Saturday, August 19, 2017

"Boy Burglars" in Grinnell

People living in eastern and central Iowa may have heard of the recent robbery of a Grinnell Casey's, allegedly the work of a seventeen-year-old. As it happens, I had been working on a story about "boy burglars," a term that appeared with some frequency in early twentieth-century Iowa. A search of for this expression in Iowa newspapers between the years 1910 and 1919 got more than thirty hits, which surprised me; the term did not seem familiar, and I could not recall when—or if—I had encountered it in contemporary reporting. But there they were: a ten-year-old "boy burglar" in Des Moines (1912); two eleven-year-olds in Newton (1910); two eleven-year-olds in Davenport (1918); a twelve- and fourteen-year-old in Logan (1910); a thirteen-year-old in Sioux City (1912); and so on. Just as surprising, other news reports affixed the same label to young men in their late 'teens, or even to twenty-year-olds—like Curtis Kile, who was 20 when arrested in Davenport in 1919 with his accomplice, Ed Burke, aged 18.

Breaking into hardware stores and barber shops, grocery stores and ticket offices, the youthful villains often got away with pathetically small sums. For example, a 1913 Davenport robbery believed to be the work of "boy burglars" netted a box of cigars "and a small amount of money in pennies" (Quad-City Times, November 9, 1913). When Louis Arnold and Frederic Engler, whom the newspaper called "chronic store breakers," were arrested in Keokuk in 1918 for robbing a grocery store, the boys had made off with "some cigars, candy, cookies and chewing gum" (Daily Gate City and Constitution-Democrat, November 11, 1918). Yet, by combining their work in a series of thefts, junior criminals sometimes accumulated serious cash: when police descended upon a trio of boy burglars in 1919 Davenport, they "found merchandise valued at several hundred dollars," the result of a string of robberies of Rock Island merchants (Daily Times, June 5, 1919).

Occasionally, a young burglar was found attempting a very adult burglary, as happened in July, 1912 Des Moines when police captured ten-year-old Nash Allinkov "in the act of tapping the safe of the Siegel Bottling works." According to the newspaper, the boy "had in his possession a kit of tools of the kind usually carried by a professional safe-cracker" (Quad-City Times, July 18, 1912). Similarly, when 16-year-old Tony Nikalaski was captured in Fairfax in 1917, "he was in the act of burglarizing the office safe" of the Northwestern Railroad ticket agent.

Grinnell was not exempt from boy burglars, including, it seems, even the safe-cracking type. This Grinnell story looks at two "boy burglars" from Grinnell, and how their early criminality affected their later lives.
Undated Photograph of Alvin H. Case (1897-1945)
Grinnell's safe-cracking "boy burglar" was named Alvin Case, the second son of George and Louella Case who in 1900 lived at 538 Spring Street. George was a day laborer and his wife worked as a "washer woman." Before the 1910 census came to Grinnell, the Case family had moved to 207 Second Avenue. The census identified George as a "factory laborer," but by this time Ella had no job outside the home where she cared for Alvin (then 12 years old) and a younger brother, Virgil, who had not yet observed his first birthday. Harry Case, twelve years older than Alvin, had married in 1908 and moved out of his parents' home.

Soon after this census was taken young Alvin Case became the subject of newspaper reports. In its September 12, 1911 edition the Des Moines Register announced that Grinnell police had arrested 14-year-old Alvin (the Register misspelled his name: "Aluni") Case, whom they accused of having robbed safes and cash drawers in Grinnell. Upon being captured, Case reportedly confessed "that he knew the combination to every safe in town." The story "had legs," as reporters like to say, and newspapers across the state published news of this safe-cracking wunderkind. The Davenport Daily Times (September 12, 1911), for instance, noted that Case, despite being "born of respectable parents," admitted being responsible for as many as ten other thefts, whose total take exceeded $200. Newspapers as far away as Boyden (near Sioux Falls) and Humeston (due south of Des Moines) also carried the story.
Grinnell Herald, September 12, 1911, p.1
Local reporting, however, provided the most detail (although it made no mention of the young man's memory of safe combinations). Apparently Grinnell police had long suspected Alvin of robbery, and therefore had hidden a policeman and one of the affected merchants in businesses that had been robbed. The planned ambush did not materialize, however, because when yet another merchant—A. J. Hockett—reported a theft from his cash drawer, police hastened to arrest Alvin. When taken into custody, the boy was found to be in possession of several one-dollar bills in his pockets, and a silver dollar in his socks. Cash on his person added up to $9.40, almost the precise sum that Hockett had reported missing. Since he was not caught in the act and police had no witnesses to the theft, Alvin might well have escaped this accusation. But for whatever reason, young Alvin then confessed to numerous robberies whose take, the Herald announced primly, the lad had spent "in gay and riotous living." What did this phrase mean in 1911 Grinnell?
He would go to Des Moines [the newspaper asserted] and spend two or three dollars [at] a time for rides on the roller coaster at Ingersoll Park, and at the Malcom and Grinnell fairs he was a liberal spender (Grinnell Herald, September 12, 1911).
After his arrest, however, Alvin would ride no more roller coasters or blow money at local fairs, since authorities immediately dispatched the boy to the Iowa State Training Institute for Boys in Eldora. Curiously, on-line records of Iowa convictions do not mention Alvin Case. How his name escaped entry into the records is not known, but there can be little doubt that Alvin spent two or three years in the care of state officials, as indirect evidence confirms.

The 1915 Iowa census—taken more than three years after the 1911 arrest—notes that Alvin, at age 17, was back home and "at school" in Chester (where his parents had moved), and therefore no longer a resident of the Eldora reformatory. However, the census also reported that in 1915 Alvin had completed only "7 years" of school, putting him at least three years behind his coevals, most of whom would have been in eleventh grade if they remained in school. It seems likely, therefore, that his 1911 exile to Eldora cost him two or three years in the school sequence.
Iowa Training School for Boys, Eldora, Iowa (undated postcard)
Perhaps this single encounter with law enforcement was enough to change his life, because Alvin evidently had no future encounters with law enforcement. Sometime after his 1918 registration for military service, Alvin entered the army, where he prospered, reaching the rank of Sergeant in Iowa's 109th Infantry. By the time federal census officials arrived in Grinnell in January, 1920, and inventoried the Case household, then residing at 705 Fourth Avenue, Alvin was back home, driving a taxicab.

By all outward signs, therefore, Alvin seems to have turned his life around. Indeed, the boy burglar seems to have transformed himself into a law-abiding worker and family man. We know that in February 1920 before an Indianola Justice of the Peace, Alvin married Irene Rogers, a Newton girl. How they met the record does not say, but their first child, Norman, was born in 1917, several years before they married and before Alvin left army duties behind. Presumably, therefore, Irene managed to care for the child without Alvin's help until their marriage. After the wedding Alvin and family set up house in Jasper county, where the 1930 census found them, Alvin working as an electrician wiring houses. The household grew rapidly, as Irene gave birth to four more sons: Keith; Kenneth; Victor, and Richard. When census officials next visited the Cases in 1940, they were still living in the same place, although by this time Alvin was said to be farming. Apparently, however, he was not well (his father's 1929 obituary had observed that Alvin was unable to attend the funeral, since he was then hospitalized in Arizona). What his illness was I did not learn, but records confirm that by 1945 Alvin Case died from cancer and was buried in the Colfax cemetery. Except for that brief period in his early teens, Alvin Case's life followed a fairly routine course that centered on family and work.
The situation was different for Lester Lamb, who was one of a small gang of boy burglars arrested in October, 1917. A notice in the October 26, 1917 issue of the Des Moines Register announced that two teenagers had been arrested in Grinnell for burglary and had been sentenced to the state reformatory at Eldora. George Lewis, 16, and Lester Lamb, 14, reportedly confessed to numerous break-ins over the previous four months, most recently at Hockett and Elliott hardware store in Grinnell where, the paper alleged, they had stolen "a large sum of money." In their confession, the boys took credit for a string of robberies: a lumber yard in Vinton; two garages and a filling station in Iowa City;  three garages and the American Express company at Grinnell; and two other garages in Rock Island. "We stole for the love of it," the boys reportedly told detectives.
Des Moines Register, October 26, 1917
Lester Lamb was the third of four sons born to Ralph (1874-1952) and Maggie Lamb (1878-1961) who in 1905 were residing in Bear Creek, near Malcom. By 1910 the Lambs had moved to Grinnell, the oldest boys having begun school there. In his turn, Lester followed them to school; he had completed fourth grade when George Murray filled out Lester's card for the 1915 Iowa census. Consequently, when authorities arrested him and George Lewis in October, 1917, Lester was probably only a sixth-grader.

As news stories reported, the "boy burglars" were sent off to the reformatory at Eldora where the 1920 census found Lester, then reported to be 15 years of age and occupied as a "butter maker." Soon thereafter Lester obtained his release and returned to Grinnell where the 1921 high school yearbook complimented him and his two older brothers—Gar and Raymond—for their football skills. Lester was then a ninth-grader, who, the yearbook explained, "On account of his weight and speed...was a tackle that instilled fear into the hearts of his opponents" (1921 Grinnellian, p. 65).
1920 Grinnell High School Football Team; Lester Lamb, front row, 2nd from right (1921 Grinnellian)
No Grinnell high school yearbook includes him among the graduating class, so Lester must have quit school sometime after 1921. He next appears in the public record in August, 1922, when a Marshalltown newspaper reported that Lester had broken his arm when trying to crank his father's car. In October, 1923 Lester married Minnie York, a 21-year old woman from Clarinda. According to the marriage certificate, Minnie had been married once before, but what happened to her previous husband the record does not say. Whatever its merits, marriage did nothing to settle Lester's life and get him on the right side of the law, because in July, 1924 his name surfaced again; newspapers reported that he was arrested in Arnold's Park, accused of attempted rape. In the absence of the $1000 bond, he was jailed (Emmetsburg Democrat, August 6, 1924).
Mark Blair (aka Lester Lamb) (California Prison and Correctional Records, 1851-1950)
I failed to find the outcome of this charge, but future developments indicate that the young man continued his wayward path. At some point, Lester abandoned the midwest, and settled in Los Angeles, California. Using the alias Mark Blair and giving his occupation as "musician," Lamb was arrested in 1932 in Los Angeles on a charge of forgery, and was sentenced to one to fourteen years in San Quentin. He was paroled in March, 1935, but was returned to prison in 1941 for a parole violation. In June, 1942 he received another parole, and was finally discharged September, 1943.
Mark Blair (1922 Grinnellian)
How did this "boy burglar," first arrested at age 14, become habituated to a life of crime that saw him graduate to one of California's most infamous prisons? Since Lamb died in 1969 in Oakland, California, we can learn nothing more from him. How then might we explain his life path?

One key to Lamb's criminal hankerings comes from the alias he used in California. Originally I had assumed that Lamb had simply invented the alias, but, when reading an Iowa City newspaper report of a 1922 basketball game with Grinnell, I noticed a short note that reported that one of the Grinnell players—Mark Blair—could not play because of a diphtheria quarantine.
Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 30, 1922
Of course, the two young men knew one another from their high school athletics (both played football, for instance), and Iowa was a long ways from Los Angeles, making the choice of the name seem safe. But why use Blair rather than some other name—any other name? We will never receive a definitive answer to that question, but it bears observing that Blair was a very successful high schooler: president of the high school athletic club and vice-president of his class, he played varsity basketball and football; he'd been treasurer of the YMCA, and had taken part in the class play.
Garland Lamb (1922 Grinnellian)
Lester Lamb's own biography, which included his sojourn at the Eldora Reformatory, could not match Blair's, but the high school resumes of his two older brothers—whom the Iowa City news article described as "stars"—bear a distinct resemblance to Blair's. Garland Lamb—who went on to a career as school teacher and coach—had also been president of the Honor G club, had taken part in the class play, had played football all four years of high school and been named captain of the football squad in 1921; he also had played varsity basketball for four years, and was named basketball team captain in 1921. Raymond Lamb, who went on to a successful medical career in Des Moines, had played varsity football for three years, and varsity basketball for four years, and was made basketball captain in 1922. He, too, had had a part in the class play, and had participated in YMCA.
Raymond Lamb (1922 Grinnellian)
Since Lester never graduated from high school, the yearbook capsule of his high school activities was never publishedbut his brushes with the law make it difficult to believe that his record could have stood comparison with these men's. And in that difference we may understand some of the vectors that pushed Lester Lamb deeper into a life of crime from that original 1917 encounter with the police. Standing adjacent to two brothers who had blazed paths through school, just like their teammate, Mark Blair, Lester Lamb might easily have felt that too little light shone on his own head, and that the world was unfairly organized. Barely into his teens when he joined his fate to some young men who stole "for the love of it," Lester soon carved out a biography that sharply contrasted him with his brothers.

Indeed, when the boys' father, Ralph Lamb, died in April, 1952 in Des Moines at the home of his doctor-son (who took him in for his final illness), Ralph's obituary noted that he was very proud of his "fine sons": "Dr. Raymond Lamb of Des Moines, Garland Lamb, superintendent of Urbana High School, [and] Lester E. Lamb of Oakland, California." The fact that no profession or accomplishment attached to Lester's name is telling: unlike his older brothers who had succeeded in their professions without crossing swords with the law, Lester had achieved very little. And although his parents might well have told him that they were no less proud of him than they were of his brothers, the pledge must have sounded hollow to the young man who, even as a boy, lived for the thrill of breaking the law.
Summarizing these two lives, one wonders what distinguished them, one from the other. How did Alvin Case manage to straighten out his life trajectory while Lester Lamb seemed to sink deeper into criminality?

Perhaps, as I've argued above, Lester never escaped the shadow of his all-star brothers, and set off determinedly on a different path. Of course, Alvin Case had siblings, too, although they seem not to have led lives quite so sterling as the two older Lamb boys. Harry Case, for instance, was twelve years older than Alvin, and, in effect, belonged to an entirely different generation. He married the former Ethel Bailey in February, 1908, and the couple soon welcomed several children to their home in Grinnell where they seem to have lived quietly.  According to the 1920 city directory, Harry operated a taxi service from 810 Park Street, while living at 207 Main.

Alvin's younger brother, Virgil, also seems to have passed into adulthood without having attracted much attention, and went on to a series of jobs in Grinnell and volunteered for the Grinnell Fire Department for 50 years. Closer to Alvin's age than was Harry, Virgil might have had a closer relationship as well, although nothing survives to confirm the connection. Neither of Alvin's brothers, however, lit up the grandstand quite so brightly as did Lester Lamb's brothers.

Such a hypothetical explanation can only raise questions that available evidence simply cannot answer. Other would-be explanations are no easier to trace: Did Alvin's parents, for example, do a better job of including all their children in their affections and in helping them scale the problems of childhood? Or did Alvin, on returning home from Eldora, develop friendships that kept him away from the sort of trouble that had sent him to Eldora in the first place? Perhaps Lester was not so fortunate, falling back into the same circles that had so stoked his enthusiasm as a fourteen-year-old boy burglar.

No document can be expected to answer these questions, leaving us to wonder at Grinnell's "boy burglars" and how their lives played out after they, while still children, first collided with the law.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Poor Man Who Died Rich....

It was a Sunday morning in early April, 1954 when Grinnell police found James Totten (1860-1954) wandering half-dressed on Fourth Avenue. Wearing only a sweatshirt and suit coat, Totten kept asking passers-by how to find Bates Pharmacy, a store that had been closed for more than twenty years. Officers collected the ninety-four-year-old, helped clean him up, got him dressed, and then turned him over to county officials. Judged "insane," Totten was committed to the county home and Poweshiek County Attorney Norman McFarlin (1918-1990) was made his temporary guardian.
Postcard (ca. 1913) of 4th Avenue, Grinnell; 803 1/2 is upstairs of 2nd building from left (Digital Grinnell)
Totten, who had worked for years as a painter and wallpaper-hanger, was known to be "eccentric." He had few friends, and refused everyone entry to his apartment at 803 1/2 Fourth Avenue. Anyone who wished to contact him—to hire him to paint or hang wallpaper, for instance—had to slip a note under his door; those paying a bill would follow a similar procedure, but to see or speak with the man was almost impossible. Totten had no telephone or electricity—he preferred a kerosene lamp—and for decades he kept stubbornly to himself. But the man who denied himself every convenience, who lived in a stinking hovel and who appeared half-naked on the street that April Sunday had actually squirreled away thousands of dollars in his apartment. This Grinnell Story is devoted to James Totten, a poor man who died very rich.
James Totten was born in 1860 somewhere in Ontario County, New York, not far from Rochester. Apparently no birth certificate survives, but his farming family was living in nearby Steuben County when the 1865 New York census was taken. The son of David and Elizabeth Totten, young James was the couple's first child; five sisters followed him into the family over the next decade. By the time the 1870 US census-takers arrived in Iowa, the David Totten family had moved to Poweshiek County, Iowa, boarding a Norwegian immigrant who helped out on the farm. The 1878 Grinnell city directory listed D. B. Totten as a farmer who resided on "Main, south end" (this before the introduction of house numbers).
David Totten family in 1880 US Census
Later censuses reveal that James went no further in school than the 8th grade, so by the 1870s he was probably working on his own. Indeed, when federal census officials passed through Grinnell in 1880, the listing for the Totten family included only James's five sisters living with their parents on Main Street. When the infamous Grinnell Cyclone whirled into town, June 17, 1882, Elizabeth Totten became one of its victims.
Original gravestone for Elizabeth Totten, Hazelwood Cemetery
"Elizabeth, wife of D. B. Totten, Killed by Cyclone, June 17, 1882, Aged 45 ys, 4 mos"
The 1895 Iowa census found James in Grinnell, boarding with the Nelson Burns family;  Lucy Burns was said to operate a restaurant and Nelson identified himself as a "dehorner." The record reports that James was already working as a painter, a profession he pursued his entire life. The 1900 federal census located James Totten living alongside several other boarders, without specifying an address. Still single, James gave his age this time as 35, an error that shows perhaps an unawareness of his exact birth date.

The 1905 Grinnell city directory for the first time placed James Totten at the address where the events of 1954 took place: the directory identified him as a painter who "rms over Ross shoe store, 4th Ave.," which the directory elsewhere identifies as 803 4th Avenue. Consequently, we know that from at least 1905 James Totten resided upstairs at 803 4th Avenue. Later censuses for the most part cite the same address. However, somehow Totten was overlooked in the 1920 census—was this a function of his growing isolation? had census workers not been able to get him to come to the door to answer their queries? Ten years later the 1930 census reported him to be rooming with the Frank Crane family at 913 West Street. What explains this change of residence I cannot imagine, because the 1940 census has him once again at 803 4th, and supposedly Totten resided at that same address in 1935 (since the census asked his whereabouts then). It may be, therefore, that James Totten lived in the three-room apartment on 4th Avenue for half a century or more, or at least the best part of that interval if, as the 1930 census maintains, he lived for a time a couple of blocks away.

As the censuses confirm, Totten rented the entire time he lived on his own. No data on his rent survive, but he did tell the 1915 Iowa census-taker that he had earned $520 the preceding year—not a huge sum, but sufficient to keep a single man with modest expenses reasonably satisfied. To judge from the monies found later, Totten spent very little. According to news reports, in his last years Totten was known to recover food from garbage cans rather than buy it at a grocery; he was also said to walk the railroad tracks in search of odd pieces of coal. Another report claimed that Totten "made frequent visits to the city dump, where he is said to have found some of his clothing. He also canvassed grocery stores for less salable foods" (Des Moines Register, September 23, 1954). Apparently he had no friends, and when a sister visited Grinnell once to contact him, he refused even to talk to her.
Norman McFarlin (1918-1990) (University of Iowa 1947 Hawkeye Yearbook [University of Iowa Digital Library])
Isolated and suffering some sort of mental illness, the "eccentric" Totten was living on the margins of Grinnell society, and his peculiarities were no doubt the meat of much gossip. So, when police took custody of the half-naked man on Fourth Avenue in April, 1954, no one could have been surprised. What did surprise, however, emerged during a series of searches of the old man's rooms.

The first such expedition followed hard on the heels of Totten being sent to Montezuma. In late April, 1954, county officials, including the County Attorney, Norman McFarlin, who had been appointed Totten's guardian, entered the Fourth Street three-room apartment that occupied the second story above Arnold's Shoe Store. What the newspaper called "indescribably filthy quarters" confronted them: "All the rooms were filthy beyond description and strewn with old clothes, discarded junk and scraps of food moldy with age" (Grinnell Herald-Register, April 22, 1954). The men who braved these conditions, however, were shocked to find a large pile of money, "tucked away amid rotting clothes and other debris." No official announcement provided a firm figure for the cash retrieved, but the Herald-Register put the sum at around $20,000, all of which was relayed to Totten's guardian.
Gravestone for James Totten, Hazelwood Cemetery (plot 352)
When Totten died in July of that year, the situation grew more complex. Instead of protecting his legal ward, McFarlin now had control of his former ward's estate. Accordingly, that September the Grinnell Chief of Police, Waldo Johnson (who had been part of the first foray into Totten's apartment), and one of his officers, Fred Roop, returned to Totten's former home on Fourth Avenue, to collect anything of value and clean out the rest. Perhaps made especially alert to the possibility of finding more cash because of the original search, the policemen were rewarded for their diligence with discovery of yet another collection of money. According to newspaper accounts,
Johnson discovered the false bottom in small bureau drawers...Reaching into the small opening, Chief Johnson felt the bottom of the compartment give slightly. Checking further by prying up the board, he discovered a packet of money totaling $5000. That was enough for Johnson to make a similar investigation of the second small drawer, where additional money bundles were uncovered (Grinnell Herald-Register, September 2, 1954).
With this discovery officials had gathered from Totten's apartment almost $38,000.

As the wheels of government inched forward, McFarlin turned his attention to settling Totten's estate. One large hurdle was overcome when he located Totten's two sisters and a nephew who were eligible to inherit the dead man's property. Mrs. Emma Totten Fellenen (b. 1875) lived in Los Angeles; Mrs. Lillian Totten Porter (1875-1958) in Jackson, Michigan; and a nephew, James Totten Jackman, resided in North Hollywood, California. According to published accounts, "The heirs apparently knew nothing of the accumulated money...Totten did not appear to have been very closely in touch with them, exchanging only a few letters and perhaps a Christmas card during the year" (Des Moines Register, September 23, 1954). Both sisters, however, were soon in Grinnell, where on July 10th James Totten was buried in Hazelwood Cemetery. An indication of how alone Totten had been comes from the spare obituary, which includes a revealing list of four pallbearers, all of whom seemed to be acting out of mercy rather than kinship or friendship: Norman McFarlin, the County Attorney who became his guardian (but who never knew the man before he was institutionalized); Waldo Johnson, the Grinnell Chief of Police who had searched Totten's apartment and discovered the money trove; Maurice Halterman, secretary of Poweshiek County's Soldiers' Relief, who, his own obituary reports, "was interested in serving others, taking special interest in children and the families of veterans who were in special need..."; and Sam Ragan, director of relief for Poweshiek County.
Grinnell Herald-Register, July 15, 1954
Since McFarlin was obliged to liquidate any remaining property so as to draw a final line under the value of the estate, in August, 1955 officials returned to Totten's apartment to inventory for auction anything of value, and empty the apartment of all the rest. Surprisingly, Chief Johnson, now on his third visit to the dead man's quarters, found another $50,000 "in a hidden compartment of a two open bundles and an oilcloth cover package" (Grinnell Herald-Register, August 15, 1955). Along with a pile of currency in denominations ranging from $10 to $500, investigators uncovered government bonds and other securities (including stock shares for General Motors and Chrysler). This latest find brought the total recovered from Totten's rooms to about $90,000 (equal to about $800,000 in today's dollars).
Grinnell Herald-Register, December 15, 1955
Eight truckloads of trash (the Des Moines Register says only three truckloads) had already been removed from Totten's apartment when Johnson uncovered the latest (and last) cache of money, an indication of how desperately littered the old man's home had become. Nevertheless, Johnson and fellow officers managed to isolate "about 80 lots of old furniture and boxes of miscellaneous articles" for auction, which was held in December, 1955. The entire collection brought in only $143.55, including the price paid by the Grinnell Museum Society for the oil lamp and some business cards that Totten had accumulated (Montezuma Republican, December 15, 1955). The chest of drawers in which Chief Johnson had found around $70,000 netted just $7. Other items brought little more, a sad coda to the unlikely story of a wealthy poor man.
Kerosene lamp acquired by Grinnell  Museum Society at the auction of the Totten estate, December, 1955
(Grinnell Historical Museum, Totten Estate)
Cases of hoarding, elderly eccentrics are hardly unknown in America. Perhaps the most famous instance concerned the Collyer brothers who in 1947 were discovered entombed by the mountains of stuff that they had secreted away in their New York City brownstone. More recently, the New York Times told the sad story of George Bell, who, living alone in a New York apartment "groaning with possessions," had died without anyone having noticed. Like James Totten, Bell left behind a treasure trove—several hundred thousand dollars—although stored in a bank rather than false drawers of a bureau. These cases raise the question: why should we care about James Totten?

As the Times's N. R. Kleinfeld wrote, "George Bell died carrying some secrets. Secrets about how he lived and secrets about what mattered most to him. Those secrets would bring sorrow. At the same time, they would bring rewards" ("The Lonely Death of George Bell," New York Times, October 17, 2015). The same might be said about Grinnell's James Totten. Off the grid for most of his life, isolated and sinking deeper into delirium, James Totten earned no attention from those who wrote the happy pages of Grinnell's history. In contrast to the inventors, successful businessmen and politicians who commonly populate these histories, James Totten lived life in a minor key. His life gained public attention only because of the demeaning way it ended, and the surprising discovery of his fortune. He might easily have died unnoticed, his secret cache undiscovered, in which case we would never have had occasion to recall his name.

When I began this blog, I asked "whose stories deserve to be told?" I observed then that "the disadvantaged, the poor, people of color, and others at the margins of wealth and power" too often lose their place in stories of the past. James Totten is one of those Grinnellians whose life passed almost without notice. In a town where churches, clubs, and fraternal orders wove citizens into the social fabric, James Totten lived almost off the loom. Therefore, telling his story, sad as it is, reminds us that Grinnell's history is a complex narrative into which various threads—some bright and cheerful; others, dark and despondent—are woven, and we cheat ourselves by overlooking that broad array of color.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Build! Build! Build!: Grinnell One Hundred Years Ago

A visitor to Grinnell in 2017 could hardly miss the many construction projects now underway: the 196,000 square-feet humanities and social sciences building on the Grinnell College campus; the addition/expansion to St. Mary's Catholic Church; the remodeling of the former Junior High School into a hotel; the reconstruction of Central Park; and the reconstruction of downtown streets, to name just a few of the most obvious endeavors.

A century ago in Grinnell there was also construction everywhere, stimulating a March, 1917 article in the Des Moines Register, headlined "Grinnell Spends a Million in New Buildings." Of course, the word "million" does not have the same ring today that it had in 1917; translated into today's dollars, 1917 construction spending in Grinnell—for a town about half the size of today's Grinnell—amounted to almost $20 million of today's dollars, still only a fraction of the cost of construction now underway, but a big bump in early twentieth-century Grinnell all the same.
Des Moines Register, March 11, 1917, p. 36
Nourished by the high prices that grain commanded during the early years of the World War I, the escalating value of farmland, and the emergence of new technologies, 1917 Grinnell had accumulated unprecedented wealth, and this financial well-being bankrolled a remarkable building boom, surprisingly similar to the present frenzy of construction in town.

Despite this overt similarity, however, 1917 was also different from today. A much smaller, less populous town then than now, 1917 Grinnell was connected to the larger world mainly by railroads and newspapers rather than by the interstate highways or the internet; even the radio was still on the horizon in 1917 (newspapers announced the first "wireless station" in town in February). Grinnell College was smaller and less prosperous than it is today, and the town was more overtly religious—and more protestant. Although a recent local referendum had favored women's suffrage, Grinnell women still awaited enfranchisement that the Nineteenth Amendment would provide, and consumption of alcohol was illegal—in 1917 Grinnell Prohibition was in full swing, Iowa having legislated it four years before the 1920 national law. Perhaps most jarring of all the differences was the World War into which the United States had only recently been thrust (the U.S. formally declared war on Germany April 6, 1917), and that far-away war not only brought news of the world regularly to Grinnell's doorstep but also brought uniforms and military training to town, and called forth increasingly strident patriotism.

Sadly, Grinnell's prosperity and building boom did not last, and the 1920s brought contraction, farm foreclosures, bank failures, and social dissatisfaction that organizations like the Ku Klux Klan exploited. But that was later; in 1917 Grinnell's future looked very bright indeed, and that confidence powered a surprisingly robust round of construction that changed fundamentally the appearance of the town!
The Des Moines newspaper report, published early in 1917, included several projects whose genesis properly relates to the previous year. For example, the photograph used to highlight the article depicts the new Grinnell Herald building on Fifth Avenue, completed in 1916 by the Bailey-Marsh Company to the design of Proudfoot, Bird and Rawson. Its cost estimated at about $40,000, the newspaper's new home featured entirely new press machinery, said to be the fastest then available; an elevator with which to move heavy loads between floors; a two-story vault for the most valuable records; and a series of skylights that admitted ambient light from the roof all the way to the raised basement. Perhaps most interesting was the role played by D. N. Mallory, an "efficiency expert" who helped produce what the newspaper shamelessly bragged was "the handsomest and most commodious newspaper home in Iowa for a town of 5,000 people" (Grinnell Herald, March 13, 1917).
Scarlet and Black, January 20, 1917, p. 1
Grinnell still had two newspapers in 1917, and the Herald's competitor, the Grinnell Register, also put up a fine new building just down the street at the corner of Fifth and Broad. Using the design of Ladehoff and Sohn, a short-lived Grinnell architectural firm responsible for several structures built in 1916, the Register's new building—"Register" emblazoned across the brick face of the upper story—was home to both the newspaper and its owner-editor, Charles K. Needham (1868-1956), who lived upstairs. But this building, too, was begun before 1917, as photographs from the new post office construction site across the street prove.
Grinnell Register, August 30, 1917, p. 1
Securing a new post office for Grinnell was the achievement of Congressman Nate Kendall (1868-1936), but local contributions of $6000 were necessary to add to the $15,000 that the U.S. Treasury provided to purchase the site of the former Norris Livery across Broad Street from the new Register building (visible in the background of a photograph looking west from the construction site).
Early Stage of Construction of Grinnell's US Post Office, 1916, looking west (Digital Grinnell)
Work began in autumn, 1916, but the doors of the new post office first swung open to the public September 21, 1917 for a welcoming reception. Weitz Construction Company of Des Moines erected the wire-finished brick structure (said to have cost $68,500), built to the Neo-Classical design of a government architect (Grinnell Herald, September 21, 1917, p. 1).

Local government also joined the building boom: although many Grinnell streets had been paved by 1917, as the town expanded new streets opened and some streets were widened. For example, a January newspaper article reported that Park Street north of Tenth Avenue, originally platted too narrowly, was doubled north to the Country Club. Elsewhere, city government decided to make use of the ashes and cinders generated at the water works and heating plant to improve the surface of the Hazelwood Cemetery drive and First Avenue beyond the tannery (Ottumwa Semi-Weekly Courier, January 2, 1917).

Even bigger projects loomed, however. As many readers will know, today's Grinnell city government has embarked upon a very costly project of upgrading its waste water treatment plant. Coincidentally, in 1917 the city proudly opened its brand new sewage disposal plant. The Herald described the new facility as "the most comprehensive effort to handle the state" (March 13, 1917). J. W. Turner Improvement Co. of Des Moines constructed the new facility southwest of town, and also had the contract to  install a series of water mains in Grinnell.
Grinnell Herald, March 13, 1917
Grinnell was also busy putting up a new school in the southern half of town. Marshalltown architects Harry Reimer and George Herlin provided the design of a "really modern, up-to-date school house," whose construction occupied much of the year 1917. Apparently parts of the building were opened to use that autumn, as an article in the Herald (September 11, 1917) that announced the beginning of the new school year identified a principal at the new school as well as teachers for kindergarten, second and third grades. The formal opening of Davis school, however, had to wait until September 6, 1918 when the public was invited to tour the school named after two long-time teachers, Misses Lizzie and Edna Davis. The newspaper described the school as a "three-story, fire-proof structure" whose terrazzo hallways and stairs were thought "sanitary and practically sound proof." The first floor was devoted to a "manual training room," while nine classrooms occupied the second and third stories. Translucent glass filled the upper half of large windows; movable desks—the latest classroom innovation—could be "changed to any position to suit the convenience of the child." The published description also lauded a "neatly-furnished rest room with a kitchenette" and a "white enamel finished room equipped with all first aid necessities" required by a nurse. "South Grinnell should certainly be proud of this excellent improvement," the newspaper concluded (Grinnell Herald, September 10, 1918).
Local industry also marked some important new construction in 1917. In October the newspaper announced that the new building of the Dodge Tool Company would soon be open. The two-story factory (70' x 90') on south Main was under the direction of W. S.  Dodge, and was said to have engineered Billy Robinson's famous rotary engine. Evidently the firm did not prosper for long, however, as a 1920 Grinnell directory knows nothing about it.

The most costly and important industrial addition to town in 1917 was the new plant of the Iowa Light, Heat, and Power company, reported to have cost $250,000. At its official opening, May 14, 1917, Mayor White turned on a new, 500-horsepower Ball engine, which revolved "steadily and smoothly, like a happy giant at work." The mayor then started up its twin, and would have done the same to a third engine which had twice the power of the first two, but it was not yet fully operational. Guests then turned their attention to the big boilers and their automatic feed hoppers, all intended to increase and improve the provision of power to the town (Grinnell Herald, May 15, 1917).
Drawing of proposed new home for Iowa Light, Heat and Power (Grinnell Register, August 10, 1916)
As in 2017, so also one hundred years ago, a significant proportion of new construction in Grinnell took place on the college campus. Indeed, Alumni Recitation Hall, at the center of today's new humanities and social studies complex, was itself brand new—in fact, not even fully finished—in 1917 when the first classes convened in that building.
Alumni Recitation Hall, 1917 (Scarlet and Black, September 24, 1917
The new three-story brick structure provided classrooms for English, German, classics, romance languages, psychology, education, applied Christianity, history, political science, economics, and business administration.  In addition to offices for some twenty-eight faculty, ARH featured a "social science laboratory" that was to be furnished with "all the reference books on these subjects," transferred here from the library. The auditorium, which embraced both the second and third stories at the rear of the building, was intended for important lectures, debates, and similar gatherings that required extra seating.
Architect's Drawing, Men's Dormitories, Grinnell College, 1917
Already in 1914 the college had embarked upon an aggressive building spree, committing to construction of new dormitories, beginning with the women's quad on south campus. In 1916 emphasis had shifted north to the new men's dormitories, the first of whose "cottages" opened to students in autumn, 1917. What the Scarlet and Black (September 26, 1917) pronounced "among the most artistic and complete" men's dormitories in the United States was organized as three- or four-room suites, each room including "a steel cot of tasteful design, a closet and lavatory"; showers and bath tubs were shared by residents of each floor. Each cottage or house also shared "an elaborate club room [each with a fireplace], which will be used for lounging and for parties." With completion of the men's dormitories in late 1917, almost overnight the college—the great majority of whose students had previously lived off-campus—became a residential campus with enormous implications for the college's educational aspirations (and also for the incomes of townsfolk who had previously rented space to students).

The men's dormitories provided yet another significant signpost to the twentieth century—labor troubles. In late April newspapers across the state reported "Near Rioting at Grinnell" (Des Moines Register, April 24, 1927, p. 3; see also Quad-City Times, April 24, 1917, p. 2), the consequence of strikes carried out by workers for the several firms taking part in the construction project. Bailey Marsh Construction, who had won the bid as general contractor, held out longest against worker protests about hours, wages, and recognition of unions. In April the Minneapolis company brought to Grinnell from Des Moines twenty Mexicans whom they had hired to replace strikers. When the new laborers appeared, strikers refused to let them onto the worksite, and succeeded in persuading the Mexicans not to help Bailey Marsh break the strike. In early May the company tried again, this time importing volunteers from Milwaukee. Rather than allowing strikers to hassle or persuade the newcomers, the company arranged to train the recruits onto the work site, past the strikers, on a specially-laid railroad spur. Apparently the tactic worked, as a May 16 article in the Quad-City Times announced that the strike was over. Management had conceded a nine-hour work day at 35 cents/hour, but the firm refused to recognize the union as the strikers had long insisted, so that, overall, the laborers emerged the loser.
Grinnell House, 1920s? (Digital Grinnell)
Yet another instance of college construction was the new president's house at Fifth and Park. Like other projects, Grinnell House, as it has come to be called, was authorized in 1916, the trustees awarding the design to Brainerd and Leeds of Boston (W. H. Brainerd was an 1883 graduate of Iowa College). Originally estimated to cost about $30,000, the new home for President Main occupied a large lot at the corner of Fifth and Park. Like much of the new construction then, Grinnell House was built of brick, and was intended as both a private residence for the president (whose large frame dictated the super-size bath tub still occupying space on the 2nd floor) as well as an official entertainment site. Construction was delayed several times in early 1917, so the first public reception here took place in June and the formal opening during autumn semester.
Scarlet and Black, December 8, 1917
Of course, the college was not the only local institution committed to new building plans. One of the oldest institutions in town, the Congregational Church, in early January announced plans for a thorough remodeling of the north end of the "Old Stone Church" (Scarlet and Black, January 10, 1917, p. 1).  Initial plans called for "a comfortable parlor and rest room for ladies" as well as a "large club room for men and boys." A three-story addition was proposed to the east of the church, featuring a dining room and assembly hall on the first floor, classrooms on the second, and two large rooms "especially for the use of young people" on the third. But when bids came in higher than hoped, the church rejected all bidders and decided to reconsider the plan (Grinnell Herald, July 31, 1917). Elsewhere in town, however, it was full-speed ahead.
Quad-City Times, February 5, 1917
Grinnell's Masons decided to erect a new temple on the east side of Main Street. In early February newspapers announced that bids would soon be opened for construction of "an imposing three-story structure faced with grey brick and cream terra cotta." A lease for the first floor had already been let to J. W. Harpster's furniture and undertaking business; a lodge room would occupy most of the second floor, with two parlors stretching across the front of the building; a kitchen, dining room and serving room were planned for the third floor. Designed by Frank Wetherell, who was architect for many buildings in central and southern Iowa, the new Masons' home went up quickly.
Cornerstone at foot of stairs of Grinnell's Masonic Temple, 1917
In July masons from all over the state converged on Grinnell to dedicate the new structure and lay the cornerstone. As often happens on such occasions, a small box of mementoes was installed within the cornerstone, preserving recent copies of both the Grinnell Herald and the Grinnell Register, a copy of the two Des Moines newspapers, several newly-minted coins, postcard views of Grinnell, a history of early Grinnell, and a list of lodge members (Grinnell Herald, July 27, 1917).
New Plumbing Showroom of A. Stahl, Fifth Avenue (Grinnell Register, August 30, 1917)
Several more modest commercial buildings also arose downtown in 1917. Adjacent to the west side of the Herald on Fifth Avenue August Stahl erected a one-story brick building with a plate-glass front for his new plumbing and heating store. A review in the Grinnell Register (August 30, 1917) made much of the tasteful display of plumbing products, and noted that the proprietor was "Especially proud of the rest room he has had fitted up for the convenience of the ladies... no matter whether customers of his store or not."
Grinnell Register, May 10, 1917
Immediately to the west A. C. Dickerson installed a Willard Storage Battery Service Station. Described as "well-built of brick" and "handsomely furnished," the "light, airy and convenient" facility accommodated seven or eight cars at a time, presumably entering from the alley, since up front was "a smaller room which is being handsomely fitted up as an office" (Grinnell Herald, August 10, 1917).
White Star Filling Station, Fifth and Main, 1917 (Digital Grinnell)
Just to the west of the new Willard Battery Station was the White Star Filling Station, which opened on the northeast corner of Main and Fifth in January, 1917. Highlighted by brick columns, each of which was topped by a lighted ball that advertised the gasoline and oil, the attractive brick building straddled the corner lot on an angle, allowing vehicles to enter from Fifth Avenue and exit onto Main Street. Flower gardens filled the triangle that separated the station from the corner. Later in 1917 across the street, on the northwest corner of the intersection, arose another filling station, this one belonging to Standard Oil. According to the Grinnell Herald report (May 8, 1917), the building was to be located on the northwest corner of the lot; the face of the building would use brick for the bottom three feet, above which stucco would cover steel lath. The newspaper promised a "25-foot front of the building proper with four drop lights." In addition, five post lights, each six feet high, would match the design of the main building. Like its competitor across Main Street, the Standard station would feature a diagonal cement driveway from Fifth, emptying onto Main. Gasoline pumps would be sufficient to accommodate four automobiles at a time. All this was expected to cost something less than $4000.
J. H Skeels Building, 1917 (Grinnell Herald, September 14, 1917, p. 1)
Just across the street and around the corner yet another brick building went up in 1917, and became home to J. H. Skeels and his blacksmithing business. To the rear of the first floor, and reachable also by a door opening onto Fifth Avenue, customers could enter a wood shop. Two apartments occupied the second floor, although living there might have required courage. According to the Herald (September 7, 1917), "Two power drills, roller disc sharpener, grinding machine and three forges" operated in the blacksmith's section, and similar machinery attached to the wood shop, all powered by electricity. A rectangular canopy almost the full length of the Main Street storefront hung by chains and covered the sidewalk.
Strand Theatre, 1917 (Grinnell Register, January 25, 1917)
Across Main Street two more new buildings took shape in 1916 and opened in 1917. The Strand Theater came from the design table of N. Wiltamuth & Son, architects who were also responsible for several Grinnell homes. The Grinnell Register (January 25, 1917, p. 2) thought the theater "attractive and imposing." Like other newly-built downtown businesses, the Strand sported a wire-cut brick face, but hollow clay tile and steel beams reinforced the structure. A mansard roof of green, glazed Spanish tile overlooked a canopy that was "bordered with panels of art glass set in white metal" and was suspended by chains over the entrance. Immediately to the north, Frank Harding opened the new building of Grinnell Granite and Marble Works. With a 25-foot front, the two-story building stretched 122 feet deep, the front displaying white enamel brick trimmed with red granite. The owner's name, cut out of red granite, served to identify the business. Most of the first floor was devoted to Harding's business, but a Goodyear Shoe Repair shop occupied one room there as well. As with Skeels's building, the second floor was divided into apartments—seven here—each with a built-in refrigerator, gas range, and "instantaneous water heater." Skylights helped brighten the interiors, all this making "the best monument building west of the Mississippi" (Grinnell Herald, September 7, 1917). 
Daily Iowan, October 20, 1917, p. 1
Despite all the ways in which 1917 corresponds to similar developments in 2017, surely one piece of 1917 news beggars the imagination of a 2017 Grinnellian: on October 20, 1917 the Grinnell College football team defeated the University of Iowa 10-0. Of course, the game of football itself was played differently back then, with the starting lineup playing both sides of the ball rather than having special offensive and defensive units; drop-kicks (rather than employing holders as is now universally done) were common, and executed by one of the backs rather than use a kicker specialist. All the same, Grinnell was dizzy with the thrill of victory, and the Grinnell Register (October 22, 1917) reported that, when the special train that bore Grinnell fans to Iowa City returned home, there was much celebration, including a parade and a bonfire on Ward Field.
Scarlet and Black, April 21, 1917
In other ways, too, 1917 may be distinguished from our own Grinnell. For instance, the College of today enrolls more than 1600 students, but when classes convened in September, 1917 the college proper enrolled a total of 728 students (just over 900 if including other programs), a student population described as the "largest in Grinnell's history." Perhaps admissions that year were helped by the fact that in the preceding March the college faculty had finally approved students' petitions to permit dancing on campus; six dances were scheduled for the 1917-1918 academic year (Quad-City Times, March 9, 1917, p. 17). American involvement in World War I also brought a change to campus as students first engaged in voluntary military drills, and then began to enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces. As a result, military uniforms became a common sight around town.

And yet there was in 1917, as in 2017, sufficient optimism and financial well-being to stimulate a surprisingly robust round of new construction—both public and private. Today many of the buildings newly erected a century ago remain in use, if sometimes remodeled and repurposed. We may hope, therefore, that the next century will prove equally hospitable to the structures whose construction is presently underway.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

When Fiery Crosses Burned...

Last year, when working on a story about the 1950 birth of triplets at Grinnell's St. Francis Hospital, I ran across a clipping from the September 7, 1963 Des Moines Tribune. Celebrating the Catholic hospital's history, the article quoted William Kueneman, who for some years had been business manager of the Grinnell Herald-Register. In comments directed at the reception of a Catholic institution in a primarily Protestant town, Kueneman pointed out that over the years patients of all faiths had been helped at St. Francis, and that many of the town's best-known Protestants had helped finance the hospital. He went on, however, to recall a time "when a rag-tail Ku Klux Klan outfit burned a cross on the lawn, and stood around for hours shouting insults" at the Catholic sisters and their hospital. Regrettably, Kueneman did not provide the date of this hateful moment, and, try as I might, I have not been able to find any published reference to such an event on the grounds of St. Francis hospital.

However, the lengthy search did bring me face-to-face with the Klan's success in Grinnell and in nearby towns. I have written about some of this history before, but what I report in this story is a much expanded history of the Klan's operation in central Iowa at the peak of its popularity in the 1920s. And it proves that here in Grinnell, as in many other central Iowa towns, the KKK had an active chapter of robed knights who gathered around burning crosses, allegedly in defense of patriotism and protestant Christianity.
Uniform of KKK (
What historians sometimes call the second wave of the Klan's success began around the time of World War I. In the American Midwest, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan fit neatly into the insecurities—economic and social—that followed the war, as Kay Johnson persuasively argued in her 1967 MA thesis ("The Ku Klux Klan in Iowa: A Study in Intolerance," University of Iowa Department of History, 1967). Consequently, Iowa's KKK was not, like its parallels in the South, a collection of lynch mobs, but instead openly advocated a conservative social agenda—supporting Prohibition; opposing immigration and "modern morals"; objecting to Catholics and Jews; and demanding of members that they be "100% American." This program, which included obviously racist elements that Klan spokesmen regularly denied, appealed to Iowans who saw their financial and social well-being challenged, and helps explain how the Klan became so popular and powerful in Iowa in the 1920s.

But the fiery crosses that served to highlight KKK gatherings were not common in central Iowa until the 1920s. In August, 1921 the Sunday Magazine of the Des Moines Register wondered, "Is the fiery cross of the Ku-Klux Klan to sear the peaceful state of Iowa?" Although overt evidence of KKK activity in central Iowa remained scarce, the newspaper thought it "an open secret that for weeks the white hooded klansmen have been quietly organizing in Iowa," and supposed that open Klan activity was on the horizon (Des Moines Register, August 21, 1921). In fact,  in September, 1922 the Register reported on a secret gathering of some 200 klansmen three miles south of Des Moines. At about the same time, the newspaper reported on "one of the biggest ceremonials the Ku Klux Klan has held in Iowa," bringing some 75 initiates to take the oath before a fiery cross near Boone (Des Moines Register, September 8, 1922, p. 1).
Des Moines Register, August 21, 1921
What the Des Moines Register called "the first burning of the fiery cross in Dallas county" occurred in mid-May, 1923 near Madrid. According to the newspaper, the brief ceremony attracted thousands who watched some 200 klansmen light a relatively small cross—"approximately 20 feet high and 10 feet wide" (Des Moines Register, May 17, 1923, p. 1). Two weeks later the same newspaper told of a KKK initiation five miles east of Des Moines where some 400 novitiates pledged their loyalty. Of course, the meeting featured a burning cross, this time much larger: forty feet high and twenty feet wide, casting "a huge flare which reached to all corners of the grounds, on which were gathered about 1,000 members of the hooded order" (Des Moines Register, May 30, 1923, p. 2).

The attractiveness of the Klan was evidently growing in central Iowa as 1923 wore on. In late July a huge rally convened near Saylorville Lake. Newspapers reported that 2100 automobiles had ferried some 8000 klansmen to the rally, called "the biggest meeting of the klan ever held in the state of Iowa." Again, a fiery cross played a central role in festivities: "One of the impressive features of the initiation was the burning of a large cross eight[y] feet high" (Des Moines Tribune, July 26, 1923). A few days later the first women recruits took the oath before some 2500 klansmen, all standing beneath a fiery cross (Des Moines Tribune, July 30, 1923).

Despite all this KKK activity around Des Moines, Grinnell and its immediate neighbors seem to have been at least temporarily immune to the appeal of the Ku Klux Klan. For most of 1922 and the first months of 1923, Grinnell newspapers found little reason to report on the KKK. Nevertheless, something must have happened in that interval, because in late April 1923, the pastors of Grinnell's two largest protestant churches delivered impassioned sermons against the Klan; the Grinnell Herald published lengthy reports on both.

The Congregational Church's Rev. E. W. Cross, perhaps sensitive to the fact that some of his parishioners might already have enrolled in the KKK, began his sermon by noting that he passed "no judgment on the character of individuals who may be members of the Klan. Doubtless many of them are good citizens who joined the organization for what seemed to them worthy purposes...." Nevertheless, quoting a critic of the Klan, Cross claimed that the KKK "has the power to drag down constitutional government in at least fifteen states. The courts of six states are already seriously injured in their functioning; the ballot box is threatened in more than a dozen states; and it has stirred up bitterness and strife that will not pass within a decade."
Grinnell Herald, May 1, 1923, p. 1
A second warning to the well-intentioned was Cross's claim that the Klan was corrupt, its membership enlarged primarily through a pyramid scheme that sucked increasing quantities of cash from the $10 required of each new member. Promoters traveled the country, luring in new members, part of whose entry fee went directly to the promoters, an even larger share going to the national Klan leadership to support a drunken and cynical lifestyle.

Cross did not wish to explain KKK success by these clever, if disreputable practices alone. "The whole world is seething with national, racial and religious prejudice," he admitted, "and the Ku Klux with its advocacy of white Protestantism found thousands of ears receptive to its propaganda." Indeed, as the country struggled with new waves of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe (many of whom were Catholic or Jewish), the Klan proved attractive to white Americans, most of whose ancestors had originated in protestant northern Europe.

Rev. W. C. Wasser offered a very similar analysis, directing his comments to the local Methodists. Like Cross, Wasser thought that "the motives and purposes of many who have found a place in the Klan are above criticism. Many truly American and Christian men in intention are in its ranks." But Wasser, using the biblical report from Jesus at his trial ("I have spoken openly to the world—in secret I spake nothing" [John 18:20]), urged listeners to embrace truth and avoid reliance upon force. He condemned the secrecy attaching to the KKK, and observed that "the one and only method of Jesus was the courageous public statement of truth to the world...." Reliance upon secrecy and force will only encourage the formation of still more groups with similar commitments, Rev. Wasser said, and all these extra-legal forces, having abandoned the openness of Jesus, will undermine democracy.

These spirited condemnations of the Klan from the pulpits of the two largest protestant churches in Grinnell provoke surprise, because by early 1923 there was little public evidence of the KKK being active in Grinnell. However, the fact that both Grinnell pastors began their attacks on the Klan by carefully pardoning good men who donned the white robes is indirect evidence that the Klan had already made inroads among Grinnell's Christian population.
1920s Application form to join KKK (
Despite—or perhaps because of—these public rebukes, reports of Klan activity gradually began to pepper the pages of local newspapers. The Grinnell Herald of October 12, 1923 carried news of a "Fiery Cross in Poweshiek." According to the story, "a large crowd of Deep River people witnessed the burning of the red cross on the hill west of Deep River Saturday night" (= October 6); "many people were present," the brief account alleged. Within two weeks, the newspaper reported that a "Fiery Cross Is Seen in Grinnell," where on October 18th unknown persons had set off a burning cross on the grounds of the Grinnell Country Club. Locals rushed to get a good look.
Grinnell Herald, October 23, 1923, p. 1
In late November (Grinnell Herald, November 23, 1923) the Herald reported on a series of newspaper clippings from Kirksville, MO. Remarking that "the Klan movement has gained considerable headway not far from Iowa," the paper told of a "spectacular" Klan procession of more than 200 robed knights, of a red cross that towered over the local courthouse, and of an appearance by a group of Klansmen at a Kirksville Baptist church to which the Klan gave $25, adding an explanation that described the Klan as a "powerful adjunct to the Protestant church." All these themes were later to play out in central Iowa.

Evidence of Klan organization in Grinnell itself, however, emerges in clear relief only in 1924. The first hint of local KKK activity came when the Herald reported on a June 3rd gathering in nearby Gilman. Apparently a "good-sized crowd" listened to Rev. Frank P. George (1887-1928), Klan emissary from Lancaster, Ohio. The paper noted that "A delegation of knights in their robes was present and formed in a circle around the speaker's stand," and that, following the talk, those interested in joining the Klan were invited to Mooney hall, "where we understand quite a few were sworn into the order" (Grinnell Herald, June 6, 1924).

Soon thereafter the Klan presented itself in downtown Grinnell. Several issues of the Grinnell Herald in mid-June discussed the convening of Klan-sponsored meetings in town. Again it was Frank George representing the KKK, this time taking the podium in Main Street's Longshore Hall June 11th. George reportedly "called the Ku Klux Klan a religious organization which wanted to develop the proper spirit of Americanism." Admittedly organized for "white men and Gentiles," the Klan had as its principal object "the prohibition of all immigration for five years until the country assimilates the foreign material now on hand." The Herald found the speaker able and interesting; in its view, "there was little or nothing at which any one would take offense" (Grinnell Herald, June 13, 1924).
Bandstand in Grinnell's Central Park (ca. 1930)
The following Tuesday (June 17) the Herald reported on a gathering of a "fair-sized crowd" in Central Park the previous Friday evening. Again, Rev. George was the speaker, explaining that "the Ku Klux Klan is an organization born of God and not of man and designed to correct 'something which is wrong with America,'" an assertion that the newspaper found "impressive." Rev. George evidently complained about the "unfavorable publicity which...the Klan has received at the hands of the American press," and attributed this development to Jews who controlled the press and "who were opposed to the Klan because it accepted Christian doctrine." George "denied that the Klan was anti-Jew but said that the Jews were anti-Klan." Indeed, George maintained, "The Klan is not opposed to any man on account of his race, creed, or color."

Soon Grinnell had a more visual (and visceral) experience with the Klan. The same day that the Herald reported on the Friday meeting in Central Park, a group of some 28 Newton klansmen "invaded Grinnell at about 10 o'clock [in the evening?] in seven cars and paraded around the business district, inviting everybody out for the ceremony." According to the newspaper (June 20), some 300 Grinnell people accepted the invitation, and followed the white-robed figures to "the hill west of town." There the klansmen joined hands around a "huge cross," and, as one of the knights lit the oil-soaked cross, "the klansmen sang 'America,' then kneeled and prayed." The masked, robed knights then marched around the cross in single file, then again in double file, after which they returned to their cars and to their homes in Newton.

Within a month, the Klan was back on the pages of the Grinnell Herald (July 17, 1924), again thanks to the Newton KKK. Making use of the baseball diamond at Rock Creek, "about twenty-five hooded, visored and white-gowned figures guarded the grounds," admitting only those with invitations issued "to Grinnell residents who were thought to be interested in the Klan movements." If that sounds like a restricted group, the newspaper estimated that "probably four hundred" people were in attendance. After a "stem-winder" talk, "over half the crowd joined the order and were initiated that night in the glare of a large 'Fiery Cross.'"
Grinnell Herald, August 5, 1924, p. 1
In late August the newspaper announced that a "Klan Meeting Near Grinnell Draws Crowd" (Grinnell Register, August 25, 1924). The event took place on the farm of A. F.  Swaney (although the deed evidently bore his wife's name), where an "immense crowd" arrived in cars, all of whose headlights were directed to a wagon and straw on which speakers stood.
1914 Plat book for Poweshiek County shows the Mary Swaney farm just east of Grinnell, abutting Highway 6; Mary Swaney was the second wife of A. F. Swaney (Atlas and Plat Book of Poweshiek County, Iowa [Des Moines: Kenyon Co., [1914], p. 13)
Presumably because of all this local recruiting success, in early August the newspaper carried word that a new chapter of the Klan was being formed in Grinnell. According to Rev. George, who appeared at the newspaper offices on a Sunday afternoon for an interview, Grinnell could boast "approximately three hundred knights of the Ku Klux Klan," a level of success apparently justifying a new chapter. George promised a special program on November 15 at which time an official charter was to be issued. So far as the Grinnell Herald can confirm, however, no November 15 meeting of the new Grinnell KKK chapter took place. Was the meeting canceled? Was it held in secret? Had George been exaggerating the level of success in recruiting local members?

Whatever the institutional fate of Grinnell's KKK, klansmen continued to be active in Grinnell and elsewhere in central Iowa. The June 13th story about the KKK in Grinnell had observed that two local men—Orrie Haag and Chet Vanderveer—had "run into a fiery cross at Victor Tuesday night while on their way home from a shoe convention at Iowa City," while other Grinnell travelers reported having seen a similar meeting at Prairie City the same night. On August 3rd, klansmen from Marshalltown visited Grinnell, providing a "big program of music and speaking at Central Park." The September 6 Grinnell Herald published an announcement of "Ku Klux Klan day at the Tama County Fair" that evening, promising "a big street parade with robed horses, a public naturalization ceremony by a national lecturer, a band concert, and some special klan fireworks." The notice observed that "representatives of the hooded order" had been in Grinnell earlier in the week to distribute announcements of the event all over town.

In what may have been the Klan's most daring operation, during the night of April 22, 1925 Des Moines klansmen erected and set fire to a series of crosses across the city, including one before the central police station and another in front of the municipal court building. The mayor and chief of police quarreled publicly about what should have been done, but the main result was to get the KKK lots of public attention (Des Moines Register, April 30, 1925, p. 1). The Des Moines branch of the NAACP issued a statement condemning the incidents intended "to incite among the uneducated and unthinking a deeper suspicion and distrust between members of different races, religions and creeds." Noting that many crosses burned on public lands and before schools, the group called on the governor, mayor and city council to prevent any repetition of the action (Des Moines Register, April 24, 1925, p. 2).

Local newspapers also carried stories about KKK visits to protestant churches, usually climaxing with a gift of cash. Leonore Goodenow recalled that in 1923, when she was attending a church in Whitten (Hardin County), "a dozen robed and hooded Klansmen entered the church. They strode down the center aisle, deposited fifty dollars in the collection plate, turned without a word, and marched out of the church" ("My Encounters with the Ku Klux Klan," Palimpsest 76, no. 2 [1995];52). Church visits from the Klan proved more dramatic elsewhere. For example, in September, 1925 some fifty Klansmen and women, "arrayed in the robes of their order," attended the service of the New Christian Church in Montezuma and gave the church a communion set. According to the newspaper report (Grinnell Herald, September 29, 1925), "The service was very effective and the donation was especially pleasing to the members of the church." In its December 1, 1925 issue the Herald reported on a Klan visit to the nearby Ewart Methodist church. As the congregation sang "Onward, Christian Soldiers," about thirty "knights of the Klan marched in regular form, taking places around the sides, front and rear of the church, after which...a member of the Klan...presented a purse of forty dollars to Rev. Mr. Patterson, the pastor.... A hearty welcome and invitation to come again was given the Klansmen," the newspaper reported.
Des Moines Register, February 26, 1923, p. 1
Long before these Klan visits to Grinnell-area churches, the Des Moines Register (February 26, 1923, p. 1) reported on a Des Moines clergyman who openly defended the Klan. The Rev. N. C. Carpenter, pastor of the Capitol Hill Church of Christ, announced himself a member of the KKK at a church service, an occasion that was said to have drawn 2500 people to jam the pews. "We can say without apology," Carpenter declared, "that our forefathers founded this as a Protestant country, and we propose to reestablish and maintain it as such...." Like other Klan apologists in Iowa, Carpenter denied that the KKK bore "enmity toward the Negro." Likewise, Carpenter explained that the only reason that Jews were prohibited membership was "because they did not believe that Christ was the son of God, and this was a membership requirement."
Des Moines Register, October 12, 1925
Not all churchmen were as welcoming to the Klan as these examples indicate. In reminiscences about "Grandfather and the Ku Klux Klan," Mary Ellen Appleby Sarbaugh (1920-2006), who grew up in Iowa and graduated from Grinnell College in 1942, recalled a story her grandmother told about a time when klansmen tried to visit the southern Missouri church of which Rev. Andrew Benjamin Appleby (1862-1924) was pastor. Her account bears no date, but seems likely to describe the 1920s.
One Sunday evening the Klan appeared in my grandfather's church in full regalia. Far from introducing them as honored guests, my grandfather stood there with his hand out, pointing at them, saying, "This is blasphemy in the sight of God! Take off those robes or leave His house!" (Grinnell College Special Collections, Paul Henson Appleby Papers 1891-1963, MS/MS 01.27, Box 20, Folder 10)
Reluctantly the klansmen made their exit, but this seems to have been the rare case in which clergy decried rather than embraced Klan support.

To be sure, this was a time when the Klan loomed large in American life. Nothing illustrated the apparent ascendancy of the Klan better than the parade of klansmen in Washington, DC, first in August, 1925, then again in September, 1926. Estimates of the number of klansmen participating in the parades varied wildly, but even if one accepts the lowest number—25,000 in 1925—the demonstration in the nation's capital of Klan popularity and daring proved impressive.
Ku Klux Klan Parade, Washington, DC, September 13, 1926
The Des Moines Register announced that 5,000 Iowans would join the Washington parade, but how accurate that number was is difficult to determine. At a minimum, many Iowans made the journey to the capital, and there marched with their fellow klansmen.
Des Moines Register, August 7, 1925, p. 1
If any Grinnell klansmen took part in the parade, the newspaper did not say. However, the Grinnell Herald did carry a lengthy article from a witness (who might well have been a local klansman) to the 1925 parade. The unnamed informant was much taken by the orderliness of the klansmen, who apparently marched down Pennsylvania Avenue for more than four hours in perfect order without a single command or word of instruction. "I have watched parades in Washington for seven years," the Herald's reporter remarked, "and I have yet to see a better disciplined and orderly parade with more military precision than this one." "There were eight men abreast, marching with a quick, alert step with all eyes front and a look of determination on those men's faces that portrayed their oaths of being 100 per cent American." The witness thought the parade "beautiful," but also "appalling." "There was," the newspaper quoted him as saying, "a peculiar sensation and feeling that came over all as they watched that mysterious body of men...."
Grinnell Herald, August 28, 1925
Again the following year the Klan marched in Washington, and again the Grinnell Herald published news of the event. A brief notice in the September 24, 1926 paper explained that "one of the enthusiastic members of the Klan has brought to the Herald a copy of the 'Fellowship Forum'" which contained a description of the latest DC demonstration. By its own report, "Forum" claimed "fully 200,000 marchers," whom the newspaper admitted admiring. "Whether you like the Klan or not," the Herald continued, "you can't help admitting that they made a big demonstration, using the national emblem as an interesting feature in the parade."
Photo of 100-foot cross burned by the Ku Klux Klan on hill overlooking the 1925 Iowa State Fair 
(Des Moines Register, September 2, 1925, p. 2)
The national attention that the DC parades generated emboldened Iowa Klansmen, who began to conduct very visible gatherings on land adjacent to the Iowa State Fairgrounds. During the 1925 state fair, the Klan set up shop on a hill north of the fairgrounds where they set fire to a one-hundred-foot cross, while overhead "an airplane with a huge illuminated red cross on the under side, alternately flashing on and off, circled back and forth over the vicinity." Although hundreds of robed and hooded klansmen circled the burning cross, generating a weird sense of awe, the KKK gathering was also something of a lark, featuring a basket dinner, band music, singing and speeches. The newspaper headline emphasized that "Crowds at Fair See Fiery Konklave" (Des Moines Register, September 2, 1925, p. 1).

In early November Des Moines was the destination of some 5500 klansmen who came for what amounted to a Klan state convention at the Coliseum. Newspapers reported that fourteen special trains brought the visitors who, once inside the Coliseum, donned their robes to prepare for the hours of official business. If at first popcorn vendors and other hucksters made the gathering seem harmless, by the evening's end klansmen were talking "darkly of important public policies klan officials intend to broadcast before long" (Des Moines Register, November 2, 1925).
KKK Marchers in Evening Rain, June 12, 1926 ("Images of the Ku Klux Klan in Iowa," Palimpsest 76, no. 2 [1995]:72)
But the heyday of the KKK in central Iowa was fast coming to a close. True, the Klan continued to convene its picnic, and in 1926 the Register published a photo of "Throngs of the Fair Grounds" (Des Moines Register, June 13, 1926, p. 4).  Later that summer the Klan dedicated its first building anywhere in the state, establishing a "klavern" at Greenfield, said to be the stronghold of the KKK in Iowa. E. R. Butler, grand titan of the Iowa Klan, was among the featured speakers, alleging that "There is no foundation to the rumor that the klan strength is tottering in Iowa." He then contradicted himself, asserting that "Though we are less in numbers, the klan in Iowa is stronger than it ever was before" (Des Moines Register, August 25, 1926, p. 20).
August 24, 1926 Dedication of Adair County KKK Headquarters in Greenfield, IA
("Images of Ku Klux Klan in Iowa," Palimpsest 76, no. 2 [1995]:68-69)
Even if the Greenfield ceremonies ended with yet another fiery cross, opposition to the KKK in Iowa was growing. In early May the Rev. N. C. Carpenter, a long-time advocate of the Klan, confirmed reports that the Iowa Klan had lost 50% of its membership in the last year (Des Moines Register, May 9, 1926). The opposition was therefore emboldened, leading occasionally to violent collisions with klansmen, as happened in Corning in July, 1926. Newspapers described anti-klan sympathizers—armed with hammers, clubs and other improvised weapons—who tried to block arriving klansmen. "A serious clash was prevented only by the arrival of police officers, who ordered the demonstrators to disperse." All the same, on the way home klansmen had to dodge rocks and other missiles aimed at their automobiles (Des Moines Register, July 25, 1926, p. 2).
Because the Klan was a secret order, records of its activity—aside from things published in the press—are hard to come by. So far as I know, no evidence of Klan membership—no hoods or gowns, no membership rolls, no financial records—has been discovered for anyone in Grinnell. And yet the indirect evidence—the oblique nods to membership that both Rev. Cross and Rev. Wasser made while critiquing the Klan; the newspaper reports of the initiation of Grinnellians into the KKK; the unnamed informants who provided the Grinnell Herald with news; the periodic fiery crosses—indicates that Grinnell, like much of the rest of central Iowa, for a time embraced the Klan and its program of white, Protestant, "100% Americanism."

Who were these men who cast their lot with the hooded knights? Evidence from Indiana and Oregon, where KKK membership records have come to light, indicates that the Klan, far from appealing to the down-and-out or the marginalized, drew much of its 1920s membership from the local business and farming elite of small-town America. As Robert J. Neymeyer has pointed out, against the cascade of falling farm prices, bank closings, and the appearance of new waves of immigrants (many of whom were Catholic, Jewish, or Mexican), midwestern middle class men saw in the KKK a means to protest against the undermining of "traditional values" that had so long prevailed in middle America ("In the Full Light of Day: The Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Iowa," Palimpsest 76, no. 2 [1995]:60). In their closets or attics these men kept white robes and hoods which they wore to stand before fiery crosses while they sang "America."

Clearly Grinnell contributed its share of loyalists to the Klan's cause in the 1920s, and we may yet one day discover their names, and whether some of them dared burn a cross on the grounds of St. Francis Hospital.