c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article originally appeared in The Colorado Gambler.
“Thanksgiving Parties Are Forbidden.”
So ran the headline on the front page of the Cripple Creek Times & Victor Daily Record in Colorado, a mere two days before Thanksgiving in 1918. Beneath was this command, issued by the Teller County Board of Health: “Eat your Thanksgiving dinner at home and be thankful that the ‘flu’ is under control. Visiting spreads the epidemic.”
Indeed, a world wide influenza epidemic was at hand. Colorado was no exception to the rule. Statewide, citizens had for months known about the Spanish Flu, which began sweeping the whole world off its feet the previous March. The suspected origin of the dreaded disease was Spain. But because the epidemic began almost simultaneously in America, others suspected Fort Riley Kansas, where soldiers fell ill within two days of burning tons of manure.
Forty eight soldiers would die at Fort Riley as others followed troop movements to Europe to fight in World War I. Within weeks, the flu had reached pandemic proportions. To people around the globe, the severity of the Spanish Flu was comparable to the Black Plague of Europe some centuries before. Onset of the illness was quite sudden. Within a matter of hours, a person could go from the picture of health to being so weak they couldn’t walk. Fevers escalated to 105 degrees and doctors were at a loss as to how prevent pneumonia from developing.
In all, the Influenza Epidemic would take nearly three times the lives that World War I did. An early estimate lay at 27,289 war casualties versus 82,306 flu victims. In the end, the final toll in the United States was somewhere between 500,000 to 675,000, with 20 to 40 million fatalities world wide.
It is no wonder then, that by November the epidemic was taking precedence over everything else in Teller County. The November 8 issue of the Cripple Creek Times & Victor Daily Record reported 12 dead. Two more outbreaks had occurred in the previous 24 hours, and five were reported critically ill at the County Hospital in Cripple Creek. In addition, six new cases of Spanish Flu were reported in Victor & Goldfield.
“WAR IS OVER” screamed the headlines on the following day, but the end of the war hardly seemed important as folks received news of a county-wide quarantine. By ordinance, newcomers to the county were automatically put into quarantine for a minimum of three days. In addition, no one was permitted to enter or leave quarantined houses. Schools closed and children were ordered kept at home. Parties and public congregations, including funerals, were forbidden. Anyone daring to venture out in public was required to wear a gauze mask.
In roughly a years’ time, one funeral director alone recorded 45 deaths from the flu. Among them were the Snowden boys, ages ten and fifteen, who died within a day of each other at the Cripple Creek District town of Elkton that November. Their mother Augusta died just four days later, leaving a single grieving husband and father. The Snowden family’s fate was sadly typical of what many residents of Teller County were experiencing on a day to day basis.
The residents of the Cripple Creek District rallied as best they could. Family was told to stay away for the holidays. The obvious lack of advertising for Thanksgiving supplies in local newspapers told the tale. Dinner plans were cancelled as the healthy did what they could to help the sick. Volunteers left warm meals, coal and wood at the back doors of quarantined families.
News traveled by way of notes and messages shouted over the backyard fence. Local newspapers worked round the clock to keep up with the dead and dying, as well as their guardian angels. “Assist the sick in every way possible” was the motto of the day as daily editions included recipes for tonics and syrups, plus important notices.
“If anyone knows of any family in Victor who are needy during the Thanksgiving festivities,” offered the Cripple Creek Times, ‘they will be taken care of if word is left with Mrs. W.O. Higgins or Mrs. T.C. Wilson at the Wilson Art Shop.” A similar list was available from Mrs. Wilson M. Shafer in Cripple Creek.
The temporary health regulations were strictly enforced. In Colorado Springs, a woman was fined $10 for hosting a musicale and luncheon at her home. In Cripple Creek, only one ill-informed scoundrel dared to ignore the ordinance. In what was surely a blatant move in this crisis, the Gibbs House advertised turkey with all the trimmings Thanksgiving day for seventy five cents. The place was probably fined or ordered shut down.
It was surely a bleak Thanksgiving day that dawned on Colorado residents that year as they awoke to newspapers filled with funeral and death notices. Although the Times-Record indicated the flu was “under control” that Thanksgiving, it would be months before the county returned to normal. Schools remained closed through January and it was some time before the virus finally ran out of steam and died off.
There is no doubt that as households dined on what they could gather for dinner that Thanksgiving day in 1918, the feeling of family tradition was accompanied by one of hope. As they gazed over their offerings, each individual had one and only one prayer in mind. The prayer might have evolved into a word of thanks for being healthy and being alive, plus a wish for the continued health of loved ones and neighbors. It was a sentiment worth keeping in mind, with or without the loss.