Montana was slow to report the presence of influenza. This was not surprising. Many states, especially rural ones had difficulties assembling staff and getting them to report diseases even before the 1918-1919 pandemic. On October 4th, state officials sent their first official report to the Public Health Service. The report noted that “the disease is epidemic in Sheridan and Fergus Counties. Cases have been reported from other counties.”
|Amusement Parks, such as the Columbia Gardens in Butte, were often closed in the wake of the pandemic. [Credit: The Library of Congress]|
Although state officials were required to provide follow-up reports to the Public Health Service after their initial report, Montana failed to do so. This failure may indicate that officials were overcome by the epidemic. By late October, however, state officials finally sent a follow-up report to the PHS. Admitting that their records “are…very incomplete,” officials said that there were over 3,500 cases of influenza among the state’s white population. On Tongue Indian Reservation, the situation was especially severe, with over a thousand cases and thirty-nine deaths. Throughout early November, state officials noted glumly that the disease was increasing.
During the pandemic, people in Butte turned to the herbal remedies of a Chinese physician, Dr. Huie Pock, and his remedies were credited with saving people’s lives. The situation in Butte, a raucous mining town, was such that even the saloons were closed on October 22nd.
In Chocteau, the pandemic closed the schools for four weeks.
In an oral history done for the Montana Historical Society, Loretta Jarussi of Bearcreek, Montana, described how people would pass through her tiny town seemingly healthy, only to be reported dead two days later. Looking back on the pandemic, Jarussi said “People would come along, and...they’d stop and say hello to us. My mother was very friendly. She loved to see those people. She was kind of lonesome there, you know, just us kids and her. So when anybody passed by, she always stayed with them. And, you know, maybe a week later, they’d say so-and-so died, and they had been past our place. So many people had that flu, and young people, and they died. And, you know, my father contracted that flu, and everybody in the family had it except my mother. And he was in and out of the hospital. He had a shoe shop in Columbus at that time, and he was in and out of the hospital, and he’d go to the hospital and they’d tell him, “There’s nothing wrong with you,” and he’d go. And then he’d come back to the hospital. He just didn’t feel right. He went through that for a number of times. And he finally decided he was going to go to Thermopolis to the springs. He thought going there would help him. And just before he was leaving, he went to the doctor. Dr. Gardner was the doctor at that time, his doctor. And he said, “Dr. Gardner, I’m going to try and go to the springs and see if that helps me.” And he said, “Well, Louie, it might help you.” So while he was there, Dr. Gardner’s son, who also was a doctor, happened to be in there, and he had been in the Army, an Army doctor, and was home on leave, I think. He said, “Dad, if you let that man go to the springs, he’ll come home in a box.” And he said, “Well, what would you suggest?” And he said, “I’ll tell you what we did in the Army,” and it seemed to work. They had a powerful medicine. I don’t know what it was. But he said, “We gave them doses of this medicine, and that seemed to help.” So he gave him this prescription and told him to get it filled, and he said, “Now it’s going to be pretty rough on you. You be sure to tell your wife to use a lot of blankets, wool blankets on you, and as you perspire, to change those blankets and keep you real warm.”
So dad went home and told mom, and mom said, “Okay. Let’s get things going.” And he took a dose of medicine, and it seemed to help a little bit. Then time for a second dose. That also seemed to help. Then he had the third dose, and at that time he thought he was going to die. And he called all the kids around the bed and said, “This is for you, and you’re supposed to do this, and this is yours,” and then he kind of went into—I don’t know—a sleep, a coma. A sleep, a deep sleep. And mama thought, she really did, he had died, but he came out of it, and he felt better. But it took two years to get over that.”
Jarussi’s experience was repeated across the state throughout the fall and winter.
The disease tapered off slightly after November but influenza continued to be pervasive throughout the state during much of the winter and spring of 1919.