A History of the 1918 Spanish Influenza in Lake County

LAKEPORT — The “Spanish Influenza” epidemic that enveloped the world in 1918 and 1919 infected about 500 million people and killed an estimated 20 -40 million worldwide. In the United States, about 675,000 people died. The age groups that suffered the highest death rates were the very young, the elderly, and people in their twenties to forties. October 1918 has been called the deadliest month in American history when 195,000 people died.

Eight Californians died of influenza in September 1918. 4420 Californians died of influenza in October, 1918, the deadliest month in American history.

Lake County’s first known flu cases showed up in mid-October. Florence Crawford, 18, Gladys Trafts, 26, and Rose Middleton, 27, typical of the pandemic’s many young victims, were among Lake County’s first losses. The flu killed at least eight Lake County people in October and the sorrow had just begun.

Incomplete data make an exact count of Lake County’s flu victims elusive. California’s State Board of Health published only state-level mortality statistics in its Monthly Bulletins and Biennial Reports. Other available sources indicate spikes in mortality in Lake County in 1918.

Lake County’s human stories matter more than do the imprecise statistics, and local newspapers provide those in abundance.

Weekly newspapers, the Lake County Bee and the Clear Lake Press, both published in Lakeport, the Kelseyville Sun and the Lower Lake Bulletin, kept Lake County’s estimated 5500 residents informed with the hard news and the social news columns.

Lake County’s day to day life unfolds in the antique social media. Routine reports of property sales, cattlemen in town on business, and relatives visiting each other are interspersed with flu cases and flu deaths. Red Cross volunteers reported on making clothing for soldiers in combat and for European refugees, and on making gauze anti-flu masks.

The newspapers convey a sense of Lake County fighting influenza on its own. Relatives, friends, neighbors and nurses cared for patients at home. Overwhelmed caregivers begged for volunteer nurses. Doctors like Walter Fearn, Henry Stipp, J.B. Baker, county health officer Murdock Craig and Calistoga’s Walter Blodgett coped with the crisis as best they could.

Local newspapers printed Surgeon General Rupert Blue’s “Advice on Flu” that recommended avoiding crowds, covering coughs and sneezes, getting fresh air, eating wholesome food, and wearing masks.

In October Dr. Craig advised people to avoid public gatherings for a week. Although the moving picture show, churches services and schools closed for few days, some folks doubted the need for concern.

The Lake County Bee scoffed, “There is no epidemic of influenza here, nor of anything else unless it is fright. The Board of Health acted on the theory that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and that a majority of the people of Lakeport wanted them to take the action they did.”

The social news tells the other side of the story. People came to Lake County from cities to avoid the influenza. Social customs changed as small unostentatious weddings and outdoor funerals became the norm. Masks became fashionable.

        In October concerned citizens urged Lakeport’s Board of Health to close schools and public gatherings. Flu sceptics Percy Millberry, Dr. Stipp and druggist Oscar Meddaugh refused to act and resigned from the board under duress. Dr. Fearn, George Neal and G. E. Nichols replaced them and took action. At the behest of the new board, Lakeport’s town trustees passed an ordinance that required people to wear masks in public and to avoid groups of three or more while the danger lasted. Fines for violating the ordinance ranged from $5.00 to $100.00.

The public generally complied with a request from the local Red Cross to wear masks, but the practice wasn’t universal. The Red Cross succeeded in meeting the demands for gauze masks.

As October wore on, coverage of the town trustees competed for newspaper space with notices of cancelled meetings, Lake County’ influenza deaths, war news and pre-election controversies. The military continued to call Lake County men for war service.

Despite influenza’s spread in Lake County, there is little sense of urgency in the hard news. Perhaps the routine presence of whooping cough, scarlet fever, and typhoid in Lake County made officials unconcerned about the new disease.

Officials imposed and rescinded orders that banned gatherings and required masks in public so often it makes your head spin. Orders might expire in a week, then be reinstated a few days later as illnesses increased. In December Lakeport’s Board of Health again banned public gatherings. From the Bee: “The Board did not pass an order making it compulsory to wear masks but advised the wearing of them by those who believe in the efficacy of wearing them.”

Lake County’s doctors sometimes tried unproven treatments to fight the disease. Dr. Baker received some influenza vaccine from the State Hygienic Laboratory of the University of California, and about twenty patients were started on the three-dose vaccine injections. Dr. Timothy Leary of Massachusetts, whose namesake nephew would become infamous in the 1960s, had perfected the vaccine which was a culture of “influenza bacillus”. Dr. Baker gave out the vaccine for free and eventually administered it to at least seventy patients. An effective vaccine for the Spanish flu was never developed.

Lake County’s case load became so heavy that Dr. Blodgett motored over from Calistoga to attend patients in Middletown. Some Middletown patients went to the Calistoga Sanitarium or even to Napa for care they couldn’t get in Lake County, which had no hospitals before the 1920s.

The Lake County Bee in mid – November noted that the “County Board of Supervisors are holding their regular monthly session this week, but up to the hour of going to press have done nothing of importance except canvass the vote and pass bills. A resolution was passed Wednesday authorizing the erection on the court house square of a monument dedicated to the soldiers who participated in the present war.”

The supervisors passed a resolution on January 14, 1919, recommending that all Lake County citizens wear masks when congregating in schools and churches, and while out in public.

Although Lake County was spared the extreme devastation that big cities suffered, conditions were bad enough here.

The Kurihara family that lived near Sulphur Banks caught the flu in October. Mr. Kurihara and the children all recovered, but Mrs. Toshi Kurihara died. A. M. Russell held Toshi’s embalmed body at his undertaking parlor in Lakeport until he could arrange ship passage to Japan, then escorted her remains to the port of San Francisco.

Among Lake County’s tribal communities Amy Charlie, 42, of Scott’s Valley Rancheria, Lorena Fred, infant daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Bob Fred of Mission Rancheria, and Louise Sutherlin, 39, of Fee’s Rancheria near Lakeport died in November and December. The Yee family of Mission Rancheria welcomed a son, Edsel, in November and four months later bade him farewell when the flu killed him.

Perhaps hardest hit was the Brookins family from the south county. In the span of eight days Edwin Brookins, his sister Rosa Copsey, his five-year-old granddaughter Nina Rannells and his wife’s cousin Mary Mullins all died. For a time the family also feared for the life of Brice Rannells, Edwin’s son-in-law. Abe Brookins, Edwin’s son, was released from the draft because his widowed mother needed him at home.

Influenza killed businesses as well as people. Alonzo and Lavinia Noel ran the Lower Lake Bulletin for eight years, then Lavinia operated it as “owner, proprietress and editor” after Alonzo died in 1893. Lavinia published her last issue in January 1919, not believing her influenza was serious. When she died five days later the Lower Lake Bulletin died with her.

District Attorney H. B Churchill and Superintendent of Schools Minerva Ferguson both caught the flu early on. Churchill recovered quickly, but Miss Ferguson wasn’t able to work again until the following June.

As 1918 gave way to 1919, people began to go out and to mingle even as the flu persisted. In February, “On account of the ‘flu’ epidemic, a much deferred high school party was given last Friday evening at the I.O.O.F. hall [in Upper Lake]. Only the faculty, parents, trustees and their families were bidden to the ‘high jinks.’ The Freshmen came in for their share of ridiculous stunts but took their punishment good-naturedly and gracefully as all freshies do. Games and dancing were the chief amusements after which refreshments were served.”

People started new businesses. Farmers worked on their spring chores. The Red Cross volunteers stopped reporting mask-making. Celebrations honored servicemen home from war. High schools put on class plays and graduations.

Eventually the influenza died out and Lake County life adapted to their changed world. Besides the people mentioned above, other current or former Lake County residents who died of flu-related causes included Pearl Bond, Mary Bonham, Lawrence Dilger, Opal Fields, Claude Harrow, Mary Keesling, David Keithly, William Lane, Lucile McClenden, Thomas Rhodes, Irving Roddie, and George Vincent.

The Lake County Library’s collection of microfilmed Lake County newspapers supplied the stories about what happened here. The collection, which stretches back into the 1870s, makes it possible to read a good deal of Lake County’s history as it was happening. The library’s microfilm collection is available to the public during normal operating hours and short newspaper reference questions can also be submitted through the “Ask A Question” feature on the library website http://library.lakecountyca.gov. Library staff can scan and email articles for researchers. A list of newspapers in the collection is on the website.

Statistical information for the article came from the California State Library, from the Centers For Disease Control, and the US Census Bureau.

Many books, articles and websites cover the influenza pandemic of 1918. The Lake County Library’s digital resource collection includes eBook titles Pale Rider: the Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it changed the world by Laura Spinney, The Great Influenza by John M. Barry and Pandemic 1918 by Catharine Arnold. The digital collection is accessible while the library is closed for the shelter in place.

Jan Cook

Jan Cook is a library technician for the Lake County Library where she has worked since 1989. She wears a multitude of library hats, including the one for answering Lake County genealogy and history questions. Jan belongs to the Lake County Genealogical Society, the Lake County Historical Society and the Ladies of the Lake Quilt Guild. She designed Lakeport Library’s Quilt Trail block, Friends of the Library. One of her favorite library jobs is doing research in the old newspapers.

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