100 Years Ago: The Spanish Flu

As we flounder our way through this coronavirus outbreak, we might recall some stories told and recorded of the Spanish Flu that became an international pandemic 100 years ago. Many families in our communities struggled through the illness and many did not survive. What did they have to fight it with? Rest, Quinine (not to be taken with heart conditions), doctors (miles away by horse and buggy), disinfecting (boiling water on a cookstove), neighbours (those not afraid of getting sick) and isolation (sleeping in the barn if healthy).

History tells us the “flu” came to Canada with our returning troops who travelled the country from east to west with no quarantine or coordinated health measures in place. Eventually in local communities, public gatherings were prohibited, protective masks were required in public places and the sick were isolated in futile attempts to stop the transmission. It is estimated 50,000 Canadians died from the Spanish Flu during several waves of the disease striking between 1918-1920 primarily attacking young, healthy individuals.

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One local Pierson family was struck especially hard by the flu. Innes and Margaret Melvin’s family (Barbara, Innes, Robert, Isabel, Andy, Annie, Katie, Robina and Elsie) were typical pioneers of the Pierson/Eunola district. In the “Melvin-McRae Story”, a book of family memories penned by Isabel (Bella) (Melvin) Reekie she tells of the ordinary prairie life they enjoyed with visits from neighbours, school and church, music, Christmas surprises, long summer evenings and, of course, working the land and gathering crocus and pussy willows. They endured their share of hard times also including the death of son Innes in 1916 while serving overseas. Robert (Bob) had returned from his military service in the fall of 1919 and Bella writes of the wonderful Christmas they had all together but for Barbara and her family who lived a good distance away.

It was during the first week of March, 1920, that Bella (teaching and boarding at Lyleton at the time) received word that the family at home had the dreaded flu. She writes, “Saturday, March 6 (I think) I got the liveryman in Lyleton to drive me to Pierson. The roads were heavy - there was a lot of snow that winter. There was a sleigh and team waiting for me in Pierson. Andy was the first to go to bed, then Katie, Annie and Robina. Then father, mother and Elsie took it. They took all the precautions they could; got Nurse Dandy at once. Dr. Fife from Gainsborough prescribed. But pneumonia, one of the worst types, developed in one after another.” To add to the difficulties, one of the worst blizzards on record hit hard that week. Several nurses, neighbours and relatives attended when able offering what care they could. However, the father (Innes 54 years), mother (Maggie 48 years) and three daughters (Katie (14 years), Annie (19 years), Robina (13 years)) were lost within 8 days - a full numerical half of a large family gone in such a short time. An immense load for the remaining young people to shoulder! Bella writes in her book, “It had been a terrible week, a week of deaths and of coffins coming and going. The first coffins that came were passed in at the upstairs window, above the back kitchen. When they brought Mother’s coffin they passed it in at the front room window. The men didn’t come into the house at all. They had cloths tied around their mouths and nostrils, so fearful were they of getting the flu. A week so terrible, we hadn’t even been able to grieve. A nightmare. A bad dream. It couldn’t be true. It couldn’t have happened to us”.

Bob, Andy, Barbara, Elsie and Bella survived. In time, they resumed an active part in the community, which centered mostly around Eunola School. Marriages, homesteading, teaching, and careers followed taking each on their life’s journey.

As we deal with this new virus, the Melvin family’s tragic story should serve to remind us of the strength and resiliency of the generation of 100 years ago. And of how very fortunate we are to have the many resources available for our health and care - hospitals, doctors, good transportation, washers and dryers!, medicine, financial assistance, supplies delivered to our homes, Netflix, education/communication over the Internet… Social distancing, yes; but we are not alone.

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