Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Part II: The disasters of Steele County April 15, 2016

Steele County disasters, 107 pandemic display

 

OF ALL THE DISASTERS HIGHLIGHTED in a current local disasters exhibit at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna, it is the flu pandemic of 1918 that feels most personal. To read the names of victims like Cora, Helen and Forest and to see photos of gravestones grieved me. Every winter, even today, we hear of those who’ve died from the flu. Young. Old. In between. Thankfully, we have vaccines that prevent the illness from infecting most of us.

Snowdrifts blocked a train as noted in this news clip.

Snowdrifts blocked a train as noted in this news clip.

This detailed exhibit, an off-shoot of the Minnesota Historical Society Traveling Exhibit Disasters of Minnesota: Stories of Strength and Survival, connected a worldwide tragedy to Minnesota. To the county just to the south of mine.

Masks, precautions and isolation helped protect against the flu epidemic. To the left in this photo are names of Steele County residents who died from the flu in 1918.

Masks, precautions and isolation helped protect against the flu epidemic. To the left in this photo are names of Steele County residents who died from the flu in 1918, plus photos of some of their gravestones.

In Minnesota alone, according to one report, as many as 12,000 died of the flu in 1918. Worldwide, sources put deaths at 40 or 50 million.

Activities that brought people together were suspended during the flu outbreak.

Activities that brought people together were suspended during the flu outbreak.

I’d never considered the vast scope of this tragedy, how fearful folks must have been, how deep the grief at losing loved ones and friends. I also hadn’t thought about the impact on everyday life. As I browsed the exhibit, I noted news stories about libraries, dance halls, theaters and churches closed because of the pandemic.

I am old enough to remember also the fringe ending of the polio epidemic, highlighted, too, in this exhibit.

These newspaper articles feature snowstorms in the county.

These newspaper articles feature snowstorms in the county.

Steele County has experienced plenty of floods.

Steele County has experienced numerous floods.

Fires, too, have devastated the county.

Fires, too, have devastated the county.

Steele County has experienced plenty of disasters involving snow, heat, wind, water and fire. These are outlined in panel displays.

Portrait of Virginia Hart

Portrait of Virginia Hart

It would be easy to become discouraged, to feel only despair that so many southern Minnesota residents have suffered so much through the years. I was especially appreciative of stories that uplifted me, like that of Ruth Weinmann. The young teacher, ill with the flu in 1918, was taken in by a doctor’s family after her landlady refused to house her and the hospital was full. In gratitude to Dr. Alfred and Alice Hart, Ruth painted a portrait of their daughter, Virginia. It is a lovely expression of thankfulness.

 

Steele County disasters, 104 chicks hatch in heat

 

And then there’s the story of chicks hatching in the middle of Steele County’s longest, hottest heat wave—13 straight days of temperatures above 100 degrees beginning on July 5, 1936. Mrs. Tilford Morreim left five eggs on the window sill of her woodshed. In the heat, the eggs hatched. I needed to read that humorous story in the midst of all the suffering and loss.

Information on tornadoes in Steele County.

Information on tornadoes in Steele County.

In every disaster, we must find a reason to be hopeful, to survive, to share our stories…for in sharing exists hope and resilience.

These two exhibits are on display through March 2017.

These two exhibits are on display through March 2017.

FYI: For more information about this exhibit, click here. To read my first post about this exhibit in Owatonna, click here. Check back for a post on a wedding dress exhibit also now showing at the Steele County History Center.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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8 Responses to “Part II: The disasters of Steele County”

  1. Don Says:

    A pandemic must make a person feel so helpless. Sick loved ones, the fear of catching the sickness, what a terrible situation that must be! Thank goodness for modern medical science.

    A window incubator what a surprise that must have been!

  2. Sue Ready Says:

    I must say the topic of disasters is an interesting one for an exhibit. It does deliver quite a punch with pause to reflect on those who faced such desperate circumstances. One does admire those who showed such resilience and were able to move on with their life but perhaps forever altered.
    Thanks for sharing these stories.

  3. This is really interesting! And my mom’s family had a connection to the influenza pandemic; her brother Gene died in it. Mom was just a baby. They were lucky they only lost one, I think.

    • My husband and I were just talking about this yesterday as we toured a rural Rice County cemetery. We stood before one large stone with the names of three young siblings engraved thereon. Such grief so many mothers endured.

      I am sorry you lost an uncle to the flu pandemic.

  4. Beth Ann Says:

    I never would have thought that an exhibit on disasters could be as interesting as this one. They did a great job of highlighting everything but it would probably be a bit overwhelming for me to take it all in. But thank goodness those chickens hatched. That made me giggle.


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