In the midst of our own pandemic experience, I was curious to look back and see how Eureka fared in 1918 when the Spanish Influenza struck our town. Using digitized issues of the Woodford County Journal [hereafter referred to as the Journal] and the Pantagraph, this blog pieces together what was reported for the Eureka community. You can access the historical archives of both newspapers for free through Newspapers.com on the library’s public computers when we are open. For a firsthand account, please see 1918 influenza survivor Anna McCloud’s story which was recently published in the Peoria Journal Star: https://www.pjstar.com/news/20200411/luciano-eureka-woman-already-survived-viral-pandemic---more-than-century-ago.
In 1918 we were in the midst of World War I. The Journal regularly featured overseas news, letters from soldiers, and reports on local war efforts such as gasless Sundays, reducing waste, and donating nut shells and fruit pits for the manufacture of carbon for gas mask respirators. There was regular mention of pneumonia as a cause of death throughout the winter of 1917 – 1918, but it does not seem to be connected to any widespread pandemic. There was a report in the February 7 edition of the Journal of the death of Eureka soldier Henry William Jennings at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Hospital of pneumonia on February 6. The Pantagraph noted the increase of pneumonia in the national army on March 29, 1918, and in July word spread of the influenza impacting the German army.
The influenza gained widespread public attention in the fall of 1918 as it spread through the United States’ military camps. On August 17, 1918, the Pantagraph first used the term “Spanish Influenza” and reported that the New York City Department of Health warned against kissing “except thru a handkerchief.” The Journal, a weekly paper printed every Thursday as it is today, mentioned a relative of a Eureka family ill with pneumonia at Camp Custer, Michigan, on August 22. Throughout September, the Pantagraph continued to report daily on the number of cases quickly growing throughout the nation at both military camps and in cities. Of particular interest was the status of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station north of Chicago and Camp Grant in Rockford as many area soldiers were stationed there. On September 23 the paper reported that the influenza appeared at Great Lakes on September 9, peaked around September 19, and was now decreasing. September was also reportedly the coldest September on record.
By late September and early October, the influenza was spreading rapidly through central Illinois. On October 1, the Pantagraph reported an outbreak in the town of Forrest in McLean County. At that time Forrest had 250 cases, three dead, and their schools and public places were closed. On October 5, Peoria reportedly had 22 cases. On October 7, Bloomington had 47 cases and Normal had 4 cases. On October 8 the Pantagraph printed a directive from the United States Surgeon General recommending all schools, places of amusement, and public meetings discontinued “in all places where the malady becomes prevalent.”
Turning to Eureka, the September 27 issue of the Journal makes no mention of the influenza. Unfortunately, there is a gap in our knowledge of what happened the next week as the October 3, 1918, edition has not been microfilmed or digitized. The next available edition is the following Thursday, October 10. By then, the pandemic was the leading headline as residents were beginning to succumb: “R. P. Brubaker and W. H. Rosborough Die of Pneumonia” and “Influenza Epidemic Causing Much Alarm.”
When the United States declared war on April 6, 1917, Eureka men were eager to volunteer. In the April 12 edition of the Woodford County Journal it was reported that 14 had enlisted or were expected to enlist. By the following Thursday an additional 10 men had enlisted. Many of the new soldiers were initially stationed in Peoria for training. On May 11 the Daughters of Veterans organization hosted a celebration in their honor with a band and a crowd welcoming the soldiers’ arrival on the train, games on the college athletic field, a dinner on the first floor of the courthouse, and a program in the courtroom featuring a Civil War veteran and patriotic music.
On June 5 all men between the ages of 21 and 31 were required to register for the war effort. Approximately 183 men from Olio and Cruger townships registered. Each man was assigned a number and on July 20, 1917, a nationwide drawing of numbers was held. The numbers were telephoned to the Woodford County Journal office and posted on the windows. Men and their families crowded the windows all day to see whose numbers were drawn. The numbers and names were published in the newspaper the following week. Woodford County was expected to fill a quota of 171 men, and in mid-August the County Exemption Board started examining the first 350 men whose numbers were called. By early September the full quota of 171 men was filled after a second round of examinations.
Librarian Cindy O'Neill loves researching local history! She has extensive experience in historical research, genealogy, and archival resource management. She previously worked in the archaeology and museum fields and has Master's degrees in both history and library science. Recent local history projects include a history of the Eureka Pumpkin Festival, the creation of a digital archive of festival photos and memorabilia on the Illinois Digital Archives website, and an architectural history of the Eureka Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).