Neighbors helping neighbors during 1918 pandemic
Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times
We can’t help but compare the Carter County of 1918 to the Carter County of 2020 when we come across articles about the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic. Both illnesses made a huge impact on the county. Both impacted old and young, wealthy and poor. Both led to lost work and – in the most unfortunate of cases – death. But maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to compare. Medical science has advanced a great deal over the last 100 years and while each death from COVID has rocked the families and the community, those medical advances have no doubt helped keep the death toll much lower than it would have been had this coronavirus struck a century ago.
While infection rates with COVID do continue to grow, shutting down schools and leading folks to work from home, the infection rate for the Spanish flu could have been as high as 75 percent. In the November 7, 1918 edition of the Carter County Herald, the editor estimated that as many as 3,000 of Olive Hill’s population of 4,000 contracted the disease. Some of those died so quickly, and in such high numbers, that they were buried before official death certificates could be issued and burial records could be recorded.
This appears to be what happened to the great grandfather of one Portsmouth, Ohio man with Carter County roots. A couple of years back he reached out to me for help locating his great grandfather. He began looking for his grave in 2018, on the centennial of his death, but has so far had no luck. What he knows for fact is that his maternal great grandfather, John Harvey Jarvis, died of the flu while working at the brickyard in Hitchins. His body was put on a train and brought back to the Soldier or Olive Hill area for burial, but he isn’t sure which cemetery he was buried in. At least one set of records has him buried in a Mauk cemetery, and maybe across the Elliott County line in a Mauk-Leadingham Cemetery, but so far efforts to locate the grave have been unsuccessful.
He wasn’t the only one to die alone and away from family. In the November 7, 1918 article, “Influenza Epidemic Only History,” the Herald recorded the story of a young man, Harve Hilterbrand, boarding with another family who took ill just as they were leaving to visit relatives. He was brought to the home by others after falling ill and was heard moaning the next day by a passing physician, who broke down the door to attend to him. He left him in stable condition after undressing him and helping him back into bed. But the next day Hilterbrand was found dead, in the floor, with the cats licking his face.
His death was one of several that led to the conversion of the Christian Church into a hospital and ultimately shut down the brick yards, which stayed closed for the duration of the pandemic due to lack of available workers and fear of spreading the illness. Doctors and nurses there and at the Industrial School building, which also served as a temporary hospital, were praised for caring for the “sick and distressed… in an amicable way.”
It wasn’t just nurses and doctors who stepped up though. In the same week that the editor had to apologize for not putting a paper out the previous week due to his own illness, the Herald carried a story of “noble, Christian hearted John Knipp, of Barrett’s Creek.” Knipp, knowing that folks were out of work and too sick to shop, brought all the milk he could carry into town and distributed it to the hungry, ill, and out of work, refusing to take “one cent for his work or the milk either.”
The editor asked in that October 24 issue – just a few short weeks before the numbers were estimated to rise from 2,500 sick to 3,000 – if everyone else in the community was prepared to do their duty as Knipp had to make sure those stricken by influenza didn’t die of something as avoidable as starvation.
In the following week, November 14, the paper would run a list of those who fell victim to the flu during the previous month. The long list, which includes entries like, “Mr. and Mrs. Halsey Henderson’s child,” is a sobering reminder of just how deadly that pandemic was – and how deadly the COVID-19 crisis could have been without the preceding 100 years of medical advancement and knowledge.
These stories are also a strong reminder of how important it is to take care of your community, whether that means checking in on the ill to make sure they have enough to eat and access to medicine and care, or just doing your part and wearing a mask to help curb the continued spread of the virus.
Take care. Enjoy your holidays. And take a cue from Mr. Knipp and check on your neighbors in need this holiday season. We promise it will be as big a blessing for you as it is for them.
Editor’s Note: This is the 22nd in a series of articles drawn from the historical newspaper clippings and documents in the scrapbooks of Jack Fultz. We thank Sally James of Sally’s Flowers in Olive Hill for sharing her uncle’s collected clippings with us and the community. – Jeremy D. Wells, editor, Carter County Times