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Johnny Vardeman: More accounts of how bad flu was in 1918-19
Johnny Vardeman

The “Spanish” flu pandemic, which was worldwide and struck Northeast Georgia especially severely in 1918-19, sometimes took whole families.

Dora Ivey Sumner of Cleveland at age 69, of course, isn’t old enough to have experienced the epidemic, but her mother, Lena, certainly did and told her daughter about the ravages the ailment had on their family.

Dora’s maternal grandparents were from White County, but at the time of the epidemic lived on Quarry Street in New Holland across from what is now the Milliken mill. They had moved there from Cleveland to get work. Both died of the flu in February 1919. Dora’s mother told her the ground at the time was so frozen, burials had to be postponed until a thaw. She also said there were few doctors to treat the sick.

Her grandmother, Florence Elizabeth Jackson Blalock, died Feb. 7 1919, and a baby she had just had died three days later. Her husband, Dora’s grandfather, Terrell Duke Blalock, died Feb. 16 the same year.

That left eight orphan children, the youngest Elmer, and next oldest Lena, Dora’s mother. Their Uncle Carlton, and Aunts Stella and Dora, lived in Cleveland and took those two children to raise, educate and help on the farm. The other children were taken in by other relatives.

Many of Dora’s ancestors are buried in the old Cleveland Cemetery. She was named for her Aunt Dora Blalock Edmondson, who married a Confederate veteran who lived only a year after they married. Dora Sumner and her husband built a log cabin on 53 acres she inherited on Tom Bell Road at the foot of Yonah Mountain. 

“Our neighbors are our cows,” she said.

Lessie Smithgall of Gainesville, born in 1911, remembers the flu pandemic as a child. She and every member of the family caught the flu, but survived. There weren’t many remedies for the illness. 

“We only had aspirin,” she said.

While there are few remedies for the flu today, and the preventive vaccine isn’t always 100 percent effective, supposed cures were flying around everywhere during 1918-19. You could buy a quart of liquor for $12, but it wasn’t legal unless you got a reference from a doctor. Probably a lot of people used whiskey as a preventive measure, and many would suddenly assume “symptoms” so they could legally have a snort.

Another suggestion in that day was to take a teaspoon of soda three times a day. W.B. Townsend, editor of the Dahlonega Nugget, advertised he had for sale some “pure herb tablets” that would cure what ailed you, apparently including the flu.

Still another supposed remedy was to lie flat on your back on the floor before a big open fire. One person who tried that woke up with his clothes on fire.

The colorful editor Townsend wrote during the peak of the epidemic, “If the flu doesn’t catch us before Christmas, and we escape other complaints, we mean to get us a quart of persimmon beer, a twist of homemade syrup candy and a harp and have one of the biggest times.” 

He eventually caught the flu, but survived, even putting his newspaper together, though apologizing for the shortage of news.

One of his employees, Homer Townsend, 15, didn’t fare as well, going home from work “perfectly healthy” one day, then dying a day or two later.

Besides businesses, churches, theaters and schools closing or curtailing schedules, courts throughout the area had to postpone their terms. At one time, the A&M School at Clarkesville reported every student and teacher contracting the flu. When a theater in Dahlonega reopened, there was some opposition as it was blamed for the spread of the illness earlier. 

Also, the Northeast Georgia Fair in Gainesville in October 1918 was criticized for helping spread the illness because of its large crowds from surrounding counties.

White County reported seven flu deaths in a week. Doctors weren’t immune as Banks County Dr. W.P. Hardin was among those who died.

So many deaths were being reported that an erroneous report got out that Chalmers Stow, a Gainesville undertaker, had died. He did have the flu, but survived.

Two whole families from two Northeast Georgia counties died, 17 people in all “and then a fine mule,” one report had it. It isn’t known what ailed the mule.

During the same period, there were outbreaks of whooping cough, smallpox, measles and mumps throughout Northeast Georgia.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone 770- 532-2326; e-mail

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