Here in the midst of our world’s dealing with the coronavirus, COVID-19, I began wondering about that pandemic 100 years ago, the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918. I specifically was thinking about Trempealeau County and how our ancestors may have been affected. Of course, Dad was only a year old at the outbreak, but I never heard my parents or grandparents speak about it.
So, I went my favorite website for searching s old Winona, Minnesota, newspapers that often covered Trempealeau County news.
Beginning late September 1918, the Winona Republican-Herald began news items of the outbreak on the east coast, which likely began with the return of troop ships from Europe in September. Within days, the number of deaths was rocketing upward in military camps like Fort Dix in New Jersey. The September 28 paper said the U.S. House was appropriating $1 million to aid local health boards fight the Spanish influenza. Similar action was taking place in the Senate.
Wisconsin quickly took aggressive action. In early October, the state health officer C. A. Harper ordered all public meetings to cease in schools, churches, theaters, and other public places for an indefinite period of time. Wisconsin readily complied! The Wisconsin Magazine of History (autumn 2000) featured an article on the flu that stated: “Wisconsin was the only state in the nation to meet the crisis with uniform, statewide measures that were unusual both for their aggressiveness and the public willingness to comply with them.” Three months of isolation became the norm. The effects of the Spanish influenza were still serious but far less severe than many other places.
On October 17, 1918, the Winona Republican-Herald reported that Trempealeau County was fighting the influenza through the Red Cross. The first death was Melvin Wanger on the Ed Erickson farm from the town of Arcadia, besides two young men who had died in army camps. Galesville also had some light cases at that time. The paper had no other Trempealeau County news articles about the flu after that.
By the time the pandemic was over, there were 55 deaths in Trempealeau County, out of 8,459 in the state. That state number was greater than all the Wisconsin soldiers killed in three wars: World War I, the Korean, and Vietnam. In the United States 675,000 people died, and 50 million through the world. The numbers of deaths were disproportionately high in the 15 to 40 year age group.
In my genealogical research I don’t recall discovering any family member deaths due to the Spanish flu. I find that amazing. In other places, I am sure there were families devastated by it. I have been grateful to read that scientists don’t see our current coronavirus as dangerous as the 1918 Spanish flu (although we are likely nearer the beginning of it than the end) and we can only hope, pray, and exercise appropriate caution that they are correct. Wisconsin’s prompt and aggressive action in 1918, resulting in what we call “social distancing,” was a very effective tool. It’s important to remember that today.