The Previous Pandemic (1918-1920)

During the past year I’ve been thinking a lot about our last big worldwide disease scourge, the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.  Some aspects of that disease were similar to Covid: the worldwide nature of the disease; masks and resistance to masks; differences in the way various countries, states, and cities responded to the crisis; and more.  Then there are the differences: there was no vaccine for the disease in 1918; group quarantines were a larger part of the disease-fighting effort; and the disease really struck at young adults harder than other age groups.  There are members of the Robbins family that lost their lives from influenza one hundred years ago and I thought I’d highlight just one of those tragic cases for this blog.

Martha E. (“Nellie”) Morris was the granddaughter of Levi M. Herren, who at the age of nine crossed the continent on the Oregon Trail with his parents and siblings.  Theirs was the wagon train that became lost in Central Oregon on the Meek Cutoff.  Levi and his wife had a small family and there are only a handful of descendants of this line today.  One of Levi’s daughters, Ida Angeline Herren, grew up and married Ralph Morris and they, in turn, had three children, one of whom was Nellie.  The Morris family lived primarily in the Albany, Salem, and Portland areas, with Ralph being a farmer, rancher, farm implement salesman, grocer, and more.

Geer-Morris wedding announcement

In 1913 Nellie married Guy Geer, a young Minnesota native, who lived out east of Salem in the beautiful pastoral Waldo Hills area.  I’ve not seen a photo of Guy, but his 1917 World War I draft registration card describes him as medium height, medium build, brown eyes, and dark hair.  (The following year when he enlisted in the Oregon Militia he was described as being 5-feet 8-inches tall.)  Nellie’s father Ralph was living on his ranch in the Lookingglass Valley down south of Roseburg in 1916 when he passed away, and Guy’s 1917 draft registration lists the young couple, with one child, also living there, with Guy listed as a farmer.

The Waldo Hills east of Salem

Also in 1917, the Salem City and Marion County Directory lists Guy Geer, with an assessed valuation of personal property in the amount of $305, and his post office being Shaw, Oregon.  Shaw is a tiny community near Sublimity in the Waldo Hills.  So the young family appears to have been somewhat mobile, moving between the Sublimity area, Lookingglass valley about 145-miles to the south, and then, after they sold their Douglas County farm, to Portland where they appear in the 1920 census. 

The enumeration date of the 1920 census was January 1st and it was on January 9th that the Geer family was visited by the census taker. It turns out that an unexpected number of family members were living together at their address in Portland.  Ida Morris, a renter, was listed as head of household.  In that household were her son Harland Morris, her daughter Ruth Morris, her daughter Nellie Geer, Nellie’s husband Guy, and two children Morris and Elma L. Geer.  Boarders included Iza L. Geer (Guy’s younger sister) and Merle Matthews, another possible relative.  Interestingly enough, the house was owned by Selvina Stephenson.  Selvina had been the widow of Perry Herren, Ida’s uncle who died by suicide in 1874 (46 years before!).  Obviously family ties remained strong over the years.

Guy Geer’s occupation was a mechanic in a garage, while his 22-year-old brother-in-law Harland was a mechanic for the railroad and his 22-year-old sister-in-law Ruth was a clerk for Western Union.  Unfortunately this seemingly happy multi-generational family unit was not going to remain intact.

The first cases of the misnamed Spanish Flu were identified in the United States in March of 1918 at Camp Funston, Kansas.  Due to wartime censorship the disease was minimized by the allied nations in World War I, but neutral Spain had no such reason for censorship and after the Spanish king became ill, the name “Spanish Flu” stuck.

From the spring of 1918 until the spring of 1920 there were worldwide an estimated 500 million cases with deaths estimated anywhere from 17,000,000 at the low end to 100,000,000 on the high side.  The first case in Oregon was identified in September of 1918 and when the pandemic ended the state had suffered 50,000 cases and 3,675 deaths.  (To compare with Covid, Oregon, to date, has had 219,755 cases and 2,858 deaths).

Headline from the Oregon Statesman (Salem)

Influenza struck the world in four waves (early 1918, late 1918, 1919, and 1920).  The Geer family were struck down near the tail end of the pandemic.

On February 16, 1920, at her mother’s house Nellie (Morris) Geer passed away, leaving her husband, and two small children.  Three days later on the 19th, Guy Geer passed away, now leaving his children orphaned.  One can only imagine the extreme sorrow that enveloped the Morris/Geer household in Portland.  A double funeral was held there on Sunday, February 22nd

The Oregon Statesman, the Salem newspaper, announced on the front page “Two of Family Pass Same Day”, which while not accurate, reflected the shock of the family’s sudden loss.  A Silverton newspaper mentioned that the parents died along with an infant child, but I’ve found no record of a child – only Morris and Elma were mentioned in the census, and the parents obituary, and there is no death record for a child.  

The young couple were brought back to the Waldo Hills and buried together in the Union Hill Cemetery.

Geer gravestone in the Union Hill Cemetery

The two orphaned children, Morris and Elma Louise, continued to live with their grandmother Ida (Herren) Morris in Portland, graduating from Lincoln High School, until both moved to California in the late 1930s where they married, raised families, and lived until their own deaths.

[Jacob Robbins-William Robbins-Theodoshia (Robbins) Herren-Levi M. Herren-Ida (Herren) Morris-Martha (“Nellie”) (Morris) Geer]