The Great Flu Epidemic in Southern Gallia County, Ohio

The great flu epidemic that began in 1918 killed half a million Americans and 25% of the entire population was infected. Cincinnati was hard hit with 80,000 cases and 1,700 deaths from flu in 1918. To cope with the poorly understood disease, hotels removed chairs and sofas from lobbies. Theatres, schools and churches were ordered closed. Leaf burning was banned.

At Camp Sherman in Chillicothe 5,600 soldiers, many recently returned from Europe, were infected.

While the epidemic was declared over by the summer of 1919 rural families in Gallia County remained wary, even terrified of getting the flu.

At Ike and Laura Wood’s farm and blacksmith shop on Hannan Trace in Guyan township, word arrived in December that flu had stricken their daughter and son-in-law’s home at Hilton, where Little Bullskin intersects Clay Lick Run. There was worry that new-born grandson Gordon Stewart would contract the disease. Ike and Laura asked their youngest boy, my father Howell, age 16,  to saddle up a horse and ride the six miles north to the Roma and Claude Stewart home and bring baby Gordon back to the Wood family farm.

In a 1989 letter Howell recalls that an early freeze had left icy puddles on both Hannan’s Trace and Bull Skin. As a result the young man on horseback rode on the side of the road, prolonging the time of the journey to over four hours. In his letter, Howell recalled that he arrived at the Stewart home cold and tired but that his uncle, physician Robert Howell, wouldn’t allow him in the house as he feared that exposed to flu Howell would carry it back to his mother, Rob’s sister Laura.  Howell had to shelter in the coal shed.

HNW Ride 2
1910 Ohio highway map, Howell Wood’s ride in red

Baby Gordon, wrapped in blankets, was carried on the long horseback journey cradled in Howell’s free arm, the other holding the reins.

Gordon Stewart survived and grew up to stationed in San Francisco during world war II. There he married his Gallia sweetheart Louise Sheets. They spent most of their married life in northern Ohio and eastern Iowa.

I myself have heard Gordon ask his uncle Howell to tell the story of carrying him to safety back in 1919.

Today Hilton is no longer an organized community. But a century ago there was a Hilton high school that met in the Harrison township hall. In 1921 Howell Wood was among its four graduates, the commencement exercises held at Macedonia Church, which still stands.

macedonia church
Macedonia Church, Harrison township, Gallia County

Howell Wood went on to obtain a cadet teaching certificate from Rio Grande College. For three years he taught in the one room Gregory School at the southern tip of Gallia County not far from Crown City.  His pay was $110 per month. But in his third year the township was short of cash, forcing Howell to accept a 3% promissory note that was honored several years later.

Hilton 1

Alma Stewart Fowler, Gordon’s sister, used to delight in saying, “Uncle Howell, you’re the only person I’ve known who went to college before finishing high school!” She was right. Joining his parents who had moved to Gallipolis, Howell Wood was a 1925 graduate of Gallia Academy High School.

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