Montavilla and the Flu Pandemic of 1918 – 1919

By PATRICIA SANDERS

The Sunday Oregonian – October 27th, 1918
Source: Historic Oregon Newspapers

Being in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we frequently hear about the 1918 or so-called Spanish flu pandemic, which was the worst pandemic in history up to that time. Scientists put total deaths worldwide as somewhere between 50 and 100 million. The U. S. experienced between 675,000 deaths, with more soldiers dying of the flu than were killed in battle.

But what can be said about how Montavilla fared during the outbreak in Portland that lasted from early October 1918 to early February 1919?

This is a difficult question to answer. 1918 and 1919 Portland newspapers ran stories on the flu in Portland almost daily, but few included information about Montavilla. Then I searched for “W. H. Hamilton”, owner of Montavilla’s only funeral parlor. Bingo! Two notices about the funeral of influenza victim Corporal Bert Barnes

Here was conrete proof Montavilla did not go untouched. Not that he was the only victim; a few more could be identified by address in the newspapers’ lists of the latest flu deaths.

Interestingly, Corporal Barnes fits the profile of the most at-risk victims to a T. He was in the prime of life and in the military. Persons between the ages of approximately 20 and 40 accounted for roughly 50% of global deaths. With World War I still going, it’s hardly surprising that influenza was rife, given the crowded conditions of military camps, battlefields, troop ships, and hospitals.

In fact, the first reported cases of mass infections came from military camps, beginning with Camp Funston, Fort Riley, Kansas in March, 1918. As the flu traveled from the Eastern US to the West, troops stationed at the posts nearest Portland— Camp Lewis (near, Washington), Vancouver Barracks (Vancouver, Washington), and Fort Stephens (near Astoria, Oregon), where some Montavilla draftees were assigned— all had significant outbreaks.

Corporal Barnes was stationed at Vancouver Barracks. Clearly, this placed him at risk of infection.

Barnes had deep Montavilla roots. His grandparents and parents came to Montavilla from Kansas in the late 1890s. Bert was living in Montavilla with his parents when he registered for the draft at age 22 in 1917, and still lived with them in 1918 shortly after he married his wife Iva.

On Wednesday evening October 9th, 1918, the Barnes family and their guests gathered at Montavilla’s Grace Baptist Church (SE 76th Ave and Ash St) for the wedding of Bert’s sister Ida and Private First Class Arthur Bradley.

It was a big wedding, with some 50 guests and 20 soldiers from Vancouver Barracks forming a guard of honor.

Since The Morning Oregonian had declared the very day of the wedding that the flu was under control in Portland, probably few of the family and guests were worried about contagion. But if you read the article carefully, you would have noticed that City Health Officer George Parrish had cancelled his trip to the health officers’ convention in Chicago, and that he had warned Mayor George L. Baker that an epidemic may be at hand.

The Barnes wedding was among the last large gatherings legally permitted in Portland for the next five weeks.

A BAN ON CROWDS IS IMPOSED

The day after the wedding, October 10th, life changed abruptly and dramatically.

Public officials were all too aware of the devastation wreaked by the influenza epidemic. Fearing its spread in the Northwest, the Surgeon General of the United States Public Health Service ordered all mass congregating to cease in Oregon. Although Portland then had only a handful of diagnosed cases, Mayor Baker reluctantly complied.

What did that mean for Montavilla? 

Although Montavilla was essentially a Portland suburb, it was a very active, engaged community, and the ban would be a hardship. Montavilla School had to close. All eight of its churches must stop holding services. The Scenic Theatre at northwest corner of SE 79th Avenue and Stark Street could not show movies. Montavilla’s several social halls could not hold meetings or events. The Montavilla Reading Room closed. Grocery stores and other businesses could stay open, but they were supposed to prevent crowding.

New rules would also be applied to crowded cars of the Montavilla and Mount Tabor streetcars lines that Montavilla residents relied on to get them to work and downtown shopping. Fresh air was considered beneficial, so windows had to stay open. Overcrowding was prohibited. As new cases and deaths rose, City Health Officer Parrish ordered all side windows removed and police enforcement of the non-crowding rule (Morning Oregonian – October 21, 1918).

The City posted a long list of ways to avoid getting or transmitting the flu. Keep at least four feet between individuals. Do not spit in public places. Cover your coughs and sneezes. Keep your skin and clothes clean. Exercise. Keep your windows open. Do not use someone else’s cup, utensils or towel. Consult a physician immediately if symptoms appeared. And so forth…

“It’s good for a hundred sneezes.”
Source: The World – October 7th, 1918

Public education was also critical. The teachers— furloughed, but still getting full pay— became part of district teams to help in that effort. Montavilla teachers, headed by school principal, Jesse McCord, went to each house and business in the neighborhood explaining how to avoid the flu and ensuring that the epidemic regulations were being followed. When they encountered homes with infected persons, they presented a quarantine card with instructions about how to display it.

As elsewhere, Montavilla’s doctors and pharmacists would have been busy. In 1918, Montavilla had three physicians: Dr. C. B. Zeebuyth and Dr. J. T. Le Fevre on NE 80th Avenue as well as Dr. W. G. Scott on Division Street. Doctors were expected to attend to flu patients and to report new cases to the City Health Bureau, which tracked the progress of influenza. Physicians who failed to report cases promptly could be arrested. 

Your local doctor could give you a vaccination based on a serum developed by Dr. E. C. Rosenow at the Mayo Clinic and produced in Portland laboratories.

This seemed to benefit some patients, but since that advice was based on stopping the spread of bacteria (which scientists at first thought caused the flu), it was not really effective against what was much later identified the H1N1 virus. (By the way, there were researchers and public health officials in 1918 who regarded a virus as the cause.)

“E. F. Pernot, City Bacteriologist Inoculating a City Employee with anti-Spanish Influenza Serum”, The Sunday Oregonian – October 27th, 1918
Source: Historic Oregon Newspapers

Drug store business, of course, flourished. In 1918, Montavilla had two drug stores that could supply common remedies, like aspirin and the new Vicks Vaporub. L. V. Dickson operated Dickson Drug Store at Stark Street and SE 80th Avenue and W. E. Fowler owned The Drug Shop on Glisan Street near 80th Avenue. Although drug companies advertised, and drug stores carried, medicines supposed to prevent or cure the “Spanish” influenza, there were, in fact, no effective pharmaceuticals at that time.

After the ban was imposed, flu cases and deaths increased. By October 25th there had been 1,771 cases and 90 deaths in Portland. The public was urged to stay home and go to stores only for things they absolutely needed. Gyms were ordered closed.

The Oregon Daily Journal reported a possible peak on October 29th, but, during the first week of November, the numbers climbed.

WAR OVER, HUGE CROWDS CELEBRATE

On November 7th, false news of an armistice agreement sent throngs of Portlanders— presumably some Montavillans among them— into the streets, ignoring the ban on crowds, in joyful, if slightly premature, relief over the war’s end. 

The real armistice was signed on November 11th and Portlanders woke to newspaper boys’ cries of “Uxtr-e-e-e! “Uxtr-e-e-e” (The Morning Oregonian, November 12th, 1918). As the news spread, people headed into the streets again. The Mayor proclaimed a holiday, so factories, stores and offices closed. Workers helped swell the exulting throng.

Oregon Daily Journal – November 11th, 1918
Source: Historic Oregon Newspapers
The Morning Oregonian – Tuesday, November 12th, 1918
Source: Historic Oregon Newspapers

As the crowd grew, so did the noise. Every sound maker conceivable– from auto horns to cow bells to tin cans to saw blades— contributed to the glad din. It was loud enough, wrote one Oregonian reporter “to kill the most courageous ‘flu’ germ”. “The ban was liften [sic] by a higher power than the mayor’s order,” exclaimed The Oregon Daily Journal of November 11th. 

War was at an end! Our boys were coming home! Flags bloomed everywhere— on cars, on homes, on people! Influenza be damned! 

The apparent cost of Monday’s public celebrations was 310 new cases of influenza. Among the new deaths was Maria Faber, 62, of 1904 East Washington Street (Montavilla).

Mayor Baker announced a victory jubilee with a parade and other patriotic events for November 16th. Then he rescheduled it for November 28th. Then he delayed it until the signing of peace terms. Since peace negotiations would not begin until early January, the mayor proposed making the annual Rose Festival a victory celebration, which is what happened.

THE BAN IS LIFTED

State Board of Health graph, Portland cases & deaths, Oct. 10th – Nov. 16th, Sunday Oregonian – Nov. 17th, 1918
Source: Historic Oregon Newspapers

The November 17th Oregonian graph (above) shows the flu having peaked and apparently declining, so the State Health Office lifted the ban on November 16th. City Health Officer Parrish cautioned Portlanders to continue taking precautions, since the epidemic could recur.

Mass events were again allowed. Downtown stores, markets and theaters immediately filled with crowds.

Since Thanksgiving was coming up, Mayor Baker proposed that church services include patriotic songs, so these became mini-victory celebrations. Hope Presbyterian Church (at the northeast corner of NE Everett St and NE 78th Ave) hosted a community Thanksgiving service for all the Montavilla churches.

Also on Thanksgiving Day, an athletic event was held at Vancouver Barracks as a farewell celebration for members of the Spruce Production Division  a unit of the United States Army that produced wood products needed to make aircraft), who were soon to be homeward bound, now that the war had ended.

Two weeks later, on December 8th, Corporal Barnes succumbed to influenza at his home, just 11 days after his 24th birthday.

He was given a full military funeral in Montavilla with two squadrons from Vancouver Barracks. The procession formed at the W. H. Hamilton Funeral Parlor (at the northeast corner of NE 79th Ave and Glisan St). From there the entourage proceeded to Grace Baptist Church for services, then to Brainard Cemetery (at NE 92nd Ave and Glisan St) for the interment. 

On April 4th, 1919, Montavilla School held a memorial service to honor the memory of alums who gave their lives in World War I: Bert H. Barnes and Lee Meadows. Likely Barnes was also remembered at the Grace Baptist Memorial Day service on May 24th. We can presume the Barnes family attended both.

At the end of December and early January, the number of cases and deaths in Portland continued to rise. In order to get the recurrence under control, a Consolidated Health Bureau was formed with Dr. E. A. Sommer as director. Sommer blamed the spread on carelessness and public apathy.

The Oregon Daily Journal – January 27th, 1919
Source: Historic Oregon Newspapers

The flu peaked in mid-January and, then, began to decline. 

On February 8th, 1919, John G. Abele, Health Officer of the City of Portland, proclaimed the epidemic in Portland over.

LIFE IN MONTAVILLA RETURNS TO NORMAL

The epidemic may have ended, but memories of the dual trauma— influenza and war— did not soon fade. In spring semester, the school curriculum emphasized health and hygiene as well as how to avoid the flu. Pupils again planted and tended the huge Montavilla School garden. Patriotic groups sponsored various war memorial events.

A sub-theme of this Montavilla story is what today we’d see as the need for social or physical distancing. Throughout this story, we’ve seen examples of how exhortations to avoid close contact with others was ignored: weddings, impromptu parades, streetcars, funerals, shopping, to say nothing of the unavoidable crowding on military bases. 

Portlanders, and presumably Montavillans, were not vigilant enough and the “Spanish” flu infected and killed more than it should have. I have yet to find an official count of cases and deaths in Portland, but as of January 23rd, 1919 there had been 16,355 cases and 1,151 deaths, according to The Morning Oregonian (January 24, 1919).

Vigilence is still a problem in our current coronavirus pandemic. Scientists now know transmission of a pathogenic virus can be extraordinarily subtle: take the recent case in Germany where COVID-19 may have been transmitted from one employee to another simply by passing a salt shaker in a company cafeteria.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from weeks of reading about the 1918 – 1919 pandemic: it’s don’t let your guard down too soon. And, please, DON’T pass the salt!

Photo by Patricia Sanders

For more on the 1918-1919 influenza in Portland, see:

OPB reports: “When Portland Went on Lockdown: How Oregon Reacted to the Pandemic of 1918”

Ivan M. Woolley, “The 1918 ‘Spanish Influenza’ Pandemic in Oregon”, Oregon Historical Quarterly, vol. 64, no. 3 (1963), pp. 246-58. Available through JSTOR database, Multnomah County Library website (requires member sign-in).

On the salt-shaker story, see:

Reuters reports: “Pass the Salt: the Minute Details that Helped Germany Build Virus Defences”

***

Historical story ideas? Questions about Montavilla’s past? Also share a love for neighborhood history? 

Comment on the article at the link in the heading. Or you can reach out to Pat Sanders at pat.montavilla.history@gmail.com.

Read all of the “Montavilla Memories” articles by Pat Sanders here.


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