Sunday, November 28, 2021

A Tale of One Family’s Survival from the Spanish Flu Pandemic

The Spanish Flu Pandemic between January 1918, to December 1920, infected 500 million people; about a quarter of the world’s population at the time. The death toll was estimated to be anywhere between 17 to 50 million people with some estimates rising higher, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. Most influenza outbreaks disproportionally kill the very young and very old, but the Spanish Flu Pandemic resulted in a higher than expected mortality rate for young adults.

I never knew my maternal grandmother, Ursalena, who died in 1918 of the Spanish flu when my mother was 6 years old. The only picture I have of Ursalena is of a sturdy, buxom young woman, hardly the romantic, impulsive girl I imagined after hearing family stories about her elopement. Valentine, her father, opposed her choice of a beau, Hildebrand, an immigrant from Austria, on the grounds that he was too old for her. Whether it was his blue eyes, the reddish-blond hair, his fine yodeling and dancing, something must have won her heart. Her mother too was charmed by Hildebrand and was on Ursalena’s side in the whole matter. When her father was not persuaded, Ursalena and her mother planned the elopement. Then, they fastened a rope to the bedstead in Ursalena’s bedroom and out the window she went, grasping the rope and sliding down it into the arms of her waiting suitor thus avoiding the wrath of her father. 

The happy couple, Ursalena and Brandy as she called him, delighted in dancing and parties with friends. They also wanted a family and when the first baby arrived, who became my Aunt Mary, guess who was charmed? Valentine, Ursula’s obstinate father. 3 years later, Mary’s sister Irene arrived, next Helen, my mother, followed by Lillian and Josephine. 

Brandy had left the coal mines of Newell, Pennsylvania, after a close call from a mining accident and found work at a steel mill in Ambridge, north of Pittsburgh. The family lived in a modest, three-story brick home with an indoor bathroom, a luxury then. The house was close to the mill so Brandy could walk to work.

Ursalena was a loving mother and Brandy a good provider. It was a happy household despite the war overseas in 1917. However, some of Brandy’s fellow workers at the mill started to get sick. Most recovered that year, but in 1918, more were getting sick and not all recovered. Brandy would relate these tales as he joined the family around the supper table. Whether Brandy became sick first and recovered is unknown, but with the active love life he and Ursalena had, it’s easy enough to imagine how the virulent virus was transmitted to her. Ursalena didn’t recover. She died in the fall of 1918, leaving Brandy and his five young daughters, ages 3 to 13. I can only begin to imagine the grief my grand pap felt. The love of his life was gone, and his children had no mother to care for them. 

Another man might have given up, drowned his sorrow in drinking, might have given the children up for adoption, but Brandy did none of those. When the local Methodist Church inquired about their situation suggesting adoption, Brandy acted. He asked a friend from Newell to be his housekeeper. A year later he married her, Mary, the only grandma I ever knew. Did she ever become Brandy’s next big love? No, but as a child and then adult, I could see they cared for each other. The family experienced another death several years later when Josephine, the youngest, died of diphtheria. 

While shedding many tears for his youngest, Brandy may have decided then to move his family away from the sooty air in the mill town of Ambridge to clean air in the country. He bought an old, run-down farmhouse with a good barn and productive farm acreage in Economy Township, about ten miles from their home which was sold. The move was not a popular one, especially with his older daughters, who had to face the rigors of using an outhouse instead of indoor plumbing. Eventually, however, the house was repaired, and a bathroom installed. Brandy, who knew farming from his youthful days in Austria, persevered raising dairy cows, pigs, chickens, and growing many vegetables. His daughters learned to feed and milk the cows and take care of the other animals before walking to their elementary school on the edge of the farm. My mom, Helen, remembered her dad with great love. He would wake the girls bringing them a cup of hot coffee mixed with milk, and when they weren’t feeling well, he would heat a brick on the wood stove, wrap it in a flannel cloth and bring it to them. Then, lighting a lantern, he would lead the way to the barn often yodeling, a tradition from his home in the Tyrol area of Austria. When older, Helen’s extra job was to drive their truck into Ambridge selling milk, eggs, and vegetables door to door. 

The Hammerle one-room schoolhouse they attended.

With Mary, Brandy finally had sons—Clement, Regis, then Bernadette, followed by Paul. While Brandy and Mary were not known to frequent the local dances, the family made their own music with singing, making the work go faster. As a child and then young adult, I would visit Mary and Brandy regularly as we lived just a mile from their farm. I had a good relationship with Mary, but I do regret never knowing Ursalena and wonder how the family’s story would have changed if she had lived. I loved grand pap and admired him for keeping the family together and providing for them. Thank you, grand pap. If I had some of the fine peach or cherry brandy you used to make, I’d toast your memory now. Your spirit and Ursalena’s lived on in your family of daughters, all lovers of music, dance and people and I was a beneficiary of their love.

In 1918, when my family experienced the Spanish flu pandemic, there was little contact with the world at large except through newspapers if you lived in town. Radio was not invented until 1920 and the telephone, patented in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell, was only in 35% of homes in 1920. In 1918, according to, the telephone failed its big test during the pandemic because many of the switchboard operators who had to manually connect the person making the call to a recipient were sick with the flu. Bell Telephone Company ran ads asking people to stay off the line unless they were sick so emergencies could get through. Compare that time to our connectedness now with cellphones, Facebook, Twitter, meetings, and classes on Zoom and live streaming of worship services.

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