Last week it was reported that this winter’s version of the influenza had claimed its first life in Wisconsin – a twelve-year old girl from Milwaukee. That is truly tragic news to hear. Wisconsin seems to be one of the states in the country that has the influenza breaking out in epidemic proportion and the Kickapoo Valley has not been spared from that outbreak. The medical clinic in La Farge has been jammed for several weeks with people seeking relief and remedies from the dreaded influenza. In olden days, they called the disease “La Grippe”.
One of the downsides of researching through the history of La Farge has been to chronicle the effects of disease, disaster and destruction of various sorts in the community. Great floods of the Kickapoo River stand like signposts when navigating through the history of this little river town. Those disasters of Mother Nature provide dividing points in telling the story of this town. (Think how the village has changed since the great flood of 2008 as the most recent example of this.)
As one leafs through the pages of old newspapers that help to tell the story of La Farge, the mentions of the winter sicknesses like influenza are all too common. At its very beginning, the village endured the ravages of the illness. In the January 20, 1899 issue of the La Farge Enterprise, it is noted that, “everyone has la grippe”. The use of that term, “la grippe” is interesting in itself. Its use is probably derived from the earlier lumber camps that were located in the northern part of the Kickapoo Valley. The derivation of the word is French-Canadian, which again would possibly tie it to the men who were populating those early lumber camps.
The men in those lumber camps were housed in barracks of a kind that could foster the spread of a disease like influenza or la grippe. Virtually stacked on top of each other for sleeping arrangements and usually eating from a common serving vessel, the spread of disease and illness was almost guaranteed. The sound of the morning cough of the men in the camp was legendary and was a signal for other, more healthier sorts to stay away.
In the first decade of the village of La Farge (1899-1909) mention is made nearly every year of an outbreak of la grippe or some other influenza type illness. “La Grippe is back in town” led the local observation of the March 11, 1909 issue of the Enterprise. Of course in those days there were no flu shots to help mitigate the ravages of the flu. (Although I can personally attest that the 2014-15 version of that flu inoculation did not mitigate the effects of a certain strain of this season’s influenza. My constant cough of several weeks has become a factor of recognition, as in, “Oh there’s that awful hacking cough, that must be Brad!)
Tragically, death from disease was often the final chronicle for some in those early years of research. The report of a death from the influenza, or whooping cough, or croup was almost a weekly occurrence in those newspapers from that time. In a 1905 issue of the La Farge newspaper, mention is made of a six-month old baby succumbing to membranous croup, a childhood upper respiratory illness associated with diphtheria. Whooping cough was another deadly disease for the young during that time. The whooping cough could become so virulent that quarantines and other isolating measures would be used to thwart the spread of the deadly disease. Doctors in the village would post warning signs on the front doors of houses where the disease was rampant, warning others to avoid contact with the inhabitants. The local school in La Farge was shut down for a week or two at a time on more than one occasion during this era to stem the effects of these winter illnesses.
In one year during this early decade of La Farge, the village president, acting in concert with the local doctors, cancelled a much-anticipated dance, which was to be held at the Opera House. The members of the band that was to play for the grand winter ball were from Viola, which was apparently rife with whooping cough at the time. So to avoid the threat of infection from the downriver community, the dance was called off. Of course, this action did not sit well with the people of Viola, so in that town’s newspaper a scathing article was published the following week that rebuked the La Farge officials for impugning their fair town (Viola) as a center of disease and pestilence.
Of course, back in those days, there was a train chugging into town every day. The old “Kickapoo Stump Dodger” delivered all sorts of goods and products to the businesses and farms of the community. There were also usually some passengers on the daily train – often salesmen coming to La Farge to peddle their wares. One can imagine of the various ills and maladies also accompanying those traveling salesmen when they came to town. Spreading la grippe, the Kickapoo Croup and other winter illnesses would have been part of the convenience of La Farge being connected to the outside world via its rail line.
One of the saddest findings in my research dealt with the death of the teenage daughter of Henry Millard. I believe she was only thirteen-years old when she succumbed to one of the winter influenzas of that time. She was a very popular girl in the village. Her Dad owned a general store and operated La Farge’s post office out of the same building and she often helped people with their purchases and picking up their mail. She was a daughter of La Farge’s Main Street and her sudden passing shocked the community and devastated her parents. It was said that Henry Millard and his wife never got over their lovely daughter’s passing. Eventually, the store was sold and the Millard’s left the community that they had called home for so many years. They left to escape the painful memories of the loss of their beautiful little girl.
Stay healthy during this winter flu season my friends.