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.