As we ponder what to be grateful for in 2020, it can serve us well
to look back at history. The year 1918 was, believe it or not, far worse than
2020. World War I had claimed an estimated 16 million lives and 116,516 of
those were American. The influenza epidemic, the deadliest flu pandemic ever
recorded, swept the world that same year and killed roughly 675,000 people in
the United States and up to 50 million people worldwide. During its peak, it is
estimated that 21,000 Americans died in a single week in October 1918. In that
same month more than 5,000 died just in North Carolina. By the end of The Great
Pandemic, a total of 13,644 North Carolinians had died of the flu.

November 11,1918 – Thomas Lenoir Gash and Dovie Anne Deavor Gash
celebrate Armistice posing for a photograph with the American flag
and the Christian Observer newspaper outside their home in Pisgah Forest.

So how did Transylvanians celebrate Thanksgiving in 1918? Despite
1918 being a year of unforgettable suffering and death, there certainly were
things to be grateful for. Nearly three years after the United States declared
war on Germany, a ceasefire and Armistice had finally been declared on November
11, 1918. The peace yearned for by Americans had finally arrived. In learning
of the news, Brevard Mayor W.E. Breese delivered a stirring speech in which he
proposed that “if the epidemic of influenza subsides sufficiently for the
people of the county to meet together, I want to suggest that everyone who is
able to do so, to come to Brevard on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, and let’s have
a good time celebrating our victory.” He added that “as we the people of
Transylvania have so much to be thankful for, we have a great union
Thanksgiving service outdoors and all have our Thanksgiving dinner there
together.”

This announcement made the front page
of the Brevard News, on November 21, 1918

The fact that there is no further mention of this proposed event
in the post-Thanksgiving issues of the newspaper of the time, the Brevard News,
may mean that it was not possible to hold the event. We know that a
long-awaited and long-advertised minstrel show that was to take place on
Thanksgiving night was postponed indefinitely. We also know that the County
Health and Quarantine Officer, C.W. Hunt, MD, continually discouraged
gatherings and at one point reminded Transylvanians that: “Influenza is a crowd
disease. It is spread by ‘spit swapping’ through the means of the unmuzzled
cough and sneeze, or the use of drinking cups, eating utensils or towels that
have been used by an infected person. The prevention of the disease depends
upon each individual avoiding crowds where infection is so easy, and refusing
to use the things that someone else has used. The responsibility for preventing
the disease rests with the individual directly.”

What is evident in the local newspapers of the time is that
despite the many hardships, losses and untold grief suffered by all,
Transylvanians were deeply grateful for their hard-won peace, looking ahead at
brighter days and solidly there for each other. This is evident in
contributors’ reporting of their shared joy for war’s end, the personal
mentions of how families stricken with influenza were faring, the many prayers
expressed, and the ads of gratitude directed at neighbors, friends and medical
personnel published by those who received help from them at their worst time of
need.

Photographs and information for this column are provided by the Rowell Bosse North Carolina Room, Transylvania County Library. This article was written by Anne-Monique Ransdell. For more information, comments, or suggestions, please contact NC Room staff at [email protected] or 828-884-1820.

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