Times Past

When Spanish flu hit SLO, it affected many — including a famous ‘part-time’ resident

Phoebe Apperson Hearst
Phoebe Apperson Hearst

Editor’s note: This is a continuation of last week’s Time Past column remembering the Spanish flu epidemic.

The nationwide epidemic of so-called “Spanish Flu” struck San Luis Obispo during late October 1918. The flu was so serious that the County Supervisors adopted an ordinance requiring the wearing of a gauze mask in public.

The ordinance went into effect immediately on Oct. 26, 1918.

The masks had to be produced in a hurry. An appeal for volunteer women to make masks was printed in The Tribune on Sunday, Oct. 27.

That afternoon, “A large number of ladies were at the Red Cross workroom. ... Over 400 masks were made.”

Eventually, more than 4,500 masks were made by the Red Cross volunteers. Many Central Coast residents were caught off guard by the ordinance.

On Nov. 5, The Tribune reported:

“Numerous arrests of mask offenders were made yesterday, in most instances the offenders being left off with a reprimand on promising to obey the ordinance in the future.

“P. A. H. Arata asked yesterday for a reduction of the $50 fine he paid on Saturday (the day the ordinance went into effect). Mr. Arata stated that he was in a hurry to leave town at the time he was arrested and fined, and rather than delay his business by remaining here, he paid the fine.”

The influenza spread to a quarter of the families in the county. Several well-known families lost loved ones.

Thomas Welch of Clark Valley (southwest of Los Osos Valley), father of Dr. Floride Welch Frost, one of the first women to become a dentist in California, died at the age of 53. Mary Melschau of Nipomo, 24, died from pneumonia.

Patrick and Robert Brown recalled that the flu struck their home on Chorro Street. The virus badly weakened their mother. She suffered kidney failure. She died in 1921, still a young woman.

The most famous “sometime resident” of our region who fell victim to the epidemic was Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the widowed mother of William Randolph Hearst. She came down with the influenza while visiting New York. She returned to her “hacienda” in Pleasanton, where she suffered a relapse. Her only child and his wife, Millicent, hurried west to be with her.

The elder Mrs. Hearst lingered for several weeks. It was during this time that William Randolph Hearst began to consult his mother’s favorite architect, Julia Morgan, about the construction of his “Cuesta Encantada” at San Simeon.

The schools closed because of the epidemic. But the students didn’t get a vacation.

Like some of my readers, Liz and I are old enough to recall the closure of our grade schools because of an outbreak of Polio.

It was during one such closure in the fall of 1948 that I began to devour every history book in my grandfather’s library. I was a great pain to my teachers when school resumed. Two successive teachers lost credibility with their charges as I repeatedly corrected them on what I regarded as “the finer points of history.”

That epidemic changed my life. But I don’t recall class assignments being printed in the newspapers.

Things were different in San Luis Obispo during the final days of “the war to end all wars.”

The local public schools were closed Oct. 22, 1918.

Cal Poly had been virtually taken over by the military. Captain Duell ordered that the “institute” remain in session, under “military quarantine” until the Christmas holidays.

A plan of home study was put into effect for the public schools.

Assignments were made and published in local papers. Upon the reopening of schools, students were to be tested on all work done.

The Tribune reported, “It is recommended that the parents set aside particular hours, the same each day, for their children’s study ... It is felt that this plan will be welcomed by parents as preferable to having their children continue idle.”

Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus, at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.

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