NewsWhistle is pleased to feature Gary Jenneke’s “This Day In History” column.
You can read the original at Gary’s THIS DAY IN HISTORY blog — or scroll down to enjoy Gary’s unique look at life’s comings and goings.
THIS DAY IN HISTORY… JULY 9
1917 – KKK in Minnesota.
What may have been the first incident of Ku Klux Klan activity in Minnesota took place in my hometown, Lester Prairie. The target was the Klatt family, owners of the Klatts Hotel. “That the Klatt family kept the best country hotel at Lester Prairie to be found in any town of this size in the state is a fact known to the traveling public. That fact alone, it would seem, should have spared them the mob violence visited upon them by the citizens of Lester Prairie one night last July. The Klatts have done the right thing in employing a detective and rounding up the toughs in the gang that assaulted them,” reported the Hutchinson Leader, Nov. 2, 1917.
There was patriotic zeal at this time over America’s entry into WWI against Germany. The Klatts, two brothers and two sisters, were German immigrants. There were rumors that the Klatts had never taken out citizenship papers, did not buy liberty war bonds, did not contribute to the Red Cross for the war effort, and refused to sign an loyalty oath.
Around 11 pm on a warm July evening all the electric streets lights in the village mysteriously went out. One of the Klatt brothers came outside to investigate and was set upon by a dozen men wearing white hoods over their heads. They began to beat him viciously and his brother, hearing his cries, came to his aid. He also was assaulted. The two sisters next come outside. They were pelted with rotten eggs and then stones were thrown, breaking windows in the hotel. No law enforcement came to their aid. One man saw the beginning of the attack and fled the scene. The next day a local policeman told him he better keep quiet about what he saw.
The press articles at the time sided with the attackers. The area newspapers listed the grievances against the Klatts, as if justifying the attack, or insinuating they deserved it because they were German immigrants.
There was no official investigation, but the Klatts refused to let the matter drop. They hired a detective who found out the identities of the attackers. Charges against the men, who became known as the Lester Prairie 12, were brought in November of that year.
I had never heard about this incident until a few years ago. From my father I had heard of the good reputation of the Klatts Hotel. A nursing home for the elderly when I was a kid, it was located a block from the train depot. Salesmen would take the train out from the Twin Cities, rent a horse and buggy from a local livery stable, and trot out of town to sell their wares to the area farmers. My father sold newspapers as a kid and he said the Klatts Hotel was a good place to go because if the salesmen had a good day, they would leave him a tip. Dad was only four at the time of the attack so would have had no knowledge of it.
The KKK in Minnesota was mostly Scandinavians and being there were few minorities to discriminate against, they became anti-Catholic. When WWI started, they turned their ire on German immigrants. At the time there were efforts by German-Americans to prove they were good Americans. A neighboring town is named New Germany. During the war they changed it to Motordale. And sauerkraut became liberty cabbage, which is possibly even sillier than freedom fries.
Nowhere in the newspaper accounts did it list the names of the Lester Prairie 12. It was as if they were being protected. I was anxious to find out if I had a relative, like a grandfather, in that group. I had to dig up McLeod County court documents where I found the list of indictments before I saw the names of the men involved. Most of the surnames were familiar and I had a family connection to three of the men. The leader of the pack, the town’s veterinarian, was married to my maternal grandmother’s sister. Another, married to my maternal grandfather’s sister, turned state’s evidence. I remember him from when I was young. A raconteur, drink ever present in hand, he held center stage at family gatherings. I doubt any of his stories involved the KKK.
The third family member was my maternal grandmother’s cousin. He had recently emigrated from Germany and was living on my grandparents’ farm while getting settled in America. I suspect he was trying to prove he fit in, was a good American, and got caught up in a bad idea. He later joined the American army and fought in France. His brother, still in the home country, was in the German army. Both survived and the other brother also eventually came to America.
Until recently Lester Prairie was always about 98% German. When I was a kid the Lutheran church I attended had services in both English and German. There has always been a heavy German influence in the town. People who had lived there for many decades still talked like they had just stepped off the boat. So an anti-German incident in a town almost totally German is more than a little ironic.
My investigative trail ended at the indictments. Searches through old newspapers turned up no articles about a trial. I suspect everybody just wanted it to go away, and to protect the guilty, so no more mention was made. I’m guessing there were fines leveed, but no jail time. If they had been found innocent that would have made the news. Some cold winter day I’ll have to hit the Historical Society again and try dig up some more old records.
ABOUT GARY JENNEKE
At various junctures of his life, Gary has been an indifferent grade school student, poor high school student, good Navy radioman, one-time hippie, passable college student, inveterate traveler, dedicated writer, miscast accountant (except for one interesting stint at a Communist café), part-time screenwriting teacher, semi-proud veteran, unsuccessful retiree and new blogger.
You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The above information was sourced from the following sites and newspapers.
“Ku Klux Klan in Minnesota” by Elizabeth Dorsey Hatle; Published by The History Press – HistoryPress.net
Hutchinson Leader – CrowRiverMedia.com
Lester Prairie News – Herald-Journal.com
We’d also thank to the following photographers and videographers for the use of their images:
* Lead-In Image (stock photo) – lejzo / Shutterstock.com – “‘No Hate’ sign in a red heart stuck on a store wall in the old city of Sarajevo, with people walking by on a clear sunny day.”
* Klatts Hotel (screen shot) – “When The Klan Came To Minnesota” by Kay Johnson, Hutchinson Leader, October 24, 2013 – CrowRiverMedia.com
* Outro (Man-In-Museum Cartoon) – SkyPics Studio / Shutterstock.com
OTHER DAYS IN HISTORIES…
* March 2
* March 9
* March 14
* March 19
* March 23
* March 29
* April 3
* April 13
* April 18
* April 23
* April 28
* May 2
* May 6
* May 10
* May 15
* May 19
* May 26
* June 1
* June 8
* June 13
* June 18
* June 24
* June 29
* July 3
* Stay tuned for more!