CLARION - In the fall of 1918 Clarion County was at war but that war was far away. On the surface things seemed almost normal.

There was sugar rationing and calls for people to buy Liberty Bonds but you could still watch "The Shooting of Dan McGraw" down at The Grand theatre or buy the latest suits, Stetson hats or even a silk tie.

Of course there was an election coming up and that also excited people.

Then people started getting sick.

In an era without mass communication people in New Bethlehem didn't know others were taken ill in Knox or Clarion.

Then, in October 1918, U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue issued a notice warning the American public of something called the "Spanish Influenza."

No one had ever heard of the virus because wartime censors had withheld the news so that morale on the home front would not be damaged.

Blue said the flu resembled a "very contagious type of cold accompanied by fever, pains in the limbs, eyes, ears, back or other parts of the body and a feeling of severe sickness."

Blue said in most cases the patient recovered but in some cases pneumonia developed or meningitis and many of those cases resulted in death.

The surgeon general admitted the cause the virus was not known but appeared to be airborne -- the germs "being carried with the air along with the very small droplets of mucus expelled by coughing or sneezing or forceful talking."

The battle begins

Blue said it was "important" for every person who was diagnosed with the flu go home and go to bed. The person should be isolated and "only the nurse should be permitted to go into the room."

Even at that time infection controls were suggested. The surgeon general said the nurse should gather any sputum in gauze or paper tissues that could be burned. He also advised the nurse to wear a wrapper or apron over ordinary house clothes and to take off the garments when leaving the room.

It was strongly suggested the nurse wear a simple fold of gauze or a mask when near the patient.

As with today's epidemic, it was suggested social distancing be practiced whenever possible. Blue said when overcrowding is unavoidable care should be taken to "keep the face so turned as not to inhale directly the air breathed out by another person."

The surgeon general had one last suggestion, "Cover up each cough and sneeze, if you don't you'll spread the disease."

The alarm sounds

The notice from the federal government was a wake-up call for Clarion County.

On October 17, 1918, J.T. Rimer, chairman of the Clarion County Red Cross, said in a page one story in the Clarion Democrat, that the influenza epidemic was "not abating" and that the county could expect that "15 percent of the population will suffer from this disease."

Rimer directed local committees be formed for the care and treatment of all cases "demanding attention."

The Red Cross asked for voluntary nurses to obtain the use of school buildings or tents to accommodate "those who may not have proper sanitary surroundings."

In October 1918 Pennsylvania Gov. Martin Brumbaugh issued statement on the "epidemic of influenza" that had reached such "alarming" proportions.

The governor said 275,000 people had been sickened and that each day "records a higher number of new cases than the day before." He said the death rate among those infected was 5 percent.

Brumbaugh then delivered some chilling news. "We have no ground to expect an early abatement of the epidemic. Reports from the afflicted districts indicate that conditions will become worse before they become better," he said.

The governor issued a plea for volunteers to aid the American Red Cross.

Brumbaugh said there was an urgent need because so many of the volunteers were serving in the war effort.

"We call upon the clergy, the press, educators, teachers to bring to the hearts and minds of our people the gravity and necessity of this appeal," he said.

The local front

The gravity of the appeal struck Clarion County in October.

In the same issue of the Clarion Democrat were listed obituaries for Mrs. Olive Kerr Beck of Clarion, a bride of six months; Samuel Jamison of Clarion, who was on a furlough from the Army; Leon A. Stevens, a miner who left behind a widow and five children; Arthur Weidner, a master printer; Merrell McEntire of Clarion Township; 14-year-old Helen O'Brien who "held the promise of being a splendid woman;" Charles B. Smith, the chief engineer of the United National Gas works at Miola; Robert Sloan who was taken ill while serving with the Army; Mrs. S.T. Smith, a Clarion lady of "culture and refinement;" William Crooks, 16; Frank Page who died while working in the Baltimore ship yards; Charles Carroll of Lucinda, a Duquesne University student and a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Gardlock whose deaths orphaned five children.

The cause of death in each case was the influenza.

The following week was even worse. The newspaper listed 18 flu-related deaths.

Included in the list were the daughters of Mr. and Mrs. F. L. Iseman. Grace was six years old and Margaret just 16 months. They were buried side by side.

During the third week of the epidemic there were so many obituaries that the Democrat was forced to reduce the size of the obituaries to just death notices. Two were placed on the front page. This may have due, in part, to the death of the first influenza victim in Knox, Dr. O.G. Moore.

The doctor reportedly was ill, recovered, went back to work where he was infected again, this time fatally.

The flu spared neither the young nor old; the rich or the poor.

In the fourth week of the outbreak the death toll fell sharply. There were only three deaths recorded in The Democrat.

The Democrat reported it was estimated there may have been "well up to 900 or a thousand cases in and around Clarion in more or less serious form."

There were no figures available for the rest of the county.

The community responds

The American Red Cross responded to the emergency by establishing emergency hospitals at Gordontown and in New Bethlehem.

The Clarion chapter of the ARC collected patients from the line of the LEF&C Railroad in Limestone and Clarion townships.

An emergency hospital was started in a "large double home" on the property owned by the Pennsylvania Coal Company.

The newspaper stated that within 24 hours a force of workers labored through the rain to lay 700 feet of gas line and "completely piped the house with heat and light."

Meanwhile other workers with trucks and automobiles transported beds, cots, bedding and supplies from Clarion. Seven patients were admitted the first day and five more on the following day.

Miss Anna Britt of Limestone was the chief attendant with Mrs. May Lewis and four aides.

The New Bethlehem hospital opened in the Presbyterian parsonage and admitted 16 patients immediately.

The newspaper reported that the five physicians in Clarion and one in Strattanville have been "rushed as never before in the history of the town."

The newspaper said it has been impossible for the doctors to make their rounds. To make matters worse "two or three of the doctors" had been sick and one was sick before the epidemic struck.

"Under the circumstances, they have performed marvels in their ministries of the sick," said The Democrat.

The flu struck at the social fabric of the area. Churches closed and many did not open again until November. The flu did not force the postponement of the county's Teachers Institute in November.

Life went on

In 1918, there was an election, just like this year. On the ballot were choices for the governor, lieutenant governor, U.S. Congress and senator in the General Assembly.

The Democrat noted the Republicans "as usual" carried the vote. The impact of the outbreak on the election was not recorded in The Democrat.

The grim news from the home front was broken with the news of an armistice with Germany on Nov. 11, effectively ending the war.

The armistice did not end the flu. In an age without Internet or even telephone service in many areas, the news travelled by mail. It wasn't until late November that the people in Clarion became aware of soldiers dying in France of influenza or the deaths of loved ones who had moved to other parts of the country.

Mrs. Mary Smith of Shippenville received word that her son William had been killed in action. Earlier that year her son Charles was drafted and sent to Fort Benjamin Harrison where he died of the flu.

In early December the Detrick family of Strattanville learned their son Wayne had died from the influenza in a French hospital.

By mid-December Surgeon General Blue said the influenza was expected to "lurk for months" and that the public's attention should now be directed toward other respiratory diseases.

The influenza outbreak of 1918 made one thing apparent, the area needed a hospital.

The Democrat ran an opinion piece at the end of October stating it "has become painfully apparent for some years that Clarion and Clarion County needs a hospital but its necessity was never more fully demonstrated than in the influenza epidemic which is sweeping over the county."

The newspaper called for the establishment of a hospital at once.

"Let Clarion as the county seat take up this proposition and push it to a conclusion," the newspaper opined.

History lessons

The outbreak in 1918 came as a surprise to most Americans. Wartime censorship down played the event in Europe until it burst on an unsuspecting nation.

The results were catastrophic.

According to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, it is estimated that about 28 percent of America's population of 105 million became infected and between 500,000 and 675,000 people died.

Worldwide the death toll was estimated at between 25 to 39 million people or about 3 percent of the world's population.

The legacy of the Spanish Influenza in Clarion County is not hard to find.

It lies in almost every grave yard in Clarion County.

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