Mean streets of Minot: The road to hell is paved with creosote blocks

It may be difficult to imagine today, but almost exactly one century ago, Minot briefly became a nexus of violent political struggle.

For 10 days, Main Street was the evening battleground of an actual sort of class warfare, its railways watched by police anticipating invasion and the area behind the courthouse featuring a hastily assembled pen for forced labor. August 8 will mark the 100th anniversary of the start of Minot’s lengthy downtown demonstrations, the quelling of which would mark both the death knell to organized socialism in North Dakota and from its ashes, the origins of the Non-Partisan League.

The story has been studied extensively by Mark Timbrook, an instructional designer and technology specialist at Minot State University and author of the books “Minot State University” and “The Last Hurrah,” two histories of the college and founding of Minot, respectively.

In an interview, he explained that the tale has its root in the paving of Main Street.

“It was just a mudhole,” said Timbrook, describing a Minot that had grown to the point where it needed something better. “Better” proved to be a relative phrasing, though, in part because of a prominent contractor by the name of D.A. Dinnie, who had pitched the lowest bid for the project.

A ranking member of the Minot Area Chamber of Commerce’s precursor, the Commercial Club, Dinnie was already at the center of some controversy surrounding his company’s construction of Minot Normal School, now known as Old Main on the MSU campus. The project had run behind schedule after a support wall collapsed during construction, due to a combination of bad weather and apparently shoddy craftsmanship. Supposed to begin classes in 1912, students met in the armory building until the project was completed the next year.

In winning the low bid for the paving project, Dinnie planned to have Main Street cobbled from wooden blocks coated in creosote, a sort of tar common for treating railroad ties, set into gravel and sand. Timbrook explained that an expression would eventually develop that implied it was raining so hard as to make “Main Street float away,” in part because that was an occasional inconvenience with Dinnie’s road.

Shortly after the normal school’s completion, that April one of The Minot Daily News’ two precursors, the Ward County Reporter, began reporting that a group of men loitering outside the downtown post office were causing disruptions and harassing women. At various times the paper referred to these as “loafers,” “bums,” “vags,” “thugs,” “young Minot snobs” and “a bunch of lazy low brows,” with the occasional recommendation they be subjected to physical violence and dismissed from town.

The men actually were most likely a collection of seasonal workers, local laborers upset with the paving project and socialist organizers. Timbrook’s best conjecture is that Dinnie was utilizing his unskilled construction workers in the project, which upset a number of Minot’s professional tradesmen and bricklayers.

“There were four different brick plants in Minot at any given time,” he said, and by 1913 the industry was well established in the community.

In addition, inferences made from the Reporter articles as well as Timbrook’s research suggest that the Main Street workers were being underpaid for their work. Although it is difficult to determine what a fair wage should entail somewhere between $3 and $5 a day the $2.25 being offered was not it.

“These were evidently below that living wage,” Timbrook observed. “Word gets out to men in the Socialist Local,” with complaints reaching Industrial Workers of the World branches in Duluth and Minneapolis. IWW organizers such as Jack Law were sent to Minot in July to agitate the workers to organize.

By Aug. 8, almost everyone in Minot was agitated.

“That’s the weekend that it all fell apart,” explained Timbrook. Crowds had assembled at the intersection of First Avenue and Main to listen to the organizers, blocking traffic as well as coming into conflict with Salvation Army workers seeking souls rather than better wages near the same corner. There were disturbances that Friday night, but no arrests made. Even so, “their over-aggressiveness is important to this story,” Timbrook foreshadows. “This is kind of going to put the nail in their coffin.”

A Willis J. Rutledge wrote about the event in an article published two years afterward, in the August 1915 issue of Pearson’s Magazine, titled “A Traitor to his Caste.” Rutledge was referring to Law when he wrote “an organizer came, and as no hall was available he held open-air meetings.” Similarly referring to Dinnie by reputation rather than by name, Rutledge sardonically wrote he “found no difficulty in arousing other business men against the pernicious agitation then going on to introduce organized labor. Men were hired to refute the organizer’s vile arguments by throwing rotten eggs at him,” which would have occurred on Saturday evening.

Recounting the weekend’s events in its Aug. 14 issue, the Reporter said that on Saturday an even larger crowd had gathered to hear Law and other agitators speak. At one point a local man Timbrook identified as A.C. Olander drove into the midst of the crowd with his automobile and ran the engine without its muffler, drowning out the speeches.

However, it was “the throwing of rotten eggs at the speaker from the roof of an adjoining building” which “nearly precipitated a riot,” the paper mentioned, corroborating Rutledge’s account. Police were called in to clear the streets, and with the aid of the fire department arrested some 35 people that night, including Law, although the egg-throwers were not among them.

Once crammed into the local jail, the Reporter complained, “they created a terrible disturbance,” shouting slogans and singing socialist anthems into the wee hours of the morning. Meanwhile, tensions raged outside in the streets, with a telegram being sent out to IWW groups in Minnesota requesting more demonstrators. During the subsequent trial, it was unclear who had sent the messages, although former mayor and a leading character to this narrative, Arthur LeSueur, was adamant it had not been him.

Sunday afternoon a troop of police raided “the jungles,” the unsettled area west of town that was a frequent resting stop for transients and rail workers. They arrested “about thirty men” who were bivouacced there in the trees, marching them back into town for incarceration.

That night, “a great crowd gathered at the intersection of First and Main streets, next to the Second National Bank,” to listen to more speeches. With specially deputized civilians infiltrating the crowd, the police showed up in force against the assembled men and women. More protesters were swiftly rounded up, including LeSueur and the town’s last remaining socialist commissioner, Dewey Dorman, and run into jail.

Giving the police high praise, the Reporter noted that “every man who has been heard by the police encouraging the IWWs to continue their incendiary speeches and actions, has been promptly arrested, and this policy will be continued.” Due to the number of prisoners taken in such a short period, authorities constructed a stockade between the county courthouse and jail to not so much house as pen the protesters in.

What began as an issue of fair wages was turning into a fight over the rights to free speech and assembly. Supporters began printing up placards that read “we believe in free speech,” making what would be a generally unsuccessful attempt to distribute them to local shops and residences to place in their windows. The town was starkly divided, and when the dust would finally settle, there would be victors and losers.

By the first weekend’s end, scores of people were imprisoned, property was being vandalized and the night-time streets were unsafe.

“The way you’ve got to envision this is it’s a growing movement,” Timbrook narrated. By Monday evening, several hundred people were taking to the streets, with more supposedly on the way.

The town seemed to be tearing itself apart, but how would it end? Where did these socialists come from? What did they want? All will be explained in the next installment, a tale of a city divided over differing directions for its future, colored by the political movements broadly and deeply sweeping across the country at the time. Minot was at the center of something interesting, a microcosm of a tumultuous period.