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Spanish flu makes its way to Cedar County: Hartington, Randolph hit hard

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Until October 1918, the Spanish Influenza seemed to be primarily a disease of the military. 

Evard Waite contracted a mild form of influenza while serving at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center and was hospitalized for a week. 

Russell Preston of Belden contracted a more serious form and was hospitalized a month. Out of the approximately 45,000 men stationed at Great Lakes, 4500 came down with the flu. Of this number about 2500 were sick enough to be hospitalized and 941 deaths were recorded.

Camp Dodge near Des Moines, Iowa, was also hard hit. Army records show 10,008 cases of influenza. Of this number 1923 contracted pneumonia and 702 died. Oscar Kardell was among the sick at Camp Dodge but he recovered.

Orville House, whose parents farmed north of Laurel, contracted a severe case at Camp Cody, New Mexico. The disease turned into pneumonia which permanently damaged his heart and lungs. Harry Dahm was infected in one of the eastern camps and would be an invalid for the rest of his life.

More than 1000 men died at Camp Grant near Rockford, Ill. The Advocate of Oct. 16, 1918, reported that two Laurel soldiers were among the victims. One was Ivan Stolberg, a 24-year-old Swedish immigrant, who worked on the Nels Pehrson farm north of Laurel.

Because Stolberg had no relatives in this country, the Pehrsons went to Camp Grant and brought his body back to Laurel for burial. Lonnie McGuire was the other Laurel victim. McGuire was not a native of Laurel but had worked in the Laurel vicinity for several years prior to entering the service. His body was claimed by relatives and taken to Kentucky for burial.

The disease spread from the military to the civilian population. By the middle of October, there were 30,000 cases reported in Nebraska. 

Gov. Keith Neville postponed the October draft call. Troop trains that had been scheduled to pick up the inductees were cancelled at the last minute leaving men waiting on railroad platforms. 

In Norfolk telephone communications were disrupted by the illness of the switchboard operators. Other parts of the state were not yet affected. 

An article in the Plainview Republican claimed that the Spanish Flu was nothing more than German propaganda.

But propaganda could not explain the nation’s mounting death toll. Miss Tekla Erlander, who had been visiting in the A.D. Felber home, told the Advocate that her father, a minister in Rockford, Ill., was performing an average of one funeral a day. Mrs. C.C. Sackett wrote that the women of Long Beach, Calif., were wearing heavy veils as a precaution against the virus. In Sioux City, where more than 1000 cases were reported, Halloween trick or treating was banned.

The County Board of Health closed the schools Oct. 14. On Monday, Oct. 21, the State Board of Health ordered a statewide quarantine. The order prohibited all gatherings — including church services — closed schools, and urged that children be kept at home as much as possible.

The first influenza death in Cedar County occurred Oct. 1. The victim was 43-year-old Mathias Becker of Hartington. Becker had taken his wife to Omaha to consult with a medical specialist a week earlier.

On the day they left, Becker had what he thought was a slight cold.

But by the time they returned to Hartington later the same day, he was extremely sick with the Spanish Flu. Pneumonia set in and Becker died the following week.

The Cedar County News reported two deaths on Oct. 10, eight on Oct. 17, six during the week of Oct. 24, and three on Oct. 31. The victims included three members of the William Woolard family of Hartington and three members of the Anton Buschelman family near Crofton. The three Buschelmans all were in their early twenties.

Randolph also was hard hit. More than 20 deaths occurred between October and December. At least 13 additional fatalities were reported in the Cedar County News through April 1919. Most of the victims ranged in age from 21 to 40.

Doctors were in short supply. Dr. Sackett of Laurel was murdered in June. Dr. Dorsey of Hartington was in the army. Wausa was without a doctor for the same reason. Dr. Johnson of Fordyce contracted influenza and was reported near death. St. Gertrude’s Hospital in Hartington, a private facility filled with influenza sufferers, was forced to shut down when nurse Mary McNamara was stricken with the disease. 

Hartington druggists dispensed advice over the telephone and filled prescriptions without a doctor’s signature.

Strangely, not one case of Spanish Influenza had been reported either in Coleridge or Laurel through the middle of October. As a result, Dr. P.J. Hermson, who had recently taken over Dr. Sackett’s practice, decided to go to Hartington where influenza sufferers waited up to 17 hours for medical attention. While he was gone, the “Spanish Lady” visited Laurel and Dr. James C. Hay had to deal with her alone.