Updated: Apr 7
By Elaina Pierson, LCHS Office Coordinator
Access to history plays a crucial role in our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. Especially now during this strange time of social distancing and curve flattening, the ability to look back on similar moments in history, especially through the eyes of the average person, provides invaluable insight.
Naturally there has been a lot of discussion recently about the 1918 flu pandemic, and the similarities are at times startling. Then, as now, public health officials were cautioning against careless coughing, sneezing, and disposal of “nasal discharges.” Masks abounded, hospitals and health care workers were overwhelmed. Even daily habits and etiquettes are changed by events such as this; spittoons for example quickly went out of fashion after 1918 with the realization that they were a great way to spread germs . Perhaps our widely-accepted greeting of a hearty handshake will follow the same path in the coming years.
History also provides us with the ability to examine different strategies, and see what worked and what didn’t with the passing of time. In this article for Smithsonian Magazine, historian John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza, provides numerous fascinating examples. For instance, in September 1918, after the disease broke out in the city’s Navy Yard, Philadelphia’s public health director, Wilmer Krusen, minimized the seriousness of the situation, declaring that he would “confine this disease to its present limits, and in this we are sure to be successful. No fatalities have been recorded. No concern whatever is felt.” Days later, as the illness grew, he continued to reassure residents that he would “nip the epidemic in the bud.” This laissez faire approach, as Barry’s research illustrates, undoubtedly contributed to Philadelphia being hit especially hard during the pandemic, with 759 dead in one day at its worst.
Meanwhile, here in Moscow, Dr. William Adair, the health officer for Latah County, took the precaution of closing “everything,” according to the recollections of his daughter Bernadine, including schools and churches, even putting a stop to gatherings in individual homes. This decision naturally angered and inconvenienced many, but surely mitigated the effects felt locally as the illness infiltrated every corner of the world.
During these times of upheaval it is especially important that everyday people record their experiences, not only for personal examination and processing, but to inform future generations. It is for this reason that we at the Latah County Historical Society invite you to share your experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Using this convenient online form, all Latah County residents are encouraged to share stories, photos, even audio or video recordings, to be collected and preserved in our archives.
The following is an excerpt from an oral history interview with Dr. Adair’s daughters Ione and Bernadine, recorded nearly 60 years later in 1976, where they share their memories of helping their father care for the sick throughout Latah County during the 1918 pandemic.
Ione Adair Oral History, Third Interview. Interviewed by Sam Schrager, with sister Bernadine Adair Cornelison. November 16, 1976. Full transcript and recording available at University of Idaho Library Digital Initiatives: Latah County Oral History Collection. [Notes in italics are to provide further detail and context of where these locations are today.]
Sam Schrager: Were you really very close to your father in your younger years?
Ione Adair: Was I close to my father?
SS: Yes. It sounds like you did a lot with him.
Bernadine Cornelison: She took the place of a-
IA: I was the only boy he had. I was the only boy he had and anything that he wanted to do, I would do. During the flu epidemic here-
IA: 1918 and I'd just go everywhere with him on trips.
SS: What was that like?
BC: Hell, it was dreadful. See we had a ROTC training camp here and all these boys got the flu. They had the big house up on the hill turned into a hospital.
IA: Dad went night and day. And I'd get in- when I'd leave work and come home and he'd have someplace out here in the country and he'd tell me to go to a certain place, like out here at Joel, and he said, "I'll tell you from there." And he'd go to sleep and I'd drive the horses until we'd get to Joel, and then he'd tell me which way I was to go from there. And after we got the car- and once we were driving from here they telephoned to him and asked him to come over to Viola that the people at the post office there were very ill, and they wanted a doctor at once. Well, it happened to be quite late in the evening before we got started and bitter cold, so we took a jug of hot water and heated it on the stove- put a jug of hot water in the car. Cars didn't have heaters those days, and set it down and then put the robe over it and that kept our knees warm and we drove to- out here to the Naylor place- do you know where that is? We drove that far and the water froze- not in the jug, but in the car- in the hose. So we stopped and thawed out the hose, and we stopped at Naylor’s and thawed out the hose and then we drove from there on to Viola without any trouble after we got the hose thawed out. And we got to Viola and he stopped at the post office there and they were sleeping in a room at the back of the office, the postmaster and his wife, and he treated them and then they told him of three or four others that had to be helped, and he treated those and I stayed at the post office while he drove around town and went to these different places and took care of them. The last time was about four miles from Viola on a side road that went in under the trestle, this side of Viola, and then on towards- I suppose it would be towards the airplane- or the field but he went that far. I went with him that time because we could cut back across and then-
SS: Was this the same time, or was this later?
IA: No, this was all later.
SS: This was afterwards?
SS: Well, during that flu that you went around with him; I heard a lot of people died in Moscow and around.
IA: Yes, they did. Bernadine and my sister were nurses.
BC: We were the first civilians that had the flu. Daddy was treating all these ROTC men, and my sister and I got the flu and when we were over it then we helped the others.
SS: Is that how you got it? From nursing the others?
IA: No, we had it before. And see, they had the army here- the ROTC at that time, and they used this big house up here that we called the Lewis house.
SS: M. E. Lewis? [Maris E. Lewis house, 615 S Adams Street]
IA: Uh-huh. They used that as a hospital, and they used a barn that used to be the Stewart barn on- right across from the Idaho Hotel [the original Stewart barn, pictured below, was located at 113 N Main Street, current location of LocoGrinz, but was replaced in 1904 by a 1 1/2-story brick structure on the corner just to the north, current site of the Eagles Lodge. The Hotel Idaho was built in 1890 on the southeast corner of Main and A Streets, directly to the north of the CJ’s building, and was razed in 1977 for the Washington-Jackson couplet connector.] - they had that for a hospital, and the hospitals were full, and people were just going all the time.
BC: Funny thing is, that Daddy nursed all these people, but he never had the flu. That so frequently happens. The doctor goes in and takes care of a thing that is contagious and-
SS: Doesn't get it. How did he treat them? What did he do for them?
IA: I don't know what he did for them. As to that I can't tell.
BC: They had to wear masks.
IA: Lower the fever and give them something that would check their cough. Most of them had very severe cough with the flu at that time.
BC: We all wore cheesecloth masks over our face.
IA: They had a man at the Methodist Church at that time, he had just come in. That's when they changed at the conference, he came in in the fall a new man, and Dad had a call out at Elk River and so he said that he'd ask someone to go with him. I was working and he didn't want me to lose my time, or to lose my sleep for that, so he asked the minister to go with him [Dr. Harold O. Perry, minister from 1917-1925]. And over Neva Hill, which is this side of Elk River before you hit the valley on the other side, they were going up a hill and ahead of them in the road was a little cub bear. Daddy stopped the car and tried to get the minister to get out and pet the bear, and he absolutely refused. He said he wasn't trying to make the acquaintance of any mother bears, and he wouldn't get out. But he went with Dad over to Elk River and they treated ten or twelve people at Elk River; people that were wanting help. And the snow was so deep that they couldn't see- Dad didn't know where to go, so he got a man at the drugstore to take him around to these different places where he had to visit them. And then on the way home, there was a little mill on the right hand side of the road as they were coming back, a little mill that set back in, and they came out and were standing in the road when Dad came back and asked Dad to come in and he went in and gave medicine to a number of people there that time. The minister said, "Of all things I ever saw," he said, "that certainly was one trip."
SS: All at night?
IA: All at night.
SS: Was this at '18 or was this later?
IA: It was during the epidemic.
BC: Daddy was county health officer then, too.
SS: Oh, he was?
BC: He closed the schools and the churches and everything, wouldn't allow congregation.
SS: It was his decision to close down the churches and schools?
SS: He made that decision, because I know they closed 'em down all over.
BC: They closed down them all.
IA: We wanted to go to Thanksgiving down to Uncle Sam Owingses, which is on the employment office, at that place at that
time, and Mrs. Owings wanted us to come down for Thanksgiving dinner, and Dad was the- oh, what do you call it?-
BC: County health officer.
IA: County health officer at that time, and he said, "You can't go down." "Oh," she said, "we'll pull all the blinds down and darken everything, if you'll just come down and have dinner with us." Well, that's what we did! Slipped in the back way. (Chuckles) And had dinner with Owings Thanksgiving dinner. And he closed the-
BC: Churches and schools and theaters.
SS: People weren't supposed to congregate in each other's homes?
IA: No, couldn't congregate. We didn't have near the fatalities that most homes did.
SS: Why do you think? Because everything was shut down?
SS: Was that really your father’s decision?
BC: Yes. And there were lots of objections.
IA: Kenworthy had just come into town as a young man. I don't know whether he was married then or whether he was married after he got to town, but he was just a young man and he started the movie on Third Street where- it's between- I'd say Obergs, but you don't know Obergs- between the corner and where Felton had his office, in between there was where the movie- Kenworthy started his movie [Milburn Kenworthy opened the Vandal Theatre in 1918 at 122-124 E Third St, current location of Untamed Art, before building the current Kenworthy Theatre on South Main in 1926.], and Dad refused to let the movie run while the epidemic was on. And Kenworthy was the maddest man you ever saw. I've never seen him to ask him if he's ever forgiven him or not, but he was an awful mad man! (Chuckles)
SS: So as county health officer your father probably had to go out to all these rural places, it was his responsibility anyway.
IA: Yes, he had to go out to them.
BC: He would have anyway.
SS: He was that kind of a doctor that he wouldn't mind to go out wherever he had to?
BC: I don't think you could have stopped him. I don't think we ever had a Christmas dinner or a Thanksgiving dinner but what somebody had an emergency, bad illness or accident and Daddy would have to leave dinner to go, but he would go. That’s the kind of man he was, real old fashioned.
1. “1918 Pandemic Influenza Historic Timeline”. www.cdc.gov
2. “Spittoon”. wikipedia.org
3. Lillian Woodworth Otness, A Great Good County: A Guide to Historic Moscow and Latah County, Idaho. 1983.
4. R.L. Polk & Co.’s Nez Perce, Latah, Lewis, Clearwater Counties, Idaho and Asotin County, Washington Directory, Vol. XVIII, 1916-1917
5. Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Moscow, Latah County, Idaho, July 1928 – October 1950
For further reading on the 1918 flu epidemic in Latah County, read Sandra Kelly's article in the most recent Latah Legacy.