During visits after Saturday night sauna at great uncle Krigsholm’s and either of the Reed or Koivisto grandparents, tales were retold to my brothers and sisters of past epidemics that killed family members or our neighbors.
Lives in the 1918 world averaged about 40 to 50 years of age. People who died in their 70s or 80s were few and far between—50 was old age and 80 was ancient.
While I was in high school in Barnum and getting a degree at UMD, I scoured the old Barnum Advocates and the Barnum Heralds and wrote a weekly column entitled “The Good Old Days.” The column noted events and interesting tidbits from the old newspapers.
My father Arnold was quite interested in the information but he asked why the column was about the good old days. He said that they were tough times to make a living and life was short. Today is the best time human beings have lived. Medical care gives a man hope, he thought. We have a strong social support system that covers people who get into trouble. Jobs are easier than all the handwork of the old days. Also, there is strong support to get our young educated for a changing workforce, he advocated.
The American frontier scene had changed by the world of 1918 which had train travel and early automobiles. The year of 1918 had three major events for the people of northern Minnesota – the First World War, the 1918 Fire, and what was called at the time the Spanish Flu, a world-wide pandemic.
Reports have since concluded the flu epidemic started from a diseased pig farm next to a US Army training camp in Kansas. Sick soldiers and soon to be sick soldiers traveled from Kansas to the East Coast to be loaded on ships to go to France. The flu spread like wild fire. European battle casualties became less of a problem than the thousands getting sick and dying from the flu. Some historians say the flu so incapacitated both sides of the conflict that it became the main reason for the end of the war.
Flu deaths increased with the devastation of the 1918 Fire. Over 450 people were claimed by the flames on October 12, 1918 but another 100-200, weakened by the smoke and heat, died in the next few months from the flu. Few families were spared. I know that two of my family were lost at that time from the flu and several extended family members in Finland. Healthy young men from teenage years to forty were especially hard hit by this disease.
With most of our neighborhoods burned out, families forced into tents or boarded out to other places in the region, and hundreds of people sickened by the flu well into 1919, Minnesota in those years looked blackened and bleak.
The black smallpox epidemic of 1924 made another imprint in our area. Already smallpox could be prevented by a vaccine – remember the red splotch left on your arm when the immunization was dabbed on your upper arm and the nurse punctured the skin several times with a needle? Not all got the immunization. My Grandma Koivisto lost her brother August when he chose not to be immunized because “I am tough enough to not get the illness.” Scores of people died in the Carlton County area. Public events and school classes were canceled during this period of smallpox and flu to contain the spread.
Tuberculosis was a dread disease of the period. Nopeming Sanatorium was built in 1913 to handle the sick. For a long time tuberculosis was a death sentence for those infected. Not until later in the century were there medications to help treat it. Earlier, rest and lots of fresh air were prescribed for those cases.
Pneumonia, easily treated now, killed many. Walking pneumonia was diagnosed when you were sick and still moving around. Without rest and good care that pneumonia could turn to the worse and kill. Quick pneumonia haunted parents in which children would show symptoms and would be dead in a few hours.
Now to the dreaded disease of my childhood – polio. Polio crippled the affected such as FDR and if it settled in the chest it meant death. Schools, swimming pools, and public places were closed often in the 30’s and the 40’s if cases occurred. No one at the time knew how it spread.
Polio became quite personal for my family in the later 1950’s. Many of us had been given the polio shot thanks to the work of Jonas Salk but some had not. My cousin Randy got polio, ended up in rehab at Sister Kenny Rehab Hospital in the Twin Cities, and did survive.
He came home and those of us that were young did not know what to the expect. For a year or two while playing outside our group of kids carried him around like a big doll. He could not walk for quite a while. He looked very skinny and it took a long time before he had a head of hair. We called him egghead. Yet we included him in all our activities and encouraged him to do what he could. I never thought of it as anything but total acceptance of him.
He eventually got better and one day went into the service. Today you would never think he had the disease.
In the early 60’s those of us in school were amazed that thanks to Albert Sabin we could take sugar lumps with the medication to be immune to polio. The dread of polio was history.
I truly never thought that in our world today with lots of safeguards for our health that we would find a stubborn pandemic. The fearful but accepting words of my grandparents about the Spanish Flu that killed 5 million in 1918-1919 is fresh in my mind. Now we face a 100 year pandemic again. It is just as lethal if not more so than the Spanish Flu of the grandparents’ era. In a historical sense it is very true that “what was old is now new again.”
Yet, Americans are a hardy bunch and we will survive and learn from this current epidemic . . . and be better human beings in the end.