Monthly Archives: February 2020

Could we be looking at a repeat of 1918’s Spanish Flu pandemic?

Kendall County was no stranger to influenza in the years before 1918. Back in those pre-World War I days, though, they called the grippe.

On Jan. 1, 1890, Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, reported that a newly-named sickness had arrived: “There are two or three new cases of sickness, but merely of the ordinary and domestic kind–none of the new style and imported ‘La Grippe’ in town.”

Over the next decade, waves of the grippe—it’s name quickly simplified to the grip—passed through the community, and its annual presence became fairly commonplace. But the seriousness of the occasional waves seemed to be getting greater as the years passed.

In late December 1915, the Record reported from Yorkville that: “An epidemic of the grip has prevailed in this section for the past month and efforts are being made to stop the infection. Chicago is taking radical measures and every home should take precautions.”

“There is a report that a grip siege is passing over this continent and NaAuSay seems to be directly in its path as many are afflicted with the dread disease,” the Record’s NaAuSay correspondent added on Jan. 5, 1916.

1918 7-7 Camp Grant mess

A mess hall at Camp Grant was pictured on this postcard, illustrating the close quarters the soldiers undergoing training lived in. Hundreds of recruits were afflicted with the Spanish Flu there in 1918.

Scattered outbreaks of the grip continued through 1916 and 1917. Then in October of 1918 a newer, deadlier strain of respiratory illness—this time more accurately dubbed influenza—made its appearance in Kendall County. By that time, the nation was deeply involved in World War I, with hundreds of young Kendall County men heading off for basic training, most to Camp Grant near Rockford.

Little did area residents know that an extremely virulent and deadly strain of the H1N1 influenza virus had mutated into a far more aggressive and deadly variety than ever experienced before.

The nationwide outbreak started in the summer of 1918 as Navy and merchant ships brought the disease—which had, ironically, actually evolved in Kansas the year before—back to the U.S. after it began ravaging Europe. It was dubbed the Spanish Flu because the press in Spain—which was a neutral in the war—was unhindered by wartime censorship in its coverage of the disease. That meant the only news about the disease was coming from Spain and thus the name. And, in fact, the U.S. and other governments at war were mightily trying to keep the seriousness and extent of the disease as secret as they could. Unfortunately for them—and for the millions who would eventually die from it—it soon became impossible to deny what was happening.

Here in Kendall County, the first case of the new influenza was reported in the Record’s “Oswego” news column on Oct. 2, 1918: “Mr. and Mrs. Harold Russell attended the funeral of her cousin, Howard Byers of Sandwich. He had just received the commission as lieutenant when he was taken ill with Spanish influenza, living but a few days.”

That initial mention included some troubling foreshadowing. First, Byers was a healthy young man. Previous episodes of the grip had largely affected older, less healthy adults. Second, and more ominously, Byers died very quickly

Meanwhile, at the county seat of Yorkville, schools were being affected: “The epidemic of influenza struck the Yorkville high school last week and that branch of the school was closed on Thursday to reopen Monday,” the Record also reported on Oct. 2. “The teachers afflicted are Misses Hatch, Keith, and Klindworth. Superintendent Ackerman says if present conditions prevail, there is no cause for worry as to the rest of the school.”

But in reality, there was plenty of cause for worry.

The very next week, the Record reported: “The influenza has a firm grip on the country but it is gradually being shaken off, say the authorities. Advice offered to everyone is to be careful of that cold or any symptom promising the ‘flu.’ The death rate in this country has been heavy. People have been dying in large numbers in both civilian and official life. The only way to keep the country from a more serious epidemic is to use care in your health.”

Chief Gunner’s Mate A.N. Fletcher’s tombstone in the Elmwood Cemetery in Yorkville. Fletcher and his wife both died of the Spanish Flu at the Navy’s submarine base in New London, Connecticut.

That was easier said than done because the disease struck so quickly and was so deadly. That it respected no boundaries of any kind was illustrated by another story in that week’s Record when the death of Record editor H.R. Marshall’s brother-in-law, Chief Gunner’s Mate A.N. Fletcher and his wife at the submarine base hospital at New London Conn. was revealed. The official cause of their death was listed as pneumonia, but that was often an official euphemism for the flu insisted on by government officials trying to minimize the epidemic’s seriousness. At the time of his death, Chief Fletcher was instructing recruits in gunnery at the New London submarine base. His body was returned to Yorkville for burial. The Marshalls had no idea their family members had even been ill until they were notified of their deaths.

The disease was also hitting recruits at Camp Grant hard. There were so many influenza deaths, in fact, that the Army had to import morticians from around the country to process the bodies. Again, the government tried to keep a lid on exactly how bad things were, but a close reading of local news in community weeklies gave the game away.

Funeral Home

Oswego’s Croushorn Funeral Home was operated by undertake George Croushorn. (Little White School Museum collection)

For instance, on Oct. 9, the Record reported from Oswego that: “[Undertaker] George Croushorn is at Leland, where he is substituting for Jake Thorson who has been called to Camp Grant to care for the bodies of pneumonia victims,” adding the significant news that “Otto Schuman of Fairbury, Nebraska, spent an hour in Oswego Tuesday. Mr. Schuman was born in Oswego and in early years moved to Nebraska. Owing to scarcity of undertakers he was sent to Camp Grant by the government.”

Sitting at his desk in the Record office in downtown Yorkville, Marshall seemed at his wit’s end, writing on Oct. 23: “The epidemic of influenza has knocked the bottom out of all social and business affairs. Its spread had caused the stopping of all congregations for any purpose and public gatherings are claimed to be a menace to health.”

The local deaths were joined by those from all over the nation. Out in Ottumwa, Iowa, local grocer Frank Musselman (my wife’s grandfather), just 34 years of age, died on Oct. 27, 1918, one of five young Ottumwa men to die that day. All five are buried near each other on a steep hillside in the Ottumwa Cemetery.

The flu epidemic gradually burned itself out—mostly—although there were still many more more deaths to suffer.

Looking back at that pandemic of more than a century ago, it’s hard not to compare it to what seems to be developing with the current coronavirus outbreak. Although officials are not yet labeling it a pandemic, it is clearly spreading at a terrific rate throughout the world. The U.S. government again seems to be concentrating on downplaying the outbreak’s seriousness, although this time they don’t have wartime security to blame. Instead, the disease’s spread and efforts to slow it—medical officials say it cannot be stopped, only slowed—seem to be soft-pedaled for purely political reasons.

One of the main reasons we study history is so that we can learn what works and what doesn’t so that we don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Unfortunately, we no longer seem to learn from mistakes. Instead, these days the fashion seems to simply deny any mistake happened in the first place and go on our merry way.

The Spanish Flu of 1918 ended up killing tens of millions of people around the world. We now have the means to stop that from happening again. The question will be whether anyone in positions of responsibility has any idea how to make use of those means. Here’s hoping competence wins out over political expedience.

 

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Fox River mills served both Kendall’s rural and small town communities

Water-powered mills were among the first businesses that started operating during northern Illinois’ pioneer period. On ‘my’ section of the Fox River, which runs from Montgomery south to Yorkville, four water-powered mills served the needs of local residents during the 1840s and early 1850s.

Photographs of the buildings—three gristmills and one combined sawmill-furniture factory—exist. But recently I got interested in what was actually inside the mills during their working years. Fortunately, there was a way to find out.

1900 abt Parker Mills

Parker & Sons mills on the Fox River just above Oswego. The sawmill and furniture factory is in the right foreground while the gristmill is across the river just to the left of center. Little White School Museum collection.

For many years, the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company published maps of virtually every community in the U.S. that included accurate building footprints as well as, in the case of commercial buildings, their contents so insurance adjusters would be able to determine the amount of loss in case of fire. And all four mills had been recorded by Sanborn.

Starting with the region’s pioneer millwrights, farmers brought their grain to their local gristmill to be ground into either fine flour or coarser meal. At the mill, the grain was weighed and then shunted by chutes and bins into the smut room to prepare it for milling.

In Oswego, Parker & Son’s mill at the west end of the Fox River dam had two smutters—modern farmers would recognize them as fanning mills—that used mill wheel-powered fans to clean the grain of smut, mold, and mildew and remove the lighter weight bad kernels.

Parker Gristmill

The Sanborn Fire Insurance Company’s image of the Parker gristmill. Little White School Museum collection.

Click here to enlarge.

Then, the grain was directed by chutes to the mill’s five run of millstones. Each run of stones consisted of a pair of circular stones, one of which rested on the other. The bottom stone, or bed stone, was firmly fixed in position, while the upper stone, or runner stone, rotated, powered by the mill’s water wheel. The runner sat on a large iron or steel pin called the spindle that extended through the center of the bed stone and rested on a wooden beam. Using levers, the miller could raise or lower the beam to increase or decrease the fineness of the flour or meal produced, testing the flour’s coarseness with his thumb as it exited the stones—thus the term ‘rule of thumb.’

Each run of stones sat in a wooden tub, called a vat. The miller directed grain into the center hole of the top runner stone through a chute called a shoe. As the runner turned against the bed stone, the runner’s weight ground the grain into flour. As the grain was ground, the flour was forced to the edges of the stones by centrifugal force, where it fell into the wooden vat, and by the vat’s sloping bottom into another chute that routed the flour into bins. From there, it went to the bolters.

Parker’s mill had two bolters that used the mill’s water power to separate newly ground flour into three grades, fine, middling, and bran, the hard outer layer of a kernel of wheat or corn. The bolter was an octagonal reel, usually 16 feet wide, fixed at a gentle incline, and covered with a series of open weave cloths of increasingly coarse mesh. Unbolted flour was directed from a bin into the raised end of the bolter. As the mill’s water-powered machinery slowly turned the bolting reel, the finest flour fell through the fine mesh at the head of the bolting reel, while the bran finally left at the very bottom of the reel.

Parker Gristmill

The Sanborn Fire Insurance Company’s illustration of the Parker gristmill on the west bank of the Fox River at Oswego. Little White School Museum collection.

A middling purifier, also part of the Parker mill’s equipment, separated the coarse bran from the middling flour the bolter had separated in the middle of the bolting process.

In addition to grinding grain into flour or into coarser meal, Parker’s mill also had a corn sheller, where farmers could bring ear corn to have the kernels removed from the cobs. There were also two separators at the Parker mill that could separate farmers’ wheat and oats from the stalks.

Millers accepted payment for processing grain in both cash and by accepting part of the ground grain, whichever the farmer preferred.

Besides his Oswego gristmill, William Parker also owned and operated the William Parker & Son Furniture Factory, located at the east end of the Fox River dam, opposite the gristmill. Nathaniel Rising had added the sawmill opposite the gristmill in 1848. Parker bought the mills and dam four years later. Parker added the furniture factory to the sawmill in 1875 to process the large stands of black walnut trees along the Fox River in Kendall County into furniture.

By 1885, Parker’s sawmill and furniture factory were equipped with two rip saws, three cut-off saws, one scroll saw, and one band saw; a planer and matcher to smooth both sides of the boards produced; one pony planer that smoothed one side of a board at a time; a sticker, a machine that produced small sticks of wood used to separate layers of stacked lumber to allow proper air circulation; a mortising machine and a tenoning machine to produce mortise and tenon joints; one shaper and dovetail machine; a drill press; a lathe; one emery wheel and two grind stones.

The factory produced a variety of chairs, tables, chests of drawers, and other furniture. A walnut Parker washstand is on exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

1900 abt Gray's Mill & bridge

Gray’s Mill, built by Montgomery’s founder, Daniel Gray, still stands at the west end of the Montgomery Bridge. One of the stonemasons who worked on the three-story limestone building was Oswego Township farmer John Hemm. The covered bridge was moved to Montgomery from Aurora, and was replaced in 1913 with a concrete bridge. Little White School Museum collection.

Meanwhile up in Montgomery, the Hord Brothers & Company Montgomery Roller & Feed Mills—now known as Gray’s Mill—had just two run of millstones by the middle of the 1880s. Instead of their previous large run of millstones, the mill’s turbine wheels also ran seven sets of metal rollers that ground grain more efficiently than millstones. A much larger operation than the Parker mill, Hord’s mill featured a large smutter, three bolting chests, each with five bolters, two centrifugal purifiers, three flour packers for collecting and bagging flour, and a separator.

Gray's Mill

Gray’s mill sat atop the wide, and fairly long millrace at Montgomery, where the extra force of flowing water was needed to power all of the mill’s machinery. Evidence of the millrace’s existence can still be seen along the riverbank north of the bridge today. Little White School Museum collection.

Down on the north side of today’s Yorkville—then the Village of Bristol—the Blackberry Mills at the mouth of Blackberry Creek on the Fox River were equipped with a smutter, three run of millstones, a flour cooler designed to cool the warm flour or meal before it entered the bolters, three bolting chests plus three additional small bolting reels, a middling purifier, and a separator.

By the 1880s, the era of water-powered gristmills was quickly passing due to the cost of maintaining them and the dams they required. Floods on the Fox River frequently damaged the dams, and at period of low water, the mills had to close down until enough water started flowing to power the machinery. During the winter months, it took constant maintenance to keep the millraces that directed water to the turbine wheels free from ice—a dangerous, wet, and cold job.

The Fox River Valley’s water-powered gristmills were eventually replaced by steam-powered grain elevators and local furniture makers by giant far-off factories. If you’ve seen the PBS film “Ben’s Mill,” which was produced back in 1982, you’ve seen a water-powered mill in action. If you haven’t, you can get an idea of how clever 19th Century mechanics made use of water power in this excerpt of the film on YouTube. Although water powered mills are long gone from the Fox Valley, some evidence of the time of that water-powered industry is is still around if you look closely enough.

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Quarantines may return if Novel Coronavirus spreads into the U.S.

The Novel Cronavirus outbreak in China, which seems to be rapidly spreading all over the world, is threatening to remove politics from the national headlines.

The pangolin, or scaled anteater, has been named as a possible source of the Novel Coronavirus now afflicting thousands of people all over the world.

From what I’ve read, the disease mutated enough to jump from a wild animal—possibly the scaly anteater, also called the pangolin—to humans in China, where it’s a popular dish. It then proceeded to evolve even further and more quickly to enable it to jump from human to human.

As of Saturday morning when I’m writing this, Cronavirus has popped up in 27 other nations besides China. And the first U.S. citizen, a resident of China, has died from the disease, along with more than 700 Chinese—including the doctor who first identified the new virus. More than 37,000 people have been afflicted with the disease in China, along with thousands more all over the world.

As visitors flee China, some carrying the virus with them, the disease is threatening to become a true pandemic. It appears to pose a much more serious threat than the recent outbreaks of Ebola, although as of today, more people die annually of the flu in the U.S. than have contracted the Coronavirus in China. World health experts are frantically working on vaccines for the new killer, although even if they find one, only time will tell whether that would be effective. After all, the anti-vaccination craze seems to be causing mini epidemics of once-rare childhood diseases like whooping cough and even polio.

But looking back in our own history, there are effective methods of dealing with communicable diseases—it’s just that some people might not be enthusiastic supporters.

Back in the days of our great and great-grandparents, there were a whole host of deadly diseases for which there were no cures. How did they cope? Quarantine was the main public health weapon against everything from scarlet fever, typhus, whooping cough, and smallpox among people, to virulent animal diseases like hoof and mouth disease.

Over in China, 50 million people are subject to quarantine in an effort to stop the spread of Coronavirus, and other nearby countries are rapidly following suit. Whether it will work, though, is anybody’s guess. For instance, Wuhan, the city where the virus first emerged, has a larger population than New York City, and is now under strict quarantine. It’s hard to imagine New York City living under a quarantine like that.

Here in Kendall County, one of the first references to quarantine of any kind I was able to locate appeared in the July 24, 1879 Kendall County Record. Editor and publisher John R. Marshall reported on Illinois’ reaction to the on-going Memphis, Tenn. yellow fever epidemic. “No steamers from below [downstream] are allowed to land at Cairo; the city is in strict quarantine against yellow fever,” he reported.

Quarantine signFor county residents, I found quarantine first mentioned in a March 3, 1886 Record note when correspondent Lorenzo Rank reported from Oswego: “One of Kilbourne’s little girls became affected with the scarlet fever, a very mild case, however, the early part of last week. The family are boarders at Mrs. Teller’s, and that house has been somewhat quarantined. Miss Cox, one of our teachers, who also boarded there, for the reason of precaution immediately changed her place to Mrs. Moore’s.”

One of the major problems in those years was that people really didn’t understand how highly infectious diseases spread, although by the late 1800s and early 1900s, medical advances were coming. Dread diseases like smallpox were no longer quite so fearsome because vaccination had been around for so long.

In the late 1840s, James Sheldon Barber, who had arrived in Oswego in 1843, but who was then living over in Lockport, noted in an April 1845 letter to his parents back in Smyrna, N.Y. that a smallpox epidemic was sweeping through Oswego. He wrote that he wanted to go visit friends there, but had wait until he’d been vaccinated and then assured he hadn’t actually gotten the pox. “I have been waiting to go to Oswego and partly on account of the small pox. I was vacinated [sic] one week ago Monday and worked tolerably well and I have got over it and now feel perfectly safe,” he wrote.

But as late as the 1890s, smallpox could still spook a community, as Rank reported from Oswego on Jan. 28, 1891: “Oswego has had a scare. A lady who had been making a trip to Chicago and had been suffering from a cold had some kind of a rash breaking out on her. A doctor saw her Saturday and said that whatever it was had not sufficiently developed to be sure about and a little precaution might be in order as it might turn out to be a light case of the varioloid. That was enough. In a very short time ‘We have the small pox!’ was spread all over town and then everybody advised what should be done: The school must be closed; everyone who had been in hailing distance of the patient should be quarantined; the writing and sending of letters should be stopped; some of the invitations to social doings were cancelled; money was received with apprehension; some were afraid to go to church on Sunday; all living things in town should be vaccinated, etc. By Monday, however, it was found that it was only a simple case of eruption and the scare ceased almost as fast as it began.”

People weren’t the only ones susceptible to virulent, contagious diseases fought by quarantine. A little more than a century ago, in 1914, a hoof and mouth epidemic broke out in Kendall County creating near panic. Entire herds of cows and pigs were destroyed and entire farms were quarantined.

Foot & MouthUnder the headline “Kendall County Cattle Quarantined,” the Record reported in its Nov. 11 issue: “The spread of the dreaded hoof and mouth disease that has been gaining serious proportions in Chicago and vicinity has brought it into Kendall County and up to Monday morning several herds of cattle had been quarantined. This disease has been prevalent in Europe for a number of years, has been noted in the United States but eight times and never before in Illinois. As a result of the visitation nearly all the northern counties of the state have been placed under quarantine, the Chicago stockyards closed and stringent methods have been adopted by the state veterinarian. Where a case is found in a herd of cattle they are segregated, killed, and the bodies either burned or destroyed with quick lime.”

The last major countywide human quarantine was imposed during the misnamed Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. Kendall County was no stranger to influenza in the years before 1918, of course. Back in those pre-World War I days, though, they called it by the name given it by French doctors: the grippe.

On Jan. 1, 1890, Rank reported from Oswego that a newly-named sickness had arrived: “There are two or three new cases of sickness, but merely of the ordinary and domestic kind–none of the new style and imported ‘La Grippe’ in town.”

Over the next decade, waves of the grippe—it’s name quickly simplified to the grip—passed through the community, and its annual presence became fairly commonplace. But the seriousness of the occasional waves seemed to be getting greater as the years passed.

Scattered outbreaks of the grip continued through 1916 and 1917. But then in October of 1918 a newer, deadlier strain of respiratory illness—this time more accurately dubbed influenza—made its appearance in Kendall County. By that time, the nation was deeply involved in World War I, with hundreds of young Kendall County men heading off for basic training, most to Camp Grant near Rockford.

Little did area residents know that an extremely deadly strain of the H1N1 influenza virus had mutated into a far more aggressive and deadly variety than ever experienced before. The nationwide outbreak started in the summer as Navy and merchant ships brought the disease—which had, ironically, actually evolved in Kansas the year before—back to the U.S. after it began ravaging Europe. It was dubbed the Spanish Flu because the press in Spain—which was a neutral in the war—was unhindered by wartime censorship in its coverage of the disease.

In Kendall County, the first case of the new influenza was reported in the Record’s Oswego column on Oct. 2, 1918: “Mr. and Mrs. Harold Russell attended the funeral of her cousin, Howard Byers of Sandwich. He had just received the commission as lieutenant when he was taken ill with Spanish influenza, living but a few days.”

That initial mention included some troubling foreshadowing. First, Byers was a healthy young man, while previous episodes of the grip had largely affected older, less healthy adults. Second, and more ominously, Byers died very quickly

Flu noticeThe very next week, the Record reported: “The influenza has a firm grip on the country but it is gradually being shaken off, say the authorities. Advice offered to everyone is to be careful of that cold or any symptom promising the ‘flu.’ The death rate in this country has been heavy. People have been dying in large numbers in both civilian and official life. The only way to keep the country from a more serious epidemic is to use care in your health.”

The disease was also hitting all those young recruits at Camp Grant hard. There were so many influenza deaths, in fact, that the Army had to import morticians from around the country to process the bodies. Again, the government tried to keep a lid on exactly how bad things were, but a close reading of local news in community weeklies gave the game away. For instance, on Oct. 9, the Record reported from Oswego that: “[Undertaker] George Croushorn is at Leland, where he is substituting for Jake Thorson who has been called to Camp Grant to care for the bodies of pneumonia victims,” adding the significant news that “Otto Schuman of Fairbury, Nebraska, spent an hour in Oswego Tuesday. Mr. Schuman was born in Oswego and in early years moved to Nebraska. Owing to scarcity of undertakers he was sent to Camp Grant by the government.”

Sitting at his desk in the Record office, editor and publisher Hugh R. Marshall seemed at his wit’s end, writing on Oct. 23: “The epidemic of influenza has knocked the bottom out of all social and business affairs. Its spread had caused the stopping of all congregations for any purpose and public gatherings are claimed to be a menace to health.”

Indeed, the “Oswego” column in the Record’s Oct. 16, 1918 edition reported: “Owing to the quarantine placed recently on public gatherings the lecture that was to have been given in the Presbyterian church is not to be given. Owing to prevailing illness, the Red Cross rooms will not be open this week; also the 19th Century Club will not hold their regular meeting.”

Quarantine continued to be a major public health tool to fight scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping cough, and polio right up through the middle of the 20th century, with Oswego first grader Dwight Foster being the last student I’ve found, so far, quarantined for scarlet fever in March 1950.

Perhaps with communicable diseases making a frequent comeback, quarantine will make one, too. And on the good side of things, perhaps seeing those red “Quarantine!” signs tacked up on their homes might cause some parents to see vaccination in a different light.

 

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