Personal Tales of the 1918 Flu Epidemic – Lives Lost, Lives Altered
On January 6, 1919, four-year-old Ralph E. Waldo, Jr. remembered running up and down the aisle in a “theater,” but most likely it was a mortuary. At the end of the aisle Ralph stopped numerous times to peer into the casket holding the remains of his mother, Alfa Frances Warton Waldo, and his stillborn baby brother. Alfa, 31, succumbed to the flu on January 3rd. A notice in the January 6th Montrose Press provided by undertaker C. L. Hawley, stated that her remains were lying in state at the funeral home and friends were invited to a viewing that evening. The following afternoon, her private burial was held at the Cedar Cemetery. Years later, Ralph would tell this story to his son, Rob. The impact of the 1918 influenza epidemic lingers in the annals of Waldo family history.
Two weeks prior to her death, Alfa, her husband, Ralph, Sr. and son, Ralph, Jr. were critically ill with the flu, then pneumonia. Unlike Alfa, Mr. Waldo and Ralph, Jr. slowly recovered. Alfa was an accomplished and respected citizen of Montrose, and three months after her death, the March 28, 1919 Montrose Press, noted that, “When Mrs. Alpha [Alfa] Frances Warton Waldo passed away, Jan. 3, 1919, there was no opportunity to give expression thru a public gathering, of the high esteem in which this lady was held by the people of Montrose, owing to the presence of the influenza epidemic, which was the means of her taking and without song and without funeral discourse, she had to be laid away in the earth.” The “proper service,” however, was held at the Masonic Lodge, arranged by the young women of Alfa’s Sunday school class and the Women’s Union of the Congregational Church. Three speakers eulogized her character and qualities as a Christian, a citizen, and as a wife and mother.
Alfa’s death altered the course of the Waldo’s lives. Ralph Sr.’s sister, Margaret, left her parents’ home in Purcell (Weld County) to care for her brother and her nephew for three years until Ralph remarried in 1922. Ralph and his second wife, Florence DeMotte, had three children, John and Helen (born in Montrose) and Mary Beth (born in Greeley). On his 12th birthday, September 29, 1926, Ralph Jr. vividly remembered arriving at Purcell, where the Waldo’s would now make their home. What prompted Ralph Sr. to leave his law practice and position as Deputy District Attorney for Montrose County and come to Weld County?
In 1909 -1910, Daniel. A. Camfield’s Greeley-Poudre Irrigation District project was widely promoted with its promise of bringing water from the Laramie River through a tunnel and into a vast network of canals and reservoirs to irrigate 110,000 acres of dryland north and east of Greeley. The Union Pacific Railroad established the Pleasant Valley branch line with its terminus at Purcell, to serve those who would be a part of the “boom” in this area. In 1911, Ralph’s father, Hubert Devotion Waldo (1863 – 1950), left Denver and became one of Purcell’s first settlers. There he operated a general store, served as Postmaster, and helped build the school. In 1926, Hubert decided to retire and moved to Long Beach, CA with his wife, Agnes, and daughter, Margaret, who remained single and would live with and care for her parents until their deaths. Hubert persuaded his son, Ralph Sr., to leave Montrose and manage the store in Purcell. Ralph and his family lived at Purcell until 1938, when they moved to Boulder. Ralph Jr. received his L.L.M. degree from University of Colorado-Boulder in 1938 and came to Greeley and opened his law practice. In 1942, he invited his father to come to Greeley and run the practice as he had enlisted in the Navy. Near the end of World War II, Ralph Jr. married Nancy Krebs, a young teacher from Sacramento. After a brief assignment in Washington, D.C., the couple returned to Greeley and Ralph resumed his law practice, continuing in partnership with his father, and later, his son, Rob.
In Greeley, the 1918 flu epidemic drastically altered the life of 15-year old John Allnutt from October to December. John’s father, Fred Allnutt, had married the daughter of Captain Thomas G. Macy who established his funeral business in Greeley in 1886. Fred became a partner with his father-in-law in the family business. In October, John’s father woke him at 2:00 a.m. to drive to the drylands of Weld County to pick up the body of a man who had died. Fred had mounted a horse-drawn ambulance onto a Buick chasis for a hearse. Without a heater, John vividly remembered this was the first of many uncomfortable trips, often in freezing conditions over unpaved roads to retrieve the bodies of flu victims. The body of the deceased was placed in a large wicker carrying basket lined with a rubber sheet. A wicker lid covered the basket. The body was transported to the mortuary located at 922 8th Avenue.
People were unprepared and didn’t know what caused the flu, or how to avoid, prevent, or treat it. Doctors and pharmacists had their own remedies, and camphorated oil was commonly used, and “Nearly everyone who died had a flannel pad saturated with camphorated oil on his chest,” according to John. Local pharmacists would make this concoction by heating up oil and melting a block of camphor in it, and bottling the “remedy” which would sell out the next day. John recalled that “there was hardly a family that didn’t lose one or more,” and felt fortunate that his family remained healthy. His mother’s remedy for the flu was a “little bulb-type DeVilbiss atomizer, which she had filled with some substance called Pineoleum, and two or three times a day we were all supposed to spray our throats with the Pineoleum. And I doubt if the thing was ever sanitized at all, everybody stuck the thing in their throats and sprayed awhile, and it tasted like the devil, but anyway, we all got through without ever having any sickness at all.” However, John stated his father was very concerned during the flu epidemic because his mother was pregnant with his sister, Barbara. According to John, “almost without exception every pregnant woman, who got the flu had a miscarriage and…I can remember, so many times, putting a baby in a casket with her mother, and it was almost invariably fatal to the mother.”
John said during the epidemic, he did things that no 15-year old should have been asked to do, but he was strong, and he could drive. He said, “I can remember during the height of the thing when we had a hundred and more deaths a month, during October, November, and December, that we’d sometimes schedule a service every thirty minutes. I’d drive and take Dad [Fred Allnutt] and the minister to the cemetery, and I suppose one or two cars; there were no services in public, no churches even, no church services, and we’d go to the cemetery [Linn Grove] and as soon as the casket was taken out of the hearse I would drive back…to the mortuary on Eighth Avenue.” Back at the mortuary, the next casket would be placed in the hearse, driven by John, with a minister in the passenger seat. Family members would follow in their vehicles where Fred Allnutt and Cemetery Superintendent, Mr. Phoenix, were waiting at the location of the next grave. Ministers and the remains of flu victims would be shuttled between the mortuary and the cemetery “every 30 minutes from maybe 1:30 until 3:30 or 4:00.” The Allnutt family and their employees often worked fifteen or more hours a day during the flu epidemic. John said, “If I remember correctly the number of services we had in 1918 was about 460. Likely about 350 of those were from the last week in September through December. It tapered down and while there were a number of deaths from the flu in January the worst had passed and school opened again.”
On one occasion, John recalled there were 25 bodies in the mortuary. Caskets would arrive in pine boxes by train from a company in Denver, and demand could outpace supply, as there were over 8,000 influenza deaths in Colorado. The pine containers the caskets were shipped in were taken to Linn Grove Cemetery and used as grave liners. Many were terrified of the flu and gauze masks were worn when people were in town on business or shopping. Fear meant that it was difficult to find pallbearers. When extra help was required, an 18-year old who worked at an auto equipment shop across the street from the mortuary volunteered to help 15-year old John pick up the bodies of flu victims. Every member of the Macy and Allnutt families, including 83-year old Thomas Macy, had to help with all duties at the mortuary during this intense and stressful time.
I am grateful to Bill Allnutt for providing me with a copy of a paper, “Spanish Influenza: A Personal History,” prepared by his sister, Marjorie Allnutt Brunner for a college history class in 1972. Marjorie had interviewed their father, John, about the 1918 flu epidemic in Greeley. Perspectives from the past invite comparisons, reflections and insights into the present. . . and the future. We mourn and remember millions of lives were lost. The lives of survivors were altered. By their nature, pandemics, past and present strike unexpectedly and instantaneously alter our lives, institutions, and economy like a “bomb cyclone.”
A Greeley friend, Pete Morrell, former Greeley City Manager, is fond of saying, “The shortest pencil is better than the longest memory.” I take that message to heart. Reading Ms. Brunner’s paper and the transcript of the interview with her father, moved me deeply. Perhaps unknowingly, Ms. Brunner’s chat with her father (and mother) preserved an important aspect of family and community history. Artifacts, photographs, and documents related to the Macy and Allnutt families are preserved at the Greeley History Museum, including the wicker carrying basket aforementioned.
What blessings and what lessons will come from the year 2020 and COVID-19? What artifacts, photographs, documents and stories will be preserved in the museum for the benefit of future generations? Everyone’s history is special and insightful. Take some time to reflect and record your thoughts and experiences, because sometime in the near or distant future, a relative or stranger will ask about this extraordinary time in your life.
Peggy A. Ford Waldo, Development Curator
April 27 (AT HOME), 2020