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Johnny Vardeman: Flu outbreak 100 years ago was worse than today’s
Johnny Vardeman

As bad as the current flu epidemic is, it apparently won’t be as deadly as the one exactly 100 years ago.

That one was called “the Spanish flu” pandemic because it was worldwide and affected more than 500 million people. An estimated 20-50 million died. Spanish authorities objected to it being called “Spanish flu” because other European countries had an outbreak of the ailment before it arrived in Spain.

Northeast Georgia didn’t escape the pandemic of 1918-19. Ralph Williams, a Hall County resident, remembers his father, Charlie Williams, telling him the death rate was so bad from the flu that the area ran out of caskets. Charlie Williams went to the aid of his carpenter father helping build more.

The flu outbreak in the United States in 1918 is believed to have resulted from infected American soldiers coming back from Europe during World War I. Its origin stateside was said to have been at Fort Riley, Kan.

As is the case with the current flu, many of the deaths resulted after patients contracted pneumonia. In addition, 1 million Americans contracted tuberculosis after having the flu.

Businesses, schools and other places where crowds gathered were adversely affected. In Hall County, in October 1918, schools closed for three weeks because only about half of students were in classes. Movie theaters closed at the request of local authorities.

Mrs. Gertrude Frazier’s millinery shop had to close because of the lack of customers and employees to serve them. Likewise, another businessman tried to keep his store open after all his clerks came down with the flu, but he closed after he became infected.

Gainesville officials ordered a three-week ban on public gatherings in October and November of that year. The order affected churches, many of which already had curtailed or canceled services. The carnival at the Northeast Georgia Fair had to close.

By Christmastime, there was hope that the worst had passed. A resident of Oakwood reported most of its flu patients had recovered.

But it was not to be. The outbreak continued into 1919. 

When schools reopened after the holidays, attendance still was off drastically. Children were among those who weren’t surviving the flu. Local authorities actually called it a second epidemic. In February 1919, public health officials closed all public places.

Along with the usual advice of eating well and staying out of crowds, they advised residents to get plenty of fresh air and “don’t spit on the sidewalks.”

Dr. T.A. Pendergrass, however, said he had the answer. In an advertisement in a local newspaper, he stated, “Having tested my remedy thoroughly, I put it on the market with the guarantee to prevent the flu. Price $2.50.”

If you could believe it would work, nothing seemed to help in 1919, and flu patients today would be wary of any such solution to their ailment.

Whole families were affected. One newly married couple died within days of each other. Ralph Merck, 28, prominent operator of a toy and bicycle shop, and his wife Lucy had been married only a few months when the flu struck them down. Obituaries of those dying with flu appeared regularly in local newspapers for months.

While schools had been out off and on several weeks at a time, the flu didn’t let up and they had to close again in March 1919.

As the winter passed, the flu finally waned, and things slowly got back to normal in Hall County as well as across the country and world.

Remember those old “telephones” you used to make by stretching a thread between two tin cans? Hiram Grant of Bark Camp in Hall County had the same idea in the early 1900s when telephones were just becoming the rage in this area. 

“Uncle Tige,” as he was called, used a wire, a piece of copper and a cigar box to put together his “telephone.” He strung a wire for three miles, planning an extension into Hall County and a “relay station” at Frank Whelchel’s so he could communicate with Gainesville telephone subscribers.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times whose column appears Sundays. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, Ga 30501; phone, 770-532-2326; email.

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