Flu pandemic of 1918 hit hard in Hamilton County, Nebraska

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It can be easy for people living in today’s modern world to forget problems that affected those who came before us 100 years ago. Even so there are still things that haunt the past and continue to provide a scare for the future such as disease and illness; even more specifically the dangers of the influenza virus and how this microscopic nuisance has plagued humans throughout the last century.

In 1918, citizens of the United States had enough to worry about with World War I, but the threat of death was ever present on American soil as well. Forces fighting overseas as well as their families back home were battling another war, the one commonly referred to as the Spanish Influenza.
For folks in Hamilton County, like the rest of the country, the month of October 1918 was one of the deadliest times in the pandemic’s history. The headlines from the local Aurora Sun and Aurora Republican newspapers, on file at the Plainsman Museum, documented what proved to be a dark chapter in local history.
The months leading up to October had not seen any deaths in Hamilton County from influenza, but the 50 cases of it reported around the county were enough to bring caution to the area. It was already dangerous for anyone to be sick in the U.S. at the time, given that a majority of doctors were drafted into the war. This left little physician care back home, although Aurora was fortunate to have Dr. Donald Steenburg available.
On Oct. 7, 1918 the Aurora City Council was advised by the physician to declare a “general embargo” against all public gatherings in order to get a grasp on the highly contagious illness. That same evening the school board was having its monthly meeting and members were invited to the city council proceedings to discuss the health threat in a joint session. Both boards saw eye to eye on the issue and agreed the city was in need of some kind of quarantine.
The next morning, Mayor Newman announced the public gathering restrictions and included places such as public schools, churches, theaters, lodges, clubs and societies. The proclamation became official once the school had dismissed its students back to their homes. The prediction was that the quarantine would last around two weeks.
The quarantine was also to include outdoor activities, which according to the Aurora Republican meant “Men will not be permitted to loiter in soft drink parlors or club rooms or in groups on the street.” For children this meant a restriction on the games they could play including football and wrestling.
The reason for such a large scale scare not only included the 50 cases of the flu around the county, but the high percentage of fatalities for anyone infected.
According to the Aurora Sun, the first victim in Aurora was Marquette native Wayne Liebhart, who died Oct. 14. Liebhart had been in Omaha for a short time before attending the Ak-Sar-Ben festival and was suffering from a severe cold when he was returning home. The newspaper continued by stating: “He apparently did not consider his condition serious, but finally consulted a physician, who found the young man in an advanced stage of the disease. Death followed in a few days.”
Liebhart was just days from his 22nd birthday and became one of the surprising statistics during the epidemic, where approximately 99 percent of the deaths occurred in people under 65; nearly half of those were in young adults 20-40 years old. The theories regarding the non-traditional age of victims were many, including the immunity of older adults coming from another flu epidemic in the late 1890’s, although there was little proof to show this. What was true, the newspaper reported, was that Liebhart was part of the deadlier second wave of the epidemic. This was partially attributed to the fact that World War I was just finishing up and transportation of sick soldiers continued to infect those around them and increased the total numbers.
A week after Hamilton County had its first victim of the Spanish Influenza pandemic, the state of Nebraska ordered a statewide quarantine which included the same rules that went into effect in Aurora just two weeks earlier. At that time there were an estimated 200 cases of the flu in Hamilton County, along with seven deaths and many more transported bodies from other counties to be laid to rest.
Nebraska alone reported 20,000 cases and predicted the quarantine would last until Nov. 2. Those predictions were close as the actual date the quarantine was lifted was Nov. 1, according to newspaper archives.
While the biggest threat of influenza to Hamilton County came in October of 1918, the disease still found its way into homes around the country well into the next month. Even with so many deaths within the county, it was even more devastating to see the vast amount of those who had passed outside the county being sent back home for their burials. A sad example came on Nov. 21, 1918, when four funerals were held in one day, three involving members of the same family.
It was almost three weeks earlier when Mr. and Mrs. Lester Stephen Pollard came down with the sickness in their Julesburg, Colo., home. In 12 days the disease got its upperhand on the couple, also  infecting their 4-year-old son, Donald, who died just five days later.
Family members of the Pollards visited and in return also contracted the deadly virus, and from those visiting Nioma Miller ended up meeting her demise alongside the rest of the family members.
All four bodies were sent to Aurora for burial since all were originally born and raised in Hamilton County. The graves of the Pollards can still be found in the Aurora Cemetery today.     
First-hand memories
A look back at the Spanish flu epidemic 100 years ago doesn’t allow for much eyewitness testimony today, but some of Hamilton County’s current residents have memories that their families have shared with them over the years.
Myron Omel is one of the few people who was alive when the epidemic hit all those years ago, although he was only a year old.
“What memory I have I got from my dad (Armand),” Omel said. “I was probably 5 or 6 years old when I remember him telling me about the flu in the county. He was telling me what was going on in the neighborhood.”
Like many at the time, Omel’s family was concerned with the pandemic happening all around them on their farm outside Giltner.
“I do recall him saying it was devastating,” Omel stated. “There were often whole families that just died. They were almost scared to bury them because they would be in contact. They’d lay there for days before being taken care of.
“It didn’t affect our family, but families around the area it did,” he continued. “When it struck it was devastating. It was mostly babies, but many adults died, too. People were scared to congregate. When an epidemic like that comes you want to stay away from crowds.”
Being so young at the time made Omel vulnerable to the dangers of the flu that year, but he survived the dilemma and is able to share those memories a century later.
Another interesting story from Hamilton County residents came from Marge Holland, who’s father (Ray Stewart) also remembered the pandemic happening around the time of World War I. Holland was originally from Wisner, which is where her story of the 1918 flu comes from.
“All the men about that age went off to war in the first world war,” Holland said. “When my dad talked about it he never talked about being drafted and I thought ‘My dad’s a draft dodger’ and that was a terrible thing.”
Holland explained that after further investigation she discovered her father didn’t qualify for the war’s first draft, but wasn’t so lucky when the second one came around.
“Toward the end of the war they really got desperate so they reinstated the draft and he got drafted in that one,” Holland stated. “He went to Fort Leonard Wood and he got there and then he got the flu. He was very, very sick. I don’t know how long he had to be there, but by the time he got well the war was over.”
Her 22-year-old father not only witnessed the experience, but became a part of it first-hand although he was one of the lucky ones to survive the deadly disease.
“He got it when he got down there and was hospitalized for a really long time,” she said. “He lost his hair and that was his big thing that his hair fell out. He always talked about it being a bad thing and how he was so sick when he was down there.”
“From what I heard from him is it was very frightening on the home front,” she continued. “People were so afraid of it because there wasn’t anything that was an instant cure.”
Global estimates for deaths from the 1918 influenza reached between 50-100 million people with an estimation that 10 to 20 percent of those infected died from the illness. This resulted in 3-6 percent of the world’s population succumbing to the deadly flu as well.
In the United States about 28 percent of the population was infected with the disease, which resulted in an estimated 500,000-675,000 deaths across the country.
Editor’s Note: This story, written by Travis Blase, was orginially published in the March 14, 2018 edition of the Aurora News-Register.

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