Gratiot County and the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, Part I: “It Was Unlike Anything Gratiot Had Ever Experienced Before”


Above: October 1918 newspaper advertisements.

        What happened in Gratiot County in the fall of 1918 was both an epidemic and a pandemic. It was the county’s worst encounter with influenza, but it was also a worldwide problem.  In all, approximately one-quarter of all Americans got the flu, a total of 25 million people. More Americans would die from the Influenza Epidemic than did soldiers and sailors who died in the World War.

       Some people knew it as “the grippe”, a term that had been in use for the frequent waves of influenza that seemed to come seasonally to places like Gratiot County.  Others called it “The Spanish Influenza.” In the fall it was the second of three waves. The first invasion came in the spring of 1918 and left little indication of how deadly it would be. Even after the terrible events of the fall of 1918, in the spring of 1919, influenza visited again.

        It was in September 1918 that the virus reached Gratiot County and by early October many became sick. Still, life was going on and patriotism was very much in swing. The fall of 1918 saw intense Liberty Loan (bond ) sales, drives, meetings, and parades. People in Gratiot County were expected to contribute heavily to the war effort by buying bonds. There was a feeling that the war could end soon as the Germans were on the retreat in France. Loyalty and support for the war effort seemed to approach a fever pitch –and people who did not appear patriotic were noticed.  People were congregating, meeting, and working in support of the war. And they were encountering and spreading the influenza virus. The virus was here in Gratiot County and it was at work.

      For many who were victims of “the grippe ” or “Spanish Influenza”, it meant suffering through intense influenza and then succumbing to a secondary viral infection.  Usually, this came in the form of pneumonia.  Symptoms could include having a sore throat, a serious cough, experiencing muscle pains or pain in the joints, the feeling of being cold all the time, or experiencing a fever of 101-105 degrees.  For those who experienced viral pneumonia, they often had intense delirium, the coughing up of blood,   bleeding out of their nose or ears, and  even having skin turn “as blue as berries.” For some people in Gratiot County it meant feeling healthy in the morning and then being weak, confined to bed and delirious in the evening. Others described the illness as if they were being hit with a club.

     This flu epidemic in 1918 was also unique in that adults in their twenties and thirties died, leaving families and homes adrift. This was different from the past when influenza seemed to claim the very young and the very old as primary targets. People tried to counter the influenza epidemic by keeping areas of the county clean. What were they told? Keep your house clean, keep your “bowels open,” get plenty of sleep, eat a light diet and practice social distancing, which went back to the Middle Ages.

      Churches and theaters closed. Businesses closed their doors as well. “Quarantine” was the word that meant staying away from homes that had contracted influenza. Those who broke the quarantine could find themselves facing the wrath of the health department or even end up in court.

     The truth was in Gratiot County, as in countless numbers of cities and villages across the United States, no one knew how to combat the influenza virus. Doctors could not explain why some of their treatments seemed to work on some patients and failed with others.  The strain upon the community and a sense of helplessness about what to do was experienced by doctors, nurses, clergymen, health department officials, and city governments.

      In the fall of 1918, these were some of the things that Gratiot County experienced at the time called the Influenza Epidemic. It was a time in our history that our ancestors would not talk about.

Next: Part II – “And They Came and Went to Camp Custer”

Copyright 2018 James M Goodspeed

Gratiot County and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, Prologue: Palmer Gustin Arrives in Middleton

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Above: Photograph of Palmer Starr Gustin; Gustin’s wallet; Jim Goodspeed’s World Geography class at Fulton High School, Fall 2005 with the effects of Palmer Gustin; Gustin’s induction paper; Gustin’s grave in Indiana.

       The papers, wallet and American Flag did not appear to draw any interest. When I first saw the auction lot on eBay I was interested in the contents of the lot, and even more, intrigued that no one seemed to want it. There was only a short time left on the auction and the contents belonging to a World War I veteran from Anderson, Indiana just sat there.

        It was early 2005, the internet was buzzing, and the United States had not yet suffered its greatest recession since World War II. Items pertaining to American military history could be found on the internet and those from the World War I era, while prevalent, often did not draw that much attention. It was as if World War I was a forgotten war – and this group of items in this sale was available.

       After I won the contents of the lot and it had been delivered to my room at Fulton High School in Middleton, Michigan I wondered just what the story was behind a soldier named Private Palmer Starr Gustin. All of the contents were the remains of an estate sale and contained a slightly mildewed American flag from 1918, a billfold,  a Red Cross receipt for a $1 donation, a photograph of a girl, and a bank book. Other, more interesting items, included Gustin’s registration card, conscription letter, General Orders, names of other soldiers on a notepad, a poem about Kaiser Wilhelm and his draft board classification card. There was also a very large, oval-shaped,  “fish eye” type of photograph of a soldier that had since been removed from a frame. There was also a collection of condolence cards; one was signed “War Mothers.”

        Since I tended to be a part-time History teacher, and because I seldom got the opportunity to teach American history, I had to be creative with ways to get history into the classes that I taught. During the fall 2005 semester, I had been assigned a World Geography class. I decided that I would do the unusual: let my small group of Geography students do the detective work on the internet to see what they could find out about this collection of World War I items and just who this Palmer Gustin really was. I could argue that I was teaching the geographic theme of “movement.” Actually, I just held my breath, did not tell my administrator what we were doing on Fridays and let the students learn something about history.

         The internet in 2005 did not have all of the search engines and sites that exist today. Many museums and archives were just then coming online with access to their collections and many had just started to digitize some of their holdings. Still, I was surprised at what my students were able to find.

         It turned out that Private Gustin was the son of John and Nellie Mae Gustin and the family had lived in central Indiana for quite some time. Born in 1898, Palmer was the eldest son of five children. His only brother, Arthur, died in 2004 at the age of 97. It was also discovered that Palmer appeared before the local draft board in Madison County in August 1918 and he was sent to Camp Sheridan in Alabama. There he became a part of Company C, 67th Infantry. All of this happened after he had been rejected from the Army and Navy in 1917 and then was accepted for Selective Service in 1918. It was then that the class found out that something very bad had happened to Palmer Gustin.

         Gustin had been at Camp Sheridan for a short time in the fall of 1918 (possibly eight weeks) when the Influenza Epidemic hit the camp. Camp Sheridan was not the only camp to experience the epidemic, military cantonments (camps) across the United States had been invaded by the virus by September 1918 at the latest. Some encountered it earlier that spring. Soldiers quickly became sick with influenza, were incapacitated and then frequently suffered pneumonia, which killed them. Palmer Gustin contracted influenza and died on October 24. A week before Palmer died,  a total of 2,367 cases of influenza were reported in the camp. This young man from Indiana, age 22, was one of those who was taken in the epidemic.

         After my class tried to make sense of the puzzle that they had been given, the question was asked, “What should be done with the remaining effects of Palmer Gustin?”  The next assignment was to find out if any family members were still alive and if they could tell us anything else about this soldier. We were lucky and we discovered that there was a niece still living in the Anderson, Indiana area. Of course, Mr. Goodspeed was nominated to try and make the initial contact. I did and I found Paula Bronnenberg, who was very interested in her great uncle’s belongings and she wanted to know why a bunch of students from another state found them. Mrs. Bronnenberg helped to fill in some of the pieces of her uncle’s life. Paula lived in the same farmhouse that Palmer Gustin had been born and lived in. She knew of his death in the flu epidemic and she also knew who the girl was in one of the pictures that I described: it was her grandmother, Mattie Palmer. Mattie’s first name was on the back of the photograph.

         Bronnenberg also explained that there had been an estate sale in the family and that she had failed to obtain Great Uncle Palmer Gustin’s military items. We decided as a class that these things belonged in Indiana and we shipped them back to her. I took pictures and made copies of the items before we returned them and the file disappeared into my crowded filing system until I remembered having it some two years ago. At the time, I was starting to investigate Gratiot County in the Great War and this thing called the Influenza Epidemic.   As a teacher, my small group of Geography students had been introduced to the deadly event in history known as the Influenza Epidemic of 1918. I knew a little about this pandemic, but what really happened in Gratiot County?

            This was the next adventure.

Next time, Part II:  The Background of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic

Copyright 2018 James M Goodspeed

Fifty Years Ago – “Remembering Gratiot County’s Tiger of 1968”

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Above: Jim Northrup’s Grand Slam in Game Six of the 1968 World Series led to a 13-1 blowout of the St. Louis Cardinals and set up a crucial Game Seven, which he hit the game winner and gave the Tigers the championship; a billboard south of Alma along US-27; scenes from Jim Northrup Day, October 19, 1968 in Alma. Northrup made a personal appearance for fans, appeared in the Alma College parade and was recognized at halftime of the Alma-Albion football game in honor of “Jim Northrup Day” in Alma, St. Louis and Breckenridge.

          The sign along US-27 south of Alma read, “THIS IS NORTHUP AND TIGERS COUNTRY.” The date was October 10, 1968, and the Detroit Tigers had just won their first World Series in 23 years. At the heart of the story was a former Gratiot County native, student, and athlete named Jim Northrup.

           After finding themselves in a 3-1 deficit in the World Series, Northrup keyed a comeback in Game 6 when he hit a grand slam by teeing off on the first pitch he saw that afternoon (he hit four grand slams prior to this during the regular season). It helped the team to a 13-1 trouncing of the Cardinals and set up the final game of the series. In Game 7, Northrup broke open a close game in the 7th inning with a triple off of Cardinals great Bob Gibson. It proved to be the game-winner and the Tigers were only the fourth team in Major League history (to that point in 1968) to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the World Series. Detroit – and Gratiot County- went bonkers.

          But, first, let us back up. Prior to the start of the World Series in October, several Gratiot County residents were cautiously optimistic that the Bengals would defeat the heavily favored Cardinals. Even after an amazing season that saw the Tigers win 104 regular season games, Gratiot County Herald columnist Harold Smaltz was the only local newspaperman to go on record to state that the Tigers would win the Series. Smaltz thought the Tigers would win it all in six games. Others around Gratiot County were interviewed by newspapers to get their opinions about the upcoming World Series. Given that the Tigers had come from behind to win 28 regular season games, all of those interviewed thought that the Tigers would triumph.

After being stopped in downtown Ithaca for an interview,  Sandy Brillhart, Nancy Goostrey, Vicki Merchant and Barb Johnson were asked for their opinion about the Tigers winning the World Series. All agreed that “They’re definitely going to win. They’ve been doing so well, they’ll win!” Postal worker Orval Shaw was stopped in front of the Ithaca Post Office where he was taking down the flag for the day. While he did not follow the Tigers as much as his wife did that summer, he thought his wife’s commitment to following the Tigers and that she stayed up late nights to watch many of their come from behind victories convinced him to believe in the Tigers, too. Former Ithaca great Roger Howes also picked the Tigers because of their bullpen, their youth, their depth and how they compared to the Cardinals player to player. Still, as the World Series played out there were plenty of moments when it seemed that the Cardinals were going to claim their second consecutive World Series Championship, especially after being up 3-1 over Detroit.

         However, after the dramatic Game Seven win, there were plenty of Jim Northrup supporters in Gratiot County. Northup’s’ high school coach,   Levatt Caszatt, who was principal at St. Louis High School, commented that the “come from behind character” of the Tigers in the World Series was very much the temperament and character of Jim Northrup as a high school player and Alma College athlete. Caszatt remembered that while Northrup was not the player with the most ability on the St. Louis football, basketball or baseball teams that Caszatt coached, he had “a tremendous spirit” and Northrup became an excellent trainer. Alma College coach Art Smith recruited Northup to play football, golf, and baseball at Alma College. As Northrup’s mentor, he knew Jim had determination, that he was aggressive and he always gave 100 percent. Smith stated after the World Series, “ I always thought he was a big leaguer.” Dr. Lester Eyer also recalled the challenges Northrup had as an Alma College student when deciding whether to pursue a career in the medical field or to become a professional baseball player. Eyer stated, “It was a big decision for him to make, between medicine and baseball. We’ve been real proud of him for what he’s done the last two days.”  Fortunately for Detroit and Gratiot County that October,  that is what Northrup eventually became, a world champion.

         In recalling the afternoon that the Tigers won Game Seven of the World Series (at that time all World Series games were being played in the afternoon, not evenings), people celebrated in their own way. While cutting hair, Alma barber George Clark almost cut off the ear of the man whose hair he was cutting.  When the go-ahead run was reported over the radio in Game 7, the man jumped up out of the chair and Clark recalled that he almost got the ear in the process.  One young Alma wife could not locate her husband until very late that evening. She expected him home for dinner and when the husband came in late from the bar that night, he explained that he was out celebrating with the boys about the Tigers winning it all. Regardless, she gave her husband a cold dinner. Sometimes for some people in Gratiot County, the hardest part of the Series was just following it. As already stated, these were day games and for some like one unnamed Alma High School student, he lamented to a local newspaper that teachers seldom let students listen to the games. Yet, during Game Seven he found one teacher who had a radio and listened to the action. The problem was that class ended before Northrup’s triple occurred and the scoring really started. Other students remembered getting home from school, or from off of the bus, to hear that the Tigers had just won Game Seven.

          There were many well-deserved accolades for this team of World Championship Tigers in 1968, but Gratiot County remembered just one of them. One of the headlines the day after the win read “Northrup’s hit gives Tigers the Series.” A large billboard sign located on the northbound part of US- 27 south of Alma read in bold letters “THIS IS NORTHRUP AND TIGERS COUNTRY.” Later that month, Northrup was honored at Alma College’s Homecoming parade in what was also recognized as “Jim Northrup Day” in Alma, St. Louis and Breckenridge. During the parade, he road atop a white convertible. A large banner in downtown Alma near City Hall read: “Jim Northrup and Alma Alumni…Welcome to Alma—Scotland USA.” Northrup was also recognized at halftime of the Alma-Adrian football game and he crowned Alma College Homecoming Queen Kathy Richards. Prior to the festivities that morning, Northrup appeared at Alma Plumbing and Heating to sign autographs and pose with fans for pictures.

          One news column that ran in the Alma Record-Leader after the World Series  was entitled “A Place in Heaven?” It stated that in Gratiot County, “This is Northrup country. And Lolich country, and Kaline, and Cash Country. But mostly Northrup country.” It also concluded “that all good ballplayers, like good Christians go to heaven. But that shouldn’t be a surprise to Jim (Northrup). That’s Northrup country too.”

         That October of 1968 in Gratiot County remains a slice of heaven that Detroit Tigers fans have never forgotten, even fifty years later – and a Tigers player and local native named Jim Northrup.

Copyright 2018 James M Goodspeed

September 1918 – Gratiot County in the Great War: Slackers, Stamps, and Service


Above: advertisements from the Gratiot County Herald and the Alma Record from September 1918.

         Gratiot County residents continued to show their patriotism during September 1918 in support of the World War. Those who were deemed to be slow or resistant to support the war effort were quickly deemed “slackers.”  The Alma Record ran an editorial column that month that warned readers that “We have no sympathy with such slackers, and we know that their neighbors have no sympathy with them. Shame should be their part if nothing more…No matter what the request of the government at this time, we should attempt to hold to it.” What brought about comments like this? One incident involved L.G. Hull, a farmer in Hamilton Township, who had his barn and house painted yellow with the word “Slacker” on them. It was said that Hull made “slighting” remarks about the government, that he would not buy Liberty Bonds or War Savings Stamps, and that he refused to contribute to the Red Cross. It was noted that the paint could be read from quite a distance from Hull’s property.

       In some cases, people found themselves being looked down upon because they refused to conserve gasoline by not driving on Sundays. In Alma, license plate numbers were written down and the Alma Record threatened to publish the names of those who did not observe fuel conservation. In another instance,  Lionel  Griffey of St. Louis was arrested in early September because he claimed to be too old to be drafted. Griffey claimed to be 30 years old, but his mother verified that he was only 20. However, for some unknown reason, Griffey was allowed to leave St. Louis with a carnival that he was working for.

        Businesses like the Republic Truck Company showed their patriotism by flying a company service flag which added a star for each employee who left for the war. Gold Stars represented former employees, like George Washington Myers and Howard Wolverton, who died in the war. A special prayer meeting about the war in France was held at the Ithaca Methodist Church late in the month. The public was invited.

        A War Savings Stamp sales drive started September 10 and it was expected that every citizen in Alma would buy stamps. The city already had raised a total of $42,000 with a goal of over $400,000.   Ladies at St. Mary’s Catholic Church invested over $100 in stamps. The St. Louis Presbyterian Church held a meeting on how to instruct people who volunteered to sell bonds.  Down at Middleton, students in the Intermediate Room said that they had $600 worth of Liberty bonds and $290 worth of stamps, but they still hoped to purchase more. This was all done by a group of 42 students (30 boys and 12 girls). The Alma Fire Department used $350 that it had in its pension fund and decided to purchase Liberty Loans with it. The fire department hoped to invest a total of $1350 in bonds.  In order to get people to buy Liberty Bonds, plans were being made to bring Senator Vandenburg from Grand Rapids to make to visit  Alma for a Liberty Bond program. The Jackie Band would play and the National Guard would be present. People were asked to supply automobile rides to transport the band to places like Alma, St. Louis and Ithaca. Gratiot County had been told that this Fourth Liberty Loan’s goal was to raise $900,000.00 and 100 volunteers from across the county were expected to be involved in the drive. The Alma Record told readers to “Have it all figured out by Saturday just how much you can afford to lend, then subscribe for double that amount. Pinch yourself  to pay for the other half (of the pledge).”

        The county continued to urge people to ration and conserve resources. On a gasless day in Alma, ninety percent of automobile owners observed the day by not driving. However, 350 odd drivers who did drive around the city the following Sunday faced the National Guard Company 87 which was out at various points looking for drivers and then recording their license plate numbers. Someone in a newspaper suggested that cars should be ticketed and the money given to the Alma Red Cross.  A week after this, a letter arrived in Breckenridge from the Federal Fuel Administrator that told people that if they needed to drive to church on Sunday, then they should do so and they should not be deemed unpatriotic. This was in response to someone who had gone around town painting the term “slacker” on cars that were in church parking lots. The Secretary closed his letter by stating, “It is all right to apply both food and fuel rules strictly, but it is not right to call any person a ‘Slacker’ without the most careful investigation.”  Over in St. Louis on  Sunday it was noted that no automobiles were seen on the streets, no gas was sold and all garages were closed.

         The C.J. Maier and Company clothing store in Alma also ran an advertisement stating that “You can save or waste in buying clothes.” Even though the store sold clothing it appeared patriotic by telling people “Maybe you can save money by not buying any (clothes); you may have clothes enough. If you need to buy, save by getting the best clothes possible…” Farmers were being encouraged to invest more crops in “Liberty acreage” by planting even more winter wheat for the war effort.  Children in Alma who belonged to the city’s canning clubs put on a display late in the month at the high school. They were asked to show a basket which contained foods that they had put up from their summer’s garden.  Starting in September, the “fifty-fifty requirement” was abandoned and housewives were told by the County Food Administrator that they could buy standard flour at the proportion of one pound of substitute mix to four pounds of wheat flour. There continued to be a call for boys to be allowed to miss school in order that they could help on area farms with the harvest. Half of the farm help from the previous year was gone due to Gratiot men going off to war.  A notice out in Vestaburg still asked women to save fruit pits and shells from various nuts for gas masks.

         Among the most devoted and patriotic workers in the county continued to be those with the Red Cross. Out in New Haven Township, the Red Cross held a township hall social and raised $80 when a Crystal man won a quilt raffle. In Ithaca, the Red Cross there opened their rooms on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Help was needed in the sewing room and ladies were asked to loan their sewing machines if they were not using them. Five little girls paraded around Ithaca carrying a flag and asked for donations. They raised $4.40. In Alma, metal and paper drives continued at the Washington School. A Mrs. M.M.Barker from the city donated money to the Red Cross from the thirty table boarders that she had at her house. Young women were encouraged to join work for drug laboratories as hospital nurses. Families in Alma of soldiers and sailors were encouraged to ask the Red Cross for help in writing letters to their men overseas. Also, these family members could count on the Red Cross to be there in Alma to help if they needed “advice, assistance or management of their affairs.” The Alma Chapter asked the city for help in its quest to support the National Red Cross in raising fifty tons of used or surplus clothing for those in need in Belgium.  Government leaders also continued to ask housewives to conserve use of butter and milk. Even though the Alma chapter always asked for help, one Thursday evening saw 64 ladies show up to work at the tables. Dan Reed, from Flint and a National Red Cross worker, came to the city and gave a war lecture about his experiences of being on the battlefields in France and Belgium to over 200 people at the Republic Truck Factory cafeteria.

        When it came to military service, Gratiot County men were still being drafted that fall. Those men who had turned age 21 since June 5, 1918, had to register with the local draft board. The government wanted to have a fighting force of 13,000,000 men and then called for a new registration of men between the ages of 31 to 45 years of age. Men were still expected to fill out registration cards and they were given a deadline of September 12 to have them turned in.  On the day of the deadline, patriotic celebrations were held throughout the county. In Ithaca, one was planned for the courthouse yard and all businesses in Ithaca were closed that afternoon for two hours. A band played, school children read recitations, speeches were given by community members and the county’s National Guard performed a drill. The service ended with the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

         Almost 4,000 men managed to register on that day and it was said that since the start of the war, 6,631 men from Gratiot County between the ages of 18 and 46 had done so. At this registration boys aged 18 were encouraged to go to college where they could enter military training there. Those who entered the Students’ Army Training Corps were given tuition, clothing, lodging, board and $30 pay per month.  The incoming group of SATC boys was so great at Alma College that the college planned on turning the museum into a barracks because Pioneer Hall would not hold all of them. The school was also delayed that month until October 2 because of the rush of incoming applications. Some of the boys would end up being turned away because the new barracks could only hold 150 members.

         There also continued to be stories of the men who were engaged in fighting the war. George Karras, who managed the Paris Café in Alma, went off to join his two brothers who were in the service. Also in Alma, registered men were encouraged to have a photograph take before they went off to war. Two African American men, Leroy Porter and Dayton Alton, were being sent to Camp Custer on September 27 to fulfill the recent quota for African American soldiers.  Floyd Thomas, stationed in France sent a German steel helmet home to his mother in Ithaca. Private Guy Gongwer wrote to his parents in Alma that he claimed that German women were being forced to fight at the front, along with German soldiers. Gongwer stated that some of these women were found chained to their guns. This same Private Gongwer would receive a citation from General Pershing that would lead to him being awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. Gongwer was awarded the medal for his efforts to treat the wounded in the Argonne while his unit was under heavy fire. Private E.E. Down of the 338th Infantry wrote home that he had arrived safely in England.   He found the YMCA there to be of great help with morale and with writing letters home.

          Sergeant D.C. Parrish wrote to his friend, C.M.Brown in Ithaca, about how beautiful French women were because “they have the most beautiful eyes. As a general rule the girls are very pretty, so for one fond of beauty, there is always some pleasing sight upon which to feast one’s eyes.” Private Alva Cook described in a short letter what combat was like for him. After charging up a hill and being then being pinned to it because of heavy fire, his unit chased the Germans for sixteen miles. Walter H. Young wrote about why he treasured his own helmet as he had put it on just before his group encountered a shelling from the Germans. He added, “It was all that saved my life.” Elmer Down of North Star thought it would not be long before he and another North Star boy would be drinking beer in Berlin – if the war continued to go as it had in the last month. Robert Shuttleworth wrote that he had seen the worst of war: dead horses, men, guns, ammunition – all after the battle. He was so busy that he had only washed twice since arriving in France. He also wrote about the American soldiers’ fascination for souvenirs when it came to piles of German helmets, emblems and he wished that he could take pictures of the destruction of what he saw.

         Finally, in September there were clues and notes about a new movement in Gratiot County that was taking place amidst a time of war. This happened to be what was called women’s suffrage and their right to vote. On September 5, a big mass meeting was held at the Alma High School auditorium. The President of Central Michigan Normal School, E.C. Warriner, was the main speaker. Two weeks later, another mass meeting was held at the home of Mrs. F.M. Harrington in Ithaca. The women and supporters were moving to organize their campaign for the proposed amendment to the Michigan constitution that fall.  Forty women attended the Ithaca meeting, including nineteen township chairmen. It was said that several Alma merchants were going to give their advertising space to the suffrage movement in the upcoming issue of the Alma Record.

          And that was September 1918 in Gratiot County during the World War.

Copyright 2018 James M Goodspeed