Communities fought the Spanish flu

Courtesy of Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine Beds with patients in an emergency hospital in Camp Funston, Kansas, in the midst of the influenza epidemic in 1918. The flu struck while America was at war, and was transported across the Atlantic on troop ships.


Our harsh winters don’t only convey bitter cold, snow, ice and wind, they also induce sickness. We’ve had flu warnings since October, and most of us who pay attention to such things have received flu shots to combat the bug.

There are different labels attached to the various types of flu. For instance, we had the “Asian Flu” epidemic in 1957-1958 which caused 70,000 deaths in the United States. There was the “Hong Kong Flu” outbreak in 1968-1969 which killed 34,000. Now we’re told there is a strain of influenza sweeping northern China that medical advisers forecast will strike the U.S. next winter. Flu strains that emerge in China one year typically strike in the U.S. the next.

No flu outbreak, however, can compare to the 1918-1919 “Spanish Flu” that cursed the U.S., killing an estimated 500,000. In an eight-month period, one insurance company handled 68,000 death claims, $24 million more than expected. The average age of those who died was 33.

Family scrapbooks are filled with news clippings or inscriptions detailing the deaths of grandparents, great-grandparents and other bloodline relatives who were victims of the 1918-1919 siege. If the details aren’t documented somewhere in family history tomes, descendants have memories of the long suffering as told to them by their ancestors.

The scourge was tagged “Spanish Flu” because it was believed to have started in Spain. But it didn’t. Federal health officials later suspected the plague started in China.

Our readers shouldn’t lose touch with the fact that the flu attack 80 winters ago struck well before vaccines were introduced and antibiotics were discovered. Medical specialists were rare, and the dedicated family doctors of the times could do little other than offer advice and provide comfort. Stories abound about the home remedies that were applied in efforts to ease the suffering.

There was more than just the flu that tore at America’s spirit during that horrible period eight decades ago. America was engaged in World War I and its sons and daughters were fighting or nursing the wounded on foreign soil. The war ended Nov. 11, 1918, and people dashed into the streets to celebrate, hug and kiss. The celebrations gave the flu bug a second wind. Talk about tough times — you had a world war and a national flu outbreak at the same time.

The war and the flu dominated the front pages of the Menominee Herald-Leader and the Marinette Eagle-Star. There were other world problems, too. President Woodrow Wilson went before Congress to request $100 million in aid for the starving people in Poland, Russia, Austria and Hungary.

Dr. Earl V. McComb was Menominee’s  health officer during the flu crisis. He imposed a “health ban” on Nov. 23, 1918, and didn’t life it until Jan. 11, 1919. The Marinette City Council ordered a similar ban on Dec. 17, 1918, and lifted it at the same time as Dr. McComb’s order. The health ban included the closing of the local movie theaters, later limiting the number of people who could attend a movie. Local dances were halted and other large gatherings were restricted. The ban put an end to the practice of local folks flocking to the railroad depots to cheer the returning soldiers on troop trains as they passed through Marinette and Menominee en route to their homes in the Upper Peninsula. The ban, however, didn’t prevent citizens from giving the local troops a warm welcome home.

Street cars were the main source of local transportation and the health ban placed a restriction on the number of passengers who could board the trolleys.

Health officials were serious about the ban they imposed. The Cozy Theater on Main Street in Marinette was fined $25 for allowing too many patrons at a movie, a ban violation.

“Menominee to be Wide Open Again Tomorrow,” screamed the headline in the Herald-Leader. “Menominee emerged triumphant over the Spanish influenza after one of the most strenuous battles for health Menominee citizens have ever experienced,” the page one story noted.

The Menominee Theater and Grand Theater (now a part of Marina Park) reopened their doors, and the Opera House had specials to mark the end of the emergency. John Gosling hosted a dance party at his combination restaurant-bowling alley  in downtown Menominee. A teen dance was held at the “new” John N. Davis High School gymnasium (middle school).

The local Bachelor’s Club Hut geared to returning servicemen and women, was opened to the public for the first time. In Marinette, the National Guard Armory at the corner of Hall Avenue and Stephenson Street (city hall) was the scene of a community dance. The three Marinette movie theaters, Cozy, Strand and Bijou, promoted specials. Movies were 15 cents, plus a 2-cent tax. Children paid 5 cents.

Dr. McComb lauded citizens business and industry for their cooperation during the health ban. Dr. Simon Bergland, health officer in Marinette, likewise praised the public for its spirit of cooperation during difficult times.

McComb was a captain in the Army when the epidemic erupted. Mayor Michael J. Doyle received permission from the military to have the health officer released from service and return home to assume command of the health crisis.

Medicine has marched many miles since the 1918-1919 health calamity, but we know the flu bug still bites. The advance flu warnings should be sufficient to encourage all of us to get our regular flu shots and to take the other necessary precautions to prevent the ailment from spreading.