Sunday, July 29, 2012

Lucas County & the Ku Klux Klan: Part 2

The Ku Klux Klan purchased the former United Presbyterian Church building on North Grand in Chariton as headquarters during 1924 and held the building until 1930, when it was sold to what now is the congregation of Truth Assembly of God.

A major difficulty involved in sorting out the Ku Klux Klan's record in Lucas County is the fact that neither of Chariton's two newspapers, the Herald-Patriot and The Leader, reported extensively upon it --- and rarely named names. Although Leader editor Henry Gittinger seems to have enjoyed taking potshots at the organization, the entire Leader file for 1924 --- the Klan's most active year in Lucas County --- is missing..

The Klan's rise coincided but cannot be attributed to the arrival in Chariton during 1922 of the Rev. J.D. (Jesse David) Pontius, called to serve First Christian Church. He was a native of Cainsville in Harrison County, Missouri, and previously had served as pastor of the Christian church in Humeston, which called him during January of 1917. Pontius remained in Chariton through 1927, then moved to First Christian in Corydon during 1928-29 and finally departed the Midwest entirely, removing to Colorado in 1930 --- where he remained until his death during 1955.

A variety of newspaper accounts link Pontius to the Klan. On July 21, 1923, for example, the Rev. Mr. Pontius married the newly-arrived Lucas County Klan recruiter, Wayne A. Blankenship, to a hometown girl, Mabel Nolen.

During late October, 1924, the Rev. Mr. Pontius officiated during funeral services at Belinda Christian Church, "under the auspices of the knights and women of the Ku Klux Klan," for a young man and apparent Klan member from Olmitz --- 31-year-old John Harrison James.

And The Herald-Patriot of July 14, 1925, reported that "the Klan held a meeting Friday evening on the John Eaton farm west of Norwood. An open meeting, large attendance. Rev. Pontius, from Chariton, was the speaker."

It's undertain if Pontius was the only Lucas County preacher involved with the Klan --- or the only one unfortunate enough to leave behind a name linked in print to it.

And whoever was behind the Klan apparently encountered considerable resistance, which is reassuring.

The April 18, 1924, edition of The Fiery Cross, official newspaper of the Indiana Klan, published in Indianapolis, reported that the Klan in Lucas County "has had its share of trials and tribulations. There has been much opposition, although the population of Chariton is only about 6,000. Much difficulty was encountered several months ago in obtaining a hall in which Professor DeBarr of the University of Oklahoma could speak, the high school auditorium being denied the organization at the eleventh hour."

"Professor DeBarr" was Edwin C. "Daddy" DeBarr, a veteran faculty member, dean and department head in the pharmacy and chemistry departments at the University of Oklahoma at Norman, who was dismissed by that institution during 1923 because of his Klan connections.

It appears that Wayne Blankenship, a Ku Klux Klan recruiter from Indiana, arrived in Chariton about April, 1923. We know that because of a paragraph included in the newspaper account of his marriage to Mabel Nolen, at which the Rev. Mr. Pontius officiated.

According to that report, from The Herald Patriot of July 26, 1923, "The groom has resided in Chariton for about four months, and has been engaged in the organization of the Ku Klux Klan at this place. During the time that he has been here he has won many friends by his gentlemanly bearing and courteous manners. His home is in Valparaiso, Ind., and he is a graduate of the Valparaiso University. While there he affiliated with the Cappa Delta Pi fraternity. During the recent world war he served his country through the entire war as a member of the Fifth Marine Corps, and was wounded on two different occasions."

It may have been Blankenship's organizational work --- and who could not listen to a twice-wounded combat veteran of gentlemanly bearing with courteous manners --- that strengthened the Lucas County Klan to the point that during April of 1924 it purchased the then-vacant United Presbyterian Church (occupied during 2012 by Chariton's Assembly of God congregation). Here's the report of that purchase from The Herald-Patriot of April 17, 1924:

"The local Ku Klux Klan has purchased the vacated ... United Presyterian church on North Grand street, and will use the edifice for a meeting place. This building has not been used for church services since the congregation united with the First Presbyterian church. The klan also came into possession of the residence building which was formerly the manse. The Lucas county klan is the second in the state to purchase property in which to hold meetings. The property will be held by trustees."

The fact that a report regarding the purchase appeared in the Indianapolis-based "The Fiery Cross" the day after the report appeared in the Chariton newspaper suggests close ties between the local and Indiana Klans. The report there was headlined, "Chariton, Iowa, Klan Purchases A Home: Transaction Marks Success for Organzation in Lucas County."

The article reads, "CHARITON, Ia., April 12 --- The first home purchased by the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Iowa was bought the past week by the Lucas county unit at Chariton. The purchase included an old church building with a seating capacity of 500 (sic) and a seven-room modern house located on a plot of ground 56 by 156 feet, two blocks from the public square.

"During the winter months the local Klan has been meeting in the church. Now, during the spring and summer months, the building will be used for closed meetings only on rainy nights, the Lucas county Klan meeting in the outdoors on every occasion when the weather will permit.

"The house will be rented for some time. The rental will more than pay for the taxes and interest on the property. In time to come the house will be converted into headquarters offices and club rooms.

"It is seldom that an unchartered Klan obtains a home of its own. All Iowa Klandom congratulates the Lucas county members; they have set a goal toward which the rest of the Hawkeye state can strike (sic)."

Less than four months later, the Lucas County Klan was prepared to host a regional "konklave" that, some estimated, attracted the largest crowd ever gathered in Chariton. Here is The Herald-Patriot's report of the event, which appeared at the top of Page 1 of the Aug. 7, 1924 edition beneath a four-deck headline:

Perhaps Largest Crowd Here Ever Assembled Saturday Night
Big Parade Was Seen
Ceremonies Took Place at the Chandler Ball Park. Many People from Other Counties Here for the Event

"Last Saturday was Klan Day in Chariton. As advertised, the Lucas county Konklave took place on a large scale, and it is not an exaggeration to say that visitors were here by the thousands to witness and participate in the program as arranged for the day. The ceremonies were held at Chandler Park and through the afternoon the crowds were not so much in evidence on the uptown streets. However, in the evening, at the time of the large parade, it was at once apparent that something very much out of the ordinary was taking place. Automobiles were parked several deep where ever there was parking room. The alleyways were packed full of machines and around the square it is said that standing room was not plentiful anywhere. Cars were noted from a number of other Iowa counties and altogether the event was a record breaker for anything of is kind held in the town.

"At Chandler Park elaborate preparations had been made for the large meeting. A number of refreshment stands were erected with others of the tents designated as headquarters for the various county delegations. The grounds were lighted by electricity, several portable plants having been employed, it is said, to furnish current.

"The program as advertised for the occasion of the meeting of Knights and Women of the Ku Klux Klan of Iowa, opened at 3:30 when a national speaker addressed the large audience. At 8:30 in the evening the parade was formed and moved from the park to the public suare. A band and twenty-four mounted Klansmen, in full regalia, led the line while a number of floats and cars were a part of the parade. A drum and bugle corps and several other features, including a large especially lighted cross, were included in the demonstration. During the time the parade was under way another member of the national speaker's bureau talked on organization matters at the park.

"At 10:30 the naturalization ceremonies took place and shortly after the people began to leave the grounds although nearly an hour was required to pass out the large crowd. Notwithstanding the congestion of cars and people made haste an impossibility, it is said perfect order prevailed throughout the day."

Most likely, the Herald-Patriot reporter didn't go near Chandler Park, reportedly a ball field on the Chariton River bottom somewhere in the neighborhood of the the current intersection of the "dump road" and U.S. 34, during the meeting. Which seems odd. But then there was a good deal of oddity in how Klan activities were reported upon in both The Herald-Patriot and the Leader --- a peculiar combination of scorn, respect and fear. I'm assuming that the "naturalization" ceremony was the initiation ceremony for new members and most likely featured a burning cross. I surely wish Henry Gittinger's Leader coverage was available.

The most complete account of a Klan ceremonial that I found in the Chariton newspapers was in the Herald-Patriot of June 2, 1925, and involved a konklave near Des Moines. The report had been picked up from an exchange newspaper, but does give some idea of how that Chandler Park program might have looked:

"On Saturday night preceding the date for the state meeting of the Women of the Ku Klux Klan in Des Moines at which 500 accredited delegates representing every county in Iowa responded, a state Konclave of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan gathered in a pasture a short distance northwest of the city. Members of the order estimate that from 10,000 to 12,000 persons were present. With a drum and bugle corps furnishing inspirational music the women dressed in white robes formed a human cross 525 feet long. Surrounding the cross were red flares and in the center of the cross a sixty-piece band played "Onward Christian Soldiers." The candidates marched up through the center of the cross, the women going to one arm and the men to the other, and in the light of one seventy foot and two forty foot crosses, the intiation of members was carried out."

Although the Lucas County konklave most likely was the high point for the Klan here, considerable activity continued through the year.

During November, for example, the Klan leased the Lincoln Theater on the south side of the square for three days to show a Klan propaganda film entitled, "The Traitor Within Our Gates." Great crowds were expected, according to a Herald-Patriot report.

Newspaper reports diminish during 1925, although meetings certainly still were being held.

The Herald-Patriot of Aug. 4, 1925, reported that "The Corydon papers have announced that the Ku Klux Klan has arranged for a big conclave in that town, at the fair grounds, for Saturday, August 22, and it is expected to be of great dimensions and will include the surrounding counties. It is said it will be similar to the big meeting held here last year."

And in its edition of  Sept. 24: "There will be a Klan picnic on Saturday, September 27, at Byers grove, one mile south of Belinda on Primary Road 14. There will be religious services in the forenoon at 11 o'clock. Picnic dinner at 1 o'clock. Address at 2:30. Good singing. Good speaking, Everybody welcome regardless of race, creed, color or previous condition of servitude."

The Klan seems to have been especially strong in the neighborhood of Belinda Christian Church, two miles north of the grove.

But by 1926, the Klan was on the decline and regalia was packed away or destroyed and no more dues were paid. The Blankenships moved to Eldora to operate a garage; the Pontius family, first to Corydon, then to Colorado. The Klan sold the former United Presbyterian parsonage first, then in 1930, the church itself, which went to a newly organized Assembly of God congregation.

It's almost impossible to figure out how strong the Klan really was in Lucas County thanks in large part to the absence of reporting on it. Later guestimates placed the size of the crowd in Chariton on the day of the konklave at 20-30,000, but that most likely is a considerable exaggeration although there's no doubt that thousands were here.

The Klan does not seem to have gained political influence, although according to some reports the sheriff of the day was a Klan member. Your grandpa may have been, too --- if he was white, native-born and protestant.

 Elsewhere, crusading newspapers did their best to pull the Klan into the light and expose its excesses. That was the case in Centerville, where the Beck family's Iowegian crusaded against the organization and helped to break its back. But that does not seem to have been the case in Chariton --- unless that crusade was confined to those missing issues of The Leader.

The Great Depression delivered the final blow to this incarnation of the Klan, combined with internal scandals nationwide, difficulty retaining members and general disgust.

But of course the factors that gave rise to it remain --- old-time religion, old-time bigotry, extremist nationalism, populist scapegoating and fear. 


Eldon Milnes said...

You post that Indiana was the center of Klan strength north of Mason-Dixon Line. I have read this elsewhere, and I am curious if the John Birch Society, which had a like orientation and reportedly originated in Indiana as well, was derived from the northern Klan's dogma.

Frank D. Myers said...

Hi Eldon --- I'm not familiar (nor have I been able to find) any link between the Klan and the later John Birch Society. The Depression and World War II seem to have dissipated much of the appeal that the Klan may have had in most places, including Indiana (and Iowa). I suppose it could be argued that the same mindset (and conditions) that gave rise to the Klan also gave rise to McCarthyism, John Birch and anything else that might be categorized as extremist right-wing. But specific links do not appear to exist.

Anonymous said...

When I was a sophomore in high school in Chariton, Leola Mikesell once brought her husbands hat and gown he wore when he was in the Klu Klux Clan.