Historians, community members gather to confront area's racist past
The hood is topped with a blood-red tassel. Its eyeholes look like the sideways figure-eight of infinity. Four of us are gathered around a table amid the archives at the Center for Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College.
“The hoods are made with a rigid oil cloth to keep the points up,” says Jeanne Brako, the center’s curator. She takes out more hoods and a dirty, white cotton robe with a red, fringed sash embroidered with a white rose. A round patch on the breast shows what looks like a cross with a framed drop of blood in the center. The final item Jeanne pulls from the archival box is an old flour sack from the Bayfield Milling Co. It’s adorned with an image of an Indian chief in full head dress. The sack was apparently used to squirrel away the robe and hood between meetings and cross burnings.
The artifacts date back to the 1920s, when the Bayfield Chapter of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan – Pine River Klan No. 69 – numbered more than 100.
The sordid relics of Bayfield’s past were lost and forgotten until 1984, when a guy named Jeff Bryson was remodeling the second floor over Akers Garage on Mill Street. Above the garage, the 5,000-square-foot second floor had been a dance hall, community gathering spot and even a low-ceilinged basketball gym where the home team had a distinct advantage. They learned to fire no-arc missiles while opponents’ rainbows clanged off the ceiling.
While converting the space into apartments, Bryson was busy installing skylights when he discovered a locked wooden box in a crawl space. He hoped it was full of cash, but quickly realized he’d unearthed a cache of old KKK records and outfits.
A man named Akers, who ran the garage, apparently was the Klan’s local secretary and kept the hoods, signature cards, letters, membership lists and forms for ordering robes from KKK headquarters in Atlanta and instructions to make them at home. Bryson donated it all to the Center of Southwest Studies – a treasure trove of Native American rugs, dolls, writings and photographs at Fort Lewis.
I drove to our meeting with Joanne McCoy, an 80-year-old member of the Pine River Valley Heritage Society’s board. Joanne was born and raised here and returned to complete life’s circle after 30-plus years in Denver. She and her sister live in adjacent houses.
We’ve brought a couple white robes of our own to this meeting. When a woman named Betty Abernathy died a few years ago, the robes appeared at her estate sale. Someone donated them to our museum – located next door to the old Akers Garage.
We show our robes to Brako, the longtime curator and a textiles expert. Side by side with the real robes laid on the table, our robes are much whiter. One includes a tag from Penney’s. We all agree it was probably a sheet turned into a Halloween costume – not an authentic KKK robe like the other one sprawled on the table.
After studying the artifacts, Joanne and I head to the center’s library and the librarian fetches three boxes with records and lists.
Joanne recognizes many of the names from families in the valley – including her grandfather, William Hickman. He showed up on a list of potential recruits but declined to join. His wife Mittie’s name was apparently on the box, Joanne had heard through family stories. But we don’t find her name anywhere. Joanne is relieved but insists she’s not responsible for the sins of her ancestors.
“Good heavens, it’s so interesting to see all these names,” Joanne says. “Here’s Oswald. His wife taught in the school. And Kelso Darnell. He was the school janitor. And here’s the school bus driver.”
The irony strikes us. The names of the members of this secret, hate-filled organization are now unmasked – even posted on the center’s website.
A Fort Lewis College student’s research presentation kindled my interest in the Bayfield KKK. Jessica Thulson, who’s studying to become a middle-school history teacher, spoke last summer about the Klan in Bayfield in the 1920s during a seminar of the FLC History Department’s best and brightest students.
I brought the topic up at our next Bayfield Heritage Society meeting. Some people, including Joanne, thought the subject was appropriate for a temporary exhibit at the museum or an evening discussion.
Others worried about alienating long-time residents, whose $40 annual dues keep the museum heated and open. My motion was tabled.
But the Pine River Library, named among the best small-town libraries in the nation, agreed to host a community discussion. To me, it’s like the pile of shoes collected at concentration camps and displayed at the Holocaust museum in Washington – hard to look at but an important way to spark discussion and confront ugly chapters of the past.
Mary Wingerd, a respected historian from Minnesota, spoke at Fort Lewis College in 2015 and talked about the difference between heritage and history. Heritage is where you are now and where you want to go, based loosely on the past. History is an accurate accounting of what went down – warts and all.
I saw that play out at our Heritage Society meeting. We set up about 15 chairs for the 6 p.m. KKK community conversation. We scramble to pull out more chairs as more than 50 people begin pouring in – one of the largest groups since the 2-year-old library began hosting events.
Thulson shares her research about the town’s old guard and how it felt threatened by immigrants flowing in after World War I. They’d burned crosses at Latino work camps on Smelter Mountain by the uranium processing plant in the 1920s.
She tells everyone how Father Kipp purchased a double-barreled shotgun after a cross was burned at his Sacred Heart Catholic Church. With few, if any, blacks in the area in the 1920s, Latinos, Catholics and Jews were the targets of the Klan. They’d march silently down Durango’s
Main Avenue – instilling fear. Thulson says there is no evidence of violence – no lynchings or assaults. But one woman in the audience recalls a talk she had with an old-timer, whose Russian parents ran a store.
“She once came home from school and saw a cross burning in her front yard and hid in the bushes until it flamed out,” the woman says. “It sent a chill down my spine hearing that story.” FLC History Prof. Andrew Gulliford explained that Bayfield’s KKK chapter “absolutely reflects what was happening nationally” in the 1920s. Farms were failing and women were starting to vote, smoke cigarettes and hitch up their skirts. Communists were asserting themselves from Russia to labor unions. Change was coming and small towns like Bayfield were digging in their heels.
In those pre-TV days, joining fraternal groups such as the Elks and Moose clubs and attending weekly meetings was a popular form of entertainment and camaraderie. “The Klan,” Gulliford says, “mimicked those organizations.”
Retired history professor and writer Duane Smith urged the group not to judge their ancestors through today’s lens. “It’s a sad chapter in our history,” he said, “What your relatives did was not something to be proud of, but who’s to say we wouldn’t have been members, too?”
It was a small-town thing in the 1920s, a rural-vs.-urban dynamic with people in towns like Bayfield clinging to their white, Protestant ways.
Nik Kendziorski, the center’s archivist, says he gets calls every year from people who find grandpa’s KKK robe or hood. “They all ask the same thing,” he says. “‘What’s my family’s KKK stuff worth?’”
The center, he explains, only accepts donated materials, so he doesn’t offer estimates.
The last question of the evening came from Thulson’s mother, wondering how her daughter’s research affected her personally. The Thulsons belong to the same Catholic church where a cross was set ablaze in the ’20s.
“I’m thankful that things have evolved,” she answers, “and I live in a time where my priest doesn’t have to get a shotgun.”
Curt Brown is an award-winning author, historian and former journalist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune who escaped city life for the gentler confines of Bayfield a few years back.
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