Friday, February 19, 2016

1919: Details, details...

Now, the reasons the Potter family moved from Erie, Pennsylvania to Quay, Oklahoma may have been more complicated than just economic betterment.   Forrest "Doc" Pugh passed along his recollection of a story Gladys Potter told about the move to her family and neighbors.  In the story, the reason that the Potters moved was that her husband George did not want his girls to be vaccinated against smallpox.

Mandatory vaccination as a condition for school enrollment had been the law in Pennsylvania since the 1890's but was still under legal challenge.  The Supreme Court found such regulations to be Constitutional in 1922.  There had been childhood deaths from tainted vaccine at the turn of the century, which led to the first drug and safety laws, and this was probably still remembered (some people are still afraid of thiomersal in vaccines, and that was removed about as long ago from now as 1919 was from the tainted vaccine scandals.)  It seems to be an odd issue to motivate a big move, though.

I did find evidence of a smallpox scare in western PA in 1918-1919; the Erie health officer's report below from the "Municipal Journal" from early in 1918 would have been alarming if known to the general public.

Excerpt from the "Municipal Journal"; credit Google Books

The Erie newspapers of that time must not have been scanned yet, but there are other regional newspapers which can be searched on line.  There are frequent page-three type reports of smallpox cases.  The most interesting one I saw is from the Titusville PA paper reporting from Corry on July 1, 1919.

Item in the Titusville PA news; credit via

William Johnson is the paternal uncle of the little girl, Lillian Johnson, who traveled to Oklahoma with her Potter cousins.

It seems to me that a worry about smallpox might have seemed quite reasonable at the time (although Erie and surroundings was not wiped out by plague, and the kids ended up vaccinated eventually).  The line about "wholesale vaccinations ... and fumigation" may be a pointer.

One of the items I inherited is George's pocket machinist's handbook.  The newspaper clipping in the book has an appropriate poem:

George Potter's machinist's handbook ca 1917.

The other Grandma Potter story "Doc" passed on is that the trip to Oklahoma was done in a dedicated passenger/baggage "Combine" car.  I can't imagine how that would have been arranged or what it might have cost, although some relatives had railroad office jobs and might have had their ways to get it done.

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