A history of service

During the flu pandemic of 1918, Kiwanians in Allentown, Pennsylvania, opened a temporary home for children whose lives were affected by the illness.

Story by Frank Whelan

After an interesting tip from a Kiwanis club secretary, staff at Kiwanis magazine did some digging and found this amazing story. We immediately thought it fitting to share during the current pandemic. Maybe you’ll find some similarities between 1918 and now.

It was exciting to see the information pour in as we made phone calls and searched the internet for clues and information about this historic project. We discovered that a journalist already had written the story. (That’s what you will read here.) Folks at the Lehigh Valley Historical Society in Allentown, along with members of the Allentown Kiwanis Club, were helpful in the collection of more details, newspaper clippings and photos. 

October 8, 1918, was undoubtedly among the most difficult days of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency.

That morning, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Payton March, a native of Easton, Pennsylvania, came to Wilson with an alarming report. From all over the country, young men in military training camps, men he had called into the military to fight World War I, were sick — and many were dying — from an influenza pandemic. Camp commanders were suggesting that troop deployments be slowed until the crisis had passed.

Wilson admitted to March that he recognized the gravity of the situation. But with a major German offensive underway and American troops fighting valiantly against it, any attempt to slow the troop buildup now would be seen as a sign of weakness both by the Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany and the Allies. So, along with ordering increased health precautions, the president decided the troop deployments to Europe would continue.

Perhaps to break the tension and stress at the close of the meeting, March heard Wilson repeat to himself a sobering rhyme then making the rounds of the country: “There was a little bird / its name was Enza / I opened up the window / and in-flu-enza.”

What, you might ask, does the great flu pandemic of 1918 — which killed between 50 million and 100 million people (estimated at 3% of the world’s population) — have to do with the Allentown Kiwanis Club? As it happens, the club was born that same year. And the historical record shows that when the pandemic hit Allentown, its newest Kiwanians were on the forefront of fighting it. 

By their quick thinking and willingness to put service to the community first, Kiwanis Club of Allentown members saved the lives of many and rescued innocent local children who might otherwise have died.

No one could have suspected that the Allentown Kiwanis members would be playing this role when they first stepped on the stage on Saturday, January 9, 1918. “Allentown Has Kiwanis Club,” read the headline in the Morning Call that day.

A messenger was dispatched to President Taft at the Hotel Traylor, noted the Morning Call, and the following acceptance came back. ‘I accept the honor you have done me with grateful appreciation. William H. Taft’.

The first official meeting of the Allentown Kiwanis Club was held at 11:45 a.m. January 17, 1918, at the Hotel Allen.

Before the flu arrived in Allentown, perhaps the most dramatic thing to happen to the Kiwanis club occurred on March 15, 1918.

Former president William Howard Taft was paying a visit to Allentown to buck up the morale of the U.S. Army Ambulance Corps drivers in training at Camp Crane, the name the Army gave to the quarters they had set up at the Allentown Fairgrounds.

At a Kiwanis lunch meeting that day, the Rev. Simon Sipple, Kiwanis chaplain and pastor of Zion’s Reformed Church, presented a motion inviting Taft to become the Allentown Kiwanis Club’s first honorary member. It was immediately approved.

“A messenger was dispatched to Mr. Taft at the Hotel Traylor,” noted the Morning Call, “and the following acceptance came back. ‘I accept the honor you have done me with grateful appreciation. William H. Taft.’”

But far from Allentown, events were taking place that would shape the future.

The exact source of the flu is still debated today. In 1927, after much research, Dr. Richard Shope of the Rockefeller Institute claimed that pigs at the Cedar Rapids Farm Show in 1917, carrying a parasitic lugworm that sheltered the flu virus, first transmitted the influenza disease to humans. Other researchers trace it to hogs in southwestern Kansas.  

The first reported U.S. case was in March 1918 at Fort Riley, Kansas. An outbreak also began in Europe at roughly the same time, making it difficult to track its origins. Alarming to doctors was that a large number of normally healthy young people were dying from the influenza. It was not at all odd in that pre-antibiotic era for people to die from influenza, but it was usually the elderly, not young people.

The first account of the flu to hit the Lehigh Valley was reported in an Associated Press story that appeared in the Morning Call on September 13, 1918. It appeared under the headline “Spanish Influenza Imported Into America.” 

“Kiwanis Establishes Protective Home” read the article in the October 29, 1918, issue of the Morning Call. Mrs. John F. Saeger, a civic-minded member of one of the oldest families in Allentown, offered her former mansion for the establishment of what would be called the Temporary Children’s Protective Home.

The report mistakenly labeled the illness as Spanish in origin, an error that has stuck. But there’s a reason why it was dubbed the Spanish Flu. Spain, being one of the few neutral countries in Europe during World War I, made no attempt to censor its press, so the first accounts of pandemic came from there.

The article added that the flu had ravaged German, French and British armies and had just begun to be seen in U.S. Atlantic coast cities. Among other misinformation, the article confidently noted that it was “short lived” and “of virtually no permanent serious results.”

But a few weeks later, the flu was taking a heavy toll. At Boston’s Camp Devans Army clinic, built to hold 2,000, about 8,000 soldiers were dying from influenza. On one September day alone, 90 men died. Army doctors were helpless, noting that the victims’ lungs were virtually dissolved by the disease.

In Philadelphia, so many telephone operators became ill that there was virtually no phone service in the city. More than 5,000 people died in Philadelphia in one day. Many children became “flu orphans,” having lost both their parents. Fearful relatives, afraid the children were carrying the disease, often refused to take them in.

Allentown Mayor Al Reichenbach received health bulletins from the federal government and immediately mobilized the standard precautions taken to quarantine the ill in his city of almost 74,000. But when new directives arrived on October 9, 1918, he thought their demands that theaters, church services and public meetings be discontinued were too extreme. Allentown was a clean city, he noted.

But while the mayor’s civic pride was admirable, the influenza paid no attention to municipal borders. Hospital beds were filling up that October, and Allentown doctors could not stand up under the strain.

On October 16, 1918, the Allentown Kiwanis Club decided to take action. Member Charles Kline, a civic-minded merchant, called the club’s leadership to a meeting at his home.

At the suggestion of Bruce Traylor, the men pledged US$500 — not a small sum in 1918 — to aid the city. Two days later, the Morning Call noted that following a meeting at the Hotel Traylor, the club’s leaders had reached an agreement with the Army doctors at Camp Crane.

The Army would staff a flu clinic for the public. It would operate between the hours of 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. “to administer to persons ill with the disease who cannot promptly get the services of their regular physician.” The article added that “motor messengers” were available to take the doctors to the homes of those too ill to leave them. 

But the Allentown Kiwanis Club decided to do more. 

The former Kiwanis Children’s Home still sits at 4th and Walnut, shown in this current photo.

“Kiwanis Establishes Protective Home” read the article in the October 29, 1918, issue of the Morning Call. At the urging of Kiwanis President Bohner and Charles Kline, Mrs. John F. Saeger, a civic-minded member of one of the oldest families in Allentown, offered her former mansion at 4th and Walnut streets — which is still there today — for the establishment of what would be called the Temporary Children’s Protective Home.

Rather than let “flu orphans” wander the streets to die as they were doing in Philadelphia, the Allentown Kiwanis Club decided to create a refuge for them. Soon donations of mattresses, sheets, blankets and pillows for the home were piling up at the doors of club members.

The business leaders of the city opened their wallets in support as well. Samuel Traylor gave $1,000 and General Harry Trexler pledged to give $500 a month for every month it might be needed. By this estimate, Trexler’s total donation was $2,000.  

The home opened on October 31, 1918. That same day, city heath officials reported a monthly total of 3,000 recorded cases of influenza for the city, with 996 still active. There had also been more than 200 deaths. The officials admitted that probably only 75% of the cases had been reported. Allentown’s working class 6th Ward alone had 476 cases and 33 deaths.

The home’s first occupants were 18 children, most from the working class areas of Allentown. They ranged in age from a week to 13 years. The newborn’s mother had died three days before.             

The Morning Call noted that “entire families of children from motherless homes” were welcome. Among the cases was one of four children whose father was in the hospital and whose mother, the newspaper noted “had gone insane through worry.” “Through fear of influenza, all relatives had abandoned them,” it reported. 

Upon arrival, the children were greeted by Miss Elizabeth Engleman, the trained nurse who supervised the home. Along with a full-time cook was a staff of female volunteers, many from affluent local families. The Saeger mansion had 26 rooms. Some were transformed into large play areas for the children. Five were transformed into dormitories where they could sleep.

Along with money, which arrived in amounts from 50 cents to $1,000, blankets and all sorts of clothing flooded in. The Cameron Piano Company donated two large “talking machines” (phonographs) and a large selection of classical music and recorded nursery rhymes.

In early November, the Lehigh Valley was receiving the full brunt of the epidemic. “Quarantine Ban Continues Indefinitely,” headlined the Morning Call. Despite pressure from what the newspaper called “the amusement and liquor interests,” the city council refused by a slim majority to defy state and federal health officials and lift the ban.

Churches, schools, saloons and theaters were closed. Factories that were essential to war production, including Traylor Engineering and Manufacturing and Bethlehem Steel, were going full tilt. But they were among the few places where people were allowed to crowd together.    

On November 4, 1918, the newspapers reported about 29 children at the Kiwanis home. It listed the donations of money and goods. Members of Kiwanis were giving their time also. Several used their large touring cars to take groups of the children and staff for rides into the country. 

It was also beginning to look like the flu was in retreat, but not quite ready to surrender. Theaters had reopened, as had churches, but the schools were still closed. On December 2, the Morning Call ran a large article on the Children’s Home. It included a photo of the children in front of the residence. Some of the babies were being held by the volunteers. 

That Christmas, the children received toys and dinner thanks to the Kiwanis members.

The last week of 1918, the Allentown Kiwanis Club voted in a new board. Former president Boehner announced at the meeting that, at the request of the national leadership, he was going to travel to report on the club’s activities during the influenza epidemic. Their efforts had attracted national publicity.

At the Allentown Kiwanis Club meeting of January 16, 1919, Vice President Lawrence Rupp announced that the Temporary Children’s Protective Home would be closed. Parents who had survived took their children home. The rest had been taken in by other family members. 

After a tumultuous history-making first year, the Allentown Kiwanis Club settled down to more “normal” activities. But it is doubtful that those they saved in 1918 ever forgot.

   This story originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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