Life during the Spanish flu pandemic

By mark Smith

My Uncle Ed Smith was the second son of W. F. And Anna Smith Sr of Huron. Ed was born in Redfield in 1909. He moved with the family to Huron as his dad became the CNW Freight and Passenger Agent in Huron. Uncle Ed started work in 1927 for Northwestern Public Service Company. He spent some years at the East  River Electric Power Cooperative and then to the Bureau of Reclamation in 1963. Through an act of Congress, Ed held the top power job at the Bureau.

Although lacking a formal college education, Ed scored the highest on the electrical engineering test given at SDSU, and that along with the congressional act got him the job. Ed retired in 1972. He along with his wife, Eileen, remained in Huron. Ed and Eileen’s two daughters Stephanie (Jack) Mann and Linda (Dave) Waring, are residents of Minnesota.

As a young boy Ed was a Lone Scout, he was quite proud that he had been elected assistant captain. One of the activities was to go to Ruskin Park, and before the car races there they would fan out and remove all the loose rocks from the track. They were rewarded with ice cream for their efforts. Uncle Ed also is legendary for his expertise in electronics. He built the first radio in Huron and my garage was wired by Ed. Brothers helped brothers build their homes in the Smith family.

Recently my cousin, Stephanie Mann, shared with me some letters that her father had written during and around the time of the Spanish Flu.

My grandparents were taken seriously ill. With young children at home they needed help, and so Aunt Bertha arrived by train from New Ulm to nurse and care for her brother, wife and family. My dad always said that when she arrived she was shocked by the young boys swearing so much.  

On Oct. 23, 1918, Ed wrote to his grandmother in New Ulm, Minn.:
“Dear Grandma,
Dad’s temperature was normal tonight and this morning. How are you doing down there? Us boys are all fine. Me and George were just sick a day in bed and the doctor said we could get up because we were fighting. Mama is better than she was but still in bed. Aunt Bertha was glad to see Aunt Edith. Papa said as soon as he was well he was coming down and have Grandma cook something good for him. Well I guess I will close with love to all.
On Oct. 24, 1918 he wrote:
“Dear Grandma,
Both of the doctors were here and said Mama and Papa had improved wonderful. Me and George put sand in the cellar because it was so damp and put all the potatoes in the cellar too. Papa wanted to come down to New Ulm tomorrow but we think he better stay in bed a while longer and then he is coming down. But he won’t give us hardly any rest until we said he could go when he got better. Dad needs a shave, his whiskers are about an inch long; but he had a bath yesterday morning. Mama had one too, so both are clean. The doctors think that Aunt Edith is doing fine. She is sure giving them plenty to eat. I wish you were here.
The neighbors brought us some cookies today and some bread yesterday. Mrs Thorsness is going to bake us some bread today if we give her the flour to bake with. Mama and Papa have a good appetite. Mama and Papa wanted to sit up today, but the doctor wouldn’t let them. Said he was out of his mind, and said he was going to call doctor Class if he did not leave him get up this morning. Well I guess I will close for this time. With love to all. Edward
No date was printed on this next letter:
“Dear Aunt Bertha
I have not anything to send for your birthday so I thought I would write you a letter.
I am sorry I can not come down. Me and William had planned to come. Papa has quit his job an so can not come for a while.
With love to all, Edward Schmidt”
The Chicago and North Western Railway had told my Grandfather to change his name from Schmidt. There was much anti-German sentiment and they didn’t want that to reflect on their business. I speculate that Grandpa may have quit in protest. After a time he found Judge Russell on a corner downtown and for $10 and a handshake, he was now Smith. Wisely, he went home and wrote a memorandum to this effect: When my Dad and Uncle johnny entered service in WWII, they carried and affidavit from Grandma attesting to the name change as the birth certificates still showed Schmidt.
And so, history has a way of repeating itself. Our pandemic is not the only one. My Grandparents and family went on to lead long and fruitful lives. They had good doctors, neighbors and friends. We can and will overcome our circumstances, too, if we follow medical science.
I found comfort and hope in reading these letters and I hope you do too.


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