Miltona woman, 102, lived through 1918 flu

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Elvira Blank, 102, of Miltona, had to be cared for by a relative as an infant when her parents both became severely ill with the 1918 Spanish flu. On left is her father, Louis Mattson, and on the right her mother, Gertrude Mattson, taken before their wedding. (Contributed)

Elvira Blank doesn’t remember the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic; she was only 1 at the time.

But the 102-year-old Miltona woman recalls tales of the flu from her mom, who fell seriously ill from the virus along with her dad. They were so sick that an aunt took care of Elvira and an uncle did farm chores.

“My dad was as near death as could be,” she said. “She told me they were very ill for a whole year.”

Her mother, Gertrude Mattson, was 22 or 23 at the time; her father, Louis Mattson, was 13 years older. He spent a month in the hospital in the Twin Cities, she said.

Troop movement during World War I helped spread the flu, and though it is called the Spanish flu, it is not thought to have originated there. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It proved especially deadly to those ages 15 to 34.


So far, the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed nearly 130,000 lives, including more than 24,000 in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The Mattsons had been married just two years when the Spanish flu struck, and Elvira was their first child. They farmed between Alexandria and Carlos near Minnesota Highway 29.

They were mostly bedridden during that year with the shades drawn, since light hurt their eyes, Blank said.

When they recovered, they continued farming and had seven more children. Her father, however, remained in a “nervous condition,” uneasy about everything, she said. In 1937, he took his own life. Her mother remarried and lived to age 93.

Blank also lived through polio outbreaks, although nobody in her family got sick, .

At 102, her hearing and memory remain strong. Walking has gotten difficult, but she reads, plays the piano, talks on the phone and tends to her living space in the house she shares with her son, Joel Blank, 67. He retired from Windmill Ponds a year ago.

During the COVID-19 outbreak, they are mostly staying home, although Joel goes to town for food and supplies. They did go for a drive recently to get out of the house, he said.

Elvira said she is handling self-isolation “very well. I’ve been inside the house for a long time now. It doesn’t bother me a bit.”


She offered words of encouragement to those going through their first pandemic.

“Just keep on living and doing the best you can,” she said. “We’re all in it together. There’s comfort in that.”

His mother has just one living sibling, her youngest sister, Joel said.

“I’ve been so blessed my whole life,” Elvira Blank said. “I’ve always had food and a place to live.”

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