Photos submitted by the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County
Americans joined World War I in April 1917. One year later, peace was found but so was a global flu pandemic never before seen. Communities in the Red River Valley responded with courage, fear and isolation.
A new exhibit opening at the Hjemkomst Center depicts this frightening time in history, specifically within Clay County. Archivist Mark Peihl, Collections Manager Lisa Vedaa and Programming Director Markus Krueger sat down with Fargo Monthly to discuss the exhibit they’ve been planning for the past two years.
What’s going on?
The exhibit displays information from the years 1917 to 1919. “The more we research it, the more we realize it was terrifying,” Krueger said. “It’s one of the biggest wars in American history. American soldiers were in the fighting for only about six months, so the death toll was really concentrated in the summer and fall of 1918.”
The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was the greatest American battle of World War I and, at the same time, the biggest influenza pandemic — the Spanish Flu — was sweeping across the country.
“When you look at the number of soldiers who died in Clay County, it’s about half and half,” Krueger said. “Half are combat deaths overseas and the other half are the flu.”
With the flu going on currently in the Fargo-Moorhead area, people have been particularly interested in this upcoming exhibit. “The one we have now is obviously nothing compared to the flu back then, but people are curious when they make connections from 100 years ago to today,” said Vedaa.
“There was also a lot of political oppression,” Krueger said. “This was not a good time to be a German American and this was an area that was 85 percent immigrant families — many were German, who we were at war with. The government worried which side the Germans and Austrians were going to stand on.”
Connection between war and flu
Along with the terrifying aspects of war, a flu pandemic added to the chaos. While there’s still research happening on where the flu began, it is easy to understand how it spread so quickly and dangerously.
“The war created the perfect environment for the flu,” Krueger said. “Ten thousand soldiers are piled on top of each other in training camps. If one gets the flu, they all get the flu.”
Also taking into consideration how local illnesses from around the world react when they get in contact with each other may have played into the death count the Spanish Flu caused. “All these sicknesses get packed together into a training camp, a ship going overseas to France, the trenches — then we bring it back home to America,” Krueger said. “What they think happened is the flu started and got people sick but they weren’t dying from it, but rather when the soldiers went to Europe, it mutated and became more deadly when it came back to America and spread everywhere.”
“More than 170 people died from the flu in the Red River Valley, but an estimated one-third of the population got sick,” Peihl said. While most people survived, this still caused a lot of economic and social disruption. Cities closed down — schools, businesses and churches — because everyone was at home, sick.
“It’s difficult for us to imagine what it would’ve been like — not just the dislocation, but the fear,” Peihl said. “Today, we at least have antibiotics to take care of illnesses like pneumonia. The vast number of people who died ended up catching pneumonia, which became the final cause of death. We can do something about that now; they had nothing.”
“The unique thing with local history is you aren’t dealing with strangers, you’re dealing with your grandma or other people you know,” Krueger said. “In this exhibit, we’re getting more local than usual. We’re using two families, the Mastersons and the Thortvedts, who we happen to know a lot about to be our guides through these years.”
“We talk a lot about the members of those two families — especially the two soldiers — using quotes from journal entries and letters they wrote back home,” Vedaa said.
One of the families is a Norwegian farming family and the other is an Irish family in a German town (Barnesville).
“There’s a lot of suspense in this exhibit,” Krueger said. “You’re following these people and falling in love with their families, including their thoughts and views on the war.”
There were more than 1,000 men from Clay County who ultimately served in the military. Many women served as nurses, whether overseas in the war or at home with the flu, as well.
While there were technological changes during the war, Peihl thinks that above all else, the attitude changed. “People’s attitudes about themselves, about their country, about the world — that changed more than anything,” he said. “There was a lot of cynicism after the war. It was sold to the American public as a war for democracy and the ‘right thing to do,’ but many Americans, including Minnesotans, turned back in on themselves, becoming more conservative and not interested in getting involved in world conflict again.”
“The war took a lot of local farm boys who wouldn’t have usually had a chance to travel and took them all over the country and the world,” Krueger said. “But you see a lot of disillusionment in their journal entries, and many come out of it saying, ‘The war wasn’t worth it.’ They come back home and never want to leave again.”
While geared toward adults, it’s not a worry that children won’t enjoy the exhibit, too.
“We definitely have to keep kids in mind when we do our exhibits because we have a lot of school tours,” Vedaa said.
“Things kids like, adults like, too,” Krueger said. “One example is we’re going to make a full-size reproduction of a trench. That’s something my nephew and I would both enjoy. We’ll also have things to pick up and touch as well as many big pictures and short bursts of text.”
“Plus, with the tours, it’s almost like someone is telling them a story rather than them having to read each portion,” Vedaa said. “Children usually feel very involved.”
Why see this exhibit?
“We don’t think too often about this war as it’s not in our American memory as much as others, but it’s important,” Krueger said. “The soldiers and nurses who served, their experience should be remembered and honored. This is your opportunity to see an exhibit where you’re immersed in an experience of what people really thought and felt during the war and the flu pandemic. Because we’re focusing on families and local ties, you see how attitudes evolve as people take in what happened and move into isolation.”
Peihl thinks it’s a “cautionary tale,” too. “There was a lot of suppression of civil liberties during World War I, especially with German immigrants,” he said. “The war was sold as something noble and right but it unleashed some pretty ugly attitudes and ideas. When you have that sense of righteousness within you, you can take it to some pretty horrible extremes, and they did all over the country, including Clay County.”
Head over to the Hjemkomst Center to discover more about this exhibit and local history.
War, Flu and Fear
World War 1 and Clay County
March 13 from 4:30-8 p.m.
Enjoy WWI-era refreshments and discuss what many historians have called “The Forgotten War” and “The Forgotten Flu.” Admission to the reception is $5. HCSCC members free. Exhibit runs in Heritage Hall through January 2020.
Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County
202 1st Ave. N, Moorhead