May 07

1918 Spanish Influenza on the Central Coast III

11-1-1918-flu-totals-to-dat.jpgNovember 1, 1918
The laid back California style clashed with the countywide order to wear a mask. Spanish Influenza was here and taking a toll. Though the chief of police was also acting health officer for the city at first he took a relaxed approach to the crisis. C.L. Day’s Telegram ran a scolding story at the top of the page.




Flagrant Violation of

Ordinance in Down Town Section

Where Officers Fail to Enforce

Its Provisions

If you are a law abiding citizen and think that all laws are made to be obeyed you will of course obey the ordinance requiring you to wear a mask over the mouth and nose.
If you think laws are made for other people but not for you, or if you think it right to evade the law, you will probably wear the mask under your chin, on your hair, in your pocket or not at all. And if you have any standing in the community you will probably get away with it.
Notwithstanding Chief of Police Cook’s warning this morning that people who defied the mask law would be arrested, no arrests had been made at noon today and one could stand at almost any corner for a few minutes and see dozens of violations. One business man walked up to Chief Cook and stood chatting with him several minutes and during all of that time had a cigar in his mouth and his mouth was not covered with a mask.
Officers walked the streets and did in some cases instruct people to put their masks on properly. But scores were allowed to pass without a word being said to them.

In another story the totals read, 76 cases of flu reported, eleven of pneumonia and six influenza-pneumonia deaths in San Luis Obispo. (The headline only said five deaths.) The nine new cases reported in the last 24 hours was a new record and indicated the epidemic was still on the upswing.
November 2, 1918
Schools were closed but kids were expected to keep up with their lessons. The paper published home study outlines for the week for first through eighth grade.For a fifth grader at Court School

Elementary Arithmetic Long division page 181 Ex. 261
Introductory Geography–Southern States pages 83-107
Beginner’s History—Mace, pages 54-71
Reading Carpenters Geographical Reader—North America pages 83-107  


November 5, 1918
In a letter to the editor G. E. Glendenning was upset about a run in with a cadet guard from Cal Poly. He was walking to town with a friend on Cal Poly School main road intending to cross the railroad tracks at the Hathaway Avenue crossing.
He was stopped by an armed cadet near the boy’s dormitories and told to go back. Glendenning took the shortcut through the downed fence at the tracks.

I started for the fence, without taking any notice of what was happening in the rear. Guard brought his rifle to his shoulder, but was persuaded by my friend to stop at that. Guard said he was acting under orders from Major Ray. I question the propriety of placing a rifle in the hands of an irresponsible boy.  

(The crossing no longer exists but is seen in this photo. A Cal Poly building is behind the telegraph pole. The pine tree is near where the student was hit with a beer bottle during the Poly Royal Riot years later. The location seems to be a magnet for student irresponsibility. The barn advertises Mail Pouch tobacco.)

November 6, 1918

Santa Barbara County closes saloons in an attempt to quell the epidemic. In San Francisco a man rigged a tube to his cigarette holder enabling him to smoke and still comply with the mask law.
November 7, 1918
False reports were circulating that World War I was over. The final treaty would not be signed until November 11 but the Health department held firm on a ban on public gatherings. The Telegram approved with this typo headline.

Health Board Wisely Puts

Ban on Public Celebration

Owing to Inflneza Epidemic

The Health Board will not allow a celebration tonight or at any time while the influenza situation continues as at present. This also puts the ban on the trench lunch and speaking that was to be held on Freemont Heights Saturday.
Immediately after the Telegram posted bulletins announcing the cessation of hostilities, the fire bell was rung and a few minutes the round house whistles and church bells added to the din. Plans were immediately started for a celebration to begin at two this afternoon.Members of the Municipal Band went to Health officer Cook and asked for a permit for the band to appear on the streets without masks. Cook stated that he could not permit them to do so nor would he permit any public demonstration or gathering of the people. This action was taken upon advice of physicians and seems to meet with popular approval.
Every one feels like celebrating and had it been permitted the old town would have been torn upside down. But the health of the community is of greater importance than a public demonstration. It is probable that the flu situation will clear up soon and when it does and the mask ordinance is revoked the people will have an opportunity to celebrate and it will be some celebration.
Plans are already under way for a celebration that will be the biggest thing of the kind ever pulled off in the city and the entire county will be given an opportunity to be in on the big time.

November 14, 1918
The paper had stopped reporting deaths on the front page, on some days it was hard to find mention of the epidemic. While it was true that world events were dramatic there was less space devoted to the major local story than before. Stories often had a dark scary sentence followed by forced optimism. It would imply that the worst was over. Much more space was devoted to those ill or recovering than the deaths.

In many parts of the county the disease has been of such a malignant type that people have been stricken and died within 24 hours. This city has been more fortunate, but a continuance of the epidemic may result in similar condition.  

In the future the Telegram reported deaths from other regions frequently but the local fatalities would be found in the fine print inside the paper if at all.
If someone had time it would make an interesting senior project to track the coverage.
Thirteen new cases were reported this day. The paper scolded people again for not wearing masks in the face of increasing numbers of cases. Seventeen patients were in the hospital but all were reported as improving.
It was reported that the flu had reached the Japanese district in town and the paper called that the regulations be rigidly enforced there.
At some point mask wearing people with fogging glasses and the ever helpful Telegram suggested that the whiners wad cotton under their glasses to block their breath.
November 18, 1918
The three local deaths were reported on the back page this day.
The Santa Maria Valley was hit hard. The paper estimated 45 deaths mostly in the labor camps that serviced the Orcutt oil fields and the Union Sugar Mill. Hospitals were jammed and there was a shortage of nurses. Often nurses would arrive and then fall sick.
November 19, 1918
The paper’s headline crowed optimism on the bottom of an inside page but if you read the story all the way through you discover two more deaths.



Only two cases of influenza were reported to Health Officer Cook for the period ending at two this afternoon.
Both of these are said to be of several day’s standing but were not reported.
Cook stated this afternoon that so far as he knows no new cases have developed and the indications are that the epidemic is under control.
Adrian P. Bailey.
Adrian P. Bailey died last evening at 8:20 at the home of his brother W. D. Bailey. Influenza-pneumonia was the cause of his death. He was a native of California aged 33 years.

Racism of the time is reflected in the latter part of the story. The story records no name or age.

Japanese Dies.
A Japanese employed by the Southern Pacific Co. fell victim to the influenza yesterday at the Red Cross ward at the county hospital. Members of his family are expected to arrive from Portland tonight to attend the funeral.  

November 23, 1918I
n a signal that the epidemic was waning the county lifted the mask ordinance. But schools were still closed. Theater advertising had returned to the pages another indication that people were getting out again after a five week ban.
December 5, 1918
On an inside page the paper tries to soft-pedal the news.


The story claims that people are now recovering quickly from the flu and includes this sentence that tries to be comforting but somehow isn’t.

There have been no fatalities from flu in the city for several days.  

Later in the story:

Several Spanish families are reported as being in bad shape as to finances and badly in need of help in caring for the sick. One family of nine, residing on Sycamore street, has eight in bed, the other being the only one to be about. She is just recovering from the malady.  

December 9, 1918
Schools had reopened December 2. Vacations were to be shortened to make up for lost time, depending on how students fared in testing following weeks of home study. High school students needed to keep up on Latin, shorthand and penmanship lessons among others. Attendance was down, teachers were sending pupils home at the first indication of a cold and some parents were keeping their students out. An indication of the situation was that the High School reported 12 absences.
Two more flu deaths were noted, this time the news returning to the front page. Mrs. Kathryn C. Silsby and Mrs. Orle Mayfield.
Coverage of the outbreak by this point was intermittent in the paper. The Wikipedia entry suggests that the virus may have mutated again to a less lethal strain some time in the winter. Across the United States about 28% came down with the flu and 500,000 to 675,000 died. Worldwide the disease may have killed as many as a million people a week for the first 25 weeks.
If anyone comes across definitive numbers for the county please post a comment. The History News Network has a collection of influenza stories.
Wallace Stegner writes about the effects of Spanish Influenza in his semi-autobiographical novel “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.”
Chet is left at home after his parents and brother were taken to the hospital.

Sometimes he stood on the porch on sunny, cold mornings and watched Lars Poulsen’s sled go out along the river toward the graveyard, and the thought that maybe Mom or Pa or Bruce might die and be buried out there on the knoll by the sandhills made him swallow and go back inside were he couldn’t see how deserted the street looked, and where he couldn’t see the sled and the steaming gray horses move out along the river. He prayed earnestly at night, with tears, that none of them would die. He resolved to be a son his parents could be proud of, and sat down at the piano determined to learn a piece letter-perfect before Mom came home. But the silence of the house weighed on him; he lay sometimes with his forehead on the keyboard, and listened to the sound of one monotonous note. It sounded different with his head down, and he could concentrate on how different it sounded so that he didn’t get afraid.  

UPDATE: Thanks to Alecia Wright at San Luis High School
Graduating class of 1919 – 13 students
Graduating class of 1918 – 16 students
If the high school was reporting 12 absences that was almost the equivalent of a whole grade level calling in sick.
Links to other stories in the series:

  • Spanish Flu Cartoon
  • Spanish Influenza of 1918 hits California’s Central Coast
  • Spanish Flu of 1918 Part II
  • 1918 Spanish Influenza on the Central Coast III
  • Related posts:

    1. Spanish Influenza of 1918 hits California’s Central Coast
    2. Spanish Flu of 1918 Part II
    3. Spanish Flu Cartoon
    4. Surf’s Up, the Sentinals rock the Central Coast
    5. 1913 Pacific Coast Amusement Co. Pool Hall