The area has been battling the coronavirus pandemic since mid-March, and everyday life came to a screeching halt. Gone were things we had taken for granted — social gatherings, school, church services, restaurants, sporting events and more.
An old saying goes like this ...
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
A little over a century ago, our ancestors in Clearfield and the surrounding Progressland area were dealing with much of what we deal with today: wearing masks, school and business closures, and an overwhelming amount of uncertainty and fear.
In the fall of 1918, the Spanish Influenza was gripping the nation and it ended up causing millions of deaths worldwide. Official estimates for deaths in the United States — according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services — accounted for about 675,000 deaths.
The Spanish Flu topic was reported by The Progress in 1918 and 1919, as well as extensive articles were later written by George Scott in 1968 and Jane Elling in 1993 on the 50th and 75th anniversaries, respectively.
It finally hit the Clearfield area and was first discussed in The Progress in the Sept. 30, 1918 edition, in which it said that John Mills Jr. of Houtzdale — who was also a member of the Marine Corps — had died the previous week from “pneumonia following an attack of Spanish influenza.”
On Oct. 4, 1918, those of the time found themselves where we currently are today: mass closures. Dr. B.F. Royer, state commissioner of health, ordered that “all places of public amusement and every saloon” in the state be closed. The Oct. 5, 1918 edition stated all schools and churches were closed and read as follows:
”The local Board of Health, with the sanction of. Dr. John W. Gordon representative of the State Department of Health here, decided to stand pat on the order of the State Health authorities and order the closing of all churches, Sunday schools, public and parochial schools in Clearfield. This action was decided upon this morning by the local health authorities and at a meeting in the Arbitration Room of the Court House at 1 o’clock this afternoon the action was endorsed by a committee of the representative citizens of the town. The meeting was attended by Mayor Chase, the pastors of the different churches, the physicians of the town, the bankers, County Committee of Public Safety, Woman’s Club, Children’s Aid Society, Liberty Loan and Red Cross committees and the different newspapers. The doctors pointed out the danger of the epidemic reaching Clearfield and counseled every person affected with cough or cold to remain indoors until entirely recovered. The closing order is to remain in effect so long as in the discretion of the health authorities it is wise to forbid all assemblages of people. During the time the closing order is in effect all funerals must necessarily be private.”
The Progress then published a special edition on Sunday, Oct. 6 with the headline of “Extra! SEVEN CASES OF SPANISH FLU ARE FOUND IN CLEARFIELD”. Local doctors discovered seven cases of influenza as of 3 p.m. that afternoon, with one case on “Mill Road on the West Side, two in East End and the other four in different sections of the other wards.” An emergency hospital was then set up using the new Children’s Aid Society building on South Second Street. Elizabeth Clees, a 39-year-old county tuberculosis nurse, was appointed as superintendent of that hospital as there were 24 borough cases on Oct. 8.
Barber shops were closed on Oct. 11 but were reopened on Oct. 15 as a lull period took place for about a week and a half before the Oct. 21 Progress had a headline of “Flu Epidemic Grows More Serious” and there were 31 homes in Clearfield Borough under quarantine and 11 patients at the emergency hospital. Estimates in Plymptonville at that time had anywhere from 60 to 75 cases. At that time, it was also said that it was feared that Clees contracted the flu.
Two days later, attorney Leno W. Edwards became the first person to die from the Spanish Flu in Clearfield, only having been ill for four days. The next day, George Van DeWalt, 36, of Daisy Street, passed away and the Board of Health ordered all business places were ordered to close on Saturdays at 5 p.m. instead of the usual 9 p.m. closing.
The Progress then reported on Oct. 25 that a “conservative estimate sets the number of cases in Clearfield at 500 with 52 patients in the emergency hospital.” Five tents were then put on the hospital lawn to make room for new patients. One day later, Dr. John Frederick Howe passed away after being admitted to the hospital with his wife. It also stated on Oct. 26 that there were six deaths in DuBois within a 24-hour period and Mrs. John W. Varner of Chester Hill succumbed, as her husband and three-year-old son also died from the flu. Philipsburg also reported plans to open an emergency hospital in the Reliance Fire Hall at the start of the week.
Tuesday, Oct. 29 was a sad day for the community as it was reported that Clees — who was put in charge of taking care of Spanish Influenza patients — had passed away. Progress Managing Editor G.A. Stewart wrote the following:
”No death in Clearfield ever caused more genuine sorrow or regret from the community in general, everybody seeming to feel deeply and keenly that the supreme sacrifice of this good woman was made in the service of each and every citizen of the town and in order that death and sorrow might be kept at each and everyone’s fireside.”
Clearfield businesses were closed for her funeral and the ban on gatherings was lifted to allow those to attend the services on the front porch of her home on Ogden Avenue.
Three more patients then passed away at the hospital — C.A. Wisegerber, county superintendent of schools; Superintendent Graeflin of the Silk Mill; and Mrs. Andrew Powell of Woodland. Mr. Powell then passed away a day later as there were six deaths reported in DuBois and one in Grampian.
Elsewhere in the area, it was reported that Madera had quite a bit of sick residents, but those infected were being taken care of in their own home and a makeshift hospital was not needed. It was reported on Oct. 30 that three deaths in Grampian — one of which was Catholic priest the Rev. Fr. Fox — caused businesses there to close.
Curwensville opened up a makeshift hospital at the Moose Lodge and hospitals were utilized in Philipsburg, Kellytown, Houtzdale, Brisbin and Morrisdale. Elling cited a 1991 book by Jasper M. Fritz and Gerald R. Fritz on Osceola Mills in her research that 24 people died in Osceola Mills from Oct. 1 to Nov. 20, with as many as “200 serious cases of flu within the borough and up to 500 cases in the immediate area.” A book written on the history of St. Agnes Parish in Morrisdale by David Folmar and Lawrence Cromshaw stated the King Hotel became its emergency hospital and treated 74 patients — seven of which perished.
The public ban on gatherings was lifted on Nov. 11 to celebrate Armistice Day and the end to World War 1 and on Nov. 14, the ban was entirely lifted. While things went back to “normal,” influenza cases still lingered, as there were 90 new reported cases and one death in the first week of reopening in Clearfield. Two more deaths followed that week and there was talk of issuing quarantine once again. But on Dec. 2, the Board of Health decided to keep things as is and closed the emergency hospital itself on Dec. 16. It was also reported on Dec. 16 that Winburne had 60 cases and “the local health authorities have opened an emergency hospital in the school house and are getting in shape to handle the epidemic.” Charles Larson, 22, and Steve Eustavoney — who left a widow and five children — were among the recent deaths.
While the beginning of the Spanish Flu was heavily tracked in the area, it was not well-covered in its later stages. After Jan. 1, 1919, the topic in headlines of The Progress essentially disappeared, with Scott’s research stating all that was left was an occasional report of a death from influenza or pneumonia. There was also never any compilation of the number of deaths in Clearfield Borough or Clearfield County that was published during that time.