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Influenza in Bowbells and Burke County


Communities locked down when the 1918 influenza pandemic emerged in North Dakota. The outbreak of so-called “Spanish flu” shuttered most aspects of daily life. On this date in 1918, the City Board of Health in Bowbells, North Dakota, ordered the closures of all schools, churches, theaters, dance halls, lodge halls and other places of public gatherings, amusement and entertainment. The board forbade all public meetings and gatherings and the playing of billiards in pool halls. The order followed a similar one issued by Burke County’s Board of Health.

Local health authorities also recommended keeping children at home and not allowing them to visit neighbors or play with other children in the streets. At that time, the Bowbells area allegedly had fewer than six cases of flu, and “only a very few can be called the Spanish variety.”

One of the first local deaths was of a 33-year-old mother of two who had been sick for two weeks and died from pneumonia brought on by flu. No public funeral was allowed.

A newlywed couple from nearby Coteau, North Dakota, contracted flu and died days apart less than a month after their wedding. They were 26 and 18 years old. The bride’s 38-year-old mother died days after them.

Bowbells’ newspaper accounts generally downplayed the outbreak, which supposedly would be stamped out within 10 days or by (quote) “a good rain or some cold weather.” (unquote) The paper also reported on dozens of residents and families sick, recovering or dead from flu. Bowbells’ druggist and undertaker both took ill. A visiting druggist had to fill in. Several teachers were also sickened. The Red Cross established a Bowbells flu committee for reporting cases and determining each patient’s needs. Every willing resident of Bowbells was asked to help care for patients, doing their housework or giving other help. Women were asked to prepare meals for stricken families.

Schools reopened after a weeklong closure. Other parts of Bowbells’ society would soon follow. A Thanksgiving ball was planned. We’ll learn more about what in a future episode.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

The Bowbells Tribune. 1918, October 18. Pages 1, 5
The Bowbells Tribune. 1918, October 25. Pages 1, 5
The Bowbells Tribune. 1918, November 1. Page 1, 4
The Bowbells Tribune. 1918, November 8. Page 5
The Bowbells Tribune. 1918, November 15. Page 1
The Bowbells Tribune. 1918, November 22. Page 1
The Bowbells Tribune. 1918, November 29. Page 1

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