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Jack Dura

Contributor, Dakota Datebook
  • We will never know the full extent of the 1918 flu pandemic in North Dakota. The virus hit the state at a time of poor public health administration, with no state health department. The official death count of 1,378 people is almost certainly an undercount. One estimate in recent years put the death toll at more than 5,100 North Dakotans.
  • Today is another part of the story of a young preacher called to McKenzie County in North Dakota a century ago. The Rev. Richard C. Jahn was 20 years old, fresh from seminary in St. Louis when he arrived by train in Watford City. He lodged with a bachelor homesteader in a cabin east of Watford City, and traveled around the McKenzie County area giving sermons in English and German. Jahn lived near Schafer, the former McKenzie County seat.
  • When the flu pandemic struck Bismarck in 1918, everyday life ground to a halt. Schools, churches and theaters closed. Public gatherings ended. Bismarck's city health officer ordered waitresses and other food handlers to wear face masks. The Red Cross made and distributed masks to the public. Police had orders to arrest and jail anyone loitering or congregating on streets. The chief of police put extra officers on duty for enforcement. With school off, Bismarck children were banned from congregating. And in these dark days of the pandemic, World War One lingered in its final weeks.
  • North Dakota has welcomed several royal visitors over the years. On this date in 1926, Queen Marie of Romania and her children -- Princess Ileana and Prince Nicholas -- made their way west by train through North Dakota, on a tour of the United States. Queen Marie was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria.
  • Face masks were widely used during the terrible flu pandemic of 1918. Newspapers carried instructions for making masks from gauze or cheesecloth. The Red Cross made and distributed masks. Health authorities advocated the use of masks.
  • When the Salk polio vaccine rolled out in North Dakota in 1955, children ages 5 to 9 and pregnant women were given top priority. Parents welcomed the vaccine with open arms. Polio could paralyze and even kill, and young children were the most vulnerable. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which led the March of Dimes for vaccine research and patient care, provided the vaccine free of charge for first- and second-graders. Salk’s vaccine came in a series of three shots. By the end of 1955, 59 percent of those children in North Dakota were vaccinated. None contracted polio.
  • Visits of sitting presidents to North Dakota have been few and far between, but one of the most memorable was of President George Bush Sr. planting an elm outside the state Capitol to commemorate North Dakota’s centennial in 1989.
  • Ask anyone old enough to remember the polio years, and they will probably recall waiting in line to take a vaccine on a sugar cube. Dr. Jonas Salk gets a lot of credit for developing a vaccine to defeat polio, but this oral vaccine came out years afterward, developed by his rival, Dr. Albert Sabin.
  • Too much or too little water are extremes North Dakota knows all too well. Terrible droughts and destructive floods dot the state’s history. On the wet side, there was the historic 1897 Red River flood and the mammoth rains of the 1990s that swelled Devils Lake. On the dry side, nothing tops the Dust Bowl, when temperatures soared into the triple digits, wind blasted away soil, and farmers and ranchers were left in ruins.
  • North Dakotans took many steps to fight the 1918 flu pandemic. Bismarck had a mask mandate for waitresses and other food handlers. Schools and businesses around the state closed – some for months. There was even a vaccine, though it turned out to be useless.