various other opportunities enacted by the federal government, such as the 1873 Timber Act offering free additional land if trees were planted as outlined, allowed George to steadily increase his claim (By the way, the Dakota Territory had been acquired by the United States in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase and was divided into two states in 1889.).
George continued farming the land he was homesteading, very successfully, and then met a woman who would become his wife (1892), and the mother of both my grandfather, Clarence Horen, and his sister Clara Mae Horen, the author of the diary.
The woman George met, Florence Leary, was a seamstress. She didn’t have an easy life either. Her mother died when she was only four, and she was the oldest; her father traveled as a millwright, so she and her siblings moved in with an aunt, who unfortunately passed away when Florence was 12. She then “lived in” for her keep (not sure where) until she turned 18. It was then that she worked for a dressmaker and learned the trade. She spent the next fourteen years supporting herself. Apparently, she spent four of those years in Colorado helping her younger sister with her four young children.
The family lore that I grew up with stated that during the other years, she travelled from town to town and from farm to farm in a covered wagon. She would stay in one place until she completed everyone’s sewing needs. And then she would move on. One of the stops included South Dakota, where she met and married George.
Here is where the murky part starts. The family “gossip” was that George had never actually divorced his first wife, Ann, and that when she heard that he had gotten remarried, she came back to town and introduced herself as Mrs. Horen. That would have meant George had two wives. Obviously scandalous. The story goes that George took out a mortgage on his farm to pay the first Mrs. Horen to go away, which she promptly did, never to be seen again. And for generations to come, the two sides of that family have remained estranged.
One letter from our family papers discusses a meeting decades later between one of George’s nieces, Charlotte, and George’s daughter from his first marriage, Ann. The letter says that when Charlotte mentioned some of George’s second family, Ann became “very hostile” and they never talked again. The letter ends with “That whole business must have been quite a drama.”
Over time, the farm prospered and grew to 1,000 acres by homesteading in both his and his wife’s name (Florence). According to family records, they were very successful. They had “40 heads of horses, a steam-powered tractor, the first car in town (an REO), hired hands, and hired help around the house.” Unfortunately, the farm fell victim to the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl and grasshoppers. And also to a heavy mortgage.
In the meantime, George’s daughter Clara, only 18 years old, recorded the devastation of the Spanish flu on her family and friends. And one of those who died in the pandemic was her beau, Edgar Williams.
In 1922, she married Joe Devine, who owned a school bus. When things got bad in South Dakota, they loaded up their possessions and family into the bus and moved to California, where much of the rest of the family had already relocated. The only one who stayed was Clarence, my grandfather. And because he stayed and took over the farm, he was the one who suffered the most when they lost everything.
Cresbard was founded in 1906 and had a population of around 300. The population peaked in 1930 at 358, and it has been steadily declining since then, with the most recent estimate being around 100 residents. I mention this because while today our urban centers are exploding with new cases of Covid-19 every day, even small rural towns like Cresbard were devastated by the Spanish Flu in 1918.
The country has changed dramatically in the past hundred years. For one, in 1918, about 50% of the population lived in rural areas and small towns like Cresbard with 50% in urban areas. Today, only around 16% of Americans live in rural areas. The small town life described by my father, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather and their families and written about by Aunt Clara no longer exists.
Finally, the Spanish Flu
The Spanish flu pandemic lasted two years. According to the CDC, within that time, one-third of the world’s population was infected, which amounted to 500 million people with influenza. Death toll estimates are unclear and range from 17 million to 100 million.
Interestingly, the media in 1918 manipulated the news (Yes, it’s true. Fake news is nothing new!), busy downplaying the influenza’s impact on the populations of Germany, the UK, France, as well as the US. However, the press in Spain was reporting the truth. As a result, the world was under the impression that Spain must have been the epicenter of the spread, in today’s parlance. Hence, the name, Spanish Flu.
Also, usually the elderly and the young are the most at risk for influenza. What was different about the 1918 strain, and what caused such alarm, was the increased risk to healthy young adults (50% of the deaths were people between 20 and 40 years old), who were dying from the disease.
In a paragraph that should also sound familiar, the South Dakota State Historical Society explains directives issued by officials at the time.
Throughout the state, churches, theatres, schools, pool halls, parlors and other public gathering places were closed indefinitely. The flu escalated to the point that the superintendent of the South Dakota Board of Health declared that, “In any community where the disease is prevalent, public gatherings of all kinds are forbidden.” Individuals who had any symptoms of the flu were asked to refrain from public gatherings of any kind. Public drinking cups and towels were prohibited. People were forbidden to congregate at train depots, requiring patrons to buy their train tickets one person at a time.
And in the file of the more things change the more they stay the same, fierce criticism was made over officials failing to act quickly enough when infections exploded.
As soon as I opened the envelope, I devoured the diary. And I made copies for everyone in my book club, to make the heavily researched pandemic come to life on a very personal level. So I thought I would now share it with you. I will post sections of it over the next few weeks. And I will also comment on portions and provide any historical context, if necessary.
So let’s go back in time, to 1918 South Dakota, where an 18-year-old lived through a pandemic. Stay well!
I have a copy of a typewritten transcription of the original diary, which was handwritten in beautiful cursive, I must say! I could have scanned the typewritten pages and uploaded them, but I decided it would end up being easier to read if I just retyped the pages and made them digital. I have kept original spacing, punctuation and spelling.
And I will post new excerpts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.