Fort Collins and the Flu, Part III

Fort Collins and the Flu, Part III

The fall of 1918 was a fearful and exhausting time for the residents of Fort Collins. Worldwide, according to Laura Spinney in Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it Changed the World, most of the deaths caused by the “Spanish Flu” happened in just a thirteen-week period from September through December 1918. Government authorities most everywhere were overwhelmed, uninformed and unsure, crippled by nursing shortages, lack of hospital beds and local physicians overburdened with their own patients.

In Fort Collins, doctors were supposed to make daily reports of influenza cases and deaths to city officials so that people like the city physician, Dr. Gooding, and Mayor Fred Stover could make informed policies, but the city and county doctors were too busy tending to ill patients to make those reports (Fort Collins Express, October 23). Ruth Margrave, in an oral history recorded in 1974, recalled that her father, Dr. Wilkin, hired a driver for his car that fall as he “…didn’t drive at all during that flu epidemic. He just slept between calls, between patients.” Besides stress and exhaustion, doctors and nurses were risking exposure to the flu by caring for the sick and at least one Fort Collins doctor, Dr. D’Armond, died from contracting the flu. The Weekly Courier called Dr. D’Armond’s death a “sacrifice to the service of humanity.” (October 24).

A headline from the November 1918 Fort Collins Weekly Courier

There were, of course, other flu deaths in Fort Collins during the fall of 1918. Dr. Lory of the agricultural college, lost many members of his sister’s family, including his three-year-old twin nieces (The Weekly Courier, November 29). Influenza victims often included youths, and people moved to Fort Collins to start school, or parents and professionals in their late twenties and early thirties. The writers on staff at The Weekly Courier were clearly bothered by the death of Miss Marhon Sperry, an operator for the telephone company in town, as seen in their early November column about influenza deaths.

Anna May Abbott, who died April 1, 1919 of pneumonia brought on by influenza.
Anna May Abbott, who died April 1, 1919 of pneumonia brought on by influenza.

Even with all the illness, death, pain, sorrow, and exhaustion that the people of Fort Collins dealt with through the fall and early winter of 1918, the city was relatively lucky when it came to the numbers of those sick and deaths, although perhaps not known at the time. Current twenty-first century estimates for cases during the epidemic have worldwide an average of one in three people got sick with the flu, while somewhere between “2.5 and 5 percent of the global population” died from the illness. (Laura Spinney, p. 4). The numbers in Fort Collins show a much lower death rate.

In his Annual Report at the end of July 1919, Mayor Stover gave that the total number of cases from the influenza epidemic “slightly exceeded 1,500.” (Fort Collins Courier, July 29).  Some 1,100 of those cases happened in October and November of 1918. With a population hovering around 8,500, the infection rate was closer to one in five, rather than one in three. Deaths were also less likely, as Mayor Stover did not bother to provide a number for those who died in his annual report, rather just expressing sorrow at the loss of life that had happened. (A Coloradoan article from April 16, 2020 estimated 150 deaths from the fall and winter.) A caveat- the numbers given for illness and deaths throughout the epidemic in Fort Collins do not often include cases that happened at the agricultural college.

Image: Fort Collins Courier – July 29, 1919
The Fort Collins Courier, from July 29, 1919

Although Fort Collins did have lower infection and death rates throughout the epidemic than other places, the comfort we can see in numbers looking back over a hundred years likely did not exist for those living through the epidemic. Even if residents of Fort Collins understood at the time that their cases numbers were relatively low, numbers, in and of themselves, can do little to override personal experience. Of the oral histories we have in the Archives that mention the 1918 flu, one stands out especially. Interviewed in 1981, Grace Davis recalled that her mother had sent her to check on some neighbors. Grace found the husband so sick that he was unaware that his wife had died in bed next to him. “It was terrible. It was really bad. The 1918 flu.” Grace told the interviewer.

Image: Fort Collins Express – November 4, 1922
Image: Fort Collins Express, from November 4, 1922

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Fort Collins and the Flu, Part II

Fort Collins and the Flu, Part II

When did the 1918 flu pandemic, also known as the “Spanish Flu”, first show up in Fort Collins? It was very likely here in early October 1918 as the city physician, Dr. Gooding, recalled treating a case of influenza on October 3rd (The Fort Collins Express, November 28).  However, according to the rumor mill, the flu could have been in town even earlier, in late September at the agricultural college where there were students training for military service.

A news clipping that a “second report of death” from the 1918 flu epidemic is “branded as false.”

 As Major Mills, the camp surgeon, was denying rumors of dying soldier students, the mayor of Fort Collins, Fred Stover, was asking citizens “…not to become excited over the threatened epidemic and not to think that every cold is the disease.” (Fort Collins Express, October 9). Calm was urged and the mayor signed a proclamation ordering the quarantining of all sick persons and a ban on all public gatherings “…with the view of stamping out a possible epidemic in Fort Collins.” (Fort Collins Express, October 10). The newspaper reminded people to better follow the quarantine rules but by that point, October 20th, it was clear that Fort Collins had not avoided the flu epidemic after all.

Mayor Fred Stover on left with his siblings, Emma and George.

The latter half of October was when the epidemic really took hold in Fort Collins. The Express reported on the 20th that city officials looked upon the coming week “with fear.” Part of why city officials were so worried was that there was no accurate account of those who were sick with influenza. Doctors were overwhelmed with patients and unable to make time to file daily reports. Officials were forced to make a “fairly good estimate” for the number of influenza cases and arrived “…in the neighborhood of 150 and those with pneumonia not over 20.” (The Fort Collins Express, October 23).

A clipping from Fort Collins Weekly Courier,  November 18, 1918.

City officials turned to Orrin Watrous, president of the Commercial Club, and the same group of volunteers who had helped with the drive for the Fourth Liberty Loan for the support of the war to canvas the city for cases of influenza. Around October 24th, the volunteers reported back with 344 cases of flu in Fort Collins, more than double that good estimate from before (Fort Collins Express).

On November 2, Mayor Stover submitted a report (to persons unknown) tallying daily case numbers from October 23 through the 1st of November. That ten-day period alone has a total of 355 cases of influenza and fourteen of pneumonia. The “country” (very likely to mean county, or at least, those living outside of city limits) saw case rates at roughly a third of what Fort Collins saw. As Mayor Stover wrote, the numbers showed that there was “no apparent falling off in the epidemic.”

The Stover Report from November 2, 1918.

The epidemic did start to fall off however, even through November which saw not only the Armistice celebrations for the end of the First World War but also statewide elections for Colorado State government. The Fort Collins Express reported a total of cases from October 23rd to November 28th at 805 (which would have included Mayor Stover’s number of 355). Certainly cases did not keep up the rate of infection that late October saw. As rates slowly fell throughout the month of November and into December, city officials found they had time convene committees, issue recommendations, and organize their response to the influenza epidemic, including appointing Orrin Watrous as Quarantine Officer, put in charge of tracking case numbers. These more organized responses were late, but ultimately due to officials being overwhelmed rather than a lack of effort or concern. The experience of the fall and winter of 1918, both the heavy caseloads and the more planned response, served the city when a second wave of influenza cases arrived in early spring.

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Fort Collins and the Flu, Part I

Fort Collins and the Flu, Part I

What did Fort Collins look like the last time the city faced a widespread shutdown? From the fall of 1918 through the early spring of 1919 the citizens of Fort Collins found themselves under varying stages of quarantine due to the influenza epidemic. One document, currently at the Archive, that gives some insight into how the city officials handled the epidemic and quarantining of the population is a “Summary of Advisory Committee Recommendations.”

A “Summary of Advisory Committee Recommendations” from 1918.

Most telling about the problems the city faced in managing the flu epidemic is that the advisory committee was not even formed until December 1918, despite influenza raging in the city since at least October. According to an October 18th article in The Weekly Courier the state board of health had ordered the closing of “everything” in Colorado  but that those in charge of the college campus, where men were still doing military training, would not close the campus. The previous week an editorial had appeared in the newspaper demanding a “rigid quarantine be established” and that the city should be “shut down tight” like Boulder and Greeley. By the end of the October both the college and the city had enacted some form of closure, although without official documents it is a challenge to tell just how strenuous the shutdown was. Another article mid-November from The Weekly Courier complains that “quarantine has not been very rigid of late” with November seeing both elections and the armistice ending World War One and that these events and gatherings led to a rising in the number of flu cases.

A United Press story from 1918, published at the time of discussions on closings – and a World War.

The convening of a citizen advisory committee to the city board of health seems to be a recognition that the previous handling of the flu epidemic had been somewhat ad hoc and unclear (the November issues of The Weekly Courier discuss whether masks should be worn, or not, and if quarantine would be lifted, or not) and in need of some sort of codification.

But how did these regulations, once adopted, affect the citizens of Fort Collins? The first two points recommended by the advisory committee were not all that different from the quarantining, done before and after the influenza epidemic, for other diseases, like measles or scarlet fever. However, the third recommendation of shutting down schools and “ordinary public gatherings” was different. Social and fraternal clubs closed, such as the Elks (in April 1919, The Fort Collins Courier reports that the lodge was in remarkable good financial health despite having been closed for nearly three months. The women’s gymnasium, on the other hand, found itself struggling to have enough members in March.) The superintendent of the school district reported in the summer of 1919 that the school year had been full of “anxiety, hindrance, and depression” and that many of the plans for academic work had to be abandoned.

Interior of Elks Lodge at 202 Linde, in Fort Collins.

If the lack of proper schooling and a severe curtail on social life were not bad enough, the fourth recommendation from the advisory committee was an extreme frustration to many in Fort Collins. Shortly after the requirement limiting the number of people in any place of business came out The Weekly Courier wrote an editorial telling people to quit complaining, pointing out that they too had to deal with these restrictions upon their office (if someone was to visit the newspaper office, a member of staff would have to leave in order to maintain the proper number of people per square footage). The editorial admonished the people the writer considered to be “knockers” to take the disease more seriously for the sake of the survival of the city

“Knockers” were told to take the flu seriously, from this December, 13, 1918 Weekly Courier story.

While the committee was extremely serious on the subject of loafing on the streets (how else does a recommendation get to be written not only in capital letters but also underlined and starred?) the record of impact on peoples’ lives of that specific order is currently unknown. Rather it is the suborder that bares out most in the historical record. The committee called for a special officer to be appointed. The man who became “Quarantine Officer” was Orrin J. Watrous, then the secretary of the Fort Collins Commercial Club. According to The Fort Collins Express writing about the official vote of thanks put forth by the city government to Watrous, Mr. Watrous daily visited between “a dozen to twenty houses in his quarantine rounds” in order to ensure people were properly following the orders of the city.

Orrin Watrous, pictured here at the far right, with a cigar in his mouth and boxing gloves on his hands

When people did not follow quarantine regulations, there were consequences. One farmer, a Mr. Tom Hale, accused of breaking the quarantine on his house, had to go to court on December 27th and face trial. The Weekly Courier reported that Mr. Hale’s case was dismissed. While it is not clear what kind of fine or other penalty Mr. Hale would have had if he had been found guilty, his case is still an example of the added difficulties of living life under quarantine.

It is difficult to know, exactly, how people felt about the restrictions placed upon them by the city government. Currently there is only access to a weekly newspaper (even though the newspaper also ran dailies, Archive staff cannot get to them right now) and while there are potentially useful items held in the Archive collection, with our own doors closed, a lot of the details will have to remain unknown for the current time.

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