Local family journal captures life out west in flu pandemic of 1918-19

“Despite my young age, it was something I would never forget”

by Kate Shunney

Iva Lou Michael Dawson’s personal diary chronicles the sickness and financial burdens of the 1918-1919 “Spanish flu” pandemic that swept through the U.S. and across the globe, leaving its mark on her family .

Dawson’s daughter, Sylvia Thomas, transcribed the pages of her mother’s diary recently and found mention of last century’s pandemic there.

Born to a Morgan County family in 1913, Iva Lou Michael would travel west as a young girl as her parents looked for the promised opportunities of free and cheap land to settle, and new towns to create.

Iva Lou’s father took the family west to homestead, and they would spend a decade there before returning east.

“I was but five years old and a pioneer child of the sand hills of southeast Colorado. Despite my young age it was something I would never forget,” she wrote of the influenza pandemic. “If you hear someone say they are having a siege of ‘the old time flu’, they are referring to the flu epidemic of 1918-19.”

Dawson writes that she was told the illness was “traced to the burning of horse manure that went on for days at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.”

History records bear out a more complicated version of that story.

According to historians, another Army camp – Fort Riley, Kansas – was one possible source of a virus that spread so quickly and widely that it claimed the lives of 600,000 Americans.

Fort Riley was an important training location for the U.S. Calvary, and included a unit called Camp Funston. There, more than 50,000 soldiers were housed at a time, along with thousands of horses that were on location to train with soldiers for fighting in World War I.

With so many horses in residence, manure piled up by the hundreds of tons, historians note. The Army’s way of disposing of the manure quickly was to burn it.

In March of 1918, a dust storm moved across the plains and picked up the smoke from the manure-burning operation, carrying it widely. Witnesses say trains had to stop on their tracks because the smoke blocked visibility.

Just two days later, a camp cook and Corporal reported to the infirmary complaining of illness. Hours later, historians say over 100 men in Camp Funston had fallen ill with the same symptoms.

Within months, soldiers in nearby camps were also ill. Many of the trainees in these camps were already on their way to fight in Europe when they got sick, and they carried the virus to the battlefield. By July of 1918, influenza had killed tens of thousands across the globe – from Europe to Asia, North Africa and India. The flu would surge again in fall, taking even more lives in its second wave.

Iva Lou Dawson writes in her journal:

The disease came to you, You didn’t have to leave home to pick it up.

My father, John Orville Michael, caught the germs first. A man who never gave up to illness went to bed with this. He had been seriously ill as a child in West Virginia having pneumonia, mumps and measles all at the same time. He had also had pneumonia as a young adult. So, he realized the necessity of protecting his health.

I do not remember the length of time he was bedfast. I do remember saying my first serious prayers – not just “Now I lay me down to sleep.” My mother stressed the need for prayer that my father might become well.

My mother took care of the cattle for as long as she could even after she realized the flu had attacked her. Finally, when she could no longer keep going, my father left his bed far earlier than he should have to do the outside work.

Neither Iva Lou nor her brother would get the flu.

But, for years, my mother talked about the terrible headache and back ache that accompanied it. There must have been a terrible all-over ache as well.

Remedies for the flu were few and far between in 1918, her diary notes.

I’ve heard it said that Dr. Tucker, the only doctor in our small and comparatively new town of Elkhart, Kansas, doctored all patients with Epsom Salt and never lost a case. I can’t remember having a doctor, although there might have been one. Everyone had the same malady, so there was no need for a diagnosis. Then, too, Epsom Salt was a staple in the field of medicine along with castor oil and turpentine.

One day a neighbor named Mrs. Auntie Lee came to check on us and introduced me to Epsom Salt. It turned out to be a two-way medicine – down and right back up. To this day, one good whiff of it accomplishes the desired purpose.

Iva Lou Michael Dawson

While the Michael family survived the flu that claimed so many others, the illness did not spare them completely.

This epidemic hit not only human species but was rampant among the livestock herds. I believe it was 29 head of horses and cattle my parents lost. I was only five years old that winter, but after all of these years, I can recall the names of many of the animals that died that winter. Old Goldie, the hay mare, that my father let my brother and I ride, and Old George, the black horse with the blazed face. A few years later wild Kansas Beauty and the American Beauty red flowers grew precisely at the spot where George’s remains had lain.

I remember the three big beef cows – two were white and red roan colored, the other plain red – all died the same night. My father had just bought them with money borrowed from the bank and was paying 33% interest on the loan. I often wonder how he ever paid the interest on that principal.

Iva Lou’s daughter said the loss of the livestock had repercussions even after the family returned East.

“I remember her telling me when he came back East, there wasn’t money to go to college, so she went to work at a factory in Hancock that made uniforms and helped him pay off that loan for the cattle and horses that died,” said Sylvia Thomas.

Iva Lou writes in her diary that some of the family’s animals did survive the illnesses that swept the plains.

The summer before he had purchased a registered black Percheron stallion we called “Junior” and a black mare we named “Sampson.” The flu claimed both of them. However, the next spring the mares that survived presented my dad with some beautiful colts that grew into fine horses.

Two or three years later I can remember going with my father to gather up the bones from dead cattle and horses that did not survive that terrible winter. He took the farm wagon and added two extra sets of sideboards to it. To the best of my memory the wagon was filled with bones. They were sold in Elkhart and taken somewhere to be ground into fertilizer. When the cows died, they were skinned and the hides sold. But that was a small replacement for the cattle that were to have been the nucleus for a young and productive herd.

Iva Lou Michael Dawson would return to Morgan County and was an active local resident. She was one of the organizers of the Morgan County Fair, established local 4-H groups and wrote for both the Martinsburg Journal and this newspaper among her other activities. She kept a journal her whole life. Dawson died in 1995 and her family continues to transcribe her writing.