By: Michele (Mikie) Murray Emmett
My grandmother, Francis Schwab Murray, married in 1915 and she and my grandfather, Riley Murray lived in Cameron County their entire lives. In 1976, at age 80, when Gramma was ill and dying, I asked her if she was afraid. She told me she was not afraid then, but she told me a few stories of times when she was truly afraid. One of those times was during the Pandemic of 1918.
She and Grampa lived on East Sixth Street Extension; their front window looked out on to Candy Lane, better known later as “the monkey steps,” (when steps were added to the steep narrow lane). She was the mother of two year old, Riley Jr. and my father, Byron an infant in August of 1918. The pandemic was brewing a surge that Fall that would reach Cameron County. The pandemic had begun in the winter but had not reached rural Pennsylvania until late summer. They had news of faraway places like Philadelphia and they knew that many had died in that city. Apparently, some cities and rural areas alike did not quarantine or mask or social distance and the virus over-ran those places.
Rural Pennsylvania had lived through other epidemics like typhus, smallpox and tuberculosis. The only thing they had available to them was quarantine and disinfectant. Probably, it was the Health Department of the day in Cameron County, that ordered people to stay home. They went so far as to order black draping over doors of the vulnerable. Having an infant at home was considered vulnerable. Gramma, her two small children, and Grampa were under quarantine. They had been under quarantine before for typhus, but this quarantine would last 3 months. No telephones, or TV. No radios and certainly no Facetime or Facebook. Several family members lived within walking distance. They communicated through letters and postcards, even with local friends and family. I cannot remember any discussion of the relatives being in a socializing “bubble.” They quarantined alone. They did, of course, have newspapers and the benefit of hearing Grampa’s news from the factory.
Grampa worked at one of the dynamite factories in town and he was considered an “essential worker.” Gramma told me that two men came each day in a wagon to pick up and then return my Grampa after his shift, ensuring he went nowhere else. We were in a World War and local boys enlisted and died. Most, if not all, of the dynamite used for U.S. wars came from Cameron County. Groceries were delivered to all houses then customarily. No cars and no pizza delivery people in 1918. Shop local, buy local, was good then and is good now!
Gramma’s most sobering way of finding out about the toll of the pandemic was watching out her front window on to Candy Lane. Andy Gaulmiller, a local carpenter and small farmer, lived above them on the hill, where Sonny and Virginia Schwab resided in the 1960’s – 80’s. Mr. Gaulmiller was employed to make caskets. The caskets had to be hand carried down the street that was too steep for wagons. Gramma would count the number of caskets going down Candy Lane to the churches on Main Street. It was this visual image of my grandmother looking out her window watching caskets go downtown, that still sticks with me all these years later.
In 1918, the pandemic hit Cameron County later than populated areas. Scientists would not discover viruses for several more years. They had no idea what was killing them or what to do about it. They only knew quarantine. The assumption held it was in the air, so Gramma was not supposed to be outside at all. She admitted she would sneak to her side yard because she believed babies needed sunshine. Of course they did. Other than those stolen moments, she was inside for three months. The 1918 flu pandemic killed brazenly with nothing to stop it. Young healthy men of military age were dying in high numbers, probably from close quarters in barracks, training for war. Some of those men unknowingly took the virus with them to Europe in the fight against the Germans. It was called the Spanish Flu because Spain was the first country to acknowledge the devastating effects and spoke of it publicly.
In the U.S., President Woodrow Wilson never spoke publicly about the pandemic. He simply ignored it, choosing instead to focus on the war effort. I think about how in 2020, the president called the pandemic a “hoax” and “fake news” and “no big thing,” but eventually pushed forward a vaccine development named “Warp Speed” to address the CoVid 19 pandemic. 1918 had its “deniers” too as evidenced by those who refused to follow quarantine. By most estimates, approximately 600,000 Americans died in 1918, most between September and December of that year. In 2020, despite the slow start in addressing the virus, as well as the earnest effort now, we may come close to that dreadful 600,000 death mark again.
Little seems to have been written about the Pandemic in 1918. Maybe this was due to our national leader ignoring it. I look for articles about it in the “100 Years Ago” column in the Cameron County Echo and see none. I am not sure I would know anything about it had I not asked Gramma about fearing death in her old age. It may well have been just one of many hardships they faced.
I wonder often what my parents and grandparents would think of how we are dealing with the CoVid 19 pandemic. I have followed the Cameron County Echo and watched with pride that the local officials are putting our governor’s mandates in place. Cameron County’s officials are following the rules, just like they did in 1918. Where I live, the town officials declared publicly and early on they would not enforce any state-wide mandates. As a result, there are more COVID-19 cases as a percent of population here in south-central PA, than there are in NYC.
When you look at the Pandemics of 1918 and 2020 side by side, we have so many resources available to us that in 1918 could not even be imagined. Gramma told me, “It was hard, and we were afraid, but we made the best of it.” She put it that simply, and I remembered exactly how she said it. Those two generations, my grandparents and parents, faced World Wars and conflicts, The Great Depression, tuberculosis, measles, scarlet fever, smallpox and the polio epidemic in the late 40’s to early 50’s (that afflicted my sister Rita at the age of 15 months). Those generations were hampered by lack of scientific evidence and no medical remedies for the many diseases they faced. They did what they knew to do and really, all that they could do. They followed advice and quarantined. Had they not, perhaps I would not be here. I am proud to know of their sacrifices and their common sense. Even tucked away in Cameron County they did their part to keep a killer at bay. Like my grandparents in 1918, our family quarantined in 2020. I have received both doses of a vaccine and I hope to tell my grandchildren about the pandemics of 1918 and 2020 in hopes that the next generation will learn the lessons more fully. I hope to say with pride, “Yes. It truly was hard, and we did our best.”