That dread disease of long ago

Several of you who follow my work, also likely know I write an OTD on the Crawfordsville and Montgomery County History Facebook page, highlighting something that happened each day in our county’s history. As I was working on the February OTD entries, I met this family and was so saddened by them, that I wondered if it might be fodder for a good article.

Pondering families of today that lose multiple members from Covid-19 and its variants, I’m so afraid it will get much worse with those choosing no vaccine? Whether I’m right or wrong, I look at it that my parents didn’t want me to have polio and got me a vaccine and I certainly don’t want covid so hubs and I were some of the first in line and got our boosters as soon as possible. But, there was no vaccine or really little or no help (at that time and for several years thereafter) for the medical problem the Griffith family suffered from, along with so many others in America at the time.

James “Wilbur” and Margaret Elizabeth (Westfall) Griffith were married in Fountain County the 24th of February in 1880, Wilbur born 17 Dec 1855 and “Maggie” 6 July 1860. It was a happy life they planned, he a farmer, she an exceptional mother of their seven children: E”Stella”; Eva, Charles Theodore, Mary, Nellie, Icy and Clarence, who barely made the 1900 census born that year in April and passing the next October from extreme diarrhea, his bowels hemorrhaging after a few days of being sick. This begins the sadness – one child down!

The article (and more followed) I read, that prompted this writing involved Nellie and Icy. Most of the Griffith children including these two were born in Fountain, but Wilbur and Maggie sold their farm and moved first to Wayne Township, then up above C’ville four miles to a farm, where they lost Eva of exhaustion at the end of a five-month bout with TB (passed the 4th of July 1904 at age 20 years and one month). Second child down!

Next it was a move into Crawfordsville. I wondered if it was because of better doctors, or perhaps opportunities for the children, but both are guesses! In Crawfordsville, they owned their home at 1101 Lane Avenue, (I assume from good sales of his farms). The home I believe is gone now. Living there, the two sisters became very involved in working (Nellie ironically at the casket company and Icy in a printing office). As members of the First Baptist Church, the girls became excited for something of which our city became the designer, the concept spreading all over the state. This was the Community House I believe under the auspices of the church (as overseer of the young folks who were able to get together there to play, talk, study, similar to what we think of as YMCA or YWCA). Ours was the first in the state and people from all around (including some from Illinois) came to see how it was run. Although I didn’t discover exactly what was the Fidelity Club they were involved in, I do know it was a part of the Community House, and think it was likely the girls’ section. Definitely, they were good girls, who loved their church and having some fun, ready to be loyal and strict in helping the purpose of the Community House. Certainly, they were both quite active in promoting the CH and made so many friends, most not only crying but interacting with the family and aiding with the wake when the girls passed away.

Icy May seemed to have broken-out with the disease (tb) first in August of 1914. In comparison to our covid, who knows, whereas with tb, so many had it and it was so highly contagious. However, it may have been the remnants from her father passing with tuberculosis in late October of 1913. Nellie Sylvia contracted it about a month following Icy and guess it would probably be obvious from where it came. Both had good days and bad, each taking care of the other, their mother (by the way who had been around all of them throughout the stages to their deaths but lived to Christmas Eve in 1934, age 74, passing from cancer in her gall bladder) of course overseeing, aiding, feeding, cleaning them. Luckily, Maggie was one of 12 children so she got a lot of support.

Toward the end of their confinement, the girls began to contemplate their doom, praying several times a day that they would pass at the same time, together, adverse to the idea of one living without the other. Icy was the first to go at age 20 years 18 days (born Feb 6, 1895) at 11:30 in the morning on February 24th in 1915, followed by Nellie (age 22 years 11 months 6 days, born March 17, 1892) at 1 p.m. Neither knew of the others passing, both in a coma-state. Dr. F.O. Schenck was in attendance many days with them. Their mother gave the information on their death certificates, then as would be expected, collapsed. But, other family members and friends made sure she rested and was ready for the double funeral. Each sister was placed in her own casket for viewing, but when buried with all the others in the family in Union Cemetery west of Newtown on Aylesworth Road, they were in the same grave, information on the same stone and theirs match the combined stone of Eva and Clarence. Child 3 and 4 gone.

The next year, another of the Griffith children passed, and yes, of the same disease, this time it was their oldest, Stella dying March 19, 1916 (slightly over her 35th birthday). She did manage to marry (George Cruea) and had a child, Kenneth who was an engraver with Herff-Jones and died in 1985, at almost 75. Stella (and brother Charles below) are two of the three children not buried in Newtown, she resting in Liberty Chapel, Elmdale. Child 5 gone.

This leaves us Charles Theodore who took care of his mother, was a carpenter and upon her death moved to Chicago and passed there in 1958 (buried in Hammond) at age 71 (no children).

Lastly, Mary married Chestley Rodgers and passed at just shy of 100 (buried Greenwood). She had one son John Rodgers who had a daughter and grandson at his death in 2001.

Seven children, two grandchildren and few greats was the tally for this wonderful couple. Certainly, there was little “go forth and prosper,” because of that dread disease tuberculosis! Rest in peace each and every one, especially those precious full-of-life sisters, Icy and Nellie!

Karen Zach is the editor of Montgomery Memories, our monthly magazine all about Montgomery County. Her column, Around the County, appears each Thursday in The Paper of Montgomery County. You can reach her at Karen@