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‘I sure didn’t think I was getting the flu’

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Soldiers ill with Spanish influenza at a hospital ward at Camp Funston, Kansas, when the epidemic began in 1918.

The 1918 Influenza Pandemic in Big Sky

By Al Lockwood

Former chair, Historic Crail Ranch Conservators, April 2020

Many researchers believe the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 started in Haskell County, Kansas, when a livestock virus transmuted to people. A few Haskell County farm boys, home on leave from their posts in the U.S. Army, served as transport for the flu when returning to Camp Funston in eastern Kansas.

Within weeks, hundreds of soldiers at Funston were sick, and some died.

During the spring and summer of 1918, the virus spread to military camps around the country and jumped to nearby civilian populations. As troops shipped out to Europe, the virus went with them. When Spain’s King Alphonse contracted the disease, newspapers dubbed it “The Spanish Flu.”

By late August, the virus, clearly, was no longer some simple seasonal flu. It was highly contagious, virulent and deadly, and it preferred young strong people as its carriers, rendering military camps perfect breeding grounds.

It won’t happen here in Montana

By September, concern in Montana was tempered by the sentiment that influenza was a problem reserved for people back east, living in crowded, damp and dreary cities. Montanans would be protected, many believed, by bright blue skies, biting cold, deep white snows and wide-open spaces. A young man entering the Student Army Training Corps at Montana State College in Bozeman noted in his diary for October 12, 1918:“There’s lots of excitement about Spanish influenza. They say it is coming west. I don’t believe it will hurt us. We get so much fresh air in drill, and it is cold enough to freeze any germ at nights here.”Sadly, he was mistaken.

The area now called “Big Sky” had about 40 permanent residents in 1918, most engaged in farming and ranching. Perhaps the best-established of these was Frank Crail, along with his sons Eugene and Emmett, and daughter Lilian. By 1918, their property had grown to a 960-acre working ranch where Crail raised livestock and horses.

In the fall of 1918, Crail’s son, Eugene, 31, was a private in the U.S. Army. Eugene and Emmett had registered for the draft together on June 5, 1917. The draft board allowed one son to remain and work the ranch. Crail picked Eugene for the Army because he had completed several kinds of schooling and might be assigned to more specialized work than infantry. As it turned out, he was assigned to a U.S. Army construction company and shipped out for England in April 1918 aboard the “RMS Aquitania,” a Cunard luxury liner turned troopship. Once in England, Eugene built airfields and hospitals. British hospitals, planned for treating war wounds, were modified to isolate influenza patients.

Crail’s daughter Lilian, age 22, who had taught school in Ringling and Logan, had just entered the Illinois Training School for Nurses in Chicago as the influenza struck that area with full force. The school was closed, and the student nurses were called into service in area hospitals as reported in a 1930 school history:

“But the year 1918 is known above all else for the great epidemic of Spanish influenza, [when] the Training School and Hospital passed through the greatest crisis of their history. Between September 24 and October 31 there were 2,041 influenza patients admitted to the Hospital, of which six hundred and eighty-one died. All sorts of shifts and temporary arrangements had to be made to care for this vast number of contagious cases, placing unprecedented burdens on the entire Hospital force. All class work was suspended. Forty nurses became ill with the disease, of whom six died.”

The flu hits close to home

By early October 1918, newspapers in Bozeman, Butte and Anaconda noted a growing number of cases of influenza in the area. The young man in the Student Army Training Corps noted in his diary: “October 17 – The flu struck at last… Some of the boys have it… They say we may all have to wear ‘flu’ masks. October 25 – I sure didn’t think I was getting the flu last time I wrote, but here I am in bed.”

Bozemanite Annie Breneman was a good friend of Emmett Crail’s since they were classmates at Irving Elementary School in the 1890s. Annie, age 32 in 1918, was an accomplished woman, a teacher with a degree from Montana State College who had also studied in Missouri and at UC Berkeley.

“The Anaconda Standard,” Anaconda, Montana,
Wednesday, 20 Nov 1918, Page 10

Annie’s younger brother, Duburg, a well-established printer in Bozeman, was married to a woman named Rilla Wooten, from Arkansas. They had two young children: David, 5, and Glen Louise, 3. On November 10, 1918, Rilla gave birth to their third child named Duburg Wooten Breneman. Sadly, within days of the boy’s birth, Rilla Breneman contracted the flu and quickly succumbed. Within another few days, her husband, Duburg, also fell ill and died.

Duburg and Rilla Breneman were laid to rest in Sunset Hills cemetery. Their infant son was adopted by an Anaconda family who changed his name to Robert Ernest Frey. The task of raising the two older children fell to the brilliant young teacher, Annie Breneman.

While the tragedy of the Breneman family played out on the small stage in Bozeman, the Great War ended in Europe on November 11, 1918. Main Street saw cheering, fireworks and parades. Paradoxically, for the young diarist in the Student Army Training Corp, the end of the war came nine days before he was finally free of the flu:  “Was sent down to the barracks today. This influenza is almost over now, but they have decided to keep college closed. The flu sure did its work. Almost every one of the boys had it. Five of the fellows and one of the nurses died with it…”

When school resumed at Montana State College in early 1919, the virus was still around but was less threatening. The authorities had effective controls in place, and large numbers of the population were immune. John C. Russell, in an article in the 2009 Pioneer Museum Quarterly, counted 92 flu-related deaths in Gallatin County in 1918 and 46 in 1919.

Pandemics Don’t End with Parades

In the spring of 1919, Frank Crail planted his wheat. His daughter Lilian resumed her nursing studies and then went on to a successful career as a nurse and Floor Supervisor at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. Eugene Crail completed his Army tour of duty and returned home, where he became a successful carpenter and builder.

Emmett Crail, who never had the disease as far as we know, found his life permanently changed by it. He and Annie Breneman set aside whatever plans they had while Annie was tasked with raising her brother’s children. Their “courtship” stretched from the 1920s to the 1940s, until the children were raised. Annie and Emmett Crail finally got married in June of 1949.

Pandemics don’t end like wars, with cheering and celebrations. Pandemics end gradually like long Montana winters. There were no parades to mark the end of the Great Influenza of 1918; people simply picked up the pieces of their lives and returned to their regular pursuits as best they could. For some of them, even for some who were not directly touched by the illness, the effects of the pandemic would last a lifetime.

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