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Influenza Epidemic in Cottonwood County, 1918

Cottonwood County Historical Society
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World War I soldiers from Windom (Cottonwood County)

World War I soldiers from Windom (Cottonwood County), 1917.

The 1918 influenza epidemic had a devastating effect on communities across Minnesota, including those in Cottonwood County. Over the course of five months (October 1918–February 1919), seventy-two residents of the county died from the virus or from pneumonia-related complications.

About 900 young men from Cottonwood County enlisted in the military after the entry of the United States into World War I in 1917. Over thirty of them died, but not only from combat action. Another war was already raging—the war against the influenza pandemic that was sweeping the world.

Approximately sixteen young men from Cottonwood County died from influenza or from a combination of influenza and pneumonia symptoms while in the military; thirteen of them died from influenza while living in training camps. The first, Private William H. Unrau of Bingham Lake, died during training at Camp Dodge in Iowa on October 13, 1918. In general, the influenza pandemic infected one out of four members of the armed forces and proved to be more deadly than combat.

In 1918, the transmission of influenza was a mystery for many Cottonwood County residents. As a result, local education about the virus was a crucial part of the community’s response to the epidemic. An article published in the Cottonwood County Citizen in October 1918 warned that the disease was contagious (transmitted by air) and could occur at any season of the year. Influenza victims showed symptoms more severe than those associated with a cold and it developed more rapidly. Most patients, it explained, experienced dizziness, nausea, and a fever between 100 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit accompanied by chills and a reduced pulse.

A second article, published in the Mountain Lake View in the same month, instructed citizens to isolate flu victims to contain related germs and limit their activity. Warmth, fresh air, and plenty of food and water, it added, were crucial for recovery. Relatives nursing their loved ones could administer quinine, aspirin, and Dover’s powder (a powder containing ipecac and opium, used as an anodyne, diaphoretic, and antispasmodic).

By October, the disease had entered Cottonwood County. Local patients who needed hospitalization were sent to Ruse Hospital—a property in Windom with living quarters for flu victims (the property’s owner, Sophia Ruse, had bought the building in 1905 and opened it as a hospital in 1906). The six-room, two-story building operated past its capacity throughout the epidemic. One of its physicians, F. R. Wieser, was the only doctor in Cottonwood County who did not contract the flu while caring for patients. Wieser’s colleagues at Ruse Hospital, Dr. Ludwig Sogge and Dr. Joseph H. Dudley, became sick but survived.

The epidemic touched families in towns and townships countywide. Churches and schools closed, bans were placed on public gatherings, and parents kept their children at home. Families organizing funerals for their loved ones requested closed caskets. Over a period of three days in November, the mayor of Mountain Lake—one of the largest communities in the county—closed schools with afternoon classes as well as church services and general public gatherings.

An estimated 50 million people died of the flu around the world in 1918 and 1919. Twenty-eight percent of all Americans contracted the disease, and 675,000 of them died. By the spring of 1919, the epidemic had declined, but the disease had already killed 10,000 Minnesotans, including seventy-two residents of Cottonwood County.

Editor’s note: A pandemic is not equivalent to an epidemic. In an epidemic, a disease affects large numbers of people within a relatively local community, such as a city or county or state. In a pandemic, a disease affects people across a broader area, such as a nation or continent. Therefore, the sections of this article that refer to the worldwide influenza crisis of 1918 use the word pandemic; those that refer to the spread of influenza inside Minnesota, including the title, use the word epidemic.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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  • Related Resources

Brown, Curt. Minnesota 1918: When Flu, Fire, and War Ravaged the State. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2018.

Cottonwood County History, 1870‒1970. Windom, MN: Cottonwood County Historical Society, 1970.

“Flu Has Grip on Lakeites.” Mountain Lake View, November 1, 1918.

“Funerals Must be Private.” Cottonwood County Citizen, October 16, 1918.

Janzen, Frank. “Three Deaths in One Week.” Mountain Lake View, October 11, 1918.

“Some Points on Spanish Influenza.” Mountain Lake View, October 11, 1918.

“Some Spanish Influenza Facts.” Cottonwood County Citizen, October 6, 1918.

Thompson, J. P. In the World War: 1917, 1918, 1919. Windom, MN: Forgotten Books, 2016.

Related Images

World War I soldiers from Windom (Cottonwood County)
World War I soldiers from Windom (Cottonwood County)
Influenza quarantine sign
Influenza quarantine sign
Ruse Hospital
Ruse Hospital

Turning Point

In April of 1919, the severity and number of flu cases in Cottonwood County begin to diminish.


March 1918

The first cases of the flu pandemic in the United States are reported at Fort Riley, Kansas. Forts in general, which bring together large groups of people in enclosed spaces, hasten the spread of the disease.

September 1918

A second wave of influenza breaks out.

October 11, 1918

The Cottonwood County newspaper Mountain Lake View publishes information (prepared by the American Red Cross) about the symptoms, transmission, and treatment of influenza.

October 13, 1918

Private William H. Unrau of Bingham Lake dies of influenza at a military camp in Iowa. He is the first documented Cottonwood County native to succumb to the disease.

November 1918

A third wave of influenza breaks out in the United States.

November 26, 1918

J. H. Dickman, the mayor of Mountain Lake, closes local churches.

November 27, 1918

Mayor Dickman bans gatherings in public places in Mountain Lake.

November 28, 1918

Mayor Dickman closes Mountain Lake local schools that hold afternoon classes.

• December 1918

Twenty-four people in Cottonwood County die of influenza or of pneumonia related to an influenza infection.

January 1919

Six people in Cottonwood County die of influenza or of pneumonia related to an influenza infection.

Spring 1919:

Flu cases continue to diminish as the epidemic ends.