The Fair of 1918

At 7:00 on Tuesday evening, October 1, 1918, the annual Kosciusko County fair officially opened in Warsaw, Indiana.  Though some of the tents and exhibits were not yet set up, there were enough attractions to keep most of the visitors entertained well into the night.  Games, concessions, and other amusements abounded.  The children of the county tore into the arcade with a vengeance, taking great pleasure from even the simplest games of skill and chance, and the crudest exhibitions of curiosities and horror.  On that night, as hundreds of good city and country folk mingled and talked and laughed in their modest search for diversion, the Great War in Europe continued its relentless obliteration of human lives and its violent, noisy devastation of the French countryside.  And just a few miles from Warsaw, a silent killer worked its way toward the homes of the fairgoers.  Spanish influenza, one of the deadliest forms of virus yet to be seen on Earth, approached the heart of Kosciusko County.

Though Warsaw itself had thus far seen no cases of influenza, serious outbreaks had been reported as nearby as Bourbon in neighboring Marshall County and in Claypool, just eight miles south of Warsaw.  Fair promoters, along with city and county officials, worried that some of the thousands of visitors to the fair might be carrying the virus.  Despite the fears, no official warnings were issued and no unusual precautions were taken.  Hopefully, the fair could continue on without serious incident or illness, providing much needed entertainment for the citizens and a long-awaited economic boost to the Warsaw business community.

Weather, as the merchants well knew, played an important part in the success of any fair.  That first week of October was ideal for outdoor festivities.  Mild, dry weather prevailed, and by Saturday, the biggest day of the fair, the temperatures would climb to seventy-five degrees.  A record attendance was expected.

Fine livestock, delicious homemade baked goods, and countless crafts and wares provoked hours of discussion, comparison, and probably even an occasional argument, but the major topics of conversation concerned the Great War and the nationwide flu epidemic.  On Thursday, the public was informed of the deaths on Wednesday of two county soldiers, Russell Huff and Ancil Geiger.  Inducted together on August 28, they died within hours of each other at Camp Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan.  They were brought down not by enemy bullets but by pneumonia, a common and sometimes fatal complication of the flu.

Willing to help friendly nations overseas defeat a vicious and stubborn enemy, Hull and Geiger, at the peak of their conditioning and young manhood, were killed by a mindless, minuscule foe that was neither vicious nor on foreign soil.  Nature’s warfare could be just as lethal as that waged by mankind, and can be even more insidious.  If the flu could take two strong, otherwise healthy young men, it was capable of taking anyone at any time.  Perhaps, some thought, it was time to take a closer look at the disease and to suggest a few precautions.

Dr. A. C. McDonald, a Warsaw physician, visited Bourbon on Friday to evaluate the epidemic there.  He returned later that day and gave an account of his observations to the Warsaw Daily Times on Saturday, October 5.  He described the symptoms of the disease and the severity of its effect on its victims.  He warned that “the disease is very contagious and usually when one member of a family contracts it all other members become victims.  There is no law providing for quarantine, but it is very imperative that persons suffering from influenza remain in doors and away from others.”  Dr. McDonald understood the importance of even the simplest forms of hygiene, and hinted that some kind of official action might be in order.

On the same day, and in the same newspaper, a list of precautionary rules concerning the disease was published.  Prepared by Dr. William F. Lincoln of the American Red Cross, eight items were listed.  Item number three, the shortest in length but the one carrying the greatest urgency, was simply “avoid crowds.”  The Kosciusko County fair, though providing an ideal transmission arena for a prolific virus, would continue on to its scheduled conclusion.  The public was being educated about the dangers of the disease and the best ways to avoid its transmission, but the education alone would not keep the disease from spreading.  Following the rules would.

After the closing ceremonies of the fair that weekend, Warsaw residents, perhaps with more time to think, became increasingly concerned about the progress of the epidemic in neighboring towns.  Newspaper reports of illnesses and deaths had multiplied.  On Sunday, October 6, the Indiana Board of Health issued an order closing all schools, churches, and theaters, and stopping all gatherings in public places.  In Syracuse the next morning fifteen of the eighty-two students at the high school were absent, most of them having symptoms of influenza according to the Syracuse and Lake Wawasee Journal of October 10.  In Warsaw, however, the disease had not appeared in any of the schools.  That fact probably accounts for the belated heeding of the state order, as it was not until Wednesday that Dr. J. D. Richer, secretary of the Warsaw Board of Health, issued his order closing the city’s public schools.  The fair had run its course before the prohibition of such gatherings and before the appearance of disease within the city.

With all the county’s schools now closed, and with increasing interest in efforts to stem the tide of the disease, the county’s residents were informed of a new, more comprehensive directive by the Indiana Board of Health on October 10.  In that order, six rules were listed:

  1. All public gatherings were prohibited.
  2. Spitting on sidewalks, walls, and floors of public buildings was banned.
  3. A face cover was required when sneezing or coughing.
  4. All forms of public transportation were required to keep ventilators and windows open when safe and the weather permitted.  Cleaning of streetcars and passenger trains was required after each trip.
  5. Physicians were to report each known case of influenza to the local health officer.
  6. Daily reports by city health officers were to be made to county health officers, who in turn were to report to the state.

According to a Dr. King, member of the state Board of Health and quoted in the Warsaw Daily Times on October 10,  ” . . . the action of the state board did not necessarily apply to poolrooms and like places.”  The Times went on to say that “local officials may interpret gatherings at poolrooms, bowling alleys, dry beer saloons and clubs, for instance, as public gatherings and may order them closed.  Any other preventive measure that the local officials may see fit to apply may be enforced.”  The exclusive meeting places of men were difficult to define strictly as public meeting places, probably because the general public was not admitted.  Like the fair, institutions related to adult recreation and profit were not easily closed, even for a few days.

The local officials’ option to apply any preventive measures they deemed necessary was taken to heart by Warsaw mayor Charles A. Rigdon.  On Thursday, October 10, he issued the following proclamation:

Anyone found burning leaves on the streets from this date on will be fined at once in accordance with city ordinance.  And, further, any automobile running with muffler open will be immediately fined in accordance to said ordinance governing same.  This is imperative owing to the prevalence of the Spanish influenza which is carried by the dust and smoke into the lungs of pedestrians.

The source of Mr. Rigdon’s theory about the smoke factor in the spreading of the virus is not known.  Whatever prompted him to issue this order, it was doubtless done in all sincerity as part of the effort to avoid in Warsaw what had become tragedy in other towns.  Readers of Mr. Ridgon’s statement, most of whom must have experienced some fear about the epidemic, probably took his warning to heart.  Any smoke, even if not originating in the streets, was considered a health threat.  If most of the town’s citizens conformed to the new regulation, the air in Warsaw would have been much cleaner and easier to breathe.  That alone would have been healthful, and those people who heeded the mayor’s ban on burning leaves would at least have believed that they were doing something to help avert the epidemic.

But on Sunday, October 13, their efforts were suddenly and dramatically undermined.  Warsaw’s residents, upon rising from their beds that morning, were greeted by a thick blanket of smoke covering the city.  Looking from their windows, they saw the haze in the air across the streets, through the trees, and overhead in the sky.  Powerless to do otherwise, they had no choice but to inhale the smoke from a hidden blaze.  Even if they had left the city and travelled to the farthest corner of the county, they could not have escaped it.  Neither Mayor Rigdon, nor the city’s police, nor any other law-abiding citizens could find the culprit behind such a blatant violation of the mayor’s ban.

All day the smoke drifted through, restricting visibility and making the sun appear as a blurred and muted caricature of itself.  An eerie, unearthly light was cast over everything.  Noses, throats, and eyes became irritated, and the citizens suffered not only the physical annoyance but also a deep sense of foreboding.  If smoke were capable of carrying influenza, this ubiquitous haze could have carried enough infection to wipe out all of Warsaw and the rest of Kosciusko County with it.  Sunday, October 13, was not a pleasant day for the mayor and his fellow citizens.  With the churches closed by official order, residents were required to draw strength from personal meditation and from the support of their immediate families.

Passing through the county on a northwesterly wind, the smoke was gone the following day.  By afternoon, with the arrival of the daily newspapers, the source of the huge smoke cloud was made known.  A report in the Warsaw Union of October 14 explained it:

There were many local people yesterday, who were asking where so much smoke came from.  Its presence, all-pervading, made itself known to the eye and the nose . . .

          All this was caused by the facts as disclosed in the follow Duluth dispatch.

          Duluth, Minn., Oct. 13 —  More than 500 persons are dead or missing and at least 12,000 have been made homeless by five fearful forest fires which have spread across northern Wisconsin and northern Minnesota during the last thirty-six hours.  The property loss runs into millions.

          Seventy-five bodies are in local morgues tonight.

          Cloquet, Brookston, Brevator, Corona, Adolph, Thompson, Arnold, Moose Lake, and Wright have been wiped out.

          Refugees declared this afternoon that charred bodies were seen in these towns as they were fleeing from the fire zone.  Scores of hamlets and hundreds of settlers’ homes have been destroyed.

          The property and timber loss will surpass that claimed by any of the historic fires which have swept this region.

The catastrophe in Minnesota became known as the Cloquet Fire, and still stands as the worst natural disaster in Minnesota history.

No one in Kosciusko County contracted influenza from that enormous cloud of smoke, nor did anyone else in the scores of other counties who witnessed the passing of it.  Many, though, must have realized that the smoke signaled an event of major proportions.  Such displays, awesome and unsettling, sometimes lead observers into new patterns of thought.  Mayor Rigdon, on the day when Warsaw was engulfed in the acrid residue of a conflagration five hundreds miles away, made one minor but profound decision.  It was explained in the Warsaw Daily Times of October 14.

Warsaw poolrooms and cigar stores operating domino tables have been included in the general closing order, due to the Spanish influenza epidemic.  The order was issued on Sunday by Mayor Rigdon, and went into effect immediately.  The time for remaining closed is not stated but it will likely be as long as the general closing order remains in effect.

Some residents of Warsaw died in the epidemic, though the county’s largest town was spared from a heavy outbreak of the virus.  By November 12, the state’s emergency restrictions were lifted, allowing the good gentlemen of Warsaw to play pool and dominoes again, and all the citizens of the state to once again spit on sidewalks, walls, and floors of public buildings.  Months later, the last case of Spanish influenza would be reported to the Indiana Board of Health.  Years later, the charred forests in Minnesota and Wisconsin would once again teem with foliage and wildlife.  Decades later, European nations would again be embroiled in a bitter war that would see the participation of a reluctant but determined United States.  And through it all, county fairs continued on, spreading colds and influenza, as well as gossip and good will.

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