Western Nebraska Observer - Observations all along the line - Kimball & the Southern Panhandle First

By Daria Anderson-Faden
The Observer 

What's Old Is New Again

Kimball's Spanish Flu Battle In 1918 Shares Similarities With Today's Fight


April 30, 2020

Daria Anderson-Faden

The Observer reported in its Oct. 10, 1918, edition about the discovery of the Spanish flu in Kimball County.

More than 100 years ago, the world, the United States and Kimball County dealt with a raging flu pandemic. With no vaccine or antiviral drugs to treat it, the Spanish flu was deadly and spread quickly. Much like today, residents were ordered to wear masks, quarantine when necessary, stay away from groups of people and stay healthy.

Imagine an absence of TV, radio, cell phones and internet. The only method of information was the local weekly newspaper.

To set the scene on life at the time, articles from the Western Nebraska Observer during the last half of 1918 covered a variety of subjects. The United States had entered World War I in April of 1917 and the war would eventually end in November of 1918. World War I was the main subject reported on, which included the rationing of sugar and trench warfare in France. Local events made the newspaper also, school openings, county fair, primary election and local men being drafted into the service of their country were just a few of the topics.

Occasionally, articles on the death of former residents from the flu would appear in the Western Nebraska Observer from March through September. But nothing appeared in the newspaper about the flu locally until October.

Kimball County did not feel the effects of the flu until the time that a short article, "Spanish Flu Arrives," appeared on the front page of the Observer in the Oct. 10, 1918, issue. The article stated, "Not a little excitement was created in Kimball county this week by the discovery of a number of cases of Spanish influenza, that disease which has been spreading to every corner of the United States. For several days there had been indications that the disease was about to make its appearance here. Tuesday the board of health ... found it necessary to close the county high school and Wednesday morning the grade school was closed, as was also the American theatre. All public meetings are tabooed, including the church services, for an indefinite period." The article goes on to guess that there are maybe 50 cases in Kimball County. The flu had been moving across the country, and it appeared that the county acted quickly and closed places where a crowd was present.

None of the newspaper articles showed any panic, but just reported the closures. The following week, Oct. 17, the Observer ran an article titled "Kimball Still in Grips of Flu." Although at this point, no deaths had occurred, the number of cases had risen to 75. Of course, schools, churches and the picture show were to remain closed. The situation became a little more serious as the pool halls were also closed.

The reality of the Spanish flu hitting Kimball County was evident by the Oct. 31 edition of the Observer, which featured a headline, "TWO DEATHS THIS WEEK." The article stated, "Bessie, the fourteen-year-old daughter of County Commissioner and Mrs. Harry Phillips, died at the farm home early Monday morning of pneumonia, brought on by Spanish influenza ... Miss Bessie was in the first year of high school and was one of the brightest pupils in her class. Her death is mourned by her many young friends and the people of Kimball in general."

The other death that week was a plumber from Denver working on the Wheat Growers Hotel who fell victim to pneumonia brought on by the influenza.

According to historical articles, the first known case of the Spanish flu appeared to surface in March of 1918 at an Army base in Junction City, Kan. It was reported that troops that had returned from Europe were succumbing to a type of deadly pneumonia. The 1918 H1N1 flu virus called the Spanish flu attacked the healthy and young as 20- to 40-year-olds were the targeted segment of the population. Those under 5 years of age were also susceptible. Reports indicated that the flu killed over 650,000 Americans and 50 million people worldwide. Although records were difficult to keep, figures for Nebraska ranged from 2,800 to 7,500 residents that died from the virus.

Victims died just hours or days after contracting the disease. Their skin turned blue and their lungs filled with a fluid that resulted in suffocation.

Even President Woodrow Wilson contracted the disease in 1919 – while in France negotiating the end of World War I.

The Spanish flu did not originate in Spain but because Spain was a neutral country during World War I and therefore had free media and news coverage, the Spanish media reported on it first and it became dubbed the Spanish flu. Many theories exist as to where it actually originated but those are just theories.

A young man from Kimball, Shirl Volger was serving in the Navy during World War I and wrote a letter home to describe the horrors of the "influ". The complete letter from Shirl Vogler was printed in the Oct. 10 Observer and it details his experiences with the flu at Camp Perry in September 1918.

The letter starts off, "Dear mother and all: Well, the Spanish influenza hasn't got me yet and my chances are getting better every day that I won't get it. I will admit that I was worried for a while."

The lengthy letter described the death of two boys in his company near Lake Erie in Ohio. One boy, a good friend, was from Chicago and had just died the previous Friday. Vogler continued, "His people never got to see him before he died. He was too sick to write and they never knew he was sick until one of the boys wrote them. They came out Thursday, but the doctors would not let them in to see him. He died from pneumonia caused by the "influ."

Sixty-seven boys died that same day. Vogler claimed that between 800 and 1,000 would be the final count of death at Camp Perry. Reassuring his family, Vogler said, "There is nothing to worry about or I wouldn't be telling you the facts of this terrible epidemic ..."

After his service to his country, Shirl Vogler returned to Kimball and was involved in a number of businesses. He had grocery stores in Kimball, Potter and Pine Bluffs and was a partner in a car dealership. He also owned the movie theatre for a short period of time. In the 60s, Shirl Vogler opened Shirl's Superette on Sixth street, close to the Sunnyview area. Vogler died in 1985 at the age of 94 years old. His son and daughter-in-law, Jim and Jan Vogler, continue to reside in Kimball today.

To be continued in next week's Observer.


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