Glenn Uminowicz: February 2006
The nation was at war. Spokesmen for the administration in Washington demonized our enemies as the personification of evil. On the home front, a blast of wintry weather prompted concern over the availability and cost of heating fuel and encouraged a search for alternative energy sources. Finally, awareness of a worldwide flu epidemic stirred fears of contagion in even the smallest of Eastern Shore communities.
It was 1918. Before the year ended, Talbot Countians would grimly face those two great inevitabilities—death and taxes.
On January 1st, an Easton newspaper reporter observed, “The weather man ordained an unpropitious beginning for the new year.” At midnight, the County Courthouse bell struck the “death knell of 1917, while simultaneously the bells of the churches pealed forth their homage to the new-born 1918.”
The sub-zero temperatures that marked the end of the old year, however, continued well into the new. The cold made customary New Year’s visits between family and friends nearly impossible and this was a minor inconvenience compared to the privations ahead. The Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries had frozen over. The Eastern Shore was already experiencing a shortage of coal for heating. With commerce stalled on the frozen Bay, the region faced a shortage of foodstuffs as well
At 2:30 am on January 12th, Mother Nature dealt the Shore a second blow. A terrific storm swept through Talbot County with winds at times approaching the “velocity of a cyclone.” Near Easton, florists hesitated going near their greenhouses for fear of flying glass. All through the Bay Hundred district, outbuildings and trees blew over. On Tilghman Island, the wind broke up the heavy ice and washed it ashore creating a berg twenty-five feet high and one hundred yards long.
In its first February edition, the Easton Star-Democrat ran a story under the headline “OLD MAN JANUARY DIES AND NOBODY IS SORRY.” In addition to the terrible rainstorm on the 12th, Talbot Countians suffered through seventeen days of snow and average temperatures nine degrees below normal during the month.
With the cold spell expected to continue, the county’s Fuel Conservation Committee called a meeting in early February. Invitations were extended to “local town officials, ministers, both white and colored, church officials, school boards and teachers, bankers, merchants and business people.” The purpose of the meeting was to devise ways to conserve fuel.
The principal speaker at the Conservation Meeting was E.N. Munns, the Eastern Shore administrator for the Federal Fuel Administration. Munns described the difficulties in mining and transporting coal from Pennsylvania and Western Maryland resulting from a shortage of labor and a lack of available railroad cars.
Munns offered two suggestions as to how Talbot County might help with the fuel shortage—be economical in the use of fuel and “burn wood on the Eastern Shore.” He noted that each cord of wood consumed saved one ton of coal. He insisted that homeowners could easily convert their coal burning stoves into hybrid wood burners.
The response to Munns’ appeal was immediate. Before the Conservation Meeting concluded, local and county leaders committed to establishing community wood yards, closing schools, curtailing business hours and encouraging churches to conduct combined Sunday services in a single building.
While schools closed and church congregations huddled together for warmth, neither snow nor cold nor dead of night kept the “tax man” from his appointed rounds. The modern income tax dates from 1914, but the number of Americans affected by the tax rose rapidly during World War I. Regarding the rate change applied to 1917 incomes, an Easton reporter observed, “It will take a small army of men to take the income tax of persons under the new law.” Single persons with a net income of $1,000 or more and married people with incomes of $2,000 were subject to the tax. Nearly every business and professional person in Talbot County likely owed the government something, as did most farmers.
The taxman assigned to Talbot County made his rounds in February, setting up shop in post offices in Oxford, St. Michaels and Easton. Residents were encouraged to seek his assistance in filling out their tax forms. For those who did not file, the Easton Star-Democrat warned they would regret it, as “the Government will certainly get after all income tax slackers.”
In its New Year’s edition, the Star-Democrat advised its readers on phrases they should get used to uttering in 1918. The activities of the taxman likely contributed to “some dull, dreary days this week.” After exclaiming, “Whew! Wasn’t that a fearful cold wave.” Talbot Countians probably observed, “Coal and wood piles are melting.” Finally, the newspaper ominously noted, “Influenza seems to be getting quite a grip on things.”
As many as fifty million people died during the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. In the United States, twenty-eight percent of the population was affected. Reports of Talbot Countians contracting the flu began in early October. By the middle of the month, the County Health Officer declared that public places such as theaters, schools and churches would close and that individuals were responsible for quarantining themselves as soon as symptoms appeared. The number of deaths in the county eventually resulted in an increased workload for the Orphans Court and a shortage of coffins for local undertakers. Observing the impact of the flu on the community, an Easton reporter wrote, “The terrible epidemic which is sweeping over the country has proven an awful calamity to our city. Streets deserted; business forgotten; churches, schools, theaters closed—a gloom rests on all the people like that which marked the plague-stricken cities of the ancient world.”
By the end of October, the epidemic appeared to have abated and the authorities lifted the ban on public gatherings. The celebration of the signing of the armistice ending World War I followed shortly afterward. In Easton, people stopped work and shouted, laughed and wept. Homes and businesses were draped in bunting and the church bells that had ushered in the frigid New Year rang out the good news. The German Kaiser’s body was carried in effigy in a coffin through the streets. On top of the casket danced “two red devils, presumably acting as an escort to that warm home from which no traveler returns.”
Around the country, the parades and celebrations on Armistice Day proved a public health disaster. In their wake, the influenza epidemic reoccurred in some places, including Talbot County. In early 1919, restrictions and quarantines were once again enforced.
During World War I, patriotism led people to accept a heightened role for government at every level. They acquiesced to rationing and the military draft, placing the good of the nation above personal needs. In facing the influenza epidemic, public health officials benefited from these perspectives. The public responded with remarkable calm to a major health crisis, accepting the restrictions mandated by local authorities. This proved to be the case in Talbot County in 1918.
The response to the fuel crisis earlier in the year also reflected the willingness of local people to organize after taking advice from federal, state and local officials. They did so during wartime when local newspapers listed the names of draftees and reminded them to observe “Meatless Mondays.” The greetings for the taxman were hardly jubilant, but there was a recognition that individuals needed to help foot the bill for the war effort.
In 1918, Talbot Countians faced a year of death and taxes. They met the challenges posed by “Old Man January,” fuel shortages, contagious disease and a worldwide military conflict with calm resolve, confidence in their political leaders, a willingness to bear their fair share financially and an ability to organize at the local level for the common good. It would truly constitute a disaster if the character of such a citizenry should ever be lost.