The North Bend Eagle


“Never in the history of North Bend has the community been called upon to suffer the death loss that has occurred during the past week.”
- North Bend Eagle, Oct. 17, 1918

Flu masks in Shelby
A group of men pose with their flu masks in front of a furniture and undertaking store in Shelby 100 years ago. The epidemic claimed at least 23 North Bend-area lives in a four-month period. Photo courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society.

Deadly epidemic besieged area a century ago

by Nathan Arneal
Published 1/23/19

One hundred years ago, the United States, the world and North Bend, Nebraska, was taking a deep breath as it was released from the grip of a deadly scourge that affected millions.

Not World War I. Yes, troops were in the process of being discharged and returning to civilian life after the Great War came to a close on Nov. 11, 1918. But another affliction lapped at the doorsteps of the home front, bringing society to a screeching halt.

Spanish flu ad
This ad ran in the Eagle in late 1918 and early 1919, as the Spanish flu brought society to a screeching halt.

The Spanish Flu epidemic infected one third of the world’s population, according the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, killing at least 50 million people worldwide.

The Eagle is taking a look back at the epidemic and how it affected life locally. Unless otherwise noted, all quoted material is drawn from contemporary North Bend Eagle coverage as the events unfolded in 1918 and early 1919.

On March 21, 1918, Alexander Thom, a Scottish immigrant and strong supporter of prohibition, ran an ad in the North Bend Eagle in support of his candidacy for mayor after being nominated by the Law and Order Party.

It would be his second stint as North Bend’s mayor, after having led the city government a decade earlier. Thom’s ad highlighted the financial success the city enjoyed under his leadership in 1908.

Bad weather was blamed for a low turnout in the April 2 election, but Thom still carried the day, defeating the Citizen Party candidate, J.M. Eason, 121-78.

Little did he know, Thom’s responsibilities as mayor would take a back seat in the coming year to a role that came along with the position: chairman of the local board of health.

While Thom was taking the oath of office in North Bend, unusual influenza activity was noted in several military camps and cities on the East Coast. The illness was relatively limited and mild. This spring 1918 outbreak would become known as the “first wave.”

The origins of the Spanish flu did not really spring from Spain. As the influenza strain spread throughout the world – a process sped up by the tight quarters and massive movements of troops during the war – most countries didn’t publicize the severity of the sickness within their borders, fearing it would hurt public morale and give enemies confidence.

Spain, however, was neutral in World War I, so it had no such concerns in reporting the effect influenza was having on its country, so the disease first emerged on the public’s consciousness as the “Spanish flu.” The name stuck.

The national news briefs on Page 2 of the Sept. 19, 1918, North Bend Eagle gave the first hints of the impending danger:

“One thousand cases of influenza were reported at Camp Devens near Ayer, Mass., by the division surgeon.”

“Outbreaks of the Spanish influenza have occurred at several eastern and southern cities, according to an an­nouncement by Surgeon General Blue.”

The Second Wave was beginning.

The Sept. 26 Eagle reported that influenza outbreaks struck nine army camps throughout the country. Great Lakes Naval Training Station near Chicago saw 4,500 of the 50,000 sailors stationed there infected. No more leaves would be granted, essentially putting the base under quarantine to try to halt the flu’s spread.

Buried at the end of the Local section on Page 5 was this note: “Local physicians are of the opinion that the Spanish influenza has struck North Bend. A number of cases have been reported– and some quite severe ones.”

Flu clip

The outbreak in North Bend made regional news, as demonstrated from this clip in the Oct. 19, 1918, Lincoln Evening State Journal.

Attendance in North Bend schools took a hit as infected children were kept at home.

The influenza is highly contagious, warned the Sept. 26 Eagle, and anyone feeling a “cold in the head... can serve themselves and the community best by segregating themselves as completely as possible until they have recovered.”

The disease kept spreading. Miss Clara Wittmer, North Bend’s eighth grade teacher, fell sick and went to stay with her parents in Lincoln to recuperate. Mary Chapman and her stepmother Kate Farrell left to visit Mary’s son John Chapman at Camp Funston, an army training center now part of Fort Riley, Kansas, and according to one theory, the place where the Spanish flu epidemic originated. By the time the ladies reached Omaha, word was received that the camp was under flu quarantine, so they returned to North Bend.

Three telephone operators fell sick, necessitating subs to be brought down from the Scribner telephone office. Treating the flu got a little more difficult when pharmacist Walter LaViolette fell ill and had to close his store for a couple of weeks.

Dr. John Hubenbecker of Morse Bluff and Dr. Dewia Hegwer of North Bend fell seriously ill after being exposed to the disease while treating patients.

Meet the 23 North Bend-area people who died from the Spanish flu

Then the deaths started.

The Spanish flu invaded a farmhouse a mile east of North Bend, striking all four members of the Scott family. Clarence Scott became North Bend’s first flu fatality. After only a few days’ sickness, he died Friday, Oct. 4, 1918, at the age of 30, leaving behind his wife Josephine and two children who were all critically ill themselves.

The following days brought four more deaths. William Winkelman, age 16, and Derrell Vawter, 8, both died on Sunday. Irma Tapster passed away Wednesday, bringing the week’s toll to four.

It was time to take drastic measures.

Mayor Thom called a meeting of the city board of health, which included himself as chairman, councilman Charles K. Watson, Chief of Police D.G. Lehmer and Dr. A.E. Hoff.

On Saturday, Oct. 5, the day after Clarence Scott died, the health board posted notices that as of 10 p.m. that day, all schools, churches, pool halls, saloons and picture shows were closed until further notice, and all public gatherings were banned. Stores were not closed, but the board warned that “all should transact their business as quickly as possible and leave the store.”

North Bend wasn’t alone in taking substantial measures to prevent the spread of the lethal disease. U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue recommended “schools and places of amuse­ments be closed and public meetings discontinued.” Omaha banned all public gatherings, including church and school. The government balloon school in Omaha was placed under quarantine. Fremont was dealing with a shortage of nurses, losing them not only to illness, but to Red Cross efforts to fight influenza.

The National Association of Mo­tion Picture Industries suspended all movie releases.

In New York, sneez­ing in public without covering the mouth was made a misdemeanor, punishable with a fine of $500 or one year in prison or both.
North Bend was hit as hard as any town in Nebraska. On Oct. 10 the statewide news reported that “the disease appears to become an epidemic in some localities,” and listed North Bend and Geneva as two towns where the deaths were mounting.

Things would get worse before they got better, as the Spanish flu was just hitting its stride.

“Never in the history of North Bend has the community been called upon to suffer the death loss that has occurred during the past week,” declared the Oct. 17 Eagle, as the deaths of four more flu victims were solemnly reported. Among that total were a mother and her daughter who died hours apart.
North Bend’s death toll stood at eight victims in 11 days.

With several illnesses among its staff, the North Bend Eagle had to scrounge for enough help to put the paper out and apologized for the scarcity of news in the Oct. 17 issue.

“We believe it is a conservative estimate when we say that at least 50 percent of the families of North Bend and vicinity have been or are at present afflicted with the influenza,” the Eagle wrote. “In some cases as many as six or seven (are) ill in one household. There has been but little traveling, no visiting and consequently there has been nothing doing.”

The day after the Eagle proclaimed the North Bend community had never been hit so hard by death, four local citizens died on Friday, Oct. 18.

While the flu typically preys on the young and elderly, the Spanish flu was claiming healthy victims in the prime of their lives. Of the eventual 23 local flu fatalities, 17 of them were between the ages of 16 and 46.

Chairman Thom and the North Bend Board of Health reminded people that with the ban on public gatherings, funerals should be as private as possible and confined to relatives only.

On Oct. 23, all troop movements of recently drafted Nebraskans was called to a halt and troops were put under quarantine. That same day, the state board of health followed many local boards and issued an order to close all theaters, schools, churches and public gatherings indoors and out until at least Nov. 2.
The death of Eagle employee Clifford Corn on Oct. 20 made it 14 deaths in a span of 16 days.

While the worst had passed, the Third Wave still loomed on the horizon.

Read Part 2>>


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