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Tuesday, July 28th

Pandemic stories tell of North Dakotans' personal tolls

By JACK DURA The Bismarck Tribune Bismarck Tribune

Shane Molander, state archivist at the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum in Bismarck, N.D., holds an original copy of The Bismarck Tribune dated Oct. 29, 1918, on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. Just below the national and international headlines is the local headline, center, Nine Deaths in Last 24 Hours From Influenza, reporting on the latest local death count for the Spanish flu epidemic that hit the state and country a century ago. Now, the State Historical Society of North Dakota is looking to collect personal stories of the coronavirus pandemic, The Bismarck Tribune reported. (Mike McCleary/The Bismarck Tribune via AP)

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Edith Quammen was caring for sick children amid neighbors' influenza deaths a century ago when she consoled her father in a letter after her mother died.

"Look up now for God and Mama's sake and say 'Thy will be done,'" Quammen wrote from Plaza to her father in Austin, Minnesota, in December 1918. "Remember we love you and are grieving for you and with you."

Letters of the family are among the State Archives' records documenting the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed a confirmed 1,378 people in North Dakota and likely thousands more. Letters, diaries, newspapers and oral histories tell of the personal and painful tolls the so-called "Spanish flu" rent a century ago.

Now, the State Historical Society of North Dakota is looking to collect personal stories of the coronavirus pandemic, The Bismarck Tribune reported.

'That real person's story'

Since the call went out in April, about 50 people have responded with stories, videos and photographs.

The Historical Society is soliciting physical objects documenting the pandemic, via online questionnaire. There is no time frame for the project, which could be shown in the future in a rotating exhibit case of recent acquisitions.

"Part of what we're doing this for is so future generations can learn the North Dakota story," Audience Engagement & Museum Division Director Kim Jondahl said. "Because you can read the national headlines, but sometimes when you actually get to read that real person's story of what they went through and their struggles and their challenges, it puts a whole different personal perspective on the pandemic."

Some stories have brought tears to her eyes, she said. People have expressed feelings of isolation and extreme loneliness.

"The famous 'Coronavirus' took away my ability to go out and get my braces on, get my license, stop me from getting an education, and it stopped me from seeing my grandma," one account says. "I wake up every morning and I do the same thing every single day. I have never felt so lonely. You feel as if you can't eat any food since there is barely even enough toilet paper to use. On the bright side, this has given the Earth a break, and a time to heal."

Other accounts talk of peace in being at home with family.

"I've connected with my girlfriend in a new way, spending most of our days together has gotten us to understand each other a little bit better, I think we're both a little more patient with each other," one says. "So this virus hasn't been all bad, there have been some positives, albeit few compared to the destruction and havoc it's wreaking across the nation."

Jondahl said that "sometimes when critical, historic events happen, that information is not collected, particularly in oral histories, until decades down the road. When it's done that way, some of those personal stories are lost or missing, or perspectives have changed over the years, so this is our opportunity right now to capture these stories while they're happening."

The Historical Society already has received several objects of the COVID-19 era, Assistant Registrar Elise Dukart said. Items include one cloth mask, packaging for food shipped for Passover and a yard sign advertising a local restaurant's delivery and curbside service.

Interested donors can fill out an online questionnaire to submit objects to the Museum Collections Committee for consideration. Dukart said potential items include homemade masks, baking items, businesses' plastic barriers, empty hand sanitizer bottles, toilet paper and other products in high demand amid the pandemic.

Visit or send questions to to learn more about the project.

'It brings it to life'

Personal stories and accounts of the flu pandemic are scattered across newspapers, letters and diaries, State Archivist Shane Molander said.

Some collections of family papers span decades but offer as little as a few sentences about the flu, he said.

Quammen's letter to her father noted a 28-year-old man who died and was buried "without one word of prayer or song" as his wife and four children lay sick in bed.

"There are so many sick here," she wrote. "I have been helping some."

Newspapers are a wealth of information, from public health advertisements ("Coughs and sneezes spread diseases as dangerous as poison gas shells") to news items such as the Hillsboro City Commission's quarantine order and Mayville residents donning masks -similarities to 2020 coronavirus stories.

"By having these letters and newspapers from the time, it brings it to life," Molander said.

Oral history interviews also mention the flu, he said. There also are school superintendents' reports that offer a glimpse into the pandemic, when some Logan County parents faced court troubles for keeping their children out of school "for unreasonable lengths of time."

People ages 16-30 had the highest fatality rates for the flu, said Bismarck State College history professor Perry Hornbacher, who researched the 1918 pandemic for a 2004 paper. Pregnant women also were especially vulnerable. Many children were orphaned.

Hornbacher flipped through Tribune stories that fall announcing school, church and other closures and mounting flu deaths from the outbreak, which lasted into 1919.

"Large number of deaths in local hospitals reported over Sunday," read an October 1918 headline to a story announcing flu deaths from Fargo to Flasher, of people ages 20 to 39.

"It was the young people who were getting it and dying in large degrees," as opposed to elderly people who are more vulnerable to COVID-19, Hornbacher said.

The flu began to wane as the armistice came that ended World War I in November 1918.

Local history

Neither the state nor local historical societies have objects related to the 1918 flu pandemic.

But Mandan's American Legion Post No. 40 is named for Sgt. Maj. Gilbert Furness, the first Mandan soldier to die during World War I, according to Mandan Historical Society Secretary/Webmaster Kathye Spilman. The 20-year-old Furness died of flu-related pneumonia in October 1918 at Camp Zachary Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky. The historical society maintains a small exhibit about him.

The group's "History Harvest" event, from 1-5 p.m. Aug. 2 at the North Dakota State Railroad Museum grounds in Mandan, will collect information and artifacts dealing with Mandan city history, including the coronavirus. Appointments are encouraged. See for contact information.

The Bismarck Historical Society hasn't made any formal solicitation for coronavirus items, but its Collections Committee "would definitely consider the right types of items," said Evan Laib, a member of the society's board of directors.

"I think items that would trigger a 'nostalgic' feeling to those that lived it," such as window heart displays and businesses' social distancing paraphernalia, he said.