My Grandfather's Pandemic
Fighting the flu in 1918, Ralph Engle lost friends he never knew he had.
by M.A. Engle
From the May, 2021 issue
Petoskey rests among the hills on Little Traverse Bay near the tip of the Lower Peninsula. Victorian homes and stately brick commercial buildings line narrow streets in the town's bustling gaslight district. Its population of 5,700 or so is barely more today than it was in 1900, when it gained fame as a resort. The star of the setting is always the lake, stealing the limelight with a vista that stretches from the bluffs above the sheltered bay to the endless horizon of Lake Michigan.
My father was born in Petoskey, the son of a local doctor--an imposing figure who wore a bearskin coat and drove one of the town's first Model T Fords and looks out from photos with the same serious brown eyes later bestowed on my sister. My grandfather died before I was born, but I always begged Dad for stories of growing up in Petoskey, because it seemed impossibly idyllic. There was fishing and sailing in summer and horse-drawn sleigh rides in winter, with a rich influx of seasonal visitors who poured from the Chicago ferries and Detroit trains to imbibe the natural wonders and pristine air.
In his stories, one rare dark cloud was the 1918 pandemic. My father was just a toddler and would have had no real memory of it, but my grandfather must have relayed to his son the anguish and sadness of that time. If the subject ever came up, Dad would sigh and say that it was just an awful time for his father and for the town.
When Gov. Whitmer's stay-at-home order went into effect last year, I had plenty of time on my hands and a lot of questions. And I wondered if maybe this utter weirdness that we're all going through--this fear, isolation, the anxiety about an invisible threat and unknown future--maybe that's what my grandparents went through.
With no living family of that generation left, I turned to the Internet. On the
website of Petoskey's Greenwood Cemetery, I discovered a trove of digitized newspapers dating back to the 1870s. They told how the "Spanish influenza" reached northern Michigan in the fall of 1918.
As World War I wound down, the need to raise money to pay for it ramped up. John Philip Sousa, who had enlisted in the Navy in 1917 at age sixty-two in support of the war, led the 321-member Bluejacket Band at the Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago. Smaller "Jackie Bands" toured the country to raise money for the Liberty Loan bonds effort. In September 1918, a thirty-member touring group, along with various other performers and celebrities, headed north to crisscross Michigan by train.
They brought with them more than entertainment. Just as the band left Chicago, reports surfaced of an influenza outbreak at the naval base. By the time the train hit Charlevoix, four band members had to be hospitalized with the flu, but the rest continued on another twenty miles or so to Petoskey for a performance and gala dinner dance.
The viral seeds were sown straightaway. One band member was ill enough to be treated directly after the performance by the city health officer, George Nihart. In one of the many harbingers of our current pandemic, Dr. Nihart would himself quickly fall ill.
Then the story took a deeply personal turn. To replace ailing Dr. Nihart, I read, Dr. Engle was appointed in his stead--Ralph Engle, my grandfather.
With pandemic disaster reports pouring in from the outside world, the health department issued a series of unpopular orders. Mask-wearing was encouraged for all. Schools were locked. Visiting at hospitals was banned. Public funerals were prohibited. And ultimately, residents were forbidden to leave Petoskey.
The next weeks and months saw waves of influenza in the area, when cases dipped and people let their guard down. Again, it fell to health officials to scold the public in order to save them.
"The department wishes people to tell their friends to remain at home, and especially people residing out of the city. Visiting back and forth between neighbors and friends should not be allowed, for this tends to spread the disease," the Petoskey Evening News warned on Halloween.
That shutdown was followed by a lull of five weeks with no flu deaths. Then on December 18, a Petoskey resident died of viral pneumonia. Dr. Engle immediately called off holiday events, including church services. Christmas was canceled.
The son of a Methodist minister, he had lived in Petoskey since he was nine. He knew everybody in town and often accepted payment in potatoes or whitefish. But a document on the cemetery website quotes him as saying that during the pandemic, "I lost more friends than I ever knew I had in the city."
I have never lived in Petoskey but remain drawn to it; today I protectively watch the data for Emmet County--and I worry about echoes of 1918. "Up North," so beloved in the Great Lakes region, is still underserved in terms of medical infrastructure. It is difficult to know how many Petoskey residents died of influenza because records were kept differently then, but we do know that in 1918, forty-eight deaths were blamed on the pandemic. As of mid-April this year, Covid-19 has claimed forty from Emmet County. From October 1918 to April 1919, the Spanish flu killed some 15,000 Michiganders. By mid-April this year, Covid had taken more than 17,000.
My grandparents lived through their pandemic. They had a couple of rough years, to be sure, and it hurt. But they got through it. And for the public health officials and scientists who now face vitriol as Dr. Engle did then, I'd point to my grandfather's obituary.
Maybe he lost a lot of "friends" in the shutdown, but when he died thirty years later, the whole city mourned. His death was announced above the fold on the front page of the Evening News. "Tall and dignified," they wrote, "Dr. Engle had a kindly manner, which endeared him to his many patients and associates .... [H]e was an outstanding member of his profession and a public servant who contributed greatly to the welfare and growth of his community."
So there's another thing I learned from my grandfather's pandemic: Doing the right thing sometimes hurts. But posterity will thank you--and though you may never meet your grandchildren, you will make them proud.
[Originally published in May, 2021.]
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