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Century later: Recalling 1918’s deadly influenza outbreak

At left is the grave of James E. Durst, who died at the age of 24 during the Spanish Influenza epidemic in October 1918. At right is the grave of his parents, Carrie and Hugo Durst. In between the stones, in the distance, is the grave of James’ brother, Louis, and his wife Edith. They are buried at Greenmount Cemetery, near South Park in Quincy, Ill. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY


October 1918 is remembered as among the deadliest months in U.S. History.

The United States was in the throes of a World War, but the war itself wasn’t the culprit.

At Fort Grant in Rockford, Ill., where some 31 Adams County, Ill., recruits had been summoned to service at the beginning of September, three of those recruits died of Spanish Influenza within a 12-hour span during the early days of October.

Victims were: Private William Becker, 25, of Ursa township;

Private Elmer Moore of Quincy; and the subject of this story: James (Jimmy) Edwin Durst of Quincy.

The disease was noted for its rapid spread and its ability to claim its young and otherwise healthy victims within hours or days.

The Quincy newspaper editorialized about the losses of these young men; there was widespread talk of closing schools and churches; and every family feared for their own and their loved-ones’ wellbeing.

Grim report

The Daily Register-Gazette of Rockford, Ill., painted a grim report on conditions at Camp Grant in its Oct. 4, 1918 edition:

“Stricken Camp Grant continues today its grim, heroic fight against the deadly pneumonia invasion. With endurance almost superhuman, doctors and nurses are in grapple with the malady, which at 1 o’clock this afternoon had taken a toll of 235 lives.

“Camp Grant’s medical men expressed fear today that the list would mount to 250 by midnight tonight. Fifty four deaths were reported this afternoon as occurring since midnight.

“The base hospital reported 76 deaths yesterday for the twenty-four hour period.”

It was in that same edition of the newspaper that James Durst’s death was reported.

Popular businessman

James E. Durst was a tall, light-haired, slender and popular young Quincy man, born in 1894, the youngest son of Hugo Durst, a truck farmer doing business east of Quincy in the Ellington neighborhood, and his wife, Carrie.

Carrie Layman, a native of Knox County, Mo., lost her first husband to an untimely death. Along with her son, Charles, she moved to Quincy and started a new life in 1888 with Mr. Durst. The couple would subsequently have three sons and a daughter together: Louis, George, James and Marguerite.

All four sons obtained educations at Illinois University, where Charles became an instructor in the horticultural department.

Business partners

George and James Durst went into business together circa 1913, with the establishment of a dairy business known Durst Brothers, located at 24th and Spring in Quincy. Three years later – at the end of October 1916 – the brothers purchased the Kleemeyer dairy at 48th and Koch lane, on Columbus Road.

George Durst had married in 1915, and at the end of 1917, James was engaged to marry. Both George and James built new bungalows outside of the Quincy city limits, at the intersection of Broadway and 24th street, for their families.

War news: 1917

The first American troops landed in France during June 1917, and the need for recruits was high. In August 1917, it was announced that Quincy’s quota for men was 169. Three hundred men were called for physicals, and James Durst was among those deemed not qualified for service.

But early in January 1918, Durst received a second call. At this time he was certified for limited service.

In the meantime, business went on as usual. In January 1918, the milk producers, the retailers of milk and those engaged in allied lines of business, including the ice cream makers, formed an organization, and James Durst was named secretary.

On March 4, 1918, the first known case of what was to become called the Spanish Influenza was reported at Fort Riley, Kansas.

Also in March, the milk producers of Quincy began a campaign to get customers to return empty milk bottles. The campaign’s intent was to persuade housewives to return the bottles, and to prosecute men who were illegally selling the bottles. It was estimated that more than 10,000 bottles were being hoarded in Quincy homes.

The following month, Manfred von Richthofen (The Red Baron, the notorious German flying ace of World War I) was shot down.

A wedding

James Durst and Miss Ruth Heidbreder were united in marriage June 12, 1918, at the home of the bride’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. H.H. Heidbreder of Eubanks, Adams County, Ill.

The Quincy Daily Herald reported: “They will not take a wedding journey at the present time, owing to the uncertain war conditions, but will go to housekeeping immediately in the prettily furnished home at 24th and Broadway, which is in readiness for them.”

Report to duty

In August 1918, James Durst was among 25 men from Quincy and six from Adams County to report to Camp Grant in Rockford.

The Quincy Daily Whig reported they were “scheduled to entrain at 6:40 a.m. this morning for Camp Grant where they will begin service for the national army. A parade from the post office to the Burlington station was arranged for early morning with the drum corps playing martial airs and a large number of friends and relatives of the boys in line.”

In early September, news of the flu virus spreading among military training camps began to circulate.

In late September, Quincy received word of the death of Charles P. Pritzlaff, the son in law of Mr. and Mrs. John Soebbing of Quincy. He died at the Great Lakes hospital.

About the same time, the newspaper reported that James Durst had become ill at Camp Grant, but that his condition was never serious and he was returning to health.

The government reported 50 deaths in one day from Spanish Influenza early in October at Camp Dix, N.J.

The same day, the newspaper reported several new cases of Spanish Influenza at Quincy High School. In addition, there were 13 or 14 cases of illness resembling Spanish Influenza at the Quincy YMCA dormitories.

Two days later the news came: James Durst was a Spanish Influenza victim as well, and was in serious condition.

Wife summoned

Ruth Durst, young bride of James Durst, was summoned to Camp Grant, but arrived 10 minutes after her husband’s passing. He was 24 years old.

Otis Heidbreder, who had served his brother-in-law as best man at the Dursts’ June wedding, was also serving at Camp Grant, and accompanied his sister’s husband back home for burial in Quincy’s Greenmount Cemetery.

In Missouri

Illinois wasn’t alone in the sufferings brought about by the Spanish Influenza.

Reports of the day noted that pregnant women were especially vulnerable to serious complications.

That was the case for Cordelia Williams Osbourn of Clapper, in Monroe County, Mo.

The 33-year-old woman gave birth to her eighth child – a daughter named Mary Cordelia - on Nov. 2, 1918, and the mother died four days later. The cause: Spanish Influenza.

In addition to her husband, William Oliver Osbourn and her newborn, she was survived with seven other children, ranging in age from 3 to 12.

She was buried at Saint Stephens Catholic Cemetery.

Item of interest

Durst Dairy prospered over the years, and was ultimately located on the same corner – 24th and Broadway - where the Durst brothers originally built their bungalows.

Prairie Farms Inc. bought out Durst Bros. Sunshine Dairy, at 24th and Broadway, in 1967.

Also noteworthy: James Clarence Durst, son of George F. Durst (brother and business partner of James E. Durst) died Dec. 1, 2014 at the age of 92. He was a partner in the Durst Dairy business, and likely the namesake of his uncle, who died as the result of the Spanish Influenza. He, too, is buried at Greenmount Cemetery.

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