The Spectre at Gratiot’s Door, The Influenza Epidemic, 1918-1919 – Part V: “Gratiot County Tries to Return to Normal”

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Above: Headlines and an advertisement from the Gratiot County Herald in December 1918.

The Holidays are Here,  Gratiot is Back to Business

From mid-November to early December 1918, Gratiot County tried to shift its focus away from the terrible influenza epidemic. With the holidays approaching, people were encouraged to resume their daily lives – especially regarding shopping and going to church. Governor Albert Sleeper issued a hopeful prayer at Thanksgiving in which he said that “We are thankful that a dread epidemic has been stayed (in Michigan), through the prompt measure taken by the public health authorities throughout the state and the intelligent cooperation of the whole people.” Sleeper implied that the crisis had ended by mid-November, but in reality, it had not.

Many churches also tried to resume regular Sunday worship services in Gratiot County. When the doors opened in the United Methodist churches at North Star, Beebe, and Newark, churchgoers received a pamphlet entitled “Government Supplement Number 34 on Spanish Influenza.” On the one hand, church doors opened. However, leaders warned churchgoers that they still needed to avoid influenza. The re-opening of some churches took place while Gratiot County merchants reminded the public that businesses were open and evening Christmas shopping hours would soon start.

All of these attempts leading up to December to start life again while claiming that the epidemic had ended was wishful thinking. The federal government released numbers showing that during the influenza epidemic, more people died in the United States from influenza than did soldiers who died fighting in France.  Newspapers reported that over 3,100 people died in Michigan, and the flu had not yet abated.

The Results – The Sick and the Dead

During December 1918, more Gratiot County people encountered influenza and related pneumonia. Amidst all of the re-opening of churches and stores, an ominous column, entitled “Deaths From Illness in Week,” continued to run in the Alma Record. Names and stories were told of those who died from influenza and pneumonia, many of whom included young adults, like Flossie Merrill or Mrs. Lewis Hudson, who died in their twenties and thirties. The Gratiot County Herald also ran stories of prominent citizens who suddenly died in Ithaca, such as Miss Esther Lewis and her mother. Many others from Gratiot County would be named in columns in places from Breckenridge, Riverdale, and St. Louis. For December, at least one hundred people either became sick or died in the county. A total of forty-three people died, including twenty in Alma. At least fifty-seven cases of those ill with influenza and pneumonia would also be reported.

The Public is Warned – Again

Mixed messages about influenza continued in Gratiot County during the Christmas season. On one side were those who proclaimed that the epidemic had passed, and that life should start to return to normal. Some businesses in the county that had been closed eagerly prepared for re-opening. In Ithaca, the Ideal Theatre moved to a new location in town, purchased new seating, and awaited business to return. The Liberty and Idlehour in Alma did the same; the Idlehour bought and installed a new motor-generator to show better quality pictures. Gilbert Genesta was raring to go in Alma at his two theatres, and even announced re-opening before the quarantine officially ended. However, Genesta had to be told by the health department that he could not open.

Alma businesses announced that they would be open evenings for Christmas starting December 9 and would remain open until Christmas. The extended shopping hours allowed people who worked day jobs to have opportunities to shop at night. Alma also tried to lure shoppers with decorations in stores, shop windows, and advertisements with plenty of goods on the shelves. Business remained steady over at the Gratiot County Herald, which published a twenty-eight-page paper, but lamented that it could have done thirty-two pages if one of its foremen had not been sick with the flu. The article chimed that “This week, despite the ‘flu’ (the paper), (there) will also be a big issue.” At Christmas, the Herald also pronounced that in Gratiot County, “the excessive conservation has passed, and we are about to return to something like normal conditions.”  Still, the continuing December epidemic ran counter to “normal conditions.”

Newspapers continued to warn people of lives lost. A report from Doctor Olin, Secretary of State Board of Health, reported that 3, 176 Michigan residents had died so far. However, the actual numbers were believed to be much higher. Several large cities in southeast Michigan remained in quarantine lockdown in late November as over 800 new cases cropped up in the state.  Doctor James King of the United States Army Medical Corps, offered his first opinion that this strain of influenza originated as a “pneumonic plague” that may have started as early as 1910 in Manchuria, and which then spread across China.

Another health warning concerned tuberculosis, which now attacked survivors of influenza. The Red Cross warned of the dangers of tuberculosis and urged people to seek their doctor for treatment.  A recent explosion of the disease in England and Spain caused concern.

 December Quarantines

Mask wearing during the quarantine, which started in November, seemed awkward to some. Alma College students quickly observed how their professors and faculty members tried to wear what they comically termed “the three-layer cheesecloth masks.” Students noted that many of the professors found it hard to speak or sing with their masks on during chapel. President Crooks wore his like a bib, tied around his collar. Other professors tried to talk around their masks, and a faculty member did not wear one at all. Regardless, anyone coming down the hill after chapel or classes into town had to wear a mask.

Alma continued to use vaccinations to combat influenza. Over at the Republic Truck Company, an estimated 500 workers lined up at different times to get free shots. On the first day that the vaccinations were offered at one of the plants, 263 employees wanted the shots. When the plant opened early on another Friday, forty more people waited in line.

To further cope with the epidemic, Alma’s churches called for a Day of Prayer on December 15 for thanksgiving, forgiveness, and repentance. Churches observed that Alma had been spared from widespread devastation so far but acknowledged that the plague still needed to be stamped out in the county.

As more outbreaks of the epidemic took place in Alma in early December, leaders of the health committee and city doctors met to discuss creating a city hospital to hold the sick. The group, however, decided to send the sick to Dr. Brainerd’s Hospital.

One of the most challenging jobs during the epidemic in each town or village in Gratiot County belonged to the health officer. Doctor T. J. Carney in Alma led the battle to get the public to observe quarantines and to take the spread of influenza seriously. Carney clashed with families who refused to put up signs to warn the public about infected homes. He also dealt with people who insisted on visiting the sick, as well as other doctors who challenged Carney’s authority. After only two months of combatting the flu epidemic in Alma, Carney resigned. While other doctors were asked to take the position of the city health officer, most declined due to added stress and little extra pay. Eventually, Dr. J.N. Day took over the job, but he did so only if he was paid an additional $250 for the remainder of the term in office.  A similar occurrence with the health officer took place in Ithaca.  Doctor Lydia Higgins resigned after holding the office for less than a year. Higgins cited the extra stress and demands on her job in Ithaca for her resignation. No doctor offered to replace Higgins, so George H. Clow, village marshal, was appointed.

By late December, the State Board of Health issued warnings about quarantines in Michigan during the epidemic. It found that the continued spread of influenza resulted from not observing individual quarantines. The Board also called for the arrests of people who refused to obey.  In many communities, the health officer had to act as a peace officer, confronting people who failed to observe quarantines. In too many cases, families opposed health officers by not allowing them into the house. The State Board of Health called for a proper official to serve warrants to enforce quarantines, not the health officers.  Also, the Board confronted the public with its responsibility to inform local authorities concerning quarantine violations. In Gratiot County, some people failed to enforce quarantines with their own homes, and citizens reported violators in the neighborhood.

In December, there were plenty of ways that people continued to take risks of contracting or spreading influenza because no one else could help their sick family members. Irving Wood and his wife from Breckenridge headed to Fairgrove to care for their son and his wife. The young couple had suffered a relapse of influenza. In another instance, Lena Johnson of Sumner went to the Lansing Training Center to help her sick brother, who had been ill for five weeks.

Public gatherings still took place while the epidemic continued. The St. Louis United Methodist Church rededicated its new church after canceling the service in November due to the epidemic. Many turned out for the service. Over at the Ithaca Courthouse, one of the cases related to the 1917 murder of Alma’s Beatrice Epler began. The judge warned spectators in the courtroom that they could be sitting too close together.  He also warned the large crowd that quarantine was in effect in parts of the county, such as Ithaca. What was the result? A packed courtroom of people from across Gratiot  County turned out to hear about one of the accused in Beatrice Epler’s murder. The Red Cross, which closed many meetings, sponsored a dance at the Ashley Opera House, just as Ashley was recovering from a large number of influenza deaths during November. Over in New Haven, forty people “belled”  C.H. Blanchard and his wife during the late evening of December 12. For fifteen minutes, the crowd made all the noise it could outside the house, then the group was invited in by the newlyweds for supper, visiting, and games. They all left at 2:00 am.

When the epidemic flared again in December, all public areas were closed the week before Christmas. This quarantine also included the Ithaca schools.   Two prominent deaths occurred in Ithaca, coinciding with warm weather, and officials quickly closed Ithaca again – except for the stores which remained open. During Ithaca’s second closure, the Gratiot County Herald observed that many people in Ithaca went about with “sore arms” due to all of the vaccinations that doctors gave to people.

Other schools in Gratiot County that closed due to the epidemic re-opened, then closed again. St. Louis schools closed for much of December and planned to re-open December 30.  Alma boasted that its schools would remain open as school attendance kept growing, with over 93 percent of students in class during November. Some teachers, like Anna Clegg of St. Louis, came home from her assignment in Clare because that school closed until January.

Following Alma’s attempt to re-open the town in December, St. Louis tried to follow suit. A week before Christmas, St. Louis lifted its ban on public meetings and the wearing of masks. To prepare for business, St. Louis pledged that it would disinfect all of its public buildings. D.T. Kemp, city health officer, oversaw the plans.

Influenza Still Claims Those from the War

In all of the local news going on with the influenza epidemic, the status of Gratiot County’s World War veterans still appeared as news reports arrived during December. Private Walter Christy of the 4th Mechanic Regiment Air Service told his family that he had been sick for ten days in France, but he had resumed flying again. Fred Tryon of Breckenridge was also in France, had battled influenza for three weeks, and now was doing better. Private Ralph Miller of Alma improved after encountering influenza at Camp Wadsworth. His condition was such that his wife was called to come to visit him, then she returned home.

Out in Riverdale, the remains of Frank White arrived at his parents’ home. White served in the Navy and died from influenza and pneumonia in early November aboard the USS Mexican, a transport ship. White made four trips across the Atlantic and then died in Marseilles, France. Also, Miss Erma Harris, who was to marry White when he returned home, died in Riverdale of pneumonia on the same date that White did. Neither knew that the other one was sick. In another case, people in Bethany Township learned that Ernest Ray Showers, a local boy, died at Camp Douglas, Arizona, from influenza and pneumonia. His body came home for burial at Lakeview. Finally, the Gratiot County wife of a serviceman, Mrs. Suzie Fraker Smith of Fulton Center, recently battled influenza. She then received the news that her husband had been killed in France in October. The couple married just days before Lyle left for Camp Custer in November 1917.

Copyright 2020 James M. Goodspeed


The Continued Plight of the Sick and the Dead in December 1918

Those Who were Sick:

Private Walter Christy (France)

Private Ralph Miller, St. Louis – Camp Wadsworth

Fred Tryon, Breckenridge – France

New cases December 5 in Riverdale (unnamed)

Breckenridge December 5 – 9 sick

Martin Muscott, Breckenridge

Mr. and Mrs. A.J. McDonald, St. Louis

Mrs. William Burl, St. Louis

Mrs. Ed Gable, Newark

Henry Rhynard, Perrinton

Mrs. George Myers, Seville Center

Pearl Peters, Fulton Center

Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Austin, Alma

Mr. and Mrs. James Wiltshire, Alma

Mrs. Wright and her father, Ebenezer Valley, Alma

Vincent Hawks, Ithaca

Mrs. Maud Campbell, Ithaca

W.C. Sargent, Ithaca

Charles Holmes’ four children, Alma

Mrs. Floyd White, Alma

Three Davison children, Alma

Mrs. R.C. Baldwin, Breckenridge

A.E.Pinney, Ithaca

Mrs. O. Moon, Pompeii

Orin Nettle, Pompeii

Gertrude Sutton – Pompeii

Mrs. A. Kochensparger, Ashley

Mrs. C.E. Weller’s daughter, Ashley

Darcy Reist, Ashley

Miss Ida Young, Ithaca

Hilda Pohly, Ashley

Miss Olive Myers, Breckenridge

Mrs. M. W. Muscott and children, Breckenridge

Mrs. John Allen, Breckenridge

Grace Young, Breckenridge

Mrs. B.G. Campbell, Breckenridge

Mrs. H.B. Stuckey, Alma

Miss Alberta Carson, Alma

R.H. Harrington, Riverdale

Mrs. Maud Campbell, Ithaca

Those Who Died in December 1918:

Mrs. Dean Shook, Breckenridge

Mrs. R. Coleman, Breckenridge

Mrs. Ward Long, Breckenridge

Mr. and Mrs. James Frye, Davis District

Mrs. Ray Coleman, Breckenridge

Ida Morrison, Middleton

Rufus Durbin, Middleton

James Goodwin, Ithaca

Herbert Hayes, St. Louis

Mrs. Nina Shook, Breckenridge

Mary Bellows, Gratiot County native

Mrs.Dora Watson, Ithaca

Esther Lewis and mother, Ithaca

The infant child of Mrs. Floyd White, Alma

Mrs. Ward Long and 18-month-old child, Breckenridge

Mrs. R.H. Brown, Alma

Mrs. Lewis Hudson, Alma

Flossie Merrill, Alma

Julia Evans, Alma

Ralph Swarthout, Alma

Mrs.Frank Riggs, Arcada Township






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