By Rita Maisel
When this column first began we used a series of stories taken as originally written by others in 1884 and 1885 because at that time Langdon planned to have a Centennial celebration and wanted to interest the local community in happenings of the past. While the editor in those days was not impressed with the history concept, his wife enjoyed the stories and after three weeks called to ask where the column was. It was my first knowledge that I was considered a columnist although I had researched stories for real writers to use in their columns. Over the years there have been many subsequent columns based on stories handed down from a century earlier, but in a very busy fall and winter of 2018 researching life in North Dakota from a century earlier was put on the back burner. What more could be said about a sad time complicated by war and people dying not only on the battlefields but here at home at an unprecedented rate?
Then last week while researching some UND history, I happened to read most of three books which had long chapters focusing on UND from 1917 to 1920. It was an era that some writers thought would or could have destroyed the University as they looked at it in hindsight. To others it was a picture of bravery and patriotism exhibited and long forgotten. In short it was the era where the flu epidemic claimed more lives than the battles of the war and changed North Dakota politics in ways we are realizing and possibly questioning a century later. Some local readers may question comments this week, but when you find versions of the same story in several books by known legitimate authors, the facts must be close to accurate. If you want to check it out for yourself, those books and others with similar information can be found in the North Dakota Room at the Cavalier County Library.
The stage was set in 1917 when the United States entered World War I and began recruiting troops, some of which would train initially in Langdon at a camp hastily constructed on fairgrounds land. A draft was setup and men of specified ages were required to sign up. Some were later excluded because they were not citizens, and a few were exempt simply because farms could not operate without manpower. University classes dwindled to a low ebb, an interim President replaced one who had been part of that school’s administration for some time, and a search was underway for a new President. When located, the new administrator began, what in retrospect we might call, a Trump-like administration. Professors with long established reputations in languages, science, math and other areas were assigned to teach subjects they had never encountered before, and if they objected they were fired. At that point in time there were no pension plans for fired professors, and some were relegated to years of poverty alleviated only in part by giving lectures and classes around the state. Several of these scholars became familiar faces in Langdon and other towns just a train ride from Grand Forks.
The dormitories and some of the classroom buildings were used to house those not drafted and retrain them to fill positions left vacant by those who had been drafted. At that point in time UND functioned under funding from the state and state funds were being used elsewhere. An army training center was set up on campus with the group training there fed in a mess hall with the vocational training and regular students fed at another dining hall. The reduced food budget was described as students being served oatmeal – three times a day! That diet was probably short-lived as in another building they were training cooks and chefs to prepare meals for large groups of people.
Grand Forks was headquarters for the Red Cross. Nurses could register with the Army, Navy or Red Cross and nurses across North Dakota did. In fact, North Dakota nurses became heroines of the era by their willingness to volunteer and several records list that 20% of all nurses involved in the war and related flu epidemic hospitals were from North Dakota. Stories about local nurses who participated in that effort were in Langdon Long Ago columns dated in July to October of 2017 based on a very readable book about World War I Nurses from North Dakota provided to our library through the local Legion Auxiliary. Previously trained nurses were asked to come to Grand Forks, Fargo and Bismarck where they worked to train new nursing recruits in connection with universities who had schools of nursing often in connection with hospitals in the larger towns. In Bismarck their base of operation was the Evangelical Hospital under the direction of Dr. Quain who went to France with a group of nurses from that center. Nurses who came to Grand Forks opened an infirmary on University premises to deal with both students and city residents with many of their cases those with the flu. The books about UND mention more than 100 died at that University facility with as many as six deaths in a single night. One out of three doctors in the state went into military service during the war leaving hospitals and clinics understaffed all across the state during the worst of the flu epidemic in the United States. Dr. Judd Kirkham from Langdon was one who served in the military and later returned to Langdon where loyal patients were known to name their sons Judd – a name which some families still carry down.
The first North Dakota flu case was recorded in New Rockford in the summer of 1918 although the epidemic had raged overseas and elsewhere since 1916. A soldier had returned home after being hospitalized for influenza, and it is thought that the virus must have come with him as a week later several cases of the flu were recorded in his home town. Many modern medicines had not yet been invented, and it would take from 1916 until the 1970s before the H1N1 virus was identified. In other words, there were no tried and true remedies for those who contracted the disease, and because it spread so rapidly some died within a day or two. The epidemic in North Dakota reached its worst in the fall and early winter of 1918 and into early 1919 although cases are on record of people dying in 1920 “of effects of the flu”. Some were so weakened by the illness that they lingered on as invalids for an extended time.
Copies of the 1918 Courier Democrat and Cavalier County Republican listed dozens of obituaries, generally on the front pages, as the epidemic raged. Included in those obituaries were reported deaths of those in service who might have died in battle or in flu-ravaged hospitals both overseas and in our country. The North Dakota toll listed in early 1919 was 1,360+ deaths. Even shortly after that date the number was estimated as 3,000. Today a Public Health website estimates the actual North Dakota deaths in that one epidemic as around 6,000 with the count mounting. An interesting item is that organizations such as Find-a-Grave have been locating more and more graves from this time period where the names had not been included in the Public Death Index so the person had no death certificate.
Because the cemetery where my relatives are buried is across the road from the farm my grandparents homesteaded, I grew up with stories told by older relatives of the diphtheria epidemic of the mid-1890s and the flu epidemic of 1918-1919 where funerals were not held for those who died as a result of the highly contagious diseases. They would talk of seeing what appeared to be a bonfire in the cemetery at night thawing the ground so a grave could be dug and then people with lanterns burying a family member who had died. This was done to prevent the spread of the epidemic to friends and neighbors. Often a doctor could not reach the home in time to record the death with either the town or township offices so no death certificate was on record.
Before the Langdon Centennial someone brought in a book of school board minutes from the early days which was kept for a time at the Cavalier County Library and then vanished. It has been assumed that the record went to the present school for safe keeping. However, while it was in the North Dakota Room some of us had a chance to read some of the entries. Dr. McQueen was the Public Health Officer in 1918 and had closed the Langdon Public School (St. Alphonsus was not yet built) in November, and it remained closed in December and part of January. Traditional Christmas programs were not held, and some churches suspended services as well to avoid crowds where the germs could be spread. While there are mentions of mothers and smaller children who died in this epidemic, many school age children who had “the flu” did not die during that time period. One 1918 LHS graduate died in a military hospital, and another classmate died later with her death listed as the results of having had the flu in 1918. For more information please feel free to look up the Health Department report on this epidemic on the internet. It may convince you to be more faithful in getting flu shots and could save your life.
A second topic which surfaced as a result of reading the material on UND was the influence of politics on the University and our state in this same time period. In 1918 the major political groups in North Dakota were not Republicans or Democrats but were the NPL (Non-Partisan League) and the IVA (Independent Voters Association). Also active were the struggling remains of previously strong Republican and Democrat parties who had lost membership while supporting Teddy Roosevelt’s Independent party, the Socialists who had their own version of the group rioting in Russia, and several other groups. Into this fray came the Red Cross which die-hard Republicans fought against. Because University professors tended to become leaders in political organizations, the controversies between the various political factions are part of the reason the University president of that era wished to rid the faculty of longtime employees. This was made even more urgent when UND alumni were in more important offices. At that time Lynn Frazier was governor and Neil C. Macdonald state superintendent of education. In the controversies both lost their jobs. Usher Burdick, Langer and Lemke were all holding state offices and, along with Frazier, would go on to represent our state in Congress for many years under various political banners.
The War years and the flu epidemic were followed by the Depression years and then World War II with several people appearing to fall from grace for a time and then return as leaders on both the state and national levels. Their stories are interesting and their dedication to North Dakota and its place in history well worth your time.