Flu, fires and the Great War: Author chronicles hard year in Minnesota history

“Minnesota, 1918: When Flu, Fire, and War Ravaged the State” by Curt Brown. Minnesota Historical Society Press, February 2018. 304 pp. $24.95.

By Ann Jonas
For The Visitor

One hundred years ago, the citizens of Minnesota endured some serious adversity. Minnesotans were fighting overseas in the Great War, the Spanish influenza was becoming an epidemic and, in October, wild fires were raging in the northeastern part of the state.

Journalist Curt Brown has authored a new book on this interesting year in Minnesota history, focusing mainly on individual stories and the communities that were greatly impacted during these hard times. In “Minnesota, 1918” Brown weaves together all his research, done through interviews, letters, diaries and newspaper articles, to create a dramatic narrative.

The 23 chapters in “Minnesota, 1918” are all titled with the cities and towns where the events of the chapter took place (all in Minnesota except for a couple of chapters that focus on related happenings in Washington, D.C., and France). Automba, Moose Lake and Cloquet have several chapters dedicated to events that occurred in those villages and towns, as they were some of the hardest hit during the fires in October. Sauk Centre and St. Cloud are both represented, although they have secondary roles in the book.

The stories of the devastating fires are a large part of the book. On Oct. 12, after the driest summer in 48 years, small brush fires in northeastern Minnesota (normal happenings in that area) turned into the deadliest fire in Minnesota history, fueled by gusting winds, train sparks and excessive logging. More than 450 people lost their lives and the lumber towns of Cloquet and Moose Lake burned to the ground. Brown describes some heart-breaking and unbelievable stories of families as they tried to escape the rapidly spreading fires. Sadly, some survivors of the deadly fires soon fell victim to influenza and many of them died from that epidemic.

Brown writes that the influenza outbreak arrived in Minnesota in September 1918, when a sick soldier returned from Illinois to his home in southern Minnesota. By the end of 1918, when the outbreak receded as quickly as it arrived, more than 75,000 Minnesotans would contract the disease, and more than 10,000 would perish.

Locally, Sister Julitta Hoppe, a Benedictine from St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, is featured. She is given credit for her untiring care for the sick during the influenza wave, pleading with Bishop Joseph Busch to find space to care for the hordes of flu-stricken. Bishop Busch agreed to allow the use of the St. Cloud Institute, which was the diocesan civic center, as an emergency hospital.

While more than 50,000 Minnesotans were fighting in the Great War, a definite anti-German sentiment was spreading throughout the country and the state. Brown explains how many Minnesotans of German descent were torn between their American patriotism and the uncomfortable feeling of fighting against their ancestral home.

In April 1917, the Minnesota Senate created the Commission of Public Safety, which dealt with practical things such as controlling wartime prices and conserving fuel. However, determining who was loyal and who wasn’t quickly became its obsession as hundreds of undercover agents were hired to spy on citizens, causing unease everywhere.

Throughout his book, Brown offers readers a very human perspective of these events of 1918. His accounts of the experiences, misfortunes and heartaches lived by Minnesotans during this time are interesting and stirring.

A Minnesota journalist for more than 30 years, Brown writes about Minnesota’s history each Sunday in the Minneapolis StarTribune.

“Minnesota, 1918” is available in bookstores everywhere, including the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University Bookstores.

Ann Jonas is the general book buyer for the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.

The Visitor is the official newpaper for the Diocese of Saint Cloud.

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