The Horse Flu of 1872 Comes to Clay County, Minnesota
April 22, 2020
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Life in the early years of Clay County, Minnesota, was far more dangerous than it is today. Tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and cholera confronted the limitations of public health, sanitation, and science in the 19th century. From 1872 to 1900, that spelled out a life expectancy of roughly 48 years and cemeteries where half of the community’s graves belonged to children 12 years old and younger. A quarter of them belonged to children younger than 12 months. It meant that Clay County families in the 19th century faced an infant mortality rate of 160.4 (number of infant deaths per 1,000 live births — the global high today is Afghanistan's 110.6). And if we look to the destruction of Native American populations that coincided with the expansion of Europe and the United States into the Americas — an estimated 90% population loss from pre-Columbian levels that reached its nadir in 1900 — we see an even more sobering look.
However, the first true epidemic in Clay County’s history wasn’t really even an epidemic at all. It was a novel flu virus that local residents suffered only indirectly. It was the Great Epizootic, otherwise known as the Horse Flu of 1872, and it effectively ground America’s local, horse-driven economies to a halt.
Horses experience influenza much like humans, so the Great Epizootic brought symptoms including runny nose and eyes, cough, fever, weakness, and chills to nearly all of the horses, donkeys, and mules in North America. The disease was first identified near Toronto at the end of September in 1872. Professor Andrew Smith of the Ontario Veterinary College believed the disease originated among pastured horses fifteen miles north of the city. By Friday, October 4, nearly all of the horses in Toronto’s streetcar and livery stables were sick. Two and a half weeks later it reached Boston and New York City. On Thursday, October 24, it was in Chicago. By the end of November, it was reported in St. Paul, Des Moines, New Orleans, Atlanta, and most of the cities between. An ill-timed shipment of horses destined for Governor Francisco Ceballos y Vargas brought the disease to Cuba. The isolation and landscape of Nicaragua finally stopped it just short of South America in September of 1873, an entire year after it had popped up in the Canadian countryside.
In an 1874 report issued to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Cornell veterinarian Dr. James Law estimated that 80-99% of horses, mules, and donkeys in North America had been struck by the disease. Roughly 1-2% of them died, with some urban areas reporting equine mortality up to 10%.
It touched down in the Red River Valley in December, 1872, where it was first reported by Glyndon’s Red River Gazette the day after Christmas:
The horse disease has finally reached this place and Moorhead. So many of the stage horses on the line between Fort Garry and Breckenridge are sick, that the stages between Moorhead and Breckenridge have been taken off entirely, and from Moorhead to Fort Garry fiery untamed oxen careen over the prairie with the mail at the rate of a mile and half an hour. The McDonald brothers, of Glyndon, started last Tuesday from Moorhead with five teams loaded with tea for Fort Garry, but their teams were taken sick on the road, and after getting as far as Frog Point, they were compelled to give up the trip, and put their horses under treatment. One of the brothers remained to take care of the teams, and the other two took Foot and Walker’s line back to Glyndon. The only case of epizootic we have heard of yet in Glyndon is that of one of Hendrick’s ponies, which now exhibits all the symptoms, but in a mild form.
While recent research from Dr. Michael Worobey at Arizona State University has connected the Great Epizootic of 1872 to the novel H1N1 strain of influenza that wreaked havoc around the globe during World War I, in its own time the disease was primarily an economic and technological disaster. Though much of the United States had already adopted steam engines, railroads, and telegraphs, draft animals like horses and mules were still vital to the American economy. Agriculture, transportation, and communication very much depended on the health of these animals. When the flu struck, local economies ground to a standstill for weeks at a time as laborers confronted the inadequacies of human power compared to horsepower. One of the most striking examples of this occurred in Boston, where a massive, two-day fire beginning on November 9 took shape in the absence of the horsepower necessary to pull the fire departments’ engines. Louis Sullivan, a student at MIT at the time of the fire, recalled a fire engine arriving too late to a burning warehouse: "The people at curbside waited, but still no firemen came. Fire engulfed the warehouse, then its roof and floors collapsed. Finally a fire engine arrived, too late. Men, not horses, pulled the apparatus." The city lost 776 buildings over 65 acres of land and nearly $75 million in property value.
As epidemics (or epizootics) often do, the devastation of the Horse Flu of 1872 prompted a revitalized effort toward social and technological innovation. Here on the edge of the frontier, railroads and settlement immediately changed the landscape and ecology. Innovation in healthcare and medicine came, as well, it just moved a little slower.
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Want to learn more about the Horse Flu of 1872 in Clay County?
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Join HCSCC Programming Director Markus Krueger for a brief video tour of HCSCC's local exhibition, "War, Flu, & Fear: World War I and Clay County." The exhibition explores Clay County's experiences during a time marked by global war, disease, and paranoia.
It's a sobering look at perhaps Clay County's darkest hour, but brighter and better years followed.
Walter and Karin Krueger in the 1952-53 Polio Epidemic
March 26, 2020
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I remember when I was not yet ten, my grandpa and grandma, Walter and Karin Krueger, wrote up their life stories. They kept working on it until grandpa’s was 80 pages and grandma’s was 122. Everyone take note: this is the best possible gift anyone can give to their loved ones. As I read the pages, in their words, I remember their stories and I hear their voices. My feisty grandma Karin had the Scandinavian accent so often imitated when poking fun at Minnesotans. Walter’s voice cannot be imitated. In 1952, polio deadened his speaking muscles. In time, he trained different muscles in his throat to move and contract and vibrate with the breath he could muster from the quarter of a lung that still functioned. His voice was raspy, deep, kind of (but not exactly) like what you hear coming out of an old fast foot drive-thru intercom. You and I cannot make the same noises.
He was athletic as a young man growing up in Fargo. Not after 1952. Actually, I take that back. Every little thing he did required athleticism. Polio deadened his leg muscles, so he learned to walk by locking his legs straight and propelling himself forward using some still-living ankle muscles on the tops of his feet. All of his children and grandchildren associate him with his crutches. They were with him always, almost extensions of himself. He could not move without them and yet he could practically juggle with them. Years after his death, as several of his descendants were talking about how we have his crutches or pieces of them as mementos of him, my dad pointed out how much his father hated his crutches. But what Walt Krueger saw as a symbol of his disability, those who knew him saw as symbols of his adaptability and tenacity. Or maybe we just like them because they remind us of him. Heck, he’s probably the reason I wear so much plaid.
He was a quiet man, perhaps since talking could be difficult for him and those who did not know him could often not understand him. We listened carefully when he spoke because if he chose to say it, it must be worth listening to. That, and what he said was usually smart – he was, after all, an industrial chemist for 3M responsible for inventions like the reflective lettering you see on highway signs and, also, the tape on disposable diapers.
But as I get older, what I admire most about Walt Krueger is his patience. And the reason I admire him for his patience is because he was not by nature a patient man. In fact, I think he spent much of his life frustrated, irritated and exasperated. Frustrated that the McDonald’s drive-thru guy can’t understand his order. Irritated that he’s trying not to get toppled over by his grandkids who are running around like crazy people. Exasperated that he wants to go inside a building but the steps leading to the door each look ten feet tall. Patience was forced upon him. He could not scream out, or jump up and down in a tantrum, or physically overpower a misbehaving kid, or go for a run to let off some steam. He handled obstacle after obstacle quietly, persistently, using his engineer’s mind to adapt the world to himself and retraining his body to do tasks that everyone else takes for granted…or, as I often saw him deal with obstacles, scowl, roll his eyes, and hrumph as if saying to himself “let it go. It’s not worth the effort.” When I feel impatient, I look to Walt Krueger’s example for strength.
The following paragraphs are excerpts from the unpublished memoirs of Karin and Walter Krueger describing the Polio Epidemic of 1952-53.
Walter Krueger: When I had been at 3M for a year I went for a vacation to Wisconsin. Karin’s Aunt Evelyn Bonin and family were at Antigo and we stayed with them for a few days. We stopped at Duluth on the way home and left Ray [their young son] with Karin’s folks. We came home to St. Paul and went to visit the Walker Art Center. We were going to go back to Duluth on Sunday to retrieve Ray and settle back into our routine. It was not to be. I awoke Sunday morning feeling queasy and wondered if it was something I’d eaten the previous evening. I went to bring in the paper and found it difficult to coordinate. I felt a growing panic as I realized something was wrong. I called Dr. Sekhon and was distressed to find my voice didn’t work very well. I awakened Karin and she tried to arrange transportation to Anchor Hospital. I vaguely remember stumbling into Anchor Hospital supported by Karin and our neighbor, John Dowdall. Neither cabs, ambulance or police would handle such a high risk passenger as a suspected polio patient. It had much the same respect, or even greater, than the fear now associated with AIDS. [note: this was written at the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1990.]
I remember lying on the gurney awaiting the outcome of the analysis of the spinal tap. It is impossible for me to separate real memory from hallucinations for the days or even weeks that followed. 1952-3 was the last epidemic year for polio due to the development of effective serums for immunization. That year the patient load was heavy and staffs were strained to the breaking point trying to cope. Karin was there all day every day serving as a private nurse to supplement the overworked staff. My condition deteriorated to the point that it was recommended that I be put in an “iron lung.” I felt that going into the lung was a one way trip so for the sake of my morale they elected to delay that move for as long as possible. I did manage to escape that. I was unable to swallow and was fed through a tube down my nose. Speech was virtually unintelligible. Leg movement was gone and my arms were too weak to hold up a comic book. Hot pack sessions and exercise therapy became the highlights of the day. Eating was the goal to achieve to graduate from Anchor to Sheltering Arms where convalescent therapy would begin. The head doctor was a pompous politician with a bright, irrelevant remark for everyone. His two assistants were both hard working young doctors but one was all business and as impersonal as a rock. The other was as compassionate as he was conscientious; a literal lifesaver.
Eventually I did arrive at Sheltering Arms. A nurse named “Donney” took care of our ward; she reminded me very much of my Aunt Alma. Dr. Wallace Cole was a distinguished gentleman with a lot of empathy for his patients. As strength came back to my arms I started to relearn to walk. This was a precarious adventure on legs that would lock but otherwise had little response. Just getting up from a wheel chair was a gymnastic feat of no mean proportion. For a time I envied a fellow whose legs worked great but whose arms and hands were useless. I soon grew to appreciate that getting there was no use if you couldn’t do anything when you got there.
I was sustained all through this trial by Karin’s faithful daily appearance and support. I was determined to resume my career and support my family. The suspicion that I might never regain the use of my legs or swallow was slow to dawn and emotional adjustment came gradually. I took Karin’s presence for granted without regard for the effort and sacrifice she made in riding a chain of busses across town twice a day. Her dad brought Ray to St. Paul and he baby sat all day while Karin was with me.
I was allowed to go home for a few days at Christmas time. I was down to 110 pounds and looked like a Belsen or Auschwitz survivor. I came down with Pneumonia and only Dr. Sekhon’s valiant effort got me into Bethesda Hospital instead of being returned to Anchor. The battle to breath was to become a regular event for several years. At least once each spring and fall I’d catch a cold that often turned into pneumonia. I pleaded to remain at home for these bouts because the regimen at the hospital wasn’t in synch with my needs.
Good intentioned dieticians never seemed able to understand the difference between chewing and swallowing. I couldn’t make them believe that hamburger and mashed potatoes were among the hardest things to swallow. Again Dr. Sekhon cooperated but he always worried that I might need special equipment only available at the hospital.
I started back to work half days but it was the coming and going that was the most difficult. Soon I was going full time. MY coworkers were very supportive. When I was just beginning to recover they took up a collection for me at the lab that gave us a savings account of $700.00. I have always been grateful to 3M they took back this person with one year’s service and hardly able to walk. Many of my ward mates at the hospital were facing trying to start new careers because their old jobs were now beyond their abilities.
Karin Emberg Krueger: Sunday morning Walt got up to get the paper and discovered he was very weak and dizzy. He went to bed while I called Dr. Sekhon. He told me to get Walt to Anchor Hospital. When I mentioned polio neither cabs nor police would come near us. So I ran to the neighbors and found most of them were at church. Clarence Etter backed away from me in horror; Carol Anne was about due and he was afraid. John Dowdall was in the back yard and when he learned of the problem immediately offered his help -dear, dear man! Between us we dragged Walt to John's car and we went to Anchor. The whole afternoon passed before we got the diagnosis of polio confirmed. I signed two papers; one for a tracheotomy and the other for an Iron Lung. Then they sent me home with John.
At dawn the next morning I got a call to come as quickly as I could because Walt was dying. The cab came so soon I was buttoning skirt and blouse as I ran down the stairs to the cab. We sped to the hospital only to be told that the immediate crisis was past. After a short 20 minutes with him they sent me home again under a two-week quarantine. A week later Walt had another crisis - he'd had a fever of 105 for days. The paralysis was total in both legs and his arms, though movable, were too weak to hold anything. He couldn't swallow and his speech was undecipherable grunts or groans. He was fed through a tube down his nose after his veins collapsed so IV needles wouldn't penetrate them. I found his room vacant and in near panic sought a nurse. Down the hall two nurses’ aides stood chatting about nail polish colors beside a gurney with a dead body draped in a white sheet. I didn't think it was Walt but was too afraid to ask. Then a nurse I came to like very much came over to me and said Walt had been moved to another room. My fear was not without basis as three people had died that week. While I was still quarantined Walt's coworkers came to the house one noon and presented a savings book with $720.00 on deposit. They also washed all the windows and put up the storm windows but declined to touch any of the sandwiches I prepared for them.
The neighbors were supportive in leaving food for me; the bell would ring and I'd go to the door to find a casserole or something in a dish on the porch. They'd give a friendly wave and chat a bit from twenty or more feet away. Polio was greatly feared like the plagues of the middle ages - or the worst fears of AIDs today. After two weeks I finally was asked to come to the hospital as a volunteer to supplement the overworked all volunteer nursing staff. Like them I put in very busy twelve hour days. Squeezing oranges was a never ending chore that filled any otherwise idle moments. There was only one part time physical therapist for a whole floor of patients and I helped exercise three patients and occasionally hot packed them and others. I didn't drive and it was a long hour and a half bus ride with a transfer downtown to get to and from the hospital. I left home at 10:30 AM and got back at 1:30 AM. This was complicated by the fact that I am especially vulnerable to motion sickness when pregnant. I waited until Walt had been hospitalized seven weeks before telling him or our folks that I was pregnant. Walt was very pleased and took it as further incentive to recover and take care of his growing family. My father was pleased but concerned; mother was anxious but both were quick to assure me of their support. Walt's folks heard the news with deadly silence. Dad Krueger viewed this as a serious complication of an already tragic situation in which his only son was desperately ill. He was overwhelmed by the fate that had struck his wife and now his son.
The onset of the paralysis was swift and dramatic; the recovery was painfully slow and hesitant. The ability to speak more intelligibly came gradually but proved very frustrating for both Walt and the nurses. I was frequently the only one able to decipher his attempts to be understood. Other physical achievements came heartbreakingly slowly. I shall never forget the jubilation as I danced in the hall with Dr. Kunder the evening Walt managed to wiggle a toe. And then I leaned against the wall and slowly sank to the floor sobbing in despair that that was all he could do. I was joined on the floor by my favorite night nurse and the doctor. Being able to swallow was set as a criterion for being able to transfer to Sheltering Arms, the rehab hospital. This seemed a hopeless goal and only a blatant stretching of the truth allowed the transfer to be made.
The atmosphere at Sheltering Arms was completely different. Here the accent was on rehabilitation and recovery instead of simple survival. The ward contained a wide spectrum of disabilities and ages. One negative aspect was that it took another two transfers on the bus to get there and took correspondingly longer to make the trip. Dr. Cole was a pleasant, sympathetic man who seemed genuinely interested in his patients as had Dr. Kunder. They stood in sharp contrast to Dr. McCarthy at Anchor Hospital who was never available, was coldly detached and, I now realize, was afraid of catching polio.
I went home to Proctor on my birthday to retrieve Ray. Mom had to stay there to take care of the goats and chickens and Dad came back with me to care for the baby while I was at the hospital. That evening my water broke and Dr. Sekhon came right over. The house grew colder and neither Dad nor Sekhon had any idea what to do to get the furnace going again. They hit it off magnificently and chatted through the night. The next morning John Dowdall came over and replaced a blown fuse; the house got warm. Happily, I did not miscarry.
Dad and I trimmed the tree in happy anticipation of Walt coming home for the first time at Christmas. Bill Jordan and Bob Kochendorfer built a ramp at the side stairs for his wheelchair. He weighed 110 pounds and looked like someone out of a concentration camp. It was a bitter sweet holiday. Walt's folks joined Dad, Ray and me for the occasion.
Walt came home for several more short visits and then he got pneumonia. Everyone was appalled and wondered how he could possibly survive. Until then all contagious patients had to go to Anchor. Walt told me he’d die if he had to go back there. I begged Sekhon to intercede and admit Walt to Bethesda. He did. He spent a month there and was given wonderful care. Then it was back to Sheltering Arms. The guys in his ward formed a most supportive group; they’d kid each other unmercifully and the humor was frequently ribald. Walt has written about some of his friendships. I'll only say I was very happy to have him there and to watch him slowly regain his health. We contributed to the entertainment when the physical therapist showed me how to exercise Walt. By then I was very pregnant and I needed to straddle Walt over his knees. This was done in the open ward amid catcalls, laughter and a profusion of suggestive remarks; they had a wonderful time! Of course, we went along with it too.
Before Walt left Sheltering Arms, Dr. Cole called me in, sat me down and gently told me some terrible news. He said Walt had been so damaged by the polio that he lacked the ability to fight disease and probably wouldn't live beyond a year. Dr. Cole felt Walt's recovery from pneumonia had been miraculous. I needed to share this news with my mother; she had been a nurse and I was sure would take the news in her calm, matter of fact way. We didn't tell my Dad or Walt’s folks because we knew it would devastate them. I didn't want Walt to know; he'd fought so hard to live. Only when Walt had survived to retirement age could I tell him that dark prognosis. The doctor proved to be only half right; Walt did get pneumonia every spring and fall for many years until the pneumonia shot became available about five years before he retired. Walt adamantly refused to go to the hospital; we had oxygen, antibiotics and lots of TLC, but Dr. Sekhon was quick to point out that in case of heart problems or other emergency he’d be better off in the hospital. Walt countered that his schedule was in conflict with the hospital’s and the diet at home was more compatible to his needs. With great trepidation I sided with Walt because I loved him and I knew it was his strong will that kept him alive. But it was very stressful and I worried a lot about whether it was the right thing to do.
It was not easy to provide the care Walt needed. Therapy exercises required an uninterrupted hour and a half twice each day. Ray was about 20 months old and had been the star of the show; it was difficult for him to share me with this stranger. The exercises were impossible to perform with Ray in the room. How I wished for a fenced in yard that summer because Ray had a passion for taking off into the hills with his dog, Teddy. My mother reminded me of how she kept Eddie and me safe at the lake; I tied a long rope around the maple tree and fastened one end to the dog and the other end to Ray. They were happy and I knew they were safe.
Walt had resolved to get back to work before our daughter was born. He succeeded! He was to return to work for half days but the most difficult part was the getting there and the return trip home so he was back on a full time schedule very quickly. At first his supervisor, Emil Grieshaber, who lived a block away from us would drive him to and from work. Walt's Dad had hand controls installed in the car so he could regain some independence. After all those countless hours of waiting for and riding busses I was very eager to learn to drive. Walt taught me. I took over the task of getting him to and from work until he got a special parking place close enough that he could manage on his own.
Walter and Karin Krueger lived happily ever after.
Unearthing the Forgotten Flu: Spanish Flu in Clay County
March 1, 2018
-additional research by Mark Peihl & Pamela Burkhardt
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There’s something of a local legend here about Concordia College’s fall quarantine in 1918. The story goes that Concordia’s President J.A. Aasgaard closed the perimeter on October 8, and as a result Concordia’s student body was largely spared from the horrifying pandemic that followed: the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic better known as La Grippe or Spanish Flu.
A November issue of the campus newspaper The Crescent noted the quarantine's success and observed the following: “It is evident that our students are so abnormally healthy that even the ‘Flu’ germ shuns them.” The only recorded campus death also seemed to reinforce the wisdom of the decision. Apparently a female student broke quarantine and went home. She contracted the disease at some point during her trip and died shortly thereafter. Erling Rolfsrud included the story in his Cobber Chronicle (1966) without sharing his source and Carroll Engelhardt repeated the story in On Firm Foundation Grounded (1991).
The consensus among scientists and Spanish Flu historians today would support Aasgaard’s choice. Quarantine was about the best available recourse. But, assuming the quarantine was executed as ordered and recorded, it was still probably lifted too early to have made a significant impact on the community’s overall health. The perimeter was opened the same day another Moorhead woman, Esther Anstrup (23), died from the flu. Three additional Moorhead residents, all in their 20s, would die from the flu that month and twenty-nine more people would die in the county after November 7 — when the quarantine was lifted — as the flu moved through smaller towns and rural areas. Twenty-six more would die in December.
By the end of May 1919, Clay County had lost 151 people.
In other words, Concordia may have weathered the storm, but that was more likely due to the peculiarities of Spanish Influenza than an effective quarantine. That is, Spanish Influenza found its most vulnerable hosts in people usually unscathed by influenza: healthy people in their 20s and 30s (just a little older than most college students). In fact, this was one of the clear and more horrifying markers of the disease. Recent work in flu genomics is beginning to explain this peculiarity, as well — but first some history.
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Spanish Influenza had arrived in Minnesota at the end of September, just as the Meuse-Argonne offensive was taking form overseas. The US Surgeon General announced it on September 25 after several Army recruits temporarily housed on the University of Minnesota campus fell ill, but it had broken out at a military funeral in Wells, Minnesota, a week earlier. Walter Paulson was being buried. He’d died of pneumonia serving in the Navy. His brother, Private Raymond Paulson, was among the group watching him go in the ground. Within weeks Raymond, his sister Anna, and the presiding Reverend C.W. Gilman were also dead.
Locals here would have first heard about the flu in news reports about military casualties. When it was apparent the disease was moving through America, some of our area newspapers would note its westward path as it moved toward us in Minnesota. This allowed people in the Red River Valley some time to prepare, but these stories were also lost in war headlines, a mid-term election, a Minnesota wildfire, and yet another liberty loan drive. Even so, not long after its presence was announced in Minnesota, Moorhead Normal School postponed the fall semester.
Then the first cases in Fargo-Moorhead were reported Friday, October 4. On Monday, October 7, infant Selma Johanna Hanson died in Moorhead. She was the first flu casualty in the county. The following day three more women joined her – Maria Letigia Altobelli (28), Ella Anderson (45), and Annie Jane Schilling (25). Moorhead’s city council banned public gatherings and closed schools. On Wednesday, with 2,500 cases reported in Fargo-Moorhead-Dilworth, Concordia closed its perimeter and continued with business as usual – the best they could – within the confines. When they opened those perimeters a month later, they had no idea that the disease would eat at our community for another 15 months.
In Clay County, 174 people died from the flu or flu-related diseases. The population at the time numbered about 21,000 (0.8% of the population died from the flu or flu-related disease). Moorhead lost 68 people (1.2% of the population), Hawley lost 12 people (2.8%), Barnesville and Dilworth lost 10 people (.66% and 1.25%, respectively), and Ulen lost 8 people (1.3%). Outside of the transportation and population centers of Moorhead and Dilworth, the communities of Goose Prairie, Ulen, and Highland Grove townships were particularly hit hard (24 deaths total), but Hawley Township wasn’t far behind (16 deaths). Barnesville’s flu deaths were evenly scattered throughout the pandemic and didn’t begin until October 16.
When the flu fatalities are mapped, it’s fairly clear that the disease made its landing in Fargo-Moorhead-Dilworth, and probably by rail. Many in these communities worked on or with the railroads, including the heavily trafficked Northern Pacific Railway station in Dilworth. The first 15 flu-related deaths of Clay County occurred in Moorhead and Dilworth. The Italian population of Moorhead and Dilworth suffered early and disproportionately, too. Five of the first fifteen deaths appear to have struck Italians. Ethnic and class isolation at the time may explain it. Sex didn’t appear to be a factor: death rates among men and women were about the same.
However, pregnancy was markedly more dangerous than usual. A definitive number doesn’t exist, but medical historian John M. Barry cites studies that put the global fatality rate among infected pregnant women between 23-71%. About 40% of Clay County’s deaths were young adult women, miscarriages, and stillbirths. Little Selma Hanson, the first influenza casualty here, was followed four days later by her mother Rachel (21). At the end of November, Agnes Wilinski was stillborn in Moorhead. Two days later her mother Hattie (26) followed. In March of 1919, Medalia Stockwell (25) died of flu and pneumonia along with the child she was carrying.
Dilworth suffered its 10 fatalities all in the last three weeks of October – though it should be noted that deaths after those first two weeks, even among people in rural areas, were more likely to occur in Fargo-Moorhead hospitals. Dilworth only had one Red Cross nurse, Louise Christensen, and a few volunteers. On October 19, Christensen wrote to her supervisor, “We are very, very busy, have 24 patients in hospital now. Have dismissed about 15, two have died, and perhaps one or two died last night.” Her estimate would have included Louise Rae (45), who had died October 18. Dilworth counted four more deaths in the following ten days.
Though Ulen, Barnesville, Hitterdal, Hawley, and Glyndon closed their schools and banned or limited public gatherings from early October through early November, the disease still spread to more isolated, rural areas. The first rural deaths began in Morken Township on October 14 and Barnesville and Skree Township on October 16. Like the northeastern corner of the county near Ulen, southeastern Skree and Parke townships near Rollag suffered a disproportionate number of flu-related deaths (6 and 4, respectively). Ulen registered its first death on October 18 – even though J.T. Johnson reported that same day from Ulen to the Moorhead Daily News that there was little illness there. Another Ulen death followed on Halloween. The Ulen-Hitterdal area would see 20 more that year.
Hawley held out for a while. Perry Pederson (30) lost his battle on October 25 and an infant, Clarice Aune, died on November 25. There were several deaths in neighboring rural townships, suggesting attempts at quarantine and home care, but December would bring a deadly winter for Hawley. Twelve villagers would die from the flu by May 18, 1919. Ten others would die in the four townships surrounding it (Hawley, Cromwell, Highland Grove, and Eglon). The region was spared from the second wave that began late December, 1919.
The southwestern corner of the county suffered several losses as well, beginning in Holy Cross Township on October 29 with Lynn Peterson (25). Another followed there on November 6, bringing a relatively high concentration of November deaths. Overall, Holy Cross registered 5 deaths during the pandemic, Alliance 3, Elmwood 2, and Kurtz 1. That region suffered during both waves, ending with Valine Larson’s death on February 19, 1920, at the age of 29.
Georgetown appears to have fared well. Though the village reported infection, and census records show a notable population dip in 1920 (likely attributed to war displacement and Prohibition-inspired urban migration), only one death was registered there during the pandemic: Wells Bristol (56), near the very end, on February 24, 1920. The four townships surrounding Georgetown registered only three deaths (2 in Morken and 1 in Kragnes). The old trading post seems to have been isolated enough to withstand the disease.
The final flu casualty in the county occurred on February 29. Leap Day. A child born in Parke Township died only several hours later.
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The result of the prolonged tragedy has been measured in a few sobering ways. There were probably more than 500 million global infections in just under two years (between 25-35% of the population). Though a large majority of those infected experienced nothing more than a few sleepy days of cough and fever, there were probably 50-100 million global deaths (compare this to the 17 million casualties of World War I). This amounted to 2.5-5% of the global population. Much of the developed world lost around 2% of their populations. Fatality rates in underdeveloped countries, particularly those in Asia, were much higher.
Despite similar infection rates, Americans were relatively immune at 675,000 deaths (0.655% of the population), with some wide disparities. For example, a Metropolitan Life Insurance Company study of Americans aged 25 to 45 found that 3.26% of industrial workers and 6% of coal miners died. Life expectancy in the U.S. dropped 12 years in 1918.
In Minnesota, an estimated 250,000 were infected and nearly 12,000 died (0.5% of the state population). More than half of Minnesota’s 3,700 war casualties suffered flu-related deaths (2,300, or 62%). In November of 1918, deaths in the state outnumbered births for the first time.
Clay County endured at least 174 deaths in a population of 21,000 (some were undoubtedly uncounted and/or unreported) during the pandemic's first 18 months. The average age of those who died in Clay County was 26.3 years. Using the life expectancy in the U.S. before the war (about 51 years), that means we lost about 4,333 years of human life in Clay County. Of the 64 Clay County residents who died in the military, 29 died from flu-related illnesses – bringing Clay County’s total flu casualties to 203 people. Our total years lost in the county was closer to 5,000. We lost a lot of life.
The most frequent victims of the Spanish Influenza pandemic were those between 25-35 years old. Many medical researchers have attributed this peculiarity to the strong immune systems of the inflicted. Apparently too strong. When cells in the human body are threatened by pathogens like the Spanish Influenza virus, their first defenses are interferons, cytokine proteins that communicate the need for defense to nearby cells. White blood cells (or leukocytes) follow, disarming/killing/consuming these invaders and infected or dead cells. As you can imagine, all of this activity wreaks havoc on tissues, leaving them inflamed and the host fevered. Inflammation is even part of the defense: if more blood is delivered to the site of infection, more leukocytes are available to fight.
But when that defense is moving too strong in too concentrated of an area, it damages necessary human tissues in what’s called a ‘cytokine storm’ (the war analogy here might be friendly fire or total annihilation). Spanish Influenza triggered these cytokine storms and left a battlefield in the lungs, spaces now filled with liquid and dead tissues and offering little respiration or defense. In fatal cases, the flu killed by hypoxia. In other words, people drowned to death in their own fluids. This is why several fatalities were marked by what was called “heliotrope cyanosis,” a bluing of the skin from oxygen deprivation.
However, dangers lay ahead even for those who were able to shake the flu virus. When other pathogens — like Streptococcus Pneumoniae — that would otherwise be routinely destroyed in the upper respiratory system came upon this battlefield, they were be able to stroll right through it to the deeper tissues of the lower lungs. The secondary infections that followed flu infection, typically viral and bacterial pneumonia, are widely believed to have killed more people than the flu itself.
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Given the impact of the pandemic and the continued threat we face from influenza, scientists are still searching for answers. Consensus is out on the question of locating the outbreak’s “spill-over event” or “patient zero.” There was so much movement on this planet at the time, it’s an almost impossible task. Some point to a 1916 English outbreak of “Purulent Bronchitis.” Others to a 1917 outbreak in France, possibly carried to the Western Front by the Chinese Labor Corps. The strongest case seems to point to Haskell County, Kansas, where a rural outbreak moved to the Army’s nearby Camp Funston and filled the hospital and barracks with sick soldiers in March, 1918. As journalist and historian Laura Spinney puts it, about the only real consensus is that this was a deadly pandemic that picked up its name because neutral Spain was the only place journalists were willing to report on it.
However, the abandoned Ph.D. of a Swedish virology student at the University of Iowa in 1951 has recently become a touchstone moment in better understanding the Spanish Influenza. Johan Hultin was looking for a dissertation idea when a guest lecturer offhandedly remarked that someone should travel north and find a frozen (preserved) sample of Spanish Influenza in the North American permafrost. Hultin accepted the challenge, flew to Alaska, found two destroyed graveyards, trekked 6 miles through soggy tundra, and came to a third at Brevig Mission. Here the flu had killed 72 people. All but three children. But the graveyard looked promising.
After consulting the village’s matriarch and council, Hultin was given permission to dig through the mass grave that had been filled thirty-three years prior. He promised that the villagers’ sacrifice would help prevent the tragedy again. He found his sample six feet down, frozen, and took it back to Iowa. Then, after several tests, he ran out of tissues. The sample was gone and he abandoned his Ph.D. After some time off he returned to earn an M.D.
Forty five years later, Jeffrey Taubenberger at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology was making waves in the world of virology. He’d sequenced segments of Spanish Infleunza that had been preserved in the National Tissue Repository, but he’d encountered the same problem: not enough tissues. Fortunately, Hultin was still cued into the medical world and he reached out to Taubenberger. With the Institute’s funding, Hultin returned to Brevig Mission in August, 1997, to conduct a second excavation. The village had known of his previous attempt and the village matriarch was the granddaughter of the woman he’d appealed to in 1951. Once again, the council gave him permission; and, once again, Hultin found his sample. He took a larger piece.
In 2005, the full genome was sequenced, including that of the virus’s important surface H- and N- glycoproteins (Hemagglutinen and Neuraminidase are the flu’s primary weapons in both entering and leaving human cells; the proteins' different strains are identified with numbers). Taubenberger and his team determined that Spanish Influenza, an H1N1 virus, was likely the progenitor of current human and swine influenza A strains (H1N1 and H3N2), as well as the extinct H2N2 virus that circulated in the 1950s and ‘60s. They also confirmed earlier hypotheses that the pathogen had made a zoonotic leap, mutating from an animal strain and spilling over into the human population. This was valuable information, of course, but many didn’t see a smoking gun. Still not much to explain the pandemic’s origin or virulence.
Then, over the last decade, Dr. Michael Worobey took the problem from a different perspective. Instead of searching within the flu’s genome, he set it beside other flu genomes to determine its rate of mutation and isolate the divergences or branches on its phylogenetic tree. His process, using “molecular clocks” and thousands of flu gene sequences, is leading to a new understanding of the flu, particularly in understanding the importance of childhood exposure and immunities. The 1918 H1N1 flu had been so lethal to 20- and 30-year olds because their early exposures had been to a flu of markedly different surface proteins: H3N8. Other demographics, like teens and older adults, had some defense following their childhood exposure to an H1N8 flu.
As elderly Americans at the time had grown up with a separate H1N1 flu, they had in many ways already fought the battle.
-Davin Wait, HCSCC
-additional research by Mark Peihl, HCSCC
Cliff Hitterdal & the Meuse-Argonne
Markus Krueger & Davin Wait
October 1, 2018
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This fall marks 100 years since maybe the most despairing months in Clay County history. Certainly the deadliest. Most Clay County soldiers were just landing on the battlefields of France in September of 1918, and they were landing just in time for the deadliest battle in American history: the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of World War I. More than one million American troops took part in the offensive, though it's now perhaps best known as the battle that made "Sergeant" Alvin York famous. Sadly, this is also the "deadliest" battle in American history because more than 26,000 American troops died on the field. Those that escaped the gunfire, gas, and shells had another adversary, as well: the new H1N1 "Spanish" Flu that was sweeping across the globe. The pandemic was coursing through the trenches of Europe at the time, and it reached Minnesota the same week the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was launched in France.
This short video offers an insider view of September 26, 1918, when Hitterdal, MN, native Cliff Hitterdal took part in the first morning of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. He was wounded two days later. The interview was conducted in 1976 and, yes, you can tell Cliff is a Midwestern boy and the son of Norwegian immigrants.
Dr. Humphrey's Movies
By Davin Wait, HCSCC Communications Manager
from The Hourglass, Fall 2017
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At this moment, HCSCC possesses five different formats of the same 12 minutes of film footage previously owned by former Moorhead physician, surgeon, and five-time mayor Dr. Edward W. Humphrey. The footage was primarily filmed in the spring and summer of 1917, and it now exists in our archives in the original 35mm reel, the 16mm reel onto which his son Dr. George Humphrey transferred the original and then sent to us in 1988, the ¾” videotape WDAY produced from that 16mm stock in 1989, a 1996 VHS recording produced by MSUM’s Bob Schieffer and featuring our archivist Mark Peihl’s commentary, and the current collection of digital files (.mp4, .mov, etc.) swirling around on YouTube, Facebook, and our shared digital spaces.
As our tendency to commemorate centennials would go, it’s worth noting that the footage turned one hundred years old last summer. It’s already proven itself a valuable asset to both CCHS and HCSCC, but I’d like to return to the material as a focal point for a brief introduction to Humphrey, some of the earliest years of film in Clay County, and the communities that were taking shape in 1917, the year that brought the War To End War and immediately preceded the Spanish Influenza. Given the ephemeral nature of film, it’s also an opportunity to reflect on the struggles of preserving the past and translating it for the present and future.
Edward William Humphrey was born on January 16, 1877, in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, to his father William and his mother, Elizabeth Fischer, a woman who migrated to the U.S. as child with her French parents. Born after his older sister Agnes and before his brother William and younger sister Isabel, Edward moved as a child with his parents to a farm outside of Gary, South Dakota – a small town 30 miles southeast of Watertown and about as close as you can get to the Minnesota border. He grew up there and lived through the tragedy of his young mother’s death in 1887.
Humphrey left South Dakota for college in Ames, Iowa, and in 1899 earned a four-year Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine at Iowa State College of Agricultural and Mechanic Arts (formerly Iowa Agricultural College and now Iowa State University). Iowa State was small then, averaging about 70 graduates a year during Humphrey’s stay, but it would have offered an interesting contrast to his farm life in Gary. He likely would have encountered George Washington Carver, the young scientist born into slavery who was teaching and finishing his graduate degree there in 1896. Humphrey also certainly encountered Iowa State’s football coach, Glenn “Pop” Warner, a man whose revolutionary football mind led to his commemoration as the namesake of the youth football league. Humphrey wasn’t the All-American that his 1961 obituary claimed him to be, but he did play for Warner on a solid Iowa State football team in the late-90s (including the three semesters he may not have been enrolled in classes, as University of Nebraska-Kearney professor and Ames historian Dr. Doug Biggs recently shared with me).
After earning his degree in Ames, Humphrey traveled a long road in a brief four years before landing in Moorhead. He earned an M.D. in 1902 from the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Hamline University in St. Paul and then interned in Rochester, MN, before practicing briefly in Lidgerwood, North Dakota. By 1903 he was in Moorhead, living at 411 2nd Avenue South, practicing medicine in the Wheeler Land Company block (Front Street and 7th Street S), and married to local woman Edith Vincent. In 1907 he became the chief surgeon at Northwestern Hospital while living with Edith and his brother William, a student, two blocks west. By 1909 he and his wife were living at 428 8th Street South, just across the street from Solomon and Sarah Comstock. In 1913 he opened a practice with Dr. Gilbert Gosslee in north Moorhead; in 1918 he purchased land for what would become his own Moorhead Clinic; and in 1919 he defeated incumbent Nels Melvey in the Moorhead mayoral race on the strength of his popularity in the 3rd ward – the only ward he won.
Some evidence suggests that Humphrey’s politics weren’t particularly attuned to the plight of the working classes or poor, but he was a loud voice in the community’s anti-saloon movement and committed to Moorhead's growth. As a business-friendly Democrat who championed several public improvements during his first campaign for mayor and a man with expensive tastes who shared within his circle, he developed many friends and partners in the community. His love for cars and his influence as a doctor in the middle of the Spanish Flu epidemic surely must have raised his profile in the community prior to his election, as well, but his film equipment and that early movie magic might actually have played a larger role.
The Moorhead Daily News was already commenting on Humphrey’s home movies in the early spring of 1917. His friend Ed Rudd, of The Daily News, often served as Humphrey’s cameraman, so the physician and surgeon’s early film exploits were well-known in the newsroom. On Thursday, March 29, 1917, it was reported that he and his wife Edith had entertained several guests with their film projector and five newsreels, of “most impressing war pictures.”*
*These likely would have been The Universal Animated Weekly, The Hearst International Weekly, Pathe Animated Gazettes, or The Hearst-Pathe News – 5-minute news accounts released in local theatres that tended to offer more spectacle than reporting – but official British and American newsreels wouldn’t have been far behind. According to Criss Kovacs of the National Archives, prior to entering World War I, the U.S. Army Signal Corps spent nearly $3 million to equip and train almost a thousand employees for newsreel production (about $65,000,000 today). The Committee on Public Information (CPI) used much of this footage in its weekly newsreel, the Official War Review, in an effort to drum up public support.
A month later on Friday, April 20, The Daily News announced that Humphrey had added to his entertainment collection and purchased a Universal moving picture camera: “with his projection machine makes one of the most complete motion picture outfits extant.” He’d bought the piece in Chicago on a business trip only days before, spending somewhere around $475 on the $300 camera, film, and accessories. Humphrey likely wasn’t considering the political power of film, like the CPI, but he almost immediately set out filming the community, and they responded to that opportunity with enthusiasm.
Now, motion pictures were nothing new to the community by then: Fargo had several movie theatres by this time, Moorhead’s Lyceum Theatre had been screening films since December 7, 1910, and a traveling showman had even brought the “Marvelous Cinematoscope” to Moorhead’s Fraternity Hall in May of 1897, the very infancy of moving pictures (see Mark’s article in the January 1997 CCHS newsletter for this account). However, the fact that Humphrey had turned the camera back onto the local community offered something markedly different. He’d just turned Fargo-Moorhead into both the audience and the stars.
Only days later, on Monday, April 23, Humphrey filmed “Patriotic Day,” one in a string of nationwide events scheduled to build support for the war. Moorhead’s event had been postponed because of bad weather, but two thousand people gathered at the high school; local children dressed up in red, white, and blue to create a living flag; and the community ran a flag up a 72-foot pole. Humphrey’s neighbor, Solomon Comstock, gave a speech. All of it was captured on Humphrey’s film and the framing of his shots show that he was given prime real estate to record it.
Two weeks later, on Monday, May 7, Humphrey recorded a test run of the Moorhead fire department running at “top speed and with full equipment.” Two days after that, about 650 Moorhead Normal School students and about 550 Concordia College students took a break from class and study to march in circles from their classrooms and through the grounds while Humphrey sat outside of Weld Hall and Old Main to record them. Again, the Daily News covered it, with the following headlines: “1200 Students Pose for Movies | Dr. Humphrey Takes Moving Pictures of City’s Students Today | Normal School and Concordia Students Make Excellent Appearance.”
We can presume that Humphrey filmed the community for much of the summer of 1917, as his footage runs from mundane shots in his driveway, through the auto polo matches at the Fargo Interstate Fair in July, and to another patriotic WWI gathering for Dedication Day at Concordia in early September. Unfortunately, we can’t be sure of how much footage existed or what we’ve already lost, because much of it decomposed in his Pelican Lake cabin where it sat for years before Humphrey’s son found and donated it to CCHS in 1989. This is also what makes this century footage even more valuable to us as historians.
In the early years of film, the nitrocellulose base that was used before the acetate “safety film” was the same general material as guncotton: a cheap, highly combustible, and autocatalytic explosive. This meant that the slightest heat or friction, in almost any setting, could send this film into flames . . . and often did (the 1909 Cinematograph Act in Great Britain required a fire-resisting enclosure, or projection box/booth, for theaters; this is partly why projectors no longer sit in the middle of the auditorium, a much cheaper option for movie houses).
Additionally, and this is true of the acetate-based safety films that followed, nitrate film base was often made with immediate durability, not preservation, in mind. So even if the base doesn’t deteriorate on its own, turning into a rust-colored powder, it frequently interacts with heat, humidity, and the emulsion layer (the photosensitive silver layer) in unfortunate ways: separation, growing dry and brittle, decomposing and creating byproduct “bubbles." Add to this the frequency at which film was destroyed for its silver content, including many early Hollywood “lost masterpieces” -- Austrian-American director Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) comes to mind -- and it is amazing that we have the footage that we do.
Humphrey went on to win the mayor’s seat in February of 1919, almost assuredly in some part due to the press he received and the relationships he built around his moving pictures. Even so, the movies, his public works projects, and the strong support he received from Moorhead businessmen weren’t enough to help him in 1921, when he waffled on campaigning again and lost his reelection bid to Clarence Evenson.
Strangely enough, though, that wasn’t the end of the political magic of those 1917 movies for Humphrey. The footage turned up again in May of 1931 as Moorhead celebrated its 50th anniversary. The Moorhead Theatre (which opened in 1928 and ran the Lyceum out of business the same year) screened the films to show the community what the old days were like (The Daily News got it wrong and said they were 20 years old).
Humphrey ran for mayor again in the next election, following FDR's New Deal Wave . . . and won.
Then he repeated that success three more times before retiring a five-time mayor in 1941.
Clay County's Little Gem:
Buffalo River State Park
By Mark Peihl, HCSCC Senior Archivist
from CCHS Newsletter, May/June 2004
updated August 2, 2018
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My wife and I recently spent an afternoon strolling through the Buffalo River State Park. This little jewel in the center of Clay County is one of our favorite haunts. We cross country ski and hike its many trails and marvel at the constantly changing panorama of its wild prairie flowers. An unusual combination of geology, farming practices, drought, a nationwide depression, evolving government agencies and the efforts of a dedicated group of sportsmen brought about the park. But it was a difficult birth. This article looks at the park’s origins.
The Buffalo River State Park today sits squarely on the Buffalo River Delta, a geologic remnant from thousands of years ago. Many of our readers know that at the end of the last ice age, some 12-15,000 years ago, water from melting glaciers pooled here to create glacial Lake Agassiz. Changing drainage patterns affected the level of the lake. At each level, beaches, like bathtub rings, formed all around the lake. Two of those beaches are visible near the park. Campbell, right at the entrance to the park, is marked by a plaque on a huge bolder just off Highway 10. Herman beach, marking the highest level of the lake, runs north and south about 2 ½ miles to the east, near the park’s eastern border. Between the two is the Buffalo River Delta.
Many rivers carried water and sediments into the lake, including the Buffalo River. Rocks and gravel settled out near the mouth of the Buffalo, lighter sand and silt flowed further out before settling. This created a fan-shaped delta at the Buffalo’s mouth. Wave action from storms crossing the lake eroded back the western edge of the delta creating Campbell beach. Unlike most of the rest of Clay County, the soils in the beach/delta area are pretty marginal, better suited for haying and grazing than crop production. It’s one of the few places in the state where virgin prairie escaped the plow.
The area is also marked by flowing springs which feed the Buffalo. Through most of its length the Buffalo is a muddy, lazy, typical little prairie stream running in a trench, but through the beaches and delta it tumbles over rock and sand cutting a deep ravine. Here the river is a clear, cold, fast spring-fed creek with a mix of elm, ash and basswood trees along its banks.
This delightful combination of environments, a wooded clear stream running through virgin prairie, has attracted people for ages. It’s a natural place for a park.
The park buildings today are located in the southeast quarter of section 10, Riverton Township. Jacob Henry Smyser and his wife Mary acquired the quarter through the Homestead Act in 1883. But Smyser was no ordinary sod buster. He’d been born in Pittsburgh to a wealthy steel family, graduated from West Point in 1861 and joined the 4th US Artillery. After the Civil War, Smyser remained in the Army’s Ordinance Department for a few years then contracted tuberculosis and retired from the military. He and Mary moved west for his health, arriving in Clay County in April 1878. He filed on his quarter and bought up much of the surrounding countryside, eventually owning over 1600 acres. Though far from ideal for farming, the area was perfect for Smyser’s needs. He raised pedigreed horses and cattle, grazing them on the rich prairie grass. Jacob and Mary built a twenty-room mansion on the banks of the Buffalo about where the park’s contact station now stands. Surrounded by servants, Smyser lived the life of a country gentleman. They called the place Willow Bank Farm. Mrs. Smyser entertained eastern guests in high style, throwing lavish parties. Visitors picnicked, swam in the Buffalo and toured the estate on splendid saddle horses and in a fancy carriage driven by a cockney groomsman. Their home featured a spectacular curved mahogany banister, built by a cabinet maker brought from the east specifically for the task.
But Captain Smyser’s TB eventually returned. He died in May 1885 at age 46. After his funeral in Pittsburgh, Mary returned to Willow Bank Farm for a time but she soon sold the property. A succession of owners raised livestock on the parcel. Locals used the area for hunting and other forms of recreation. Eventually Moorhead businessman William H. Davy acquired much of the land.
A Fargo Forum photographer took these pictures the Jacob and Mary Smyser home in 1941, long after it had been abandoned. It still boasted its spectacular custom-made mohogany staircase and the heavy mirror hanging above the glazed-brick fireplace. The home was later burned. Fargo Forum, June 22, 1941.
Agriculture was changing the rest of Clay County. High grain prices during World War 1 induced many farmers to put more land into production. Falling commodity prices after the war depressed farm income. Farmers responded the only way they knew how – by increasing production, breaking up more prairie land. This sent prices even lower.
In 1923, a group of Moorhead area sportsmen, alarmed at the disappearance of game and fish from the fields and waters of Clay County, formed the Moorhead Rod and Gun Club. Some of the tactics of this active bunch seem today, at best, quaint. They declared war on the crow, (“the most destructive enemy of game birds known to man”) and shot thousands. And they failed to recognize the real culprits - loss of habitat and declining water quality. But they did create a game refuge in the beach ridge area, introduced the Ring-necked Pheasant and Hungarian Partridge to Clay County and stocked countless fish fry in local lakes and rivers – including Brook and Brown Trout in the delta section of the Buffalo River.
In 1934, the club received word that parties planned to create a private resort along the Buffalo in Riverton Township. Members and others in Clay County realized this would keep the general public out of this long-popular recreational area. By early the next year, the club formulated a counter proposal. They planned a 20-foot-high dam (near the present state park dam) which would back up a lake half a mile wide and a mile long for the propagation of fish, establish a public recreation area, create relief construction jobs for those unemployed by the depression and to provide an emergency water supply for Moorhead, Dilworth and Glyndon.
The idea attracted lots of interest and support all over the county. There were only three lakes in the county with real fishing potential, all in the southeast corner of the county. Nineteen-thirty-four had been an extremely dry year. Dust storms from Dakota darkened the skies, lakes dried up. The Red River, sole source of water for Fargo, quit running. And water levels in the deep wells Moorhead relied on dropped precipitously. The proposal looked pretty good.
A petition quickly gathered over 500 signatures supporting the “Muskoda Dam and Reservoir Project.” (Pronounced MUS ke dee, the name came from a railroad siding and small community two miles to the east.) The Clay County Commission, Moorhead city council, Rotary Club, Kiwanis, Chamber of Commerce and American Legion Post also signed on. In March 1935 Rod and Gun Club President C. P. Brown began the process to seek federal and state funds for the project. (Moorhead resident Brown was the manager of the Fargo and Moorhead Electric Street Railway and later Chairman of the Buffalo River Dam Committee. His nephew donated copies of his correspondence to the Buffalo River State Park. Much of the information in this article comes from that collection.)
By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt took office as President in March 1933, the Great Depression had reached critical proportions. FDR responded to the emergency with a series of relief programs to aid those out of work. Among the first was the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Under FERA the states, through State Emergency Relief Administration offices (SERA), distributed the federal funds. Because of the urgent unemployment situation, FERA initially relied on direct relief – cash payments to the needy. But FDR hated direct relief. He called it “a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” He much preferred the poor to work for their assistance. By the end of 1934 FERA had shifted to funding projects designed to improve the nation’s infrastructure and employ those in need.
The Minnesota SERA divided the state into eight districts, each with a supervising engineer. Local groups submitted project plans to the district engineer who examined the proposal, made recommendations and forwarded the project to the state level for final planning and funding. Brown and the Rod and Gun Club launched a two-pronged attack for money. They submitted plans to the SERA engineer and sent a delegation to meet with the SERA administration in St. Paul. And they mounted a savvy and aggressive lobbying campaign to get the state Executive Council (the Governor, Lt. Governor, State Auditor, Treasurer, Secretary of State and the Attorney General) to approve state money to purchase flowage rights to the land to be flooded. The club enlisted state legislators, local politicians and party leaders of every political stripe in the effort.
Public funding was necessary for the project to succeed but trying to get it involved a long slog through federal and state bureaucracies. In May, the Executive Committee approved the land acquisition funds but the rest of the plan took years to complete, morphing along the way into a completely new project.
In March 1935 the SERA engineers surveyed the proposed reservoir site and submitted a preliminary plan to the state. A series of frustrating delays followed. SERA took all summer to come up with final engineering drawings. In September the US Army Corps of Engineers refused to approve the plans because of “engineering deficiencies” and sent them back to SERA for revision. Meanwhile, the federal government gave preliminary approval to the venture, subject to agreement by the Army Corps and the Minnesota Department of Conservation. It received Works Progress Administration (WPA) project number 7-178.
The FERA plan of funneling money through the states never worked that well. The feds did away with FERA December 31, 1935 and turned relief projects over to the WPA. With this program, the federal government administered projects directly. Local groups had to come up with money for materials and the feds paid for the labor. Federal regulations also required that a local governmental body had to accept responsibility for the project and see to its continued maintenance.
Problems started in December when the Clay County Commission refused to take responsibility for the project and the feds dropped a bombshell. A water source for Moorhead was a central part of the project. Regulations required that the Moorhead City Council agree to definitely make use of the water before the reservoir could be completed. Pumping facilities and a pipeline could cost the city between $250,000 and $500,000. The city tried to submit a vaguely worded letter of support for the project but it did not satisfy the feds. With money nearly in hand, the project was close to unraveling. The city council asked federal and state officials to come to Moorhead to discuss the project. The brutal cold and blizzards of early 1936 delayed the officials’ visit until April. Meanwhile, the state went forward with condemnation proceedings on the 122.8 acres of land the proposed reservoir would inundate.
On April 7, WPA officials finally met with local authorities. The meeting concluded with the dropping of the water reservoir part of the project and the county commission agreeing to take on the dam responsibility. But it was a moot point. Without the water source component, it was highly unlikely that the feds would approve the plan, money allocated or not.
Even with the water component, the plan would have been in trouble. The Department of Conservation was clearly never pleased with the dam and reservoir project. But a new plan was coming together in St. Paul which would change the venture’s direction completely.
Since the 1880s the state of Minnesota had haphazardly acquired properties as state parks with no real plan for their development or use. By 1923 twenty-three such “parks” were in place, many little more than monuments to events related to the US – Dakota Conflict of 1862. Most were administered by the State Auditor, some by the Forestry Department. In 1925, the legislature created the Department of Conservation (predecessor to today’s Department of Natural Resources) and placed the parks under its jurisdiction. But real professional park management did not begin until a separate Division of State Parks within Conservation took over in 1935.
Harold Lathrop, the first Park Commissioner, brought a new ethic to park management that tried to balance the inherent paradox of maintaining natural environments with use of the parks by recreationists. Lathrop also attempted to address the uneven geographic distribution of state parks. Most were located near the twin cities or in the Minnesota River Valley. None existed north or west of Itasca State Park near Park Rapids. With advice from the National Park Service, state funds to buy lands and WPA funding to outfit the parks, the late 1930s saw the biggest and best planned expansion of the state park system in Minnesota’s history.
In July, 1936, Department of Conservation Engineer Abbott G. Smith and WPA Division Engineer Walter Macgregor visited the proposed dam site with members of the Rod and Gun Club and local game wardens. They proposed a new plan. Instead of one huge dam and reservoir (which they pointed out would drown out every tree in the vicinity) they suggested building a series of three to five small dams creating pools for wading or swimming in the channel of the Buffalo and saving the timbered land proposed for inundation for a state park. Excited by the idea, practically every official in Clay County quickly lined up to sign on to the new proposal. A couple of weeks later, Lathrop also visited the site with Smith, Macgregor and about 50 local officials, liked what he saw and promised to push the state park. Within days 500 county residents signed a new petition supporting the park.
Their enthusiasm was well placed but a bit premature. A new round of maddening delays began. Designs for the first of the smaller dams were not completed until fall. Park officials also entered negotiations with William H. Davy for the donation of a 200 acre parcel just west of the dam site. The proposed park would bear his name. Things were close to a resolution when the 92 year old Davy died in December 1936. To everyone’s surprise he died without a will. His attorney, William Adams, was not appointed executor of his estate until February. The state arranged a purchase agreement that spring. A bill in the 1937 legislative session passed establishing the “Buffalo River State Park” but the legislature, dominated by fiscal conservatives, refused to allocate any money for maintenance. Lathrop refused to submit the dam plans to the WPA without a way to maintain it.
A visitor views the dam at the Buffalo River State Park in 1939. The original plan called for a 20 foot high dam hundreds of feet wide at this site. The resulting lake would have drowned nearly all of the trees in the proposed park. The Department of Natural Resources has since replaced the this dam with a series of rock rapids. Fargo Forum, May 21, 1939.
Clay County eventually agreed to provide maintenance and Lathrop submitted a new proposal calling for only one dam, picnic facilities and a 300 foot wide sand bottomed swimming pool. Other features included a road into the site and a fence around the grounds. Construction proceeded through summer but halted in fall 1937, ironically because of a lack of workers.
Work progressed intermittently over the next year and a half. During the winter 1938-39 the WPA built shower facilities, a latrine, garage and park manager’s residence. All, like the dam before, were built with cut fieldstone, donated by local farmers.
The park opened with little fan fair in spring 1939 but pollution in the Buffalo kept the pool closed until the next year. A new chlorination system fixed the problem. No newspapers covered the park’s official (but anti-climactic) opening on Memorial Day, 1940.
Since then the park has been expanded several times. The Buffalo River State Park is a lovely, quiet little gem… a place which belies its stormy origins.
Ole Bergstrom's footage of the Moorhead zoo, circa 1930 (HCSCC).
"A Moorhead Zoo"
By Mark Peihl, HCSCC Senior Archivist
from The Hourglass, Summer 2017
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Recently my wife and I visited Fargo’s Red River Zoo. Like museums, zoos are educational institutions but dedicated to wildlife conservation. Opened in 1999, the Red River Zoo manages an award-winning captive breeding program and is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. But it wasn’t the first area zoo. In fact, from 1929 to the mid-1930s, Moorhead was home to a zoo, albeit a very different one.
A little background: Andrew and Conie Holes were among Moorhead’s earliest residents. They arrived in 1871 before the railroad and grew wealthy buying and selling real estate. In 1878 they built a gorgeous two-story, brick veneered, Italianate style home right where Usher’s restaurant stands today (the Nov/Dec 2001 issue of The Hourglass discusses the history of the Holes’ property). The Holes carefully landscaped their yard and encouraged others to do so. Andrew and Conie named their home Arbor Vitae Place. It was a showcase for many decades.
Andrew died in 1903. Conie remained in the house until 1921. The following year she offered to sell the property to Moorhead for a city park. Moorhead had no real parks at the time so the City Council took her up on the deal. However, the park needed a name. In a 4th of July address, Moorhead attorney Christian Dosland proposed “Memorial Park” to commemorate the local men who had died in World War 1. The name stuck. It’s still Memorial Park today, though for years many called it “Holes’ Park.”
Through the twenties, the park was the scene of many picnics, concerts and other gatherings -- and at the end of the decade, it became home to a small zoo.
In June 1929, a fellow in Leonard, Minnesota (northwest of Bemidji), caught a newly-born Whitetail fawn. He contacted the Minnesota Department of Conservation for permission to keep it, but a recently passed state law forbade private citizens from owning wild animals. Local Deputy Game Warden Harry Broad offered the Moorhead City Council the little deer for the cost of transporting it. They approved. On July 1, Broad delivered the fawn to the city dog pound – Jack Lamb’s coal shed on 5th Street – and it remained there until City Engineer C. H. Luckey finished building its cage.
Whitetail Deer were pretty exotic critters in Moorhead then. Though common today, there were few deer in the farming areas of Minnesota in the 1920s. Shortly before, just the sighting of some deer near Hawley had elicited front-page headlines in local papers.
The new Moorhead zoo in Memorial Park grew quickly. On July 6, a buck and a doe from Warroad joined the fawn in Lamb’s coal shed. The buck died shortly after, but two more deer and a young Black Bear arrived by the end of July. Locals suggested naming the bruin Gar or Oscar, for attorney Gar Rustad or businessman Oscar Martinson. Upon closer inspection, they dubbed the little bear Jacquiline, the feminine version of Jack Lamb’s name. The bear spent time in a cell in Moorhead’s jail until Engineer Luckey built a small cave-like “den” for her in the base of the bluff northwest of the Holes home. By year’s end, the zoo was home to at least four deer, three raccoons, two bears, two foxes, and a “pheasant which flew into the Northern Pacific office in Fargo and was dazed.”
Earlier in the year, the city had built a loop road through the park. The Moorhead Country Press reported that “lovers of animals… may drive north on 8th St, enter the park by the new winding road which skirts the lower reaches of the grounds, circle completely around the fenced enclosure to observe the creatures and drive out on the same road.”
Apparently, the zoo never had an official name and it’s not entirely clear who was responsible for its day-to-day management. The park fund paid for the animal feed and materials and labor for cages and the City Engineer reported to the City Council in November that “he could secure the present caretaker of the Holes’ Park [Emil Rehn] at the rate of $15.00 per month for the care of the animals during the winter.” The Council agreed “to the proposition… for the care of the animals until spring, or such time as Street Commissioner [Axel] Nelson is able to take care of the work.” Eventually, park employee Rehn kept the job for two years and a 1930 newspaper article referred to Engineer Luckey as “zoo manager.”
The next summer it became obvious that the 5 1/2 foot square concrete-lined “cave” was far too small for the zoo’s two bears (the second was named Bruno). Volunteers built a new 20 x 24 foot brick “bear pit.” Some of the 16,500 bricks were salvaged from the ruins of Old Main, the Moorhead State Teachers College (now Minnesota State University - Moorhead) administration building which had been destroyed by fire the previous winter. By some accounts, the iron bars for the door came from the Clay County jail, left over from a 1913 renovation. The pit featured a three-foot deep, four-foot by six-foot “bath tub.” Over a dozen volunteers, under the direction of Moorhead Police Officer Roscoe Brown, built the cage over ten days. Brown spent his summer vacation overseeing the project. Veteran Moorhead bricklayer Charles Johnson constructed the foot-thick walls. (The eleven-foot deep cage still stands at the base of the bluff, northwest of Usher’s House.)
Through the early ‘30s the menagerie continued to grow, partly the result of “the natural increase of the deer herd” and partly by well-meaning but misguided individuals who caught wild animals and kept them as pets until they became too much trouble. In June, a Fargo man caught a large snapping turtle and kept it in a wire dog cage in his yard. Three times the turtle broke out and terrorized the man’s neighbors before it wound up in the zoo. Others contributed an Arctic Owl, a badger, and a monkey. A bite from the latter cost caretaker Emil Rehn two fingers. Rehn quit to become a Moorhead police officer and Pat Rorick took over as caretaker.
The zoo was very popular with locals. In 1933, Park Commissioner J. W. Briggs reported that “hundreds of visitors gather about the pens in the zoo daily.” But given the small cages, it couldn’t have been much of a life for the poor animals. Fortunately, most of today’s zoos have moved away from cramped, drafty concrete and chicken wire cells for animal exhibitions.
The zoo’s growing population made problems for the city. By fall 1932, the deer became so numerous that several had to be moved to area farms. Still, “fourteen blessed events” were expected the following spring.
It’s unclear what happened to the animals and the zoo. In December 1933, the City Council “moved that Game Warden [Robert] Streich be seen and requested to get rid of the animals in Holes Park.” The critters survived, however, for some time. Early in 1935 the Moorhead Daily News reported that “’ Jacquiline,’ the chunky, fat bear that occupied the Moorhead zoo pen for more than five years went to her happy hunting ground this afternoon. The bear was shot on order of the state game and fish department by R. E. Streich, local game warden… it was put on display in front of the Zervas meat market... Friday and Saturday bear steaks, chops and other choice cuts will go on sale to the public.” In January 1936, the elderly caretaker Pat Rorick died with “only his animal charges at the Moorhead zoo left to mourn him.” The animals were apparently dispersed later.
After acquiring the Holes’ property, the city rented out the house. Through the 1930s, it fell into disrepair. By 1935 it was a mere shadow of the show place it had been. That fall, WPA workmen tore down Arbor Vitae Place to make way for a stone-block community auditorium and American Legion club building. In the mid-1990s, the American Legion moved to a new facility on the east edge of town and a new restaurant opened in the old building in late 2001. Owners named it the Red Bear to commemorate the Red River and the two bruins that lived at the site. It then existed briefly as the Broken Axe before its most recent life as Usher’s House, a fine local restaurant.