'Avoid Crowds, Coughs, And Cowards': How Montezuma County Responded To The 1918 Influenza Pandemic

Jun 24, 2020

At the end of 1917, Dr. Emil Johnson, an immigrant from Sweden, opened a hospital in Cortez. It stretched between two cottages, had ten beds, and shared his name—the Johnson Hospital. It was located on Main Street, at the modern-day site of the Turquoise Inn across from City Market.

The doctor's granddaughter, Erin Johnson, and her family have studied the history of the hospital. Dr. Johnson died before Erin was born, but family archives describe the hospital. 

 

"It had its own orchard and garden, and barn, and they raised all their food," she said. "They took care of their people that way - I thought that was pretty cool."

 

Note: Erin Johnson's law office is an underwriter of KSJD.

 

About a year after it opened, however, the Johnson Hospital faced its first major test. A severe influenza epidemic was spreading across the world, and infecting millions of people. Many called it the Spanish Flu, although it was not connected to Spain. Local newspaper articles from the time, accessed through the Colorado State Library online archives, give a partial account of how the virus impacted the area. 

 

The first published mention of the influenza in Montezuma County was on Oct. 9, 1918. The Montezuma Journal in Cortez published this notice from the Board of County Commissioners: 

 

It appearing to the Board of County Commissioners of Montezuma County, Colorado, that an epidemic of a disease known as the Spanish Influenza is now prevalent in this County, it is ordered by the Board that all schools, picture shows, Sunday schools, dances, entertainment, lodges or other meeting or gathering within the limits of Montezuma County, Colorado, outside of the corporate limits of incorporated town be prohibited, and that the County Health Officers be directed to enforce this order until otherwise ordered by the Board, or until in the Judgment of said Health Officers the necessity for the enforcement thereof for the public health has ceased. By order of the Board of County Commissioners.

 

SAMUEL M . BURKE, County Clerk 

A separate article in that issue gave an impression of the public's reaction. 

As usual, there are divers [sic] opinions as to the necessity of this, some endorsing it as the only thing to do and others thinking it best to wait until after there have been some [funerals]. Take your choice. This paper endorses the move. 

-- "Everything Sealed Up in this County," Montezuma Journal, Oct. 10, 1918

Around 20 miles away, the town of Mancos, with an approximate population of 680 people (per the 1920 census) and a slightly larger population than Cortez (541 people, according to the 1920 census), also closed schools and prohibited public gatherings. Other surrounding communities, like Dolores, did the same. However, the virus still spread. A month later, reports in the Mancos Times-Tribune described the impacts of what would become the first wave of the 1918 influenza. 

The grim reaper has gathered a large harvest of death in the Mancos vicinity this week, probably the largest in the history of the community for one week. Sickness and sorrow and death are in many homes, and our sympathetic people are helping one another as best they can. 

-- "Death Roll of the Week," Mancos Times-Tribune, Nov. 8, 1918 

Obituaries of seven people killed in the community that week followed the article. Many of the victims had also contracted pneumonia, which appeared to be common if the symptoms were left untreated. A week later, the Times-Tribune described the situation in nearby towns. 

The influenza epidemic is raging in Dolores this week and the people of the town are waging a valiant fight to get it under control. The public school building has been converted into a hospital, two doctors are attending the sick and all lending a hand in some way to care for those unable to care for themselves…surely these are times that a call for un-selfish service on the part of every one. 

The epidemic at Cortez was also but little abated at last report and on Wednesday there were forty cases in the Brown Palace Hotel which has been converted into a hospital. Besides these the Johnson hospital is full and there are many cases in the homes.

--Page 1, Mancos Times-Tribune, Nov. 15, 1918. 

Doctors and nurses from the Red Cross arrived in Dolores to treat patients the following week. At the time, there weren't any clear cures for the disease, though newspapers did print advertisements for products like quinine and Vick's VapoRub that claimed to help the symptoms. A syndicated article in the Mancos Times-Tribune in November 1918, shortly after World War I ended, began with the advice to  "avoid crowds, coughs and cowards, but fear neither germs nor Germans!" 

And, although there were heated debates over wearing masks in Denver and in other cities in the West, Montezuma County newspapers made little, if any, mention of the practice locally.

 

As the flu continued into December, the town of Cortez established its own lockdown. Among other restrictions, it prohibited all public gatherings and barred nurses and infected people from going out in public. Doctors were exempt from the restrictions, but, as they found out, not immune from the virus. 

 

It was with universal regret that the news came that Dr. Royal W Calkins has been sent to his bed with the influenza after going thru the campaign looking after his patients for many weeks. While his condition is not serious it will be a constant source of anxiety among his friends until he recovers. Dr. Johnson is doing double duty now, but has not gotten back to normal since his siege with the plague. 

-- Page 1, Montezuma Journal, Dec. 19, 1918

Both doctors eventually recovered, according to later articles. 

The virus also hit the Navajo and Ute people that winter. The white owner of a trading post on the Navajo reservation told the Montezuma Journal in late December that over 100 people, and in some cases entire families, had been killed by the virus near her business. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe fared slightly better, but newspapers showed racism from the nearby white settlers.  

 

They do not understand why the white men had the flu, took medicine and got well while many of the Indians took medicine and died. Some of them say maybe some medicine given Indian [sic] was coyote bate [sic] (poison). 

-- "Superstitious Utes," Mancos Times-Tribune, Jan. 10, 1919. 

Later that winter, the U.S. Government also inserted itself in property inheritance cases among members of the Ute tribe who had died of the virus. Newspaper coverage from the time called the tribe's traditional systems "peculiar."

Published mentions of cases in the county among the white settlers decreased in late December of 1918. The communities appeared to have reopened for Christmas, New Year's and into January of the following year. The town of Mancos even briefly placed restrictions on outsiders. 

  

Any person coming to town from any point outside of this immediate vicinity must submit to three days isolation before being allowed the liberty of the streets. Mancos has no influenza and the object is to keep the community free of it if possible. 

-- "Quarantine," Mancos Times-Tribune, Jan. 24, 1919. 

But the virus returned in the late winter and spring. Newspaper articles from that time showed fewer details from this second wave, but the county commission did issue similar lockdowns to before. Between February and April of 1919, the flu appears to have hit Mancos and Dolores the hardest. 

Today, Friday, there are about a hundred cases in town and a number in the country, but, outside of Thompson Park, we have not heard of any case that is considered dangerous, though a few have been pretty sick. Many new cases are being reported daily and the epidemic will doubtless soon run its course. 

-- "Flu Afficting Us," Mancos Times-Tribune, March 14, 1919 

The last published mention of the flu in Montezuma County appeared to be in early April, six full months after the first report. An official count of cases or fatalities in the county was never completed. 

Erin Johnson and historian June Head of the Montezuma County Historical Society both said they have searched cemetery records to try to get a picture of the flu's toll. Neither could find a specific number. Johnson said this may have been because many of the victims were buried at or near their homes. 

 

The Johnson Hospital remained open and active for the duration of the pandemic. Erin Johnson said there aren't records from that time, but she read from a letter published by a patient who had stayed there for an extended period that winter.

 

"From my room door I could see other patients, and never a one neglected, each one treated with the greatest kindness and respect," a portion of the letter read. 

Dr. Johnson continued his work at the hospital until 1940. After it later closed, its building was moved to Arbecam Avenue in Cortez - just a few blocks away from where it had opened.