Looking Back: Epidemics, illness a part of pioneer life

MEEKER — Taking to one’s sickbed is how the winter siege of illnesses was described in many local childhood remembrances. While home remedies such as mustard plasters, kerosene and castor oil were recalled by many pioneer family members, the helplessness felt by an outbreak or subsequent epidemic of smallpox, scarlet fever, whooping cough or flu was remembered by all. In the early days of the 20th century, medical advances including immunizations for such childhood diseases were not available and the cemetery was dotted with the graves of many community members who succumbed to the various illnesses.
Throughout those years, the Meeker Herald carried articles about the different outbreaks and how the community attempted to prevent each one from taking such a severe toll on the local population. An article headlined “The Scarlet Fever Scare of 1917,” offers a closer look at what Meeker did during that health-care crisis.
After the arrival of the State Board of Health representative, Dr. J.W. Morgan, it was reported, “He had found several cases in the town and adjacent territory all in a mild form. He gave it as his opinion that an epidemic might break out at any time and urged that stringent measures should be taken at once to combat any such happening.”
Although it didn’t say what measures they took, aside from a number of special council meetings, they did put a local physician, Dr. Farthing, in charge of taking care of these measures.
The flu epidemic in 1918 took a heavy toll on the local population.
Dorothy Williams Herring’s oral history interview in the Rio Blanco County Historical Society’s “This Is What I Remember, Volume I” tells what it was like for a local child to live during those days. “The worst time I remember in my life was during the flu epidemic. Lots of people died,” she noted.
She mentions a number of families by name, noting that one of her neighbors lost three sons, “all grown young men.” She recalls as well that her teacher, Miss Marie Hopkins said, “We’ll close up our school until this dies down, and she said it might be a week, two weeks, or it might be a month.” She goes on to remember that her teacher went up to her family’s ranch on Nine Mile, helped take care of many neighboring families who were suffering from the flu and died shortly after returning to her own home. “The flu just took her that quick. They turned the high school into a hospital and another big building in town. I can’t remember which it was. A lot of people couldn’t even get doctors.”
Granddaughter Laura May Mannel’s biographical profile of the John Kincher family in “This Is What I Remember, Volume I” mentions, “When World War I broke out, Harry was drafted first. He went to Camp Lewis in Washington. Paul had to go Aug. 27 of the same year. He was also sent to Camp Lewis and they were together all the time. That was the year the big influenza epidemic started and the boys in the army camps were some of the first to get it. Paul died at Camp Lewis on Nov. 3, 1918, and was buried in Highland Cemetery in Meeker. Harry was one of the honor guard sent home with them.”
Nine years later, a newspaper article headlined “27 Quarantined in Small Pox Scare” mentioned that Dr. Chas. H. Farthing, county health officer, originally had investigated the report of “some kind of sickness” in the western end of the county, Angora, concluding that there were indeed several mild cases of smallpox in that section. As no precautions had been taken and the incubation period had guaranteed that a very large number of the populations of Yellow Creek and Angora had been exposed, 27 cases required a quarantine. The public schools were closed, all public meetings discontinued and the local “picture show” theater was closed as well.