LIDDERDALE — The letters, written in pencil more than a century ago, may seem more like diary entries from rural Iowa at first glance, with details of a blizzard that dumped a foot of snow and how corn yielded 30 bushels per acre the previous fall, despite dry conditions. But read a bit further, and the tone becomes much darker.
“It [the flu] sure made a cleaning of the Mowry family and lots of others right around here,” wrote John Tinte on February 20, 1919, from Casey, Iowa, to relatives living near Parkston, South Dakota. “All of the folks have had it, [except] at my place, so I don’t know when we will get it.”
Tinte knew how dire the situation was. He’d helped do chores for neighbors who were sick with the flu, plus he had assisted at the graveyard.
“I was busy for three weeks doing the neighbors’ chores and burying the dead. I helped lay away more people this winter than I ever did in all my life. It sure was awful.”
The killer was the Spanish influenza, which triggered a pandemic starting in 1918 that would kill an estimated 20 to 50 million people worldwide, including 600,000 in the United States — more than 10 times the number of U.S. military personnel killed during World War I.
The flu struck an estimated 500 million people, some 28 percent of the world’s population, according to the National Guard. By October 1918, the flu hit Iowa hard. In the next three months, it would kill more than 6,000 Iowans, according to the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Like many newspapers across Iowa, the Gazette would regularly publish how many new flu cases had been reported, the total number of cases and how many people had died.
The flu was especially dangerous for Iowa farm families, who had to continue working, even in the midst of sickness. Near Stuart, Iowa, Leora Wilson’s husband, Clabe, contracted the flu in late 1918 during an ice storm.
Leora remembered that he still managed to do the chores, including feeding the livestock, with ropes tied around his boots for traction in the barnyard.
“It’s a wonder he survived,” she wrote in letters collected by Joy Neal Kidney of West Des Moines, author of the new book Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II.
Not a typical killer
The flu tends to be top of mind this time of year, especially since a recent report put Omaha, Nebraska, as ground zero for the flu outbreak in late 2019 in the United States. The Walgreens Flu Index ranked Omaha and Nebraska as the top city and state for flu activity based on cases of people being treated with antiviral prescriptions. While Nebraska was the only Midwest state with high flu activity, Iowa was catching up, according to the index.
While a flu outbreak today can certainly be nasty, it’s nothing like the Spanish flu. The Spanish flu’s first wave appeared in January 1918, with symptoms including fever, aches and upper-respiratory infections. By September, it had mutated into a more sinister strain that attacked the lungs and caused severe pneumonia. (Decades later, scientists would learn that this flu strain sent victims’ immune systems into hyper-drive, filling their lungs with fluids as they fought off the invading virus.)
Researchers believe the flu outbreak started at an Army base in Kansas and was carried to western Europe by U.S. troops. While its exact origins remain unknown, it was dubbed the “Spanish Flu” after Spain’s King Alfonso XIII contracted it.
The virus disproportionately attacked otherwise healthy people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, the demographic that usually suffers the least from seasonal flu outbreaks. Iowa State College wasn’t immune. The flu disrupted the Student Army Training Corps (SATC), which was training men on campus for World War 1. From October through December 1918, hundreds of SATC men fell ill. A similar situation occurred at Camp Dodge in central Iowa.
Across Iowa, cities and towns including Ames, Atlantic, Des Moines, Iowa City, Sioux City and Carroll established quarantines to prevent the disease from spreading. Churches canceled services. Dance halls and schools closed. Theaters shut down.
Ruth Lux of Lidderdale has a collection of letters from her relatives who spoke of the quarantine in Carroll.
“Dear children, it has been quite awhile since I heard from you,” noted one of the letters sent from Carroll in December 1918. “Are you sick with the flu, or what is the matter? Hope you are well. I suppose you saw that the town [Carroll] is quarantined. Don’t know how long it will be closed. It is terrible when there is no church. It didn’t seem like Christmas at all.”
Nursing the sick, caring for the dead
Becca Tinte (also known as “Aunt Becky,” who was Lux’s mother’s godmother) added more details about the flu in her letter to Mr. George M. Schumacher in Parkston, South Dakota.
“Dear cousin & family, we have had our turns with the flu,” wrote Tinte from Casey, Iowa, on January 6, 1919.
Her daughter Elizabeth’s flu developed into pneumonia. Tinte said she took Elizabeth to the hospital, where she spent 11 days. After Tinte brought Elizabeth home, some of her other children, including Fritz and Marguerite, contracted the flu, as did Tinte herself. “Fritz was very sick,” Tinte wrote. “He was in bed 11 days.”
While Tinte was suffering as the flu intensified, “that was just when Fritz was the worst,” she wrote. “I couldn’t leave him but a few minutes at a time.”
Fortunately, everyone recovered. Tinte cleaned the house, aired it out and washed the bedding. Her work wasn’t over, however, as more people in the neighborhood were stricken with the flu.
“I hardly finished when Leonard [got sick], so I went out there,” Tinte wrote. “Two days later, Marie took down. I took care of them till they were up. I was out there 11 days.”
After Tinte returned home, she caught up on her washing and bread baking, and helped her husband at hog butchering time to process two hogs. But then she was needed again at neighboring farms. “Will Hughes came and begged me to go out to Jim Shannon’s,” she wrote. “They were all down, and not a soul to take care of them. When I got there, I found seven [people] in one bed, one baby eight days old, and the only one to wait on them was a six-year-old girl who was up for the second day. The Mister had been waiting on the rest until he had a relapse and kept getting worse until he died a week later. I stayed until the funeral, which was the day before Christmas .”
While the Spanish flu would continue its deadly work in the months ahead, the pandemic largely came to an end by the summer of 1919, as those who were infected either died or developed immunity. For all the lives lost and survivors whose lives were changed forever, the Spanish flu quickly faded from public consciousness. Many families never talked much about it, perhaps because it was so terrible that no one wanted to think about it again.
That’s why letters like those from Lux’s family and the Wilson family are so important to understand how this pandemic affected rural Iowa.
“I’m sure Aunty Becky would be flabbergasted to know people are still interested in her letters,” Lux said.