During the current COVID-19 pandemic, we wanted to look back more than 100 years at the 1918 influenza pandemic and its impact on North Carolina State University (then called North Carolina State College of Agriculture and Engineering). A few weeks ago we looked at the women from the Raleigh community who cared for the sick students on campus. This week we will look at the part played by the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service and the women in the Home Demonstration program who cared for the sick in numerous North Carolina communities.
Home Demonstration was originally a program of the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service to provide training in home economics and food preservation techniques to farm women, but it also had a presence in the state’s urban communities. Extension agents (called “home demonstration agents”) would organize local women into “home demonstration clubs” and give demonstrations of techniques in club members’ homes. The program’s head was Jane McKimmon, the namesake of the McKimmon Center on the NC State University campus.
Possibly the [home demonstration] women rendered a greater service to the State during the great epidemic of influenza than in any other single way.
--Fourth Annual Report of the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service
In 1918 the Home Demonstration program was still young and becoming established in many North Carolina communities, and it engaged in efforts to conserve food during World War I. When influenza hit the state in the fall of that year, the home demonstration agents were asked to help during the pandemic. Nurses were not as common then as today, and many women found themselves thrust in the roles, tending to sick relatives, neighbors, and others in their communities. In her annual report for 1918, McKimmon stated that the pandemic gave the home demonstration agents “ . . . an opportunity of proving the worth of their work to the counties and just what it meant to have at hand a ready-formed organization through which systemic relief could be effected.” She continued that each agent “ . . . was asked to drop what she was doing and to bend every effort toward helping to organize relief work for the sufferers in her territory.”
The 1918 annual report of the Extension Service stated that “possibly the women rendered a greater service to the State during the great epidemic of influenza than in any other single way,” as the disease created “ . . . an urgent need for feeding and nursing the sick, and giving them medical attention.” It continued, “The establishment of soup kitchens in many towns meant the saving of hundreds of lives. At the same time it gave careful training in the value of a scientific knowledge of foods, as well as useful training in home sanitary matters and home nursing.”
As the flu was first infecting North Carolinians, the central Home Demonstration office in Raleigh sent letters to agents in the counties “. .. . advising the establishment of diet kitchens in stricken communities and the organizing of club women into groups of volunteer nurses.” In families and institutional settings where there weren’t women to care for the sick, or where women of the household were sick themselves, Home Demonstration could step in.
Nursing the Sick
At least two home demonstration agents helped at North Carolina State University, nursing sick students there: Laura Wingfield, the Central District agent; and Chloe P. Blalock, the Wake County agent. In the 1918 home demonstration annual report, McKimmon described Wingfield as “a most efficient nurse.” Extension’s biweekly publication Extension Farm-News called Blalock “one of their most valued volunteer nurses,” helping out from the very beginning of the pandemic. Later, she served the broader Raleigh community as a “ . . . regular duty nurse . . . “ at an emergency hospital there, where she was “ . . . an excellent practical nurse.” (Both women were listed on the plaque and in the yearbook mentioned in the previous Special Collections News post on the women who nursed the NC State students during the pandemic.)
This shows that even North Carolina’s capital city lacked an adequate number of profession nurses. Jane McKimmon said in her 1918 annual report that the pandemic proved “ . . . just how useful training in home nursing can become when regular trained nurses are not to be secured or can be had only as heads of crowded wards.”
Another place lacking an adequate number of professional nurses was Whiteville, N.C. Lucile Clarke, the home demonstration agent there, soon found herself in the role. Extension Farm-News published excerpts of one of her letters to the Raleigh office. She wrote “I have been put in charge of the emergency hospital which we opened in the courthouse in Whiteville. I am really the only available person to take this, as we have tried to get nurses and can’t. I am trying to organize the volunteer help that we may know on whom we can depend.”
I have been put in charge of the emergency hospital which we opened in the courthouse in Whiteville. I am really the only available person to take this, as we have tried to get nurses and can’t.
--Lucile Clark, Home Demonstration Agent, Columbus County, N.C.
Extension Farm-News also reported on other home demonstration agents improvising as nurses. Timoxena Sloan, an agent in Wayne County, was “ .. . out nursing in a family of nine where every member is sick.” Agent Eva Logan also nursed sick people in Pender County. The chair of the local relief committee wrote, “She played her part in fighting the Influenza in a way that we deeply appreciated.”
In Lillington, agent Rachel Martin reported that “I began by nursing two influenza patients and taking care of the baby in the home where I boarded. The cook was sick and I also had to do the cooking for the family of seven.” With other women in the town, she “ . . . also saw to the placing of volunteer nurses in homes where they were needed most.” She added, “I had a mild case of influenza myself, but could not afford to stop for it long as there was so much needing my attention.”
I nursed night and day, going into homes and cleaning up the houses and the children. I took temperatures, gave medicine and nourishment to the patients, and in several instances even assisted in preparing the dead for burial.
--Helen Simmons, Home Demonstration Agent, Durham, N.C.
Racial disparities meant African Americans were particularly affected by the pandemic. Martin reported, “The negroes were sorely stricken and the number of cases so great that the local physician just could not attend to them all. Two of the town ladies accompanied me to the homes of the colored people and under the direction of the physician we took temperatures, observed conditions, threw open windows, and gave simple directions to those who were attending the sick. We made reports to the physician of just what we found and he endeavored to reach the worst cases first.”
The 1918 home demonstration annual report indicated that Durham County Helen Simmons also cared for the sick in their homes. It excerpted the following from her letter to the central office: “I nursed night and day, going into homes and cleaning up the houses and the children. I took temperatures, gave medicine and nourishment to the patients, and in several instances even assisted in preparing the dead for burial.” She also reported that “from Sunday morning to Saturday night I have gone as fast and as far as possible nursing the country cases of influenza.”
Sampson County home demonstration agent W. B. Lamb also reported back to the central office, and this was excerpted in the annual report: “the State Board of Health sent a representative to talk to us about the management of the disease[,] and we sent out our volunteer nurses and our food to the sick. Men offered their machines [automobiles?], and with them, we would send a woman carrying nourishment, Red Cross mustard plasters [a folk remedy of the time period], masks, and bottles of Dobell’s Solution [an antiseptic for the throat and nose]. We are sending men and women to every township in the county, and are taking a survey for the doctors, getting names and places that all the sick may be reached and cared for.’”
I had a mild case of influenza myself, but could not afford to stop for it long as there was so much needing my attention.
--Rachel Martin, Home Demonstration Agent, Harnett County, N.C.
Remarkably, few of the home demonstration agents fell ill themselves. The 1918 Extension annual report indicated that there was “so small a number out of a Home Demonstration force of eighty-nine workers succumbing to the diseases.” Those that were sick were cared for by Eastern District Agent Estelle Smith. Extension Farm-News described her as the “ . . . emergency nurse for members of the Extension sick in Wilson,” “. . . who were very ill” according to the 1918 Extension annual report. None of the Extension reports or publications indicate that any of the home demonstration agents died the disease, however, and all are presumed to have recovered.
Feeding the Sick
Some of North Carolina’s home demonstration agents and club members who nursed the sick also fed them, and even more helped organize soup kitchens and food distribution operations in numerous communities throughout the state. This was a natural continuation of the food preservation and preparation activities in which the home demonstration program specialized.
The 1918 annual report and Extension Farm-News reported that at NC State University, Specialist Annie Lee Rankin established an emergency “diet kitchen” that she “systematized,” and she was “ . . . in close cooperation with the local Red Cross chapter which supplies many forms of nourishment.” The large number of sick on campus (at one time there were 300 simultaneously) “ . . . made it imperative that a real diet kitchen, well organized and systematically run, should be established.” Eventually, “when the situation improved,” Laura Wingfield moved from nursing in the emergency hospital to helping Rankin with the kitchen, “where charts were kept of just what each patient needed, when it was to be given to him, and just how it was received.” With a kitchen operation established separate from the nursing, “this relieved the nurses of any thought of the patient’s food, and a large number of sick men were systematically and regularly nourished with the proper forms of diet.”
The 1918 annual report also indicated that elsewhere in Raleigh Estelle Smith and Tidewater District Agent Cornelia Morris established a diet kitchen at the emergency hospital “containing more than one hundred patients.” Morris was already an expert at organizing such kitchens; she had previously organized one in the Rosemary mill village at Roanoke Rapids, N.C.
Other home demonstration agents split their efforts between nursing and the kitchens, as indicated in the 1918 annual report and Extension Farm-News. Some of these women have already been introduced as nurses. Lucile Clarke organized a soup kitchen in Whiteville, which she handed over to a high school “domestic science” (home economics) teacher so that she could focus on nursing. Wayne County’s Timoxena Sloan worked “with the teachers in the neighborhood to make and carry soup to the sick.” Rachel Martin in Lillington helped organize “ . . . a committee of housewives to make soup in their own homes and send out to the sick.” Durham County agent Helen Simmons started off with feeding sick before moving on to nurse them: “At first I prepared soup, then I found that people who were unable to do the work most needed (actual nursing) could prepare soup in abundance, and I turned my attention to nursing, having had a great deal of experience in this line.”
Other women seem to have been involved only with food preparation and distribution. Gaston County agent Nell Pickens reported that she had “ . . . organized a kitchen force and helped with supplies and equipment. Kitchens were established in every mill village. It was necessary for me to take charge of the last kitchen organized at the Ozark Mills, as so many of the volunteers were sick. During the eleven days we served meals to more than one hundred people in homes where every member of the family was sick at the same time.”
During the eleven days we served meals to more than one hundred people in homes where every member of the family was sick at the same time.
--Nell Pickens, Home Demonstration Agent, Gaston County, N.C.
Washington County agent Alice E. McQueen wrote “Our women are doing splendid work in helping to care for the influenza patients. We have the soup kitchen, to which I give all my time. Our men have told us to spare nothing and they will be responsible for the expense.”
In Washington, N.C. (actually in Beaufort County), agent Glennora Rominger ran “ . . . a kitchen which is supplying food for those who could not be fed from other public places which have been closed.” She reported that “we keep open until far into the night, and I believe have been able to fill a need.”
Cabarrus County agent Sallie Hunter wrote to the central office, “I came to Kannapolis this morning to turn our cannery building into a soup kitchen. It is ideal for the purpose. There were over 800 people absent from the mill today, which will show you how our efforts are needed. The Y.M.C.A. director is having our soup distributed by the boy scouts and we are sending it out in our glass [canning] jars fitted into the pasteboard boxes in which they were bought. This keeps the soup hot."
The 1918 home demonstration annual report provides more information about activities in a few localities in North Carolina:
Asheville and Buncombe County
Agents Rachel T. Hanamon and Mittie N. Henley organized “ . . an emergency diet kitchen in the Domestic Science Department of the High School at Asheville,” from which they dispensed soup to the sick of Asheville and surrounding Buncombe County, averaging 300 people daily. On the home demonstration car used to distribute the food , the agents and volunteers placed large green cards saying “Influenza Relief Workers.” After 4 weeks of operation, Henley wrote to the central office explaining their system:
We rise about seven o’clock in the morning and go down to the soup kitchen, which is in the Masonic Temple, as soon as possible and remain there daily until seven-thirty at night. I do wish you could step in about eleven-thirty some day and see us at our rush time. It was only last Saturday that interested men and women came together to form the Influenza Relief Committee of Asheville and that the County Agent and I offered our services, and in this short time we have the kitchen going with a complete card system of delivery. This card system is operated by the husband of our County Agent. When a call comes in, a card is made out, a written order sent down to the kitchen, the women pack a basket filling the order, put it on a dumb waiter, and up it goes to the applicant.
We have about twenty volunteer women washing and sterilizing milk bottles and packing baskets. Every morning a certain number of gallons of soup goes out to Elk Mountain . . . . A long line of volunteer automobiles are always ready to take baskets to any address given. In each basket goes a printed card of information regarding the feeding of influenza patients, and in our card index, we have the data regarding each family to which deliveries are made.
The soup kitchen’s supply room reminded Henley of “ . . a small grocery store,” and she related that “nearly everything is donated[,] and money and checks are continually coming in from our liberal citizens.”
Hanamon also submitted a report that Extension Farm-News reproduced, in part:
Below is a table showing the number of families supplied with food in eleven communities of the county and in the city. The table gives the number of families, and the number of meals served them. Each family received daily a basket of food, containing a sufficient amount to serve on the average six people, some of whom might be well, some sick, and some convalescent. The baskets contained food taken from the following: beef broth, chicken broth, all kinds of soups, beef stew, lamb stew, chicken stew, vegetable stew, rice, potatoes, baked bean, baked apples, milk, bread and butter, and in several instances supplies of uncooked cereals, vegetables, and fruits:
At the end of her report, Hanamon summarized that the kitchen had up to that point distributed 7840 meals for 1574 people in 297 families. It also served 950 meals to the emergency hospital’s nurses, 625 to African American patients of the “colored annex” (showing that segregation existed even during the epidemic patients), and 225 meals to the annex’s nurses (who were probably African American too).
The food distribution operation in Wilmington, N.C., was another that was detailed in the Home Demonstration program’s 1918 annual report . It claimed in that city “ . . . the epidemic was perhaps worse than at any other point.” Mary Clifford Bennett, another agent, and 5 volunteers ran a soup kitchen “ . . . day and night” dispensing 200-300 gallons of soup daily. The report stated “ . . . this kitchen became the center for relief work in the city.” As in Asheville, the local community donated supplies and money, and “ . . . this kitchen was able to show a clean sheet as far as debts were concerned at the end of each week.” Impressed with the well-run operation, the U.S. Public Health Service recruited “ . . . our agent in charge and carried her around to assist in the organizing of other stricken communities.” It isn’t clear if that was Bennett or Grant.
Agent Mabel Bradsher, “ . . . working day and night,” establishing four soup kitchens in Stanly County, “some for the mill village and others for the town people” One of the mill managers wrote to the central Extension office, saying
During the influenza epidemic here we had nearly two thousand cases in our mill village. The situation was so serious our entire plant was closed down for about fifteen days and our graded school building turned into a temporary hospital. Several of our doctors were sick at the time and we were obliged to call for outside aid. We turned our Day Nursery into a diet kitchen and Miss Bradsher volunteered to take charge of this work, also the diet kitchen in the temporary hospital. During three or four weeks we served several hundred people each day with nourishment. Miss Brasher gave her entire time to this work. Since that time she has done nursing out in the country, wherever the people were in need and had no help.
He continued his praise for Bradsher, stating “this young lady has shown unusual ability and has won for herself many friends and much favorable comment in this community.” He added “ . . . we are thoroughly in sympathy with the regular work being done in your department; and if you have agents in every county up to the type of Miss Bradsher, much good is being accomplished.’”
Oxford and Granville County
Agent A. L. Capehart organized a diet kitchen at the Masonic orphanage In Oxford, N.C. She communicated about her work to the central office, and that was reproduced in the 1918 home demonstration annual report:
After our community diet kitchen had been in operation for about a week, there was a call for help from the Oxford Orphanage. They were in desperate need as there were more than 200 sick children and only tiny little girls and boys to do the greater part of the work of preparing food and waiting on the sick. It was really pathetic to see the conditions there. From the beginning we had a big job, but our women worked so faithfully and willingly that we put it through finely. We had eighty-five women who volunteered to cook. We divided them into squads with certain hours for each squad. The first squad went on at four-thirty A.M. to cook breakfast, the next at nine A.M. to cook dinner and the third at three-thirty to cook supper. The patients were in six cottages and a hospital and the food was prepared in the Domestic Science room so that the regular kitchen of the institution might be left free for the preparation of meals for the well people. We cooked for 250 people and the dishes and food were delivered by men and boys who came from the town three times a day. Women, who under ordinary circumstances did no rough or heavy work, took hold with a good will and did anything that came to hand, rising at four o’clock in the morning day after day as cheerfully as if they were getting up to take an early train for a pleasure trip.
At the end of her report she quoted Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic: “This epidemic has shown us that surely ‘He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat’.’”
We had eighty-five women who volunteered to cook. We divided them into squads with certain hours for each squad. The first squad went on at four-thirty A.M. to cook breakfast, the next at nine A.M. to cook dinner and the third at three-thirty to cook supper.
--A. L. Capehart, Home Demonstration Agent, Oxford, N.C.
The 1918 annual report concluded that “ . . . the story of one woman’s efforts might be the story of all.” Home Demonstration agents in Forsyth, Chowan, and Pitt counties engaged in similar activities to those described already. The Duplin County agent distributed literature about influenza to people’s mailboxes. The Nash County agent created separate soup kitchens for African American and white citizens, further reinforcing segregation.
Davidson County agent Eunice E. Penny hinted at changing attitudes toward medical information among the citizens of her area. She believed that “influenza has taught people of this county the need of intelligent care and cleanliness in the sick room. It has done more to spread this gospel in the every-day life of the people than all of the doctors, nurses and demonstration agents have been able to do during the past few years.” She claimed that “many of the people who scoffed at the idea of germs before this epidemic believe in them now.”
According to the 1918 home demonstration annual report, the agents and volunteers addressed the pandemic in 55 counties. A total of 91 community kitchens were created that each fed an average of 150 people daily, and household kitchens were “ . . . used as soup distributing centers.” It stated “all the volunteer automobiles necessary were at hand to deliver the nourishment and interested citizens and farmers furnished the money and supplies.” Much of this information was reproduced in the 1918 Extension Service annual report, which went on to say that “practically every agent employed by the Home Demonstration Division was called upon to take part in aiding in the control of this epidemic, either by nursing or by handling diet kitchens, many of them won words of commendation and praise from the State Board of Health and other sources for the efficient service rendered.” A report from the 1930s summarizing on the first 25 years of the Home Demonstration program also contained this quote from the head of the N.C. State Board of Health: “It was through the organized home demonstration clubs that we were able to systematically care for the sick in the country, and with their trained leaders acting as practical nurses and operating soup kitchens for those in need, we were able to come through the situation with the least amount of loss.”
Many of the people who scoffed at the idea of germs before this epidemic believe in them now.
--Eunice Penny, Home Demonstration Agent, Davidson County, N.C.
The quotes contained in this posting of Special Collections News are from the following sources. All are available on the NC State University Libraries’ Rare & Unique Digital Collections website.
Fourth Annual Report of the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service of the Year Ended June 30, 1918 [dated 1919 and actually covers entire year of 1918]