In 1918, Sheridan County lost between 1 and 2 percent of its population because of a worldwide pandemic of Spanish Flu.
More than 200 deaths in the Sheridan area were directly attributed to the deadly influenza or its most deadly complication, pneumonia. The deadly virus didn’t show up in Wyoming until late September. But when it came thousands of the state’s citizens were suddenly rendered ill. Public health officials were overwhelmed and unable to keep accurate records.
On Oct. 15, the local newspaper reported that an estimated 1,000 people were stricken with influenza and seven people had died. As the days went by, the number of people affected rose to almost 2,000 and the death toll followed in grim pursuit.
The State Hospital in Sheridan was overwhelmed and so the women of the Red Cross rolled up their sleeves. They had spent the war rolling bandages, sewing hospital garments, knitting socks and collecting used clothing. Now they geared their energy toward care for influenza victims. E. E. Lonabaugh, a prominent attorney, donated a large rooming house on Grinnell Avenue for use as an emergency hospital to treat the victims. Everything used in the temporary hospital — beds, bedding, furniture, dishes and towels — was donated by generous citizens. Local carpenters donated their time to make the needed modifications to the building. The hospital had a capacity for 32 patients and it was always full.
Local rules were set in place to quell the spread of the virulent sickness. All restaurants were ordered to boil all eating and drinking utensils in water for 10 minutes. City officials ordered the closure of schools, swimming pools, pool halls, theaters and churches. Saloons and soda fountains removed their chairs and all public gatherings, such as auctions and club meetings, were canceled. City trucks watered the streets to reduce the amount of dust and hopefully lessen the spread of germs.
The doctors who had not been called to serve in the war made valiant efforts to treat people in their homes. They literally worked around the clock. To help take up the slack, the Red Cross made an urgent plea for women to assist victims both in private homes and at the two nursing facilities.
Daily, the local newspaper listed the number of new influenza cases. They also listed those who died. The news was always heartbreaking and many died of “sudden seizures” which resulted in a “fatal determination in a short time.” One Japanese family of four died within a few days of each other. Sadly, local men serving in the armed forces in the United States and abroad died from influenza as well, and these deaths were listed in the local paper.
As dire as the situation was in the City of Sheridan, it was worse in outlying areas of the county because of the time and distance involved. It was more difficult for the doctors and nurses to get to isolated mining camps, farms and ranches.
When possible, patients were collected in makeshift hospitals. The annex of the old Arvada hotel was set up as a hospital, and in Clearmont the Cooksley family, who operated the hotel, turned it into a hospital. Not everyone could get to a hospital.
Fred J. Todd, a Piney Creek rancher, wrote that: “My gosh, people were dying like flies! They ran out of coffins so stored bodies in frigid ice houses and snow banks.”
Although the epidemic continued into the next spring, by November the crest of the influenza wave had passed over the Sheridan area. People still got sick, but the death rate declined dramatically.
No longer would citizens be confronted with newspaper headlines like: “MANY NAMES ON SCROLL OF DEATH”
Tom Ringley was re-elected as a county commissioner in 2012. He is the author of four books. Ringley grew up in Sheridan and returned home in 1990 after 27 years as an Air Force officer. He has been involved with the local hospital foundation, the Sheridan-Wyo-Rodeo and has been the facilities director at the county fairgrounds.