“Uncle Sam’s Advice on Flu,” Little Falls Daily Transcript, October 21, 1918.

As the first World War neared its end in 1918, a new threat was rising—only this one could not be bested by bullets and manpower. That threat was Influenza, and this particular strain would ultimately prove to be deadlier than the Great War itself.

Note: A pandemic refers to diseases that affect people on a large scale, beyond state or country borders. An epidemic, on the other hand, affects a large number of people on a smaller scale—such as a state, county, or town. Sections of this article refer to the global influenza pandemic of 1918 as such, and the local impact as an epidemic. 

This pandemic was given the nickname “the Spanish Flu,” and its origins linked with Spain. This is not necessarily the case, as epidemiologists around the world now agree that Spain was unlikely to be the source of the disease. There were even publications from health officials at that time dispelling the idea of its Spanish origins. However, there was a strict ban on reporting cases of the flu in England, France, and the United States in an attempt to boost morale. Spain was neutral during the first World War, and thus reports of the flu were not censored.  As such, the popular blame was placed on them.

It should be noted that while the rest of the world was blaming Spain for the pandemic, the Spanish assumed the disease originated in France, hence Spain taking the moniker “The French Flu.”

Though there is no concrete, singular “patient zero” as far as the start of the worldwide pandemic goes, some of the first cases in the United States appeared in Fort Riley in Haskell County, Kansas. By the end of the first week of March that year, over 500 soldiers were hospitalized with flu-like symptoms. Many seemingly recovered, and were sent to fight in the final battles of World War I. This would only be the first of three major waves of the pandemic.

While in Europe, the flu mutated and became deadly. It made its way back to the states by fall of 1918, traveling fast through the railways as soldiers returned home. It was then that the death toll began to rise.


The Flu in Morrison County

At the height of the disease, its second of the three waves, symptoms were quick to escalate once someone was infected. One could wake up feeling healthy, and be dying a gruesome death by the evening.

Much like many other illnesses, symptoms of the Spanish Flu initially included a cough, fatigue, body pain, chills, and congestion. From there, a sufferer’s immune system could begin overproducing cytokines, a protein that helps regulate a body’s response to infections. Therein is where the danger lies.

One could start bleeding from the nose and mouth, or in some cases even their eyes and ears. Their skin could turn blue—a symptom known as cyanosis—and fluid could begin accumulating in their lungs, not unlike a case of pneumonia. Death came in many forms, but most often it was as a result of essentially drowning on this built-up fluid.

Young children and the elderly were those primarily at risk, but more unique to this strain of the disease was the risk to those 24 to 40 years old.

The first case of influenza in Minnesota came during the last week of September, from an unnamed soldier returning to Wells, Minnesota for leave. The disease quickly spread throughout the state, and the first death attributed to the flu in Morrison County occurred on October 7, 1918.

Irene Wenner, 24, was a junior nurse at the nurses’ training school at St. Gabriel’s Hospital. Her death came as a result of heart failure due to the flu.

In just a week since the first confirmed death to the epidemic, cases in Little Falls had risen to 14. City officials were quick to respond to this rapidly growing crisis. After consulting with several health officers, the decision was reached to close all public buildings in Little Falls starting on October 15, 1918.

A motion proposed in an emergency meeting of the Little Falls city council on October 14, 1918 to close all public buildings and limit contact between citizens.

Private parties and public funerals exceeding the immediate family were forbidden, as well as meetings of over ten people—all of which had to have a certificate of their health. Teachers were sent from home to home to educate parents on the importance of keeping their children at home and away from other children. They also gave instructions on what to do if anyone in the household were to fall ill.

Helpful tips to help prevent the spread of the flu were periodically published in newspapers. Red Cross guidelines emphasized the importance of covering one’s face when in public. A piece of gauze or any similar material could be used, so long as the nose and mouth of the wearer was covered. These masks would have to regularly be boiled to sanitize them.

Other guidelines on how to protect oneself and others included:

  • Staying at home and getting plenty of rest
  • Getting plenty of exercise
  • Avoiding sharing common items like towels or cups
  • Avoiding shaking hands
  • Covering coughs and sneezes with a handkerchief if a mask was not being worn
  • Not spitting in public

What would be called the “spitting ordinance” would be heavily enforced throughout the country, due to the airborne nature of the disease.

As the flu continued to make its way through the community, restrictions on public gatherings were tightened even further. By October 31 all stores and saloons—with exception to drug and meat stores—were ordered to close by 7:00 PM each night. Gathering in stores and on the streets were also advised against.

This lockdown lasted for a total of six weeks, from October 14 to November 25. During this time, reported cases of influenza decreased by 60%. Mayor Bergheim was noted as wanting to extend the lockdown for another week, but “agitation from some quarters” (Little Falls Daily Transcript, 11/23/1918) pushed him to approve the November 25 reopening. He agreed under the stipulation that gatherings of large groups were still forbidden, though Lodges were permitted to meet.

It was then that stores and churches resumed their full operations. To avoid a resurgence of the disease, there were still certain limitations. For instance, if a business did not observe the rule forbidding large gatherings, they would be closed.

There were strict rules for students returning to school, as well. Students must be sent to school with a list of household members who had had the flu: their names and the dates they recovered from the illness. Any student sharing a house with anyone still inflicted with or recovering from influenza would not be allowed to attend at all. Students would need to wait two weeks after they or a member of their household recovered from the disease to return to school.

After the highly deadly second wave of the pandemic, reports of new cases of influenza began to drop exponentially. There are many theories for why this might have happened, though the most probable is that the disease mutated into a less deadly strain. This is incredibly common with influenza viruses, as hosts with the deadlier strains die off too quickly to transmit it.

There was also the factor of the war ending. With less bodies traveling over long distances in a short period of time, the chances of the flu spreading were greatly reduced. The third and final wave of the Spanish Flu would taper off in the summer of 1919.

Restrictions on public meetings in Morrison County were lifted by January 1919, and life would seemingly resume as it had in the past. However, this was not without many in the county feeling the impact of the epidemic. The number of deaths attributed to the flu worldwide is between 20 and 50 million. Minnesota counted for 10,100 of those deaths between October 1918 and February 1919. 128 of those deaths were in Morrison County.


By Grace Duxbury
Copyright 2020, Morrison County Historical Society



Barry, John M. “The Site of Origin of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic and Its Public Health Implications.” Journal of translational medicine. BioMed Central, January 20, 2004. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC340389/.

Barry, John M. “How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread Across America.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, November 1, 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/journal-plague-year-180965222/.

“Business Places Open Monday.” Little Falls Daily Transcript, November 22, 1918.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “1918 Pandemic (H1N1 Virus).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 20, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html.

City of Little Falls. Record of Proceedings. Special Meeting October 14, 1918.

“Closed to the Public.” Little Falls Herald, October 18, 1918.

“Decided To Close Tighter.” Little Falls Daily Transcript, October 31, 1918.

“Died.” Little Falls Herald, October 11, 1918.

“Influenza Regulations In Little Falls Public Schools.” Little Falls Daily Transcript, November 23, 1918.

Laine, Mary. “Influenza Epidemic in Minnesota, 1918.” MNopedia. Minnesota Historical Society. Accessed May 13, 2020. https://www.mnopedia.org/event/influenza-epidemic-minnesota-1918.

Minnesota Department of Health, Division of Disease Prevention and Control. Communicable Disease Histories. 101.G.18.9B “Table B: Influenza and Pneumonia Deaths by Counties and Months.” State Archives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

“Most Doctors Say Condition Not Serious.” Little Falls Daily Transcript, December 6, 1918.

“Spanish Influenza – How to Protect Yourself.” Little Falls Daily Transcript, October 12,1918.

Trilla, Antoni, et al. “1918 ‘Spanish Flu’ in Spain.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 1 Sept. 2008, academic.oup.com/cid/article/47/5/668/296225.

“Uncle Sam’s Advice on Flu.” Little Falls Daily Transcript, October 21, 1918.