The 1918 “Flu” Pandemic in Richardson County

By Nikki McKim; Falls City Journal archive photo of John Morehead. 

This article is the first in a series about the 1918 “flu” epidemic that killed millions worldwide. This first article discusses what Falls City was going through before and as the flu hit the county in 1918. 

Since March, Richardson County has been dealing with the effects of COVID-19 and everything that comes with it. Our vocabulary now consists of terms like ‘social distancing’ and quarantine, both things we rarely spoke of until 2020. 

This isn’t the first time a virus has ravaged the state or the world. In 1918 the “Spanish Flu” swept across the globe, killing millions. In the fall of 1918, the “flu” made its way to Richardson County. 

Falls City, along with the rest of the country, was not prepared for such a virus to sweep through their population, but the city did the best it could with what it had. 

The citizens of Richardson County were busy in 1918. The “flu” at the end of the year was among a long line of events that Falls City citizens had to power through. 

School went back in session and the County prepared to move forward with exciting plans on the horizon for a new ‘modern’ hospital and a massive new hotel, but a series of events that fall made 1918, unlike any other year, a historic year for the city of Falls City. 

Fighting for a modern hospital 

On August 6, 1918, A.J. Weaver wrote an article for the Falls City News telling the citizens why a hospital is necessary. “Falls City and Richardson County need a modern hospital for these reasons: The population and wealth of this section justify such an institution. The dictates of humanity and proper care of the sick and unfortunate demand that Falls City do her full duty in living up to her opportunities and responsibilities as a progressive and growing city. The location is right. Falls City is the principal city between Kansas City and Omaha and St. Joseph and Lincoln. Therefore an institution here will be easily available to a large population. A man who has no thought of his neighbors or the general welfare needs to be reborn. A modern hospital in Falls City, with the untold good it will do through the years to come, will be worthwhile. Personally, I will contribute to and help maintain such an institution, not only for the reasons above.” 

On September 22, 1918, community members broke ground on a new hospital that would open October 15, 1919, and eventually become Community Medical Center. 

Storms tear through County

In mid-August, a storm possessing many features of a tornado struck Falls City one afternoon. Buildings were unroofed, trees were uprooted, and telephone and telegraph poles blew down. There was no loss of life, but the telephone company lost sixteen poles cutting off communication with the outside world. Only three months earlier, a small tornado tore through half a dozen farms near Barada claiming the life of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kuker and severely injuring Mr. and Mrs. Charles Erskine. Some residents had to walk over a mile to seek shelter. It was the worst local storm since 1883. The same storm system destroyed barns, cattle sheds, and apple orchards of resi-dents. 

Waiting for a new Hotel

Falls City was changing with the times and trying to be progressive. One of the ways Falls City was moving forward was to build a new hotel; however, the plan was put a hold. 

On September 18, 1918, the Nebraska State Journal wrote that the contract for the erection of the Falls City Hotel was not awarded. “Because of the order of the government, putting the ban on all non-essential building, the con-tract of the Nebraska Hotel company for construction of the new hostelry at Falls City has not yet been awarded. Contractors bids were to have been opened at the company’s offices last week, and it was thought that the success-ful firm would be announced early in the week, but further government restrictions on building have put a tempo-rary halt to proceedings. The new hotel was to be a five-story structure. 

Fire destroys the Richardson County Bank Building

The Lincoln Journal Star reported on October 7, 1918, that an early morning fire destroyed the Richardson County Bank building in Falls City. The building was three stories and occupied by the bank, a drug store, Davies Jewelry Store, Masonic Hall, Doctors Allison and Greene, and several other tenants. The Kramer building next door al-most burned to entail a loss of approximately $120,000. The city was virtually without water at the time; otherwise, the fire could easily have been controlled. 

1918 Midterm Election

On November 5, 1918, citizens around the United States were encouraged to do their patriotic duty and vote. President Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats were doing all they could to maintain control of Congress during the midterms. The war was raging on, which made American citizens feel more patriotic. There was a discussion of delaying the election due to the “flu,” but cities around the country vowed to keep their voters protected when heading to the polls. Voter turnout was low, but many didn’t think twice to get out and do their duty. 

In Red Cloud, Nebraska, the “flu” hit hard after the election. The city lifted its quarantine for one week before the elections; then, after the election, it went back into effect. In the week following election day, nearly seven percent of the town’s population died. The same happened in communities all over the Midwest. 

Falls City’s own John Morehead was making a run for United States Senate. On October 28, 1918, the former Nebraska Governor was endorsed by President Wilson, “I cannot refrain from expressing my deep interest in the election of Mr. Morehead to the United States Senate. I not only know something of his quality, but I have more particularly in mind the delicate and difficult tasks immediately ahead of the Congress and am convinced that it would be of the utmost value, not only to Nebraska but to the country.” 

But the glowing endorsement fell flat for many Nebraskans. On October 30, 1918, the Lincoln Journal Star reported that some Democratic leaders regret the fact that the president issued his appeal to voters to support candidates for senate and Congress. 

The road to election day was extremely difficult for Morehead.  

On July 24, 1918, the Lincoln Journal Star reported on rumors to the effect that Mr. Morehead was being accused by political opponents with having loaned rifles to German-American alliance organizations of Nebraska. Governor Neville investigated and issued a statement saying that the only organization that obtained any rifles from the Nebraska National guard in years past was the society of former German soldiers at Falls City, the home of ex-Governor Morehead. 

The same day The Falls City Journal said, “There has been a reported detective in town trying to discover a few old guns that were loaned by the state to the German military society of this County. This body of Germans who had participated in the Franco-Prussian war occasionally met for a drill at some farmer’s and were always considered good. When the war came between America and the fatherland and prejudice and suspicion began to arise, these guns were ordered turned back and are now said to be in possession of the Falls City home guard, or will be soon. There never was any mystery about their presence in the County, only the excited imagination of some fire-eating politician could see anything out of the unusual order of things in the original loaning of these guns. At the time they were loaned, the military spirit of these same fire eaters was so low that they rather look with contempt upon an old army rifle and the fellow who took enough interest in one to tote it around. Now a soldier is the whole show, and the politicians and their henchmen are trying to win glory and political advancement by showing that someone else at some time did something to please a citizen of German birth, which they desire to have considered treason. 

On the day of the election, November 5 1918, it was reported a fierce row developed the night prior at the Falls City home of Mr. Morehead. A circular attacking Morehead, claiming he had sought and secured a safe home for soldiers including his son to lodge, had been widely distributed. Mr. Morehead came out to the Falls City papers charging E.O. Lewis, a prominent Republican, with circulating the information. He said it was false in every par-ticular, and in turn, he attacked Lewis in savage fashion.

Peace declared

On November 12, 1918, The Falls City Journal reported on the armistice. 

“The Terms of the armistice with Germany were read this afternoon as 1:00 (November 11). Assembled in the hall of the house, where 19 months ago, senators and representatives heard the president ask for the declaration of war, they today heard him speak the words which proclaim the coming of peace.”

World War I ended with an armistice, an agreement in which both sides agreed to stop fighting instead of surrender. Although the armistice ended the fighting on the Western Front, it had to be prolonged three times until the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed June 28, 1919, and took effect on January 10, 1920. 

Falls City in the Dark and sometimes without water

Throughout 1918 reports from local and out of state papers discussed the lack of power and water in Falls City. On June 2, 1918, the Brown County World reported that Falls City water and light plant was out of commission and a water wagon was being brought in to supply the residents with drinking water. The Falls City mayor wasn’t sure when repairs would be made. 

That August, the Falls City Journal told the story of one local woman’s walk home in the dark. 

“The air raiders of Germany would have a time locating Falls City in utter darkness. One woman has lived in Falls City over twenty-years, in going to her suburban home, got lost in the darkness, and wandered two blocks away from her home a few nights ago. She said the darkness also brought to light the awful conditions of the sidewalks they passed on their way home.”

On December 8, 1918, The Nebraska Journal reported a significant accident at the Falls City power plant. 

“The big engine at the city electric light plant blew out the cylinder head Friday night about 9 o’clock, leaving the city in darkness. The mayor estimates that it will require four to ten days to complete the repairs, during which time gas engines will have to be used to drive machinery in the different manufacturing shops that were dependent on the city current. The smaller engine used to pump water is in good working order and will be able to keep on hand a supply of water. The new electric light plant is being installed, but there is little prospect that it will be connected up and in running order before January 1, 1919. 

On December 16, 1918, an accident occurred at the new city light plant resulting in disaster. A number of workers were moving a piece of machinery onto a platform to be let down into a pit about 12 feet deep to be put in position. When the pully broke, the part fell onto the platform causing the staging to break and let everything, including five men, fall 12 feet onto a cement floor. Al Lovelady was badly hurt, sustaining fatal internal injuries. The parts being moved weighed from 150 to 500 pounds. The accident appeared to have deferred the date for the opening of the plant. 

Weeks later, The Falls City Journal printed a letter from Falls City Mayor W.S. Leyda, on December 20, 1918, asking Falls City citizens to conserve power out of the consideration to the merchants. Lights in the town were not to be turned on until 6:00 p.m. each weekday and 10:00 p.m on Saturday. 

“I ask the people of Falls City to comply with this request as the plant cannot supply lights for the residences and the business houses. This is the holiday season for merchants, and as the merchants have been somewhat handicapped during the holiday business, we feel assured that the citizens will be willing to let them have light until after the holidays. Please comply with the above request to the letter. If you do not, the lights will be turned off.”  

There was no relief in sight as the new year approached. Everything needed for repairs for the light plant engine had not arrived, and Mayor Leyda stated that his telegram urging shipment at once had not been answered. Noth-ing was known at the time as to when. The Falls City Journal wrote, “This is a fine predicament for a town of 5,000 people. The date for the opening of the new plant is also deferred. It may be Easter before that feast can be spread celebrating the city’s deliverance from the slough of despond.”

Jails full thanks to bootleggers

At the end of 1918, Falls City newspapers reported on bootleggers being picked up. It was reported that the first year of statewide prohibition was proven satisfactory to the business interests of the towns and County. There was no loss of trade due to the closing of saloons, and more had been paid for groceries by families who were troubled by the presence of saloons. However, men were often placed in the city and county jail for bootlegging, causing cells to be full. Sheriff Ratekin said, “This is a condition that has not existed in a long time.”

Falls City would soon be experiencing what the rest of the world has been dealing with for nearly ten months, the “Spanish Flu.” This “Flu” was something that would be talked about for generations to come. In early October 1918, Nebraska reported its first flu cases and deaths. 

World War I killed 15-19 million people, including civilians and the military. The “flu” killed between 50 and 100 million people. 

Next week we’ll take a look at how Falls City acted and sometimes reacted as the “flu” made it’s way to Richardson County. 

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