Sycamore funeral home owner to discuss family's role in mitigating 1918 flu

Local man to discuss how his grandfather combatted 1918 Spanish flu in Rockford

Soldiers in the U.S. Army train in 1918 at Camp Grant, south of Rockford.
Soldiers in the U.S. Army train in 1918 at Camp Grant, south of Rockford.

SYCAMORE – It was one of the worst pandemic of the 20th century and a local funeral home director wants to share his family member's struggle to contain it.

Bruce Olson, director at Olson Funeral & Cremation Services, will hold a seminar July 24 in Sycamore in which he will talk about the role his grandfather played in recording the deaths of more than 1,000 soldiers who died from the Spanish flu in 1918 at Camp Grant in Rockford. The scope of the flu was not fully covered in newspapers at the time because of the Sedition Act of 1918 signed by President Woodrow Wilson.

"It hit northern Illinois badly and the community and everyone else," Bruce said. "Doctors died and nurses died."

The pandemic was responsible for at least 50 million deaths worldwide, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those deaths, about 675,000 Americans, including Olson's grandmother, lost their lives to the virus.

Fred Olson, Bruce's grandfather and director for the family funeral home in 1918, told Bruce he was called to Camp Grant, one of the many training camps across the country for the U.S. Army during Wold War I, on a fall night that year. The base had been losing soldiers to the influenza virus in the triple digits for days, with an infrastructure that was originally only equipped to handle four deaths a day, according to a 2010 article published in Public Health Reports.

On Fred Olson's first night there, the death toll had reached 250.

"They had all of these dead young men, they needed to disinfect them and had no way of doing it," Bruce said. "There were 250 dead people all lined up. Can you imagine what that looks like?"

According to historian Carol Byerly, the virus traveled to Camp Grant on Sept. 21 and immediately resulted in 70 hospital admissions.

"So sudden and appalling was the visitation that it required the greatest energy and cooperation of every officer, every man, every nurse to meet the emergency," an observer wrote, according to Byerly.

Bruce said because of war-time censorship, Col. Charles Hagadorn, Camp Grant commander, did not know how widespread the pandemic was. More than 500 soldiers died from the virus under his command – the grief from which caused him to take his own life, according to Byerly.

"He said the commander was one of the most upset men he had ever met," Bruce remembers his grandfather saying. "He rushed to build the base, and put the buildings closer together than what was acceptable."

The seminar will be at 1:30 p.m. July 24 at Olson Funeral & Cremation Services-Quiram Chapel, 1245 Somonauk St. The event is free and all that is required to attend is a reservation by calling Quiram Sycamore Chapel at 815-895-6589.

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