Arlo Levisen is the President of the Grant County Historical Society. He has extensive knowledge on the history of the area, including: Grant County History, Big Stone Lake History, the History of the Holland Grist Mill, the History of the Milbank Congregational Church and much more! Send in your questions. Arlo will have the answers!
Do you have any information on the 1918-1919 flu pandemic in Grant County? NK
Some basics about the “N1H1 Virus”, also known as the “Spanish Flu of 1918-1920”. The origins are still in dispute. It was world-wide, hence the term “pandemic”. It may well have started in the trenches of France during WWI, but the censorship practices at that time blurs this. Spain was one of only a few major European countries to remain neutral during World War I. Unlike in the Allied and Central Powers nations, where the censors suppressed news of the flu to avoid affecting morale, the Spanish media was free to report on it in gory detail. News of the sickness first made headlines in Madrid in late May 1918, and coverage only increased after Spanish King Alfonso XIII came down with a nasty case a week later. Since nations undergoing a media blackout could only read in-depth accounts from Spanish news sources, they naturally assumed that Spain was the pandemic’s ground zero.
In the United States, the illness was thought to have originated in Fort Riley Kansas, brought home by soldiers returning from France. Although there is some dispute about the exact location of its genesis’, what is not disputed is that the virus attacked the youngest children and extended into the reaches of young adults. Older people, while certainly at high risk, were not affected as much.
In Grant County, it is likely the first evidence of the Spanish flu was noted by the death of soldiers. More died of illness than combat. Twelve of the twenty-two young soldiers from Grant County lost in World War I died of either influenza, specifically, or another disease.
Regarding the children who succumbed, we do not have a list of names, but the cemeteries in Grant County have headstones recording youngsters who died during this time. I am familiar with a single headstone which includes five children from one family. Other headstones display the names of more than one family member. We also have collected “family biographies” in the Grant County Historical Museum, some of which address the sadness and others not so much.
It might be remembered that 100 years ago, children were vulnerable to many maladies that could take their lives. Scarlet fever, pneumonia, polio, diphtheria, German measles, even chicken pox, could be fatal. Lack of sanitation and antibiotics, and even the rudimentary transportation systems available to the residents of Grant County created conditions whereby the death of a child was much more common than it is today. There was certainly grief at the loss of life, but the impact seemed to be different, more muted, perhaps. Adult lives lost were not that numerous, but the duration of the virus was long and might have seemed even longer due to the slower-paced life.
When the following decade, known today as the Roaring Twenties, burst upon the scene, life suddenly seemed to speed up a bit. Grant County shared this sense of exuberance as evidenced by the number of new businesses opening in both Milbank and area towns. Unfortunately, the Stock Market Crashed on October 24th, 1929. This was followed by The Great Depression. The 1930’s caused a significant decline in the populations of Milbank, Grant County & the State of South Dakota.
Grant County had a higher population at the time of the Spanish flu than it does now. I might speculate the children who survived the Spanish flu and their parents felt a bit unmoored by the loss of their grandparents and no longer felt ties to this area. Perhaps they found it easier to uproot their lives and leave. These children were teenagers and their parents were still young. Life clearly looked better elsewhere. This might have been the real impact the virus had on Grant County.