1918: War and Influenza—Battling on the Home Front

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Public health organizations in 1918 raced to educate the population on ways to prevent the spread of the deadly influenza. During the peak of the crisis, cities enacted bans on many community gatherings. Image by Virginia State Board of Health, 1918.

People around the globe shared similar apprehensions during the fall of 1918: What has this world come to? Will the madness ever end and life get back to normal?

The World War (that would not end all wars) had raged since 1914. Millions already had perished. Country after country was drawn out of its “neutral” position and into a most brutal conflict. Many church messages were pulled from the Gospel according to Matthew, referencing the world’s ultimate final stage of battle: “… for then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.”

Then came the sickness—first in military encampments, and soon thereafter, into private homes throughout the world. A virulent influenza threatened any who crossed its path. Millions miserably died within days or a week or two of contracting the virus. Health professionals, hospitals and morgues were overwhelmed. Mass burials took place where insufficient facilities and manpower could not keep pace with the burden.

Central Virginia newspaper headlines during October 1918 were dominated by daily updates on battles and casualties in the World War and equally dire health struggles on the home front. Daily Progress, October 1918.

The malady, often leading to fatal pneumonia, consumed children, robust adults and weakened elders. By October 1918, its destructive path led to central Virginia. Public health officials discouraged public gatherings. The Mayor of Charlottesville ordered “schools, public and private, churches, theaters, and all other places where there are public congregations” closed for several weeks. So many became sick around the same time that businesses struggled to keep their doors open.

The Albemarle Telephone Service pleaded with the public to use phones only for important calls, as few operators were able to report for work. At one point, all of the press operators and office staff at the Daily Progress were out, forcing the newspaper to call for hard-to-find outside assistance in order to prepare and print just a few pages of news. Even then, papers often went undelivered when newsboys could not get out.

Rugged mountain men like this bark peeling crew in Greene County, were as vulnerable as young school children during the worldwide influenza pandemic of 1918. Photo courtesy of Larry Lamb.

Neither was the countryside immune to the plague of influenza. Unlike in the cities, rural folk often only had distant neighbors to call upon for help. Emory Wyant (1911–2001) was the third youngest of Hiram and Cornelia James Wyant’s ten children. Hiram, a blacksmith and farmer, lived with his family near the first bridge into Sugar Hollow, adjacent to Charlie McAllister’s sawmill and Harve Howdyshell’s stave mill.

“How well I remember Bernard Carr,” said Emory. “He and his son Tom Carr worked a tannery in Sugar Hollow… and farmed and raised some cattle. Going up into the hollow, the tannery was on the right-hand side of the river [near the second bridge.] Going up by Tom Carr’s place there was a path. We always went up on that side of the river going to school, which was on up the river [near the third bridge.]

In the Sugar Hollow household of Hiram and Cornelia James Wyant, nine out of 11 family members contracted Spanish influenza during the autumn of 1918. All recovered. — One of their lovely daughters celebrated her 110th birthday in 2015. Courtesy of Phil James Historical Images.

“During the flu epidemic our whole family was down except Dad and my next older sister, Edna. That was back in 19-and-18 when it first came around. Bernard Carr would come down with a basket full of food. He’d bring it and set it on the porch. He’d go away and Dad would get it and bring it in. After we’d get through eating, Dad set the basket back outside and he’d come back and get the basket.

“Back then they didn’t know what to do with that flu. But Bernard Carr brought food down there. One of the finest neighbors you ever saw in your life.

“I don’t know as it killed too many up our way, but so many of them had it. I know we had it. All but two of us got down with it. I don’t know if they quarantined the houses, but people just wouldn’t go in if they knew you had it. It was really epidemic.”

Makers of over-the-counter medicines such as Kill-A-Kold pitched their products to a frightened public. Oh, that remedies for such menaces of life could be so effective and inexpensive. Daily Progress, October 1918.

Like soldiers on foreign soil, travelers and workers employed far from their families were unfortunate victims in a strange land. Places with much employment, such as shipyards that were geared up for war production, overwhelmed local facilities with their sick and dying. Churches and other public buildings were used as makeshift hospitals, and the dead, sometimes unidentified, were buried in common graves. When possible, the deceased were loaded onto trains and shipped back to depots near their homes.

Clyde McAllister, a son of Richard and Lillie Garrison McAllister, grew up on a mountainside in Blackwell’s Hollow. “In 1918/1919 there was a flu epidemic,” Clyde recalled. “My daddy and his younger brother were down in Kentucky in a logging camp. My mother received a Western Union that my dad had passed away—to pick his body up at the train station. Hooked up the wagon and went to the train station to get him, and it wasn’t he. It was his younger brother. The younger brother had three young daughters and a 13-month-old son. His wife was destitute! She went to live with her mother, and my mother took this 13-month-old boy—he was a McAllister—and he became one of us. Instead of having 13 in the family we had 14.”

On the day little Susie Pearle Rea was born near Afton in September 1918, the local newspaper made only one reference to influenza: a page two mention that “an acute respiratory infection, thought to be Spanish influenza,” had appeared among the soldiers at Camp Lee near Petersburg. The report concluded, “The situation is not serious.” Sixteen days later, front page reports were dire. Photo courtesy of the John E. Rea family.

Although the World War ended in November 1918, influenza continued to claim victims for many more months. Ironically, there was a third and final surge of sickness following Armistice celebrations: people desperate for news of a brighter tomorrow ignored public health warnings and gathered together to rejoice this long-awaited peace. Worldwide deaths from the pandemic ranged in the tens of millions to possibly upwards of 100 million souls, potentially five percent of the world population at that time.

Although history recounts the winners in a war, the ultimate losers are each and every household along the home fronts where loved ones never return and families are reshaped for generations to come. God have mercy.

Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2015 Phil James

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