If you were to peruse a history of the small town of Long Grove, Iowa, you are very likely to find a very interesting black and white photograph.
In it stands a huge man, looking at the camera with relative disinterest. The viewer can’t help but notice the man’s size. Yes, he’s very overweight, but he also has an enormous frame for it to hang on. The picture definitely gives the impression that the man is truly gigantic.
Giants are the stuff of legend. Generally portrayed to be huge creatures, they occupy prominent places in legends and fairy tales. Although imaginary, there occasionally comes along a person that has extraordinary qualities that make others compare them with such creatures. William Orndorff, or Bill, as he was more commonly known, was such a man.
While it was this tremendous girth that earned him a place in the annals of Eastern Iowa history, there was much more to the man than the nickname that became synonymous with his legend – “Fatty.”
Bill was born near Long Grove, Iowa in 1875. By all accounts, his childhood was relatively normal. He played, worked, and socialized like other children, and grew up comfortably on his family’s farm.
Tall and good-looking, Bill had a lovely singing voice and was known as a good dancer. He was also charming and well-liked by nearly everyone. And then, he got sick. At least that’s what his family claimed.
They said that Bill caught something that no friend or doctor could identify. While he made a full recovery, he started gaining weight shortly after. Before long, Bill weighed around 400 pounds. That didn’t bother him too much, though, and if it did, he didn’t let it show. He remained a very friendly, approachable person.
He still loved to go to dances, where he would often serve as a caller and would even occasionally step out onto the floor. Never a particularly shy man, Bill was known to shout at passersby to come and join the festivities.
Orndorff was also known for being immensely strong.
For several years, he worked at the Meier Implement Company in Long Grove. One of his primary duties there was to assemble horse-drawn agricultural equipment.
These were made primarily out of cast iron and steel, designed for rugged outdoor use. As such, many of the components were very heavy. There were some pieces that required the use of two men – one to hold the piece while the other fastened it into place. Bill was so strong that he could do all of it by himself, simply holding it with one hand while putting it on with the other.
To entertain themselves, Orndorff and his boss, who was also known as being very strong, would hold foot races between the hills outside of the shop. But first, they would strap themselves into pieces of farm equipment where the horse would normally be hooked up, and then race from the top of one hill to the next, pulling the equipment behind them.
But giants are expected to be strong. However, they’re not expected to be quick.
At over 400 pounds, most didn’t figure that Bill could move very fast. In spite of his girth, however, Bill had lost none of his youthful agility. Of course, most of the locals knew about Bill’s impressive talents, and they used them to their full advantage.
Sooner or later, someone from out of town would stop into the local bar that Bill frequented. When they came in, the bartender would start an act that he had already worked out with Bill beforehand.
Approaching the stranger, he would point to Bill and ask, ‘You see that guy?’
Bill was very hard to miss.
“Sure,” the stranger replied.
“You know, I’ve seen him kick the pipe off the top of that stove,” the bartender said, pointing to a cast-iron stove in the corner. Inevitably, the stranger would scoff at the claim.
Bill was massive, and the pipe was about six feet from the floor. There was no way that guy was going to kick that pipe from its place. None. And the stranger said so. The two men would commence to debating the issue, and at some point, the bartender would offer to bet cold hard cash that he was right.
The stranger, fueled by a lethal combination of righteous indignation, outright anger, and just a little booze, would take it. Now that he had his prey firmly on the hook, the bartender would yell at Bill and tell him about the bet. Bill would then get up and make a huge production of warming up, lining up his kick, and a bunch of other nonsense. The theatrics made it so much more fun when he would throw his foot up in the air and kick the pipe off the stove with little effort. Everyone would have a good laugh and have a drink, generally at the stranger’s expense.
Through it all, Bill never stopped gaining weight. The last time that he allowed himself to be weighed he was over 400 pounds. He became known throughout the region for his size, and some even started to call him the “Giant of Scott County.”
As he approached middle-age, the excess weight began to take a toll on Bill. He couldn’t get around very well, and so he moved to a farm northeast of Long Grove, where he paid the owners to help take care of him.
Outside of being extremely overweight, Bill enjoyed relatively good health. His size was slowing him down, but he was still as friendly as ever. He could still talk and visit, and he hadn’t gotten sick in years. But all of that was about to change.
In later years, scientists debated where it started. Some said China, others said Europe. Others still argued that it all began on the wheat-covered plains of Kansas. The Great War – what people would later call World War I – was in full swing, with much of the world in the throes of combat in various parts of the globe.
The United States had just entered the conflict the year before. Thousands of young men gathered at camps around the country to be equipped and trained before shipping out to fight the scourge of the German Hun on the fields Europe. And that was part of the problem.
A group of men in Kansas. left their camp carrying an unseen threat, one that no one knew was there. Travelling laborers in China carried it, taking it to their family, friends, and neighbors. As they went from place to place, so did the silent menace, quickly taking root amongst a populous that was almost completely unprepared for it.
Before long, it had spread around the world.
Although its effects were already begin seen in several places, the newspapers in Spain were the first to report about it. Because they were the first to talk about it, the world gave it their name: the Spanish Influenza.
Some of the first cases in Iowa were reported at Camp Dodge in Des Moines, Iowa, where hundreds of soldiers had become infected. Medical officials told the public to wear cloth masks -little more than handkerchiefs tied over the face- to be worn to help slow the spread of the disease.
As it had throughout the world, the Spanish flu spread quickly throughout the state. It was indiscriminate in who it struck. World leaders caught it, as did the governor of Iowa, who was running for re-election at the time. Students and professors caught it at the University of Iowa and Iowa State College.
In 1918, there was little that doctors could do to fight the Spanish Flu. The discovery of penicillin was still nearly thirty years away, so medical professionals could often do little more than separate the sick from the healthy.
In an effort to do that, public places ranging from schools to movie theatres were closed. Many public events such as religious services and sporting events were either cancelled or closed off to all but a few people. Still the disease spread, virtually unchecked.
That year, the Spanish Influenza brought the world to its knees. Sometimes people got lucky and didn’t get sick, but others, like Bill, found that their luck had run out. Inside of his rented room in northern Scott County, Iowa, the physically resilient man was laid low with the flu.
Millions of people around the world were in the same situation. The virus effected their lungs, gradually breaking them down. As they did, the victims’ lungs would begin to fill with blood, causing many of them to cough up blood as their bodies tried to expel the fluid. As their immune systems weakened, many of the sick caught pneumonia.
In December, Bill joined the thousands of Iowans who succumbed to the ravages of the Spanish Flu. He was only 43 years old. Some say that when they removed him from his home, they had to cut a hole in the side of the house.
An autopsy was performed, and when the coroner weighed him, Bill weighed a little over 700 pounds.
Years prior, many of his family had moved to Clinton County, only about ten miles to the north of the Long Grove area. Because of this, it was decided that the funeral would be held in DeWitt, a centrally located town for all of his family and friends.
A specially-built casket was ordered for him, one that could accommodate his enormous size. Some have said that his coffin was actually two piano boxes that were put together. Regardless, a casket was found and the funeral held without any issues.
When the services were concluded, it took twelve men to load Bill onto a flat-bed truck. The truck was necessary because he wouldn’t fit into a normal hearse. The funeral procession then made their way south to Mt. Joy Cemetery, on the northern limits of the city of Park View.
At the grave side, a block and tackle were used to lift Bill from the truck and into the ground. His grave was marked with a small, simple stone that stood in sharp contrast to the huge man buried below. He had so many talents that he had used for the benefit and entertainment of others while asking very little in return.
Bill Orndorff was a living legend, and lived life to the fullest way that he knew how. But in 1918, a silent killer swept through the world and took that life away from him. In the end, a legendary illness brought down the legendary giant.
Many of the things that Bill would have known and recognized are gone now, torn down or replaced over the one hundred years since his death. And yet, his story and life are still remembered, passed down through the generations as something that truly stood out and was special.
In that way, Bill Orndorff, the Giant of Scott County, remains with us still, humbly tucked away amongst our collective rural Iowan lore, ready to tell his fantastic story from his simple resting place near Park View, Iowa.
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Wundrum, Bill. ‘He Ate the Whole Thing.’ Quad City Times, 11/28/1985
Ramaciti, Dave. ‘The Legend of Fatty Orndorff.’ Focus, 3/18/1973
‘700 Pound Scott County Giant Who Died of Flu.’ The Davenport Democrat and Leader, 12/11/1918
Langton, Diane. Time Machine: Flu killed more than 6,000 Iowans in 1918. The Gazette, 2/18/2018
The Great Flu. Iowa Pathways, www.iptv.com
Vergano, Dan. 1918 Flu Pandemic That Killed 50 Million Originated in China, Historians Say. National Geographic, 1/24/2014
Cloth Masks to Combat the Flu. The Davenport Democrat and Leader, 10/1/1918