Thursday, February 14, 2013

Flu -Day 14 of the Family History Writing Challenge

Serendipity strikes. I had the good fortune to speak with June Rhea a few weeks ago. She is the wife of Robert Rhea, the last remaining child of Washington Floyd Rhea. He is 90 and has dementia. June says he gets frustrated when he can’t do the things he used to do. June married him when she was 16 and has been part of the family for 71 years. While she doesn’t remember much about Martha Jane McColloam (and that’s how she spelled it), she does remember other things. She promised that she would write and the letter came today. Having never been in Tennessee or met any one there, the letter brings the family closer.

One thing that struck me in the letter was a line about the family property. She writes, “It must have been a beautiful home…She must have had a big river bottom farm and had more than most people”.

It is the little tiny clues like this that spur me on. I know that Martha was resourceful. I know she bought land later in life and held on to the property she had. These little speculations add credence to what I already know. June is going to send me a picture of the home.

1918 was not the best year for Tennessee. The boys were returning from World War I. While that was a good thing, the winter had been particularly bad. They called it the Winterstorm. The Clinch River flooded in November 1918 and Martha wrote about it a letter she sent to my grandfather.

“The River got up on the bank corn and damaged a lot. We didn’t lose much as we had stock to ate it. But Victor had to pull and throw up higher all day in the rain to keep the water off it.”

Tennessee had already suffered a big flood in January. There would not be another flood to rival it until 1957.

However, the talk worldwide was the 1918 Flu Pandemic. It started around January 1918 and went away in December of 1920. They believe that 500 million people were infected and more than 50 million people died. The counts are not accurate as many of the deaths were not reported, especially those in the more rural areas.

Tennessee was not spared. There were 7,721 recorded deaths. The hardest hit area was Nashville. The DuPout plant in Old Hickory was a one of the biggest employers and became a hotbed for the virus.

Sneedville escaped the worst of it. The County Seat was more isolated and not close to the larger cities. Martha writes, in a letter dated November 22, 1918,

“Extremely glad you are well. I hope you will Escape the Flue. It has been all around as Several have Died. I hope it is abating. There is lots of sickness here the past month.”

Three days later, she penned another letter to my grandfather.

“We haven’t taken the Flue yet though it is all round us. Several have died. But I think the worst has passed, everyone that could stayed at home…Nellie, Keep close as you can Keep the Flu off if possible. some people Here sprinkle a little sulphur in their shoes every morning to keep off disease. Write me soon for I shall be uneasy”.
The flu was still a topic of conversation on January 1, 1919, when Martha wrote again, "There is a few cases of Flu here yet has killed several people but none closer us than Sneedville".

It was a concern for all of those who lived through the Spanish Flu. Treatments were non-existent and it was the start of the research into vaccines. They told people to stay home and closed businesses, churches, schools, and amusement areas. Many of the deaths were not from the influenza itself but secondary illness like pneumonia and other respiratory ailments. The treatment really hasn’t changed and the same advice remains today. Stay in bed, drink plenty of liquids, and take aspirin.

I don’t know what sulphur in the shoes would do but no one died in the Rhea family and for that we are grateful.

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