All eyes were focused upon the great battles being waged in northern France in the fall of 1918. Banner headlines were emblazoned across the front pages of the newspapers as the Allied forces advanced. Daily articles listed the Nebraska combat casualties. There was, however, a drama building within the drama that held everyone's attention. At home a faceless enemy appeared that would cause five times as many deaths among Americans as the war in Europe. It struck hardest at the military camps and the great cities, but affected the whole of the nation. It was commonly called the Spanish Influenza and Buffalo County was not to escape its reach.
Thousands of area residents were attending the County Fair in September when notice of the Spanish influenza first appeared in the national news columns of the Kearney Hub. The disease, said to have been sweeping Europe, had now broken out in the Greater Boston region and was spreading rapidly. Neither then nor a week later, when hundreds of deaths were being reported on the east coast and in military camps, did local authorities feel threatened. (At the height of the disease 175 people a day were dying in Boston, 600 to 700 in New York City, and the incredible figure of 1,700 in Philadelphia.) In Buffalo County, people were collecting clothing for Belgium, pushing the campaign for the Fourth Liberty Loan, and commenting upon the fire that destroyed the Kearney Canning Factory. There is no evidence in the newspapers of the panic the "dread disease" was causing elsewhere, although some ripples of trepidation must have been felt. If so, the fears were soon realized.
Twenty cases at least were reported in Kearney October 1st, a number of Nebraskans had already died in army and navy camps, including a Kearney boy, and there were four known deaths in Nebraska. The movement of draftees to camp was cancelled. A week later the physicians in Kearney admitted there were quite a number of cases in the city - none serious - but said there was no need for a quarantine closing schools, theaters, and churches as was being done in other Nebraska cities. This is the position the city authorities would maintain until compelled to take action by the imposition of a state-wide quarantine.
The county newspapers manifest a curious reticence regarding the effects of Spanish influenza in the weeks that follow, perhaps most evident in the Kearney Hub. It may be surmised that the editors played down the severity of the problem to discourage the onset of general panic in the face of what was a thoroughly frightening situation. All the papers shall carry information on the nature of the disease and how to avoid contracting it that was provided by state and national agencies. Everyone was told to avoid crowds, people with colds, and the use of roller towels or common drinking cups. They were advised to cover up coughs and sneezes and not to spit on floors or sidewalks. Dancing and promiscuous nursing were also cited as transmitters of the disease. Unfortunately, there was no "specific" to treat influenza. Victims were told to keep warm, go to bed, and call the doctor. Advertisements disguised as news reports conveyed such useful information along with scare stories about the "great and terrifying menace to public health". Tanlac, "a powerful reconstructive tonic" was said to contain elements needed to ward off the influenza. Vicks VapoRub was another product advertised in this manner. Similar claims were made by "Dr. Pierce's Golden Medical Discovery". Several doctors around the nation reported finding cures, but the sad fact is that had an effective vaccine been developed it could not have been produced and distributed quickly enough to have had an effect on the course of the epidemic.
Ravenna was the first town in Buffalo County known to have imposed a quarantine. There were sixty to seventy-five cases in the town Monday October 7th when authorities closed the school, picture shows, dance halls, lodges and churches; any place the public gathered. Businesses were to close at 6:30 p.m. and an 8 p.m. curfew was put on children. The concern shown by these actions was justified. In a span of twelve days, six persons in Ravenna died from the effects of the flu. (*My usage. Newspapers generally called it Spanish influenza or influenza. When the term flu was used it appeared within quotation marks.) Shelton reported no cases in town as late as October 17th, but took note of the large number of cases elsewhere, the rural school closings, the rising number of deaths, and the strict quarantine in Grand Island. When Shelton did ban public gatherings October 19th, there were thirty to forty cases in town and a young farmer just west of town was dead. Two more were soon dead, one in and one out of town. No notice of the flu appeared in the Gibbon paper until October 24th when it was reported the city officials had closed all public places because of the "strange disease, commonly called Spanish influenza" then affecting quite a number of persons in town.
Two deaths occurred in Kearney October 14th. "Only two deaths" in the past week the Hub said the 17th and advised out-of-town shoppers there was yet no quarantine. That changed the following day in response to the State Board of Health order placing the entire state under quarantine. Kearney's mayor issued a notice that read in part: "In order to prevent the spread of disease and to protect the health of the public it has become necessary to close all places of amusement, churches, schools, and such places of business where crowds congregate. There must be no public gatherings of any sort. The children must remain at home, and will not be permitted on the streets ...." Twenty-seven new cases had developed in the past twenty-four hours. Among those stricken were students at Kearney Normal. At this time, there were more than 20,000 cases of flu reported in the state.
Reacting to the spread of the Spanish influenza in Buffalo County, people began to turn to familiar home cures, to make and wear protective gauze face masks, to shun those ill and to opt for strange remedies such as eating fried onions, wearing medicated bags, and sprinkling the streets with formaldehyde. The latter ideas were called foolish by some but it is not surprising that people would try anything when confronted by such a formidable foe. Spanish influenza was the more frightful because it usually progressed from symptoms to pneumonia (Pneumonia following flu was the most common cause of death.) to death so quickly, perhaps as little as one day and often less than a week. With many doctors and nurses gone to war, the local medical establishment was overworked and volunteers were sought to care for the ill. There were soon complaints about some of the volunteers charging more for their services, granting the risk taken, than did doctors and nurses. Even hospitals were often reluctant to accept flu patients because of the danger to other patients. In Kearney the influenza patients were finally admitted to a separate building, the new nurses home.
As October became November and the state quarantine period drew to a close, most people in Buffalo County wanted to believe the worst was over. Fewer cases were reported in the Ravenna area although three more died in town and two others close by in the first two weeks of the month and the general ban on public activities was continued. The editor of the Ravenna News reported the panic following the first appearance of influenza was abating and the town tried lifting the ban on public gatherings in mid-November only to reinstate it in a few days. Indeed, the ban was not ended until December, the schools opening on the second. It was felt then that, while the epidemic was still "with us", it was subsiding. Shelton, like its neighbor to the north, continued its ban on public activities until late November "to stay on the safe side". The schools also did not open until December 2nd and then some parents kept their children at home. Two of Shelton's teachers had died of the flu. There were still a great many in the community ill with the flu at the end of November. Gibbon numbered over 400 cases by mid-November and, with no fatalities, lifted its ban on public meetings. After all, Grand Island and Kearney had done so the first of the month. The town could brag of no fatalities as December began, however an upsurge of new cases led to another prohibition on public gatherings and the closing of the schools December 3rd.
Kearney had ended its ban on public gatherings with the expiration of the state quarantine November 2nd and schools were opened the 4th. The action was justified on the basis of a decline in the number of new cases of flu being reported. The city physician estimated there had been 400 cases of influenza in the city and six deaths, which was regarded as "remarkably low". The city of Kearney along with the county, state and nation set aside personal and local problems to join in the celebration of the armistice in Europe. That event did not wholly eclipse the persisting problem with Spanish influenza. Every day brought new cases, if fewer than earlier, and that trend did not hold true everywhere. A resurgence of the "terrible disease" in the vicinity of Riverdale forced them to close schools again. In mid-November there was a disturbing increase in flu cases in general, including Kearney, although no quarantine was instituted. The efficacy of such general quarantines were in question.
Epidemics have their ebb and flow and, while wishful thinking may have led people to believe the disease was waning in November, there was no question that the first weeks of December found the influenza rampant once more-and not only in Buffalo County. It has been estimated that in six to eight weeks of the fall of 1918 500 million people around the world were affected, 20 million of those dying. Buffalo County's situation could not measure up to that catastrophe, but to the people of the County their plight was sufficient to the moment. (A partial listing drawn from the newspapers indicates that at least fifty-two persons in Buffalo County died as a result of contacting Spanish Influenza. The actual figure was certainly greater.) The Kearney Hub of December 12th advised people to go about their occupations as usual and not to get panicky. Two days later the Hub said city officials were not "inclined to be as panicky as a great many citizens." Nevertheless, the rules against coughing, sneezing and spitting were repeated and plans were laid to placard quarantined houses and to quarantine individuals "with discretion". Writing at this time, a Kearney doctor estimated there had been 3,000 cases of influenza in Kearney and vicinity to date. What to do about the Spanish Influenza was the subject of a meeting in Lincoln December 17th. A Kearneyite was one of the representatives sent to the meeting from across the state.
The Lincoln meeting disclosed there had been 2,807 known deaths from influenza since the first of October with 5,000 thought to be closer to the real figure. The group proposed the creation of special health boards and the organization of nursing corps "trained along practical lines". State officials also declared influenza to be a quarantinable disease under law. Kearney officials, who seem to have had some doubts about their right to quarantine, now began to placard affected houses and warn all people therein to remain inside or suffer the penalty of law. Even then the quarantine appears not to have been enforced until the receipt of regulations from the State Board of Health after Christmas. There were more deaths in town and in the countryside in the interval. Christmas was a bleak occasion for most persons this year with all public celebrations cancelled and a killer disease hovering over everyone.
As the new year approached once more hope arose that the influenza was on the wane. Two weeks earlier new cases were appearing at the rate of thirty or forty a day in Kearney, whereas they were under ten now and "only" about 150 cases were known in the city. A similar pattern seemed to hold true for the whole county with Shelton, for a time, an exception. There, a sudden spate of new cases at the end of December resulted in the closing of the schools on the 30th of December. They would remain closed for two weeks. As in Kearney, Shelton officials placarded quarantined homes to warn off visitors. Gibbon suffered its only two deaths at the end of December while under quarantine, but the quarantine expired without notice and the flu went without mention in January. The disease also dropped out of the news columns in Ravenna where the influenza seems to have hit hardest of any place in the county. The respite from influenza at an epidemic level was to become permanent. There were instances of the disease and more deaths into the spring of 1919 but the worst was over.
No one then or later seems to have paused to sum up the effect of the disease upon the people of the county. It was as if the influenza were an unwelcome visitor best forgotten. Many families had suffered grievous loss, however, more severe in number than that inflicted by war, and none who survived would ever forget those few months of the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918.
The Evening State Journal, Lincoln; The Kearney Daily Hub; The Kearney Democrat; The Gibbon Reporter; The Shelton Clipper, The Ravenna News. Buffalo County Board of Supervisors, Minute Book 8; Kearney City Council, Minute Book One. R. E. Dale, "Back to Normal," Nebraska History, 38 (September, 1937), 179-206; Louis Weinstein, "Influenza- 1918, A Revisit," New England Journal of Medicine, 6 May 1976, 1058-1060. Geoffrey Perrett, America In the Twenties, A History, 1982, 1-3.
About the author: Gene E. Hamaker was born Febr. 28, 1928 in Wood Lake, NE. He earned his Ph.D. from UNL in 1958 and in 1969 began teaching history at Kearney State College. He served as the first editor of Buffalo Tales, from 1978 until his death on Oct. 19, 1984. For a more extensive biography, see Buffalo Tales, Vol. 7, No. 10, Nov.-Dec. 1984.
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Edit 3/10/2003/3 p.m.