The Spectre at Gratiot’s Door, The Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919, Part VII -Conclusions: “What Should Gratiot County Learn from the Influenza Epidemic?”

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Above: A picture taken around 1918 of the students who attended the Lewis School in Newark Township. At least six of the children in the picture were relatives of the author. The girl in the second row, far left, is the author’s paternal grandmother. All of these students lived at the time of the Influenza Epidemic that raged through Gratiot County from 1918-1919.

    The second and most massive wave of the Influenza Epidemic in Gratiot County claimed its first victim with Reverend F.E. Gainder. A Baptist minister in St. Louis,  Gainder died in early October 1918. he had been sick since April; however, the St. Louis Leader stated that influenza and pneumonia took his life. Gainder was only 35 years old and had been a pastor in town for five years.

   Possibly the last victim in Gratiot County lost their life in late May 1919. The Alma Record reported what appeared to be the last occurrence of influenza with the death of the Lane family of Alma. Harry Lane returned to Alma to bury his parents, who had both recently died. Then Lane returned to his home in the East. Unfortunately, Harry Lane contracted influenza, followed by pneumonia, and died. The Alma Record ran the headline, “Entire Family Wiped Out in a Few Weeks.”

    Between these two stories, a swath of death and sickness took place in Gratiot County starting in October 1918 through the end of March 1919.  A survey of newspapers during this period shows that at least 400 people became sick in Gratiot County, and at least 90 individuals died. However, these numbers are imperfect as these are only the sick and dead that can be identified. Also, the figures also do not include Gratiot County’s servicemen who died from influenza or pneumonia while serving during the World War. It is important to note that I tried to refrain from counting “neighboring communities” whose stories appeared in the newspapers. Places like Vestaburg, Carson City, Jasper Township, and the Wolford District were locations all adjoining Gratiot County, which frequently appeared in the county newspapers.

    An important question to ask is how many people were sick or died who went unreported. During this time, obituaries rarely occurred in the newspapers, and this epidemic took place before funeral homes existed. Many who died during the epidemic were taken to an undertaker, then to the cemetery for a quick burial. In several cases, family members of the dead struggled to make it to the cemetery because they themselves were extremely sick.

     There was little time between the passing of a loved one and burial, probably because of health reasons. For those of us today who are accustomed to funeral home visits, viewings, and church services, followed by interment at the cemetery, the process of death and burial was brief in 1918-1919 Gratiot County.

     Another thought about Gratiot County is how it compared in scope with the State of Michigan during the epidemic. From October through December 1918, at least 25 percent of the state’s population was hit by influenza. During these months, 6742 people died from the flu, and another 7247 died of pneumonia. In 1917, a total of 427 people in Gratiot County died. A year later, that number rose to 488 deaths, an increase of 14 percent. These statistics do not include those who died in early 1919 from influenza and pneumonia, thus I believe that the number of at least 90 dead from the Influenza Epidemic is very possible.

    Still, there are significant lessons from this event in Gratiot County’s history. One might ask, what exactly should Gratiot County learn from the Influenza Epidemic?

  1. During the time of the Influenza Epidemic, Gratiot County was rife with patriotism and support during the World War. There was no tolerance for any criticism of the government during this period. People were expected to buy War Bonds and support the war effort. Those who did not buy bonds, or who showed any reluctance in supporting the war found themselves identified in the newspaper, ostracized, and deemed un-American. One of the ways that people showed support for the war was through mass gatherings, parades, and attending speeches and rallies in the county. Attending meetings like these from September through November 1918 became fostering grounds for the spread of influenza once it arrived in the county.
  2. The Influenza Epidemic that hit Gratiot County moved unevenly at times. Early in the second wave, surrounding villages and hamlets were stricken. Places like Perrinton, Middleton, Ashley, and Breckenridge paid dearly with the widespread flu. Larger towns like Alma and St. Louis also were hit, but not always at the same time. Ithaca boasted that “only two people” died of influenza by early December 1918, but was hit again by Christmas. When some communities thought that a wave had passed, places like Ithaca or Breckenridge would see flare-ups again.
  3. The chief weapon against the Influenza Epidemic was social distancing, a practice that went back to the Middle Ages. People did not have answers for how to overcome this strain of influenza – even though different remedies were tried. The best recourse people had was to quarantine themselves. When dealing with an unknown enemy, quarantine was the only answer Gratiot County’s doctors and health officers could recommend to survive the epidemic. Mask wearing also became a practice in public, whether at Alma College, in local churches or while conducting business in towns or villages. These quarantines tested businesses, churches, and schools, as well as those who could not stand to be in quarantine, or who did not believe that quarantines helped. Some places did try treatments in the form of public vaccinations in  Alma and Ithaca by December 1918. To avoid wearing masks in public, people in Alma and Ithaca lined up to receive these shots (usually a set of three). One of the critical lessons from 1918-1919 is that people needed to listen to health experts. Some did, and some did not.

      4. While looking at the death and disruption of the Influenza Epidemic, there is a need for a recognition of heroes and empathy for the times. Health officials had the toughest jobs during the epidemic of 1918-1919, if for no other reason than most doctors did not want the job. In Alma, Doctor Thomas Carney fought many battles with citizens regarding quarantines. Carney quickly learned that people who did not believe they were in danger would not obey the health officials. Some people bluntly asked if health officials had the right to enforce quarantines. The state said yes, but in many communities, people did not listen. While dealing with the epidemic,  many Gratiot County doctors became exhausted while trying to help the sick and dying. Taking care of 40 to 60 people at a time (which happened in Breckenridge) must have worn these doctors out, but they continued to help the sick in their communities. We know that there were nurses involved, and at least one in Alma lost her life while helping the sick. The Red Cross chapters in Gratiot County mainly focused their efforts on providing an assortment of dressings, garments, and other things for the war and war relief, working out of their local rooms.  It is not clear what effect they had in the county, but they continued to focus on their work and mission for those people in need in the military and in Europe. Gratiot County has many stories of individuals who helped others by leaving their homes to take care of relatives and loved ones. In different instances, people left Gratiot County and traveled distances to care for family and friends because no one else could help.

     5. Finally, we have to recognize the issues of blame and shame that came about as a result of the epidemic. Who was to blame for the Influenza Epidemic? Where did this plague originate? Why was it here, and what could be done to survive it? These were questions that people privately asked amidst the losses that they suffered in 1918-1919. For those who lost family members, there was no easy answer to these questions.  This generation lived with the shame that meant not talking about the epidemic and those who were lost. I believe that this issue of shame is the reason why many Americans never heard much about this epidemic.

     For those who have followed this blog over the past few weeks, I felt it was important at this period of American history to tell the story of the Influenza Epidemic as it related to Gratiot County. I have spent the past two months of my own quarantine deliberately trying to finish a first run of writing about the research I started two years ago. During the summer of 2018, I spent three weeks  at Virginia Tech working with a group of teachers in a National Endowment of the Humanities Seminar entitled “The Spanish Influenza of 1918.” My teacher was Dr. Thomas Ewing and we spent one of those weeks doing research at different places in Washington, D.C. Work in the Library of Congress was especially helpful in learning the story of influenza as it applied to Camp Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan. Records at the National Archives II in College Park, Maryland also helped to shed light on what happened at Camp Custer.  Still, returning to Gratiot County’s newspapers enabled me to find the best examples of what happened where we live.

     In 1988, I sat in a history class at Central Michigan University about the Roaring Twenties. Professor Calvin Enders required the reading of one book, Geoffrey Perrett’s  America in the Twenties, which was then one of the more recent books written about that decade. One of Perrett’s first stories related to the end of World War I described the Influenza Epidemic in the United States in 1918-1919. I had never heard of this event, and I knew nothing of its history – even on what was then the 70th anniversary of the epidemic. Back then it was hard for me to understand why I had never heard of this chapter in our history.

    It was also in the late 1980s that I lost my father’s parents, who had grown up as children during the World War I era. In all of my experiences of hearing my paternal grandmother talk about growing up in Newark Township, I never once heard her refer to the Influenza Epidemic. I later found out that Newark Township was hit hard – and that Myrtle Bliss had lost a sibling to disease just prior to the epidemic. Down the road from each other, two large families, named Bliss and Goodspeed, each with many children, grew up and lived during this time when the spectre came to Gratiot County.

     And to my knowledge, none of my family and relatives ever talked about it.

Copyright 2020 James M Goodspeed

The Spectre at Gratiot’s Door, the Influenza Epidemic, 1918-1919 – Part VI: “Gratiot County Rides the Waves, January-March 1919”

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Above: A collection of advertisements from Gratiot County newspapers dealing with the Influenza Epidemic. The top two appeared in the Gratiot County Herald in early 1920; the bottom appeared in the Alma Record in the fall of 1918.

     Early in 1919, Gratiot County, like the rest of the United States, tried to survive the succeeding waves of the Flu Epidemic. After the second wave of the virus seemed to subside around New Years, a third wave began in late winter. Many hoped that the epidemic would end by 1919,  but people in Gratiot County continued to get sick and die. It would turn out that influenza had not yet finished in Gratiot County.

January 1919 – End of the Second Wave?

    Several communities ended their quarantines, believing that the virus had passed. Now, other diseases affected people who encountered influenza. In Riverdale, the town experienced an outbreak of diphtheria.  In East Alma, typhoid fever could be found. These diseases came about after the government warned the public about how victims of influenza could be susceptible to tuberculosis, diphtheria, and scarlet fever.

    In January, people continued to appear in large groups, appearing unconcerned that diseases could be transmitted from person to person. Riverdale opened its roller rink after closing it for six weeks due to the epidemic, and a large crowd turned out on that Saturday night. Southeast Coe lifted the quarantine there, and the church quickly reopened. Elder Start felt so good that he gave two sermons on that Sunday. The Alma Red Cross restarted its work in meeting rooms in the Pollasky Block, determined to make more pieces for the destitute in Belgium. A new organization, the Gratiot County Good Health Society, held its first meeting in Alma in the Director’s Room of the First State Bank. The organization was formed to promote good health in Alma.   In Breckenridge, quarantines on the households of Chauncey Sheppard and George Coleman ended, and families started going out into public. Out west of Ithaca, 25 people gathered at the home of Freda Goodspeed, who was celebrating her tenth birthday. It was reported that the large group enjoyed the party. In all, people did not seem concerned about meeting in large groups in the wake of the epidemic.

     And yet people kept dying.  The death of W.G. Ballman, who operated the cafeteria at the Republic Truck Company in Alma, shocked many people. Ballman died after being sick one week. In Southeast Coe, Mary Myers, age 16, died from influenza, followed by pneumonia. She was quickly buried in Pleasant Ridge Cemetery. Farmers in Breckenridge found it hard to believe that Earl Whitney, who had a family and lived north of the village, died at the age of 28. He also was quickly buried in Ridgelawn Cemetery.  Whitney left a young wife and two small children behind. Another shock that month took place in Alma when Fred Von Thurn, a former Republic Truck employee who was well known in town, died after a week of battling influenza. Probably the most encouraging news for Gratiot County amid the deaths was that the number of those reported to be sick seemed to be declining.

The Third Wave Hits Gratiot County

     After these things took place, another wave of influenza struck the county in February 1919. Of the many hot spots, Breckenridge was especially hard hit. Someone in Breckenridge despaired that “The flu seems to be sweeping our town and community.”  On February 3, Doctor Drake reported that he had 36 new cases in his care.  In St. Louis, Doctor H.B. Pettit had relapsed to the extent that another doctor had to be called in to care for Pettit. Quarantines quickly took place in St. Louis. Clarence L. King, age 25, died of influenza, and a private funeral took place for him. Residents in St. Louis also were shocked when Fred A. Bieber, a well-liked bank employee, died at the age of 29 from influenza. The St. Louis Leader published an extensive story on Bieber’s service to the city and his sudden death. Another young man, Dean Mitchell, age 28, died in Hamilton Township. These deaths took place amidst the reappearance of diseases in a town like diphtheria and typhoid fever, which took the life of eleven-year-old Ernest Tenney in St. Louis.

    As the epidemic slowly passed that month, the biggest news in February involved the results of the Thornburgh trial in Ithaca. Doctor Frank Thornburgh and Mrs. Holcomb from Mt. Pleasant were tried for violating the quarantine of the Worden home in Alma the previous October. When young Albert Worden became ill, Dr. T.J. Carney, the city’s Health Officer, arrived and diagnosed Worden with influenza. Carney also ordered that a sign be posted that the household was infected. Mother Worden called for another opinion, calling in Mrs. Holcomb and Dr. Thornburgh, who said that the child had typhoid fever. The family removed the sign and put one up that read “No Influenza.” From there, city officials again changed the sign, and the health board and mayor issued a warrant to arrest Thornburgh for violation of the health laws. Now, the trial finally took place, and after a long two-day trial, the jury announced at 11:00 pm that Thornburgh was guilty. The doctor then filed an appeal. Eventually, Thornburgh paid a fine and planned to move away. However, he practiced in Alma years later.

    At the end of the spring, influenza managed to wipe out the family of Adelbert “Dell” Lane, a well known Ithaca resident. Lane’s wife contracted cancer and passed after two operations. Before her death, Dell Lane had heart trouble and died. Their son, Harry Lane, a teacher who lived in the East, made the trip home to bury his parents. After settling his parents’ affairs, Harry left for home and quickly contracted influenza, which turned to pneumonia. A telegram arrived in Ithaca the next day telling friends how the grim reaper, wiped out an entire family in only a few weeks.

Late Winter 1920

    From spring 1919 through New Years 1920, little seemed to be written about influenza. That changed starting in February 1920 when another outbreak took place with the intensity of what happened in 1918-1919.

    Every part of Gratiot County again suffered from a flu virus, spreading out in the countryside, closing schools and churches. Only five people were reported as having died. However, there was a long, long list of the sick. This outbreak lasted well into April.

    Newark Township was one of the first places to report, and the township suffered greatly. After listing the sick, the writer said, “Here is hoping that your correspondent will not have to write about so much sickness next week. May all who are sick be restored to health.”  South Fulton Township also had problems with influenza. “Nearly the whole of South Fulton are sick with the flu,” said an observer. At least eight families were then named, like the Days, Litwillers, Harters, and Fields. Schools in the different townships closed, sometimes because the teachers were too sick to teach. Telephone operation in Forest Hill was in trouble as the operators were sick. Forest Hill also closed schools as teachers and the superintendent became sick.  A common observation was that the doctors across the county could barely keep up with treating the sick, even as the numbers declined.

    Late in February, it was reported that “The influenza epidemic has been gradually gaining hold in St. Louis until it has reached a point where the physicians have about reached their capacity for caring for cases.” The schools in St Louis also went closed. During the first week of March, people in Breckenridge were excited as no new cases had been reported, and individuals seemed to be recovering. Still, Doctor Huebner, the new health officer in Ithaca, had trouble keeping up with the posting of quarantine cards in Ithaca in mid-May because too many Ithaca families were sick. Sprague’s Drug Store in Ithaca ran an advertisement that May, which urged “BEWARE OF THE FLU.”

Copyright 2020 James M Goodspeed

Those Who Died: January 1919-April 1919

W.G. Ballman – Alma

Mary Myers – SE Coe

Marie Guilds Corder – Riverdale

Earl Whitney – Breckenridge

Dean Mitchell – Hamilton Township

Fred Von Thurn – Alma

Ernest Tenney – St. Louis

Clarence L. King – St. Louis

Fred Bieber – St. Louis

Harry Lane – Ithaca (came home to bury parents, contracted influenza)

Those Who were Sick:

Floyd Smith Family – St. Louis

Doctor H. B. Pettit – St. Louis

Miss Lailah Harrison, Stacey Hart, Parks child, Mrs. Ralph Smith, Miss Vera Smith, two unnamed children – Newark

Jesse Houlden, Elmer Brown, Eichorn Family, Bert Smith Family – Emerson

Will Barrett Family, Fern Langdon, George Cunningham Family, Tom Kavanaugh – North Shade









We Remember 1918: Ithaca’s Agnes Yutzey, YMCA Worker During World War I

Goodspeed's Gratiot County Historical Blog

IMG_20170614_144337648.jpgYutzey passport.jpgYutzey portrait.jpgAbove: Agnes Yutzey’s YMCA portrait; Yutzey’s application for a  passport; staff picture from Ithaca Schools, taken prior to volunteering to work with the YMCA.

Author’s note: The following article first appeared in the December 6, 2018 issue of the Gratiot County Herald.

         During World War I, over 13,000 volunteers went to France and England to serve in the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA).   It was a favorite place for American soldiers, offering them a place to eat, relax, read and write home.

        Agnes Yutzey, who lived near Middleton, was one of the many volunteers who left her job and went to Europe. During her youth, Yutzey’s parents moved so that she and her two sisters could attend school in Ithaca. A graduate of Central Michigan Normal School, she returned to Ithaca as a teacher before volunteering to head to Europe for the…

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