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Mean streets of Minot: Socialist history precedes Minot riots

In Sunday’s article on the Minot riots of August 1913, curbside demonstrations at the downtown corner of First Avenue and Main Street attracted a weighty response from local law enforcement and impassioned segments of the community, which in turn protracted the incident over the span of 10 days.

The demonstrations revolved around Industrial Workers of the World organizers, who had come to Minot at the invitation of local socialists.

But how did tensions in Minot rise to such a level? Who were these socialists, and where did they come from?

The socialist presence in North Dakota, as across much of the Midwest at the time following the populist movements of the late 1800s, dated back to the turn of the 20th century. In Minot, its first Socialist Local was formed in 1905 by predominately Scandinavian immigrants, and by 1909 the party had swept local elections. Prohibition of liquor and women’s suffrage were both movements gaining steam nationwide, and it was this first issue which largely lifted the socialists to Minot’s city hall. Socialists considered liquor to be a tool of political oppression, commonly given to workers by employers to supplement low wages. Farmers that did so risked having their threshers sabotaged and barns burned down by indignant agitators.

Meanwhile, Minot was a boom town struggling to shed its rowdy image and find a respectable sort of stability.

“Ward County was wet when the rest of the state was dry,” a situation that Mark Timbrook said earned it the enmity of its neighboring counties. Timbrook is an instructional designer and technology specialist at Minot State University and author of the book “The Last Hurrah,” a history of Minot’s founding.

It was because of Minot’s questionable reputation that other counties had protested and delayed for four years the construction of the Normal School, now known as Old Main on the MSU campus. The county was getting a bad name, which is why a Minot lawyer and prominent socialist named Arthur LeSueur had been elected in 1909 with the hopes that he might crack down on the county’s numerous “blind pig” speakeasies and red-light establishments.

He fulfilled that promise, but with a greater thoroughness than was expected by the town’s more esteemed citizenry.

“LeSueur actually cracks down on the high society,” said Timbrook, explaining that LeSueur raided both the premises and social havens of prominent farmers and local businessmen, many of whom were members of the Commercial Club.

“The Commercial Club was pretty powerful,” he said. “If you’re anybody, you belong to the Commercial Club.”

Liquor may have been a cause for controversy, but the real issue at the heart of Minot’s political division was the community’s future. In its coverage of the 1911 commission election, a precursor to The Minot Daily News, the Minot Daily Optic, described the race as being between “the liberals and the radicals.” From its contemporary viewpoint, radicals such as the agrarians and the socialists wanted to run Minot “as a small eastern town,” temperate and beholden to what its editors considered unstable public opinion. The liberals of its day included the members of the Commercial Club, businessmen and planners who hoped to someday turn Minot into a metropolitan center for industry.

Another issue was the charged and divisive nature of the socialists’ rhetoric. A common complaint in both the Optic and Reporter editorial columns between 1911 and 1913 stemmed from a perceived atheism and lack of patriotism among the movement’s supporters. Although the events predated the “Red Scare” panic over Bolshevist infiltration that would sweep the nation by the decade’s end, the formation of the Ward County Central Committee by LeSueur in 1910 was doubtless disconcerting to some, as were the IWW’s yearly attempts to organize the state’s harvest hands.

These things in mind, the deterioration of LeSueur’s political position was swift. It may not have come to him as a surprise though, as the Optic reported in January 1911 that he was already looking to sell his law practice. A number of politically charged lectures and a furious editorial debate in the local papers led up to the election on April 4, of which the Optic said “passes off very quietly with no fatalities.” The majority of LeSueur’s commissioners were voted out of office, replaced by anti-socialists such as Luther McGahan, who became his vice-president on the commission.

In his annual message to the commission, LeSueur nonetheless urged a number of reforms, ranging from the establishment of a professional fire department and construction of a children’s playground, to lowering levies and electricity rates. While it was customary in previous years for the commissioners to vote to accept the statement, the president’s sole ally, R.H. Emerson, was unable to find someone to second his motion to do so.

The final straw was a vote by McGahan and other commissioners to donate $300 to the Commercial Club, “for advertising purposes.” LeSueur refused to sign the measure, calling it illegal, and in the spat that followed was asked by the Socialist Local to resign rather than head a dysfunctional government. He and Emerson both resigned on May 15, with McGahan taking over until a new election could be held.

Defeated, LeSueur still remained politically active in the state, the Reporter noting that he attended a debate in April 1912, also founding the socialist newspaper “The Iconoclast” in downtown Minot the same year. Socialism remained a powerful political movement in the starkly divided community, as evidenced when the Socialist Party of North Dakota held its convention in Minot in 1913. By that time, Timbrook said, there were around 500 registered party members in the town of 6,100 (including children), as recorded in the 1910 census of Minot. There would also have been a number of unaffiliated sympathizers, as well.

So it was of no particular surprise when IWW organizers came to town in an attempt to agitate workers on the Main Street paving project. But socialism was already becoming a prickly subject following LeSueur’s administration of the city, and the IWWs had a reputation for political extremism that a number of people found unwelcome. Following the ensuing riots, even trade unions and socialist locals distanced themselves from the group. A statement issued by the Fargo Trades and Labor Assembly on Aug. 18 of that year said it was “most emphatically opposed to the IWW principles and methods, not only in North Dakota, but in every state in the union.”

Writing about the event to Pearson’s Magazine in an article in the August 1915 edition titled “A Traitor to His Caste,” Willis Rutledge described the 10 days as a full-fledged riot: a nightly, “bloody struggle in the street.”

“The streets of Minot resounded with riot; men were beaten into insensibility, thrown into automobiles” and abandoned in the countryside or else arrested; “the wives of workingmen were knocked down, beaten, and thrown into jail; their children were kicked from the sidewalks. A ‘broadcloth mob’ of the better element took possession of the city and raged through it with club and pistol.”

On the other side, local newspaper reports were either less imaginative or more guarded in their descriptions. As an example of the latter, in its Aug. 21 edition the Reporter indicated that “a number of women attempted to stir up trouble, and in the struggle, got considerably jostled around though no one was hurt.”

“Hiding behind the skirts of a woman!” the story continued. “Need any more be said to condemn the whole outfit as unworthy of the support or even the sympathy of real men and women?”

By the end of the first weekend there were more than 100 prisoners in the local jail and an open-air stockyard assembled between the courthouse and jail buildings. Differently situated than the modern structures built in 1929, the courthouse and jail for “Imperial Ward County” were begun in 1890 and finished the following year, after the county seat had formally moved from Burlington to Minot in 1888.

Conditions for the wave of prisoners were rough, in part because they were indocile and because the city’s facilities were unsuitable for such a large number. A stockade was erected outside between the courthouse and jail buildings to keep the lower-level and out-of-town protesters in, with armed deputies keeping watch from the rooftops. When those held inside the jail became too boisterous with their songs, threats and slogans, Timbrook said, their jailers turned on the furnaces, making the already potent August heat unbearable; they soon lost their will to sing. Outside in the stockade, conditions were even worse.

In an article titled “Stonepile is plan for vags,” the Reporter explained that the city filled its stockade with stones, with sixty sledgehammers to break these down into gravel. Of the prisoners, it wrote: “If he works faithfully for five hours, he will be given a rest, and something to eat. If he refuses to work, he will remain on the stonepile without food for ten hours.” If prisoners in the stockade attempted to create a disturbance, they were threatened with the hoses of the fire department.

A trial was being hastily prepared, and although the police were able to clear the streets each night, rumors still circulated that the worst was not yet over. The fate of Minot was clouded in fearful uncertainty, and city officials would have to resort to more drastic measures before the crisis’ end.