In times of crisis, people find odd ways to cope. With the pandemic of 2020, people cope by hoarding toilet paper.
In Haywood County during the pandemic of 1918, at least one man worked through the frightening days by writing poetry.
He got his poetry published, too. Maybe because it was timely. Maybe because it had rhythm and rhyme. Or maybe because the author, Jesse Daniel Boone, owned the local newspaper, so if he wanted to put his poetry in what is considered the prime news spot for the paper — front page, top center — nobody could stop him.
Jesse Daniel Boone was nothing if not prolific. And he believed in keeping his poetry relevant. He wrote poems on politics, running a newspaper, tourism, creating new jobs and religion. One of my personal favorites was titled, “Vote and vote and vote some more.”
But few compare to the poems during the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918-1919.
The same pandemic that killed from 40 to 100 million people, including at least 35 in Haywood County, the same that killed at least twice as many people as World War I, became inspiration for the poet-turned-publisher.
In October 1918, when the flu hit Haywood County, Jesse Daniel Boone published the first poem, with the uplifting title, “The Spanish Flu May Get You, Too.”
“This old world is in the lurch;/ For we cannot go to church;/ And the children cannot roam;/ For they now are kept at home;/ And they’ve put a good, strong ban/ On the moving picture man; /Also made the lodges close,/ While we’re in the awful throes/ Of the pest the doctors call the Spanish Flu.
“Yes, the preachers now can pray,/ While they have their holiday;/ And the teachers have a rest,/ Which should give them punch and zest./ But there’s some folks, you can bet,/ Who are doing business, yet;/ ‘Tis the undertaking man,/ And the doctor and his clan,/ With the help of all the druggists, fighting Flu.”
There are four more verses, but you get the idea.
Two weeks later, the second poem, in traditional front-and-center position, also addressed the pandemic, this time titled “Now Mr. Flu, Please to Skiddoo.”
“Now Mister Flu, please do skidoo;/ We have no sort of use for you;/ You are, at best, a costly pest,/ And so we beg you, take a rest./ You make men sneeze and fill the breeze/ With deathlike germs and dread disease;/ Your heavy toll, from pole to pole/ Is more than German armies stole.”
… You get the idea. I wonder what people thought of his poems those days, and whether there was any tongue-in-cheek humor on the part of Mr. Boone. Can’t say much for his poetry, but the newspaper man did his duty by publishing information on the flu, pleas for help, messages from pastors whose churches had closed, and applause for volunteers who put themselves at risk to help literally hundreds of stricken Haywood County citizens.
Still, true confession: the poems make me cringe. But someday, our toilet-paper jokes and those little beaded toilet-paper earrings people are buying — they will make someone cringe too.
Boone was apparently quite a character. I talked about him some during a history presentation a couple of weeks ago (apologies to those who have already heard all about the man and his poems). According to the Centennial History of The Mountaineer, Boone was editor and publisher of the Waynesville Courier, our forerunner, around 1890. In 1902 he sold the newspaper, announcing to his fellow worshipers at First Baptist that he believed he had received a call to preach. Mr. Boone may have misread his divine signals, because instead of preaching, he was soon after running a grocery store on Main Street.
In 1913, he started another newspaper, the Carolina Mountaineer, and in 1917, he bought his old paper, the Courier, combining the two into the “Carolina Mountaineer and Waynesville Courier.” In 1925, Boone again sold his newspaper. He died in 1929, age 61, and is buried at Green Hill Cemetery. Boone’s wife died two weeks later and is buried beside him.
I wonder how Mr. Boone would handle the current crisis. I figure “flu” is a lot easier to use in poetry than “coronavirus.” But then again, there is potential:
“COVID-Nineteen, you are so mean,/ To strike as grass is turning green …”
I’ll work on it.
Kathy Ross farms in the Crabtree community with her husband, Steve, three sons and an undisclosed number of cats.