Nearly 95 years ago an invisible pestilence invaded the town of Pulaski, leaving behind 125 deceased county citizens, 92 who were town residents.
The flu epidemic of 1918 struck locally at the end of September that year. By the time it cleared a month later, help had come from as far away as New York, Washington, D. C., Richmond, Bristol, Bluefield, Roanoke and locales in between.
The help included doctors, pharmacists, embalmers, and local people well enough to volunteer as cooks for a soup kitchen, drivers to chauffeur visiting doctors and others around town, as well as deliver food and other goods to the sick.
World War I was coming to a bloody end as Pulaski County soldiers were in the forefront of the Allies’ advance and defense.
At home, families awaited news from overseas, but a greater pestilence, invisible and disastrous, was hanging over the town and county, unknown to the public.
In mid-September of 1918, news was spreading that Spanish influenza was invading army-training camps. By the end of that month, it had spread to Pulaski County. No one on the local scene had any idea that the flu would claim more lives of local residents than bloody battles in France.
Many people viewed the spreading illness as only a cold, but the number of sick rose to the point that schools were closed Sept. 30, a Monday.
The epidemic spread quickly across the town and into the county, producing critical shortages of doctors and pharmacists, medicine, embalmers and volunteers.
In town, Dr. C.D. Kunkel and Dr. R.H. Woolling were down with the flu. Dr. Charles Dyer was in France with American armed forces.
Due to this emergency, five local doctors were available to care for the sick: Dr. W.S. Chaffin, Dr. P.C. Corbin, Dr. William Cummings, Dr. S.C. Draper and Dr. C. Peyton.
Dr. Corbin was the first black physician to treat patients in Pulaski and had only been here a short time. He suddenly found himself in demand along with all available doctors. The only thing that really mattered at that time was helping the sick.
Joining these five physicians were two retired doctors: Dr. George C. Painter, who had a serious heart condition, and Dr. J.W. Holmes. Dr. Painter got sick with influenza near its waning time in Pulaski.
The sickness spread so rapidly that the Pulaski County Board of Health ordered the Elks Theatre to close until the situation improved.
In the 24-hour period from Friday, Oct. 4, to Saturday, Oct. 5, the deadly illness claimed 12 lives.
As the sickness spread, more doctors were needed. Mayor E.W. Calfee and Dr. Chaffin contacted the State Board of Health and the U.S. Public Health Service about the dilemma and the need for help.
The mayor also led in the formation of a Central Relief Committee with his office as headquarters. It was manned day and night, as volunteers answered calls and coordinated the work of doctors and relief workers.
Churches and businesses were ordered closed. All lodge meetings and public gatherings were halted indefinitely.
Mayor Calfee proclaimed, on Oct. 5, that all places of business, except a list mentioned, were ordered to be closed at noon, beginning Monday, Oct 7, and thereafter until otherwise ordered.
The order did not include drug stores, restaurants, hotels, newspapers and manufacturing plants. Garages were exempt only for the sale of gasoline and other supplies and the hiring of cars to physicians and others engaged in relief work.
No fountain drinks or supplies could be sold, but ice cream and bottled drinks could be sold any time.
Other measures established as the flu raged on included zone committees, which were responsible for relief work in their areas of the town. These volunteers knew their neighbors and were better able to determine needs more quickly.
After being formed, the 14 committees completed their first survey on Saturday afternoon, Oct. 5.
They reported that they found 1,714 people ill with influenza within the town; 159 were listed as emergency cases.
By the next day, Sunday, Oct. 6, nearly 2,000 of the town’s 5,000 citizens were ill.
Zone committees did the best they could and weary doctors and others were putting in long hours doing their best to treat the ill.
A decision was made to open an emergency hospital in the Elks Club, which was supervised by four local ladies who had nursing training. Additional medical help came in the form of doctors and pharmacists.
With so many families ill and unable to adequately care for themselves and cook, a community kitchen was established.
Several women from the community, both white and black, volunteered to do the cooking. Three vehicles were made available to deliver hot beef broth to needy families.
The Southwest Times of Monday, Oct. 7, 1918 reported 23 deaths in town over the weekend. Things were growing worse. The emergency hospital on the second floor of the Elks Club was treating 11 very sick patients.
By Tuesday, Oct. 8, the count of those being treated at the emergency hospital had risen to 46. In another day, death had claimed six more lives. The death count rose by seven who died on Thursday. These were all in the town.
Dublin reported five deaths in a few days. Pulaski reported on Oct.11 six more deaths, making a total of 46 in a week.
With so many deaths and the only licensed embalmer, Tom Seagle, able to work, Mayor Calfee sent out another call for help. An embalmer from Bluefield came to Pulaski to assist.
Sadly, this volunteer who came to assist Pulaski, fell ill with influenza and died before the epidemic subsided.
Burials took place all day and into the night by lantern light, with only graveside services being held.
It was not over yet, but slowly dwindled until businesses in Pulaski opened again Oct. 14 with schools scheduled to open Nov. 4.
The epidemic had struck in Dublin and Draper, but not as badly as in Pulaski. The flu was still reported in the communities of Newbern, Snowville, Cecil’s Chapel and Allisonia.
The emergency hospital was closed on Oct. 29, the building cleaned up, fumigated and returned to the Elks Club.
With grateful hearts to all local workers, volunteers and those who came to Pulaski to help in such an unsettling time, church bells in the town rang for the first time in weeks on the first Sunday in November 1918.
The awesome influenza epidemic of 1918 was over and town officials, businesses and citizens returned to a more normal life.
Influenza had left its mark on Pulaski. It claimed the lives of 125 Pulaski County residents, 92 of them residents in the town of Pulaski.
That is the story of the worst epidemic to strike the town, as found in Conway Smith’s “The Land That is Pulaski County.”