Recently, while doing some spring housecleaning, I came upon a September 2019 magazine which had a cover article I had read with interest last fall. I was initially attracted to the story because I’m a history buff, but now I’ve re-read it with a totally different mindset.
The story which appeared in Mountain Home magazine, written by Carrie Hagan, was a painfully sad one. It told about the “basket babies” of Gaines, Pennsylvania, in northcentral Pennsylvania. The reason the story meant more to me now than it did six months ago is because it deals with the Spanish flu epidemic, which struck the United States and other countries from 1917 through early 1919, reportedly killing 675,000 Americans. More than 50 million people died worldwide.
Gaines was a small town back then, as it remains today. When influenza hit their area a little over 100 years ago, it resulted in so many deaths that a coffin shortage developed. Fortunately, the Gaines Basket Factory was located there and they began making baskets in which infants lost during the epidemic could be buried. One gentleman interviewed for the article was the son of a Wellsboro funeral home owner, and still has one of the special baskets woven for this heart-breaking purpose.
Reading the story in light of the recent outbreak of the coronavirus made me realize how times have changed, but also how vulnerable mankind remains to illnesses which don’t immediately have a cure. On the one hand, medical science has made huge strides since the early 1900s, which was before antibiotics were discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928. But on the other hand, the world is a much more mobile place than it was a century ago. Airplanes and cruise ships not only carry people all over the world, but also create a closed environment in which a virus can spread more quickly, as well as more widely.
The combination of the basket babies story and recent news about the coronavirus called to mind some Spanish flu stories within my own family. For instance, my grandmother once told me that, the son born between my father in 1917 and my uncle in 1920, was a “blue baby.” That meant he had a congenital heart defect which didn’t permit his blood to be sufficiently oxygenated. While this condition can typically be corrected by surgery nowadays, in that era, there was no hope and my infant uncle sadly died on Dec. 1, 1918, only six days after his birth.
I now understand more about what my grandmother found especially distressing about the loss of her second-born child. She had told me she was not allowed to attend the funeral of the baby because it was during the Spanish influenza epidemic. I had always assumed that was because there was a fear that she would contract the illness; however, in learning more about that epidemic, I’ve now found that it is likely there would not have been a funeral gathering at all, as group events, even in churches, were prohibited in an attempt to halt the spread of the disease. There likely would only have been a brief graveside service.
There is also another tragic Spanish flu-related tale within our family. My father’s aunt, Sara “Sally” Bowman Brubaker, was the young wife of Ary Nevin Brubaker, a 29-year-old minister in the Reformed Church who was assigned to a charge in Abbottstown, Adams County. They were living in the parsonage there with their first-born child, an infant daughter who was only a month old when the Rev. Brubaker caught and succumbed to the flu in October 1918. Sally and her baby had to move from the parsonage to make way for a new pastor, so they returned to her family in Lebanon County. Sally became a high school English teacher to support herself and her daughter, and never remarried. As a farewell gift, the church in Abbottstown gave Sally a lovely gold locket with the inscription, “From Eman. Reformed Church, Abbottstown, PA, 1918.” Presumably, this is the congregation now called Emmanuel United Church of Christ in Abbottstown.
As I recall these sad stories from the past, I’m sure I join many others in praying that the coronavirus will soon be conquered with a cure, as well as a vaccine. In the meanwhile, all of us can heed the commonsense precautions being publicized. The Centers for Disease Control urge us to take the following steps: Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol; avoid close contact with people who are sick; stay home when you are sick; and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. And, face masks should be worn by health care workers, people who show symptoms of coronavirus and people who are taking care of someone in a close setting.
Especially at a time like this, it’s important for all of us to remember, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”