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Standish-Hickey & The Pandemic

What does Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area, a mile and a half north of Leggett, have to do with the Covid-19 pandemic? Nothing of a direct nature is the correct answer. However, there is a connection to the devastating pandemic of a century ago.

A little history for context. Miles Standish and Henry Hickey, whose names are now attached to the recreation area, have a specific tie-in to my family's history. They were owners of what was then called the Albion Lumber Company from 1891 to the summer of 1907. At that point they sold the Albion mill and adjoining vast timber acreage to the Southern Pacific Co. Standish and Hickey took that money and invested it in the buy up of tens of thousands of acres of timber land throughout Mendocino and Humboldt counties. One of my grandfathers, John Macdonald, served as a trusted timber cruiser for Standish and Hickey during their tenure in Albion then as something of a scout in deciding what tracts of land to purchase as they expanded their timber empire.

John Macdonald died in October, 1916, from a rather horrific throat cancer, leaving a widow, two adult sons in their late twenties, an eighteen-year-old daughter, and young sons, aged nine and seven. My father was the nine-year-old, who in turn had survived a bout with childhood tuberculosis. Two years after John Macdonald's death, Mendocino County, the nation and the world would cease to worry about diseases like tuberculosis for a time because something more fearsome was about to rear its head.

Dr. Loring Miner of Haskell County, Kansas noticed the first cases of the influenza that would grow into a pandemic in January, 1918; the first cases in the United States, that is. The precise origin of the deadly infection is still being argued over in scientific circles. World War I raged in Europe at the time. The major players in the conflict, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States all censored information about the spread of influenza, therefore, in Spain where newspapers remained free to publish what they wanted, that neutral country became associated with the deadly outcomes. Thus, people still refer to the pandemic, killer of as many as fifty million (some serious minded accounts claim double that number) human beings, using the moniker “Spanish flu.”

Dr. Miner's observations did not gain any substantial notice until an April, 1918, public health report; this after more than a hundred cases among soldiers at Fort Riley, Kansas in March. Over the coming months, as the U.S. continued to ship 100,000 men per month to Europe, influenza cases sprang up intermittently across this country.

If the Kansas outbreak could be called the first wave of influenza in this country then the second wave didn't attack until nearly a half year later. In the last days of August, several sailors on the Boston docks showed fairly severe symptoms. They were admitted at Chelsea Naval Hospital and the disease spread from there. Forty miles away at Fort Devens, where 50,000 soldiers were quartered, the numbers afflicted climbed alarmingly and in haste. By September 23, 10,500 cases existed at that army base. A doctor at the fort described the situation, “This epidemic started about four weeks ago, and has developed so rapidly that the camp is demoralized and all ordinary work is held up till it has passed…

“These men start with what appears to be an attack of la grippe or influenza, and when brought to the hospital they very rapidly develop the most viscous type of pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission they have the mahogany spots over the cheek bones, and a few hours later you can begin to see the cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face, until it is hard to distinguish the coloured men from the white. It is only a matter of a few hours then until death, and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate.

“It is horrible. One can stand it to see one, two or twenty men die, but to see these poor devils dropping like flies sort of gets on your nerves. We have been averaging about 100 deaths per day, and still keeping it up. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a new mixed infection here, but what I don’t know.”

By the last week of September, the malady spread outside of Fort Devens and the nearby small towns to 50,000 residents in the state. On October 1st, that commonwealth recorded 75,000 cases. At the end of the first week of October, more than a thousand people in Boston had died from influenza. By then it was all over New England and moving rapidly throughout the nation. Philadelphia was hard hit, 500 or more corpses lined up at a time awaiting burial with scarcely anyone to do the job.

In retrospect, one can see when influenza hit Mendocino County. The October 12th Mendocino newspaper contains no mention of the disease. One week later the annual Apple Fair in town had been postponed. During the third week of October, Fort Bragg recorded 175 cases, with many new cases coming to light every day. The first death noted in the Fort Bragg and Mendocino papers was “that of a little Italian girl.”

The same papers stated, “Gauze masks are in general use as they are considered one of the best means of prevention. The marshal [in Fort Bragg] is insisting on their being worn in the business portions of the city.”

Grammar schools and high schools were closed around the county. A 34 year-old employee of the Mendocino Lumber Company perished from pneumonia within a couple of days after being stricken by the influenza. Young adults, partly due to the close quarters in military outposts, made up a disproportionate percentage of the dead.

That third week of October, 1918, saw the Mendocino County Board of Health not only order the closing of schools but churches, theaters, and other public gatherings. All county and city employees wore masks at their place of work. A town nightwatchman was among the first flu deaths in Willits.

On October 17th, Ukiah counted more than a hundred cases, but only two deaths. By November 8th, there were well over a hundred cases at the state hospital in Talmage, immediately outside Ukiah's southeast limits. At the Albertinum Orphanage (on West Church St.) 50 boys came down with the flu and at least five of the sisters attending them grew ill as well. Two of the boys succumbed. “The remains of Willie Burke, an eleven year-old, who died at the local orphanage, were shipped to Oakland, where his mother resides.”

In Ukiah, a 38 year-old father of three died as did a 25 year-old motor company representative. The Preston home in the county seat turned into a Red Cross hospital, home to 20 patients served by graduate nursing students. Adolph Marks, a 30 year-old manager of the Cecille Hotel, who had previously worked in the long established department store bearing his and his father's surname, died from pneumonia shortly after contracting influenza. The war-bound son of the long time Mendocino County Tax Assessor W.S. Van Dyke, died before ever going overseas.

The warring nations signed an armistice on November 11, yet the battle with influenza remained the top story in local papers. More than 20 had died in Fort Bragg by the date. Edward (“Ned”) Hickey, the eldest son of Henry Hickey (partner in the Standish and Hickey lumber business), stayed with the tie making camp he supervised on Wages Creek despite an outbreak at that locale. As the most educated young man around, he acted as surrogate doctor and nurse to the lumbermen coming down with the dread malady. At some point in late October he, too, was overcome by influenza symptoms. Some of the healthier men in camp carried him on a litter until he could be transported by faster conveyance to the Fort Bragg hospital. He died there on November 24, aged 28 years, one month, and one day, survived by his father, his mother, Emma Ritter Hickey, and younger brother, Henry Ritter Hickey Jr.

Forty deaths had been recorded at Fort Bragg alone by early December. This in a county with a total population hovering around 24,000. Nevertheless, the epidemic appeared to subside at this point. The City Trustees lifted the ban on gathering in public places, except for “moving-picture theatres.”

An odd occurrence took place at the mouth of Ten Mile River that week. One hundred or so wild swans alighted near the ocean, pausing during their migration south. They remained at rest for only a few minutes then, as a local newspaper recalled, “these beautiful white birds presented a wonderful sight as they rose and took flight…”

The holidays came on with scarcely a notice of the bug then the New Year hit with another wave. Forty-five to 50 new cases were reported to the county board of health in the first few days of 1919. Schools closed again. In Fort Bragg all households where influenza existed were quarantined. Masks returned as required apparel. A special night watchman was hired to stop violators of the health codes. A young mother, Mrs. Snow, was one of 1919's first fatalities at Fort Bragg. Twenty-one year-old George Williams succumbed in Mendocino. A two-year-old died at Ten Mile, a 55-year-old man in Caspar, and so on. By the time 21 families remained isolated in quarantine in Fort Bragg the board of health closed movie theaters once more as well as all public gatherings, and the most drastic of measures, bars were ordered shut tight by 10 p.m. and not allowed to furnish chairs for seating.

On January 14, James Henry Dilling, a native Australian, died from pneumonia brought on by influenza. In his 52 years, most of his adult life a resident of this county, he had run a photograph gallery in Mendocino, a livery business in Wendling, then later an auto stage route from Wendling to Cloverdale and back again. Despite Mr. Dilling's death on a Tuesday, by the ensuing Saturday, Mendocino City's Dr. Russell Preston reported no new cases of influenza. In early February an 11- year-old girl died at Camp 11 near Greenwood and others were afflicted. As late as June, relatively mild cases gained attention in Covelo, but by and large, summer brought a halt to the national and international pandemic.

One of the ironies of the pandemic on the Mendocino Coast played out with the early November death of Constantine Silveria, the local undertaker. Silveria (born Constantine Lemos in the Azores) bought his undertaking business in 1913 then graduated from embalming college in Oakland during 1916. Unfortunately, the influenza laid him low two years hence. Into that breach stepped Henry “the hermit” Shaw. Then 36 years of age, Shaw was an ordained minister who had studied surgery in his native England but became a nurse instead. He also possessed a license for embalming from the state of California. He continued in his undertaking as an undertaker until 1920. He later went on to run an auto garage, became an honorary member of the Willits Fire Department as well as the Fort Bragg Police and Fire Departments. In the early 1930s Shaw took up residence in what most locals described as a shack alongside Virgin Creek, north of Fort Bragg. Periodically thereafter he scribed “The Hermit's Column” for the Fort Bragg Advocate-News.

Being isolated on the Macdonald ranch with the nearest neighbors nearly a mile away on one side and nothing but timber, grasslands, and streams for miles and miles in all the other directions has its advantages in the time of Covid. So, too, did the isolation of this ranch prove a safe haven for my father a century ago. No member of the Macdonald family suffered any of the afflictions of the influenza that killed people they knew in Mendocino, Fort Bragg, and elsewhere throughout the county.

One of the people they knew was young Ned Hickey, who perished trying to help the men who worked for him on Wages Creek. In his honor, Standish and Hickey, offered to the state a tract of land on the west side of what is now Highway 101, roughly a mile and a half north of the town of Leggett. The charge to the taxpayers: zero.

The state accepted the offer in the first days of August, 1921. It was the wish of Miles Standish, Mrs. Emma Ritter Hickey and Henry Hickey that the area be known as the Edward R. Hickey Memorial.

One Comment

  1. George Hollister April 1, 2020

    Malcolm, I believe it was the late Tom Leonard who told me Standish and Hickey were, at one point, surveyors, and thus gained knowledge of where the potentially valuable land was. You would know better than myself. Your grandfather put dollar value to those prospects. The late Meta Smith told me she “squatted” or “nested” on a 40 acre property owned by Hickey. That would have been at the mouth of Johnson Creek, in the South Fork of Big River. She ended up purchasing the property from Hickey for minimal monthly payments, and a handshake. Meta was a great story teller, and fascinating person who led an interesting life. The Henry Hickey story was one of many.

    On another note, my maternal grandmother contracted the Spanish Flu in 1918 at age 26 when living in Sacramento. She said her legs turned blue, and it was expected she would die. At a younger age, she had small pox, too. There was quinine on the supper table, along with a bowl of sugar “to make the medicine go down” because of the presence of malaria in the Sacramento Valley at the time.

    It was a different time. My grandmother was tough, could be mean, and liked a good fight. Her father was a 49er, and this mindset was commonly seen with the first settlers. If that mindset was not there, or some version of it, they would have not embarked on a wagon trip to California in the first place.

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