Ku Klux Klan Organizes Pelikan Rapids, but Nobody is Kluxed

It was right out of a movie—hooded and masked riders, thundering hooves, the flaming cross on a hilltop.

But this wasn’t Mississippi. This was Minnesota—December 1923—sleepy little Pelican Rapids. But the Ku Klux Klan was on the prowl.

Grace Rogers, at 93, is unofficial keeper of much of the town’s early history. Grace remembers it well. "There had been a lecture at the old Orpheum Theater about the Klan. A few days later we heard of a rally up on the hill by Lakeview Cemetery. My fiancee and I went up for a look."

It was quite a sight. Six or eight masked riders thundered up out of the darkness, cut some fancy horsemanship, set flaming a towering cross, then disappeared again into the night.

Who were they? Grace pauses. "Well, I can’t say… "

Don’t know, or won’t say?

Grace laughs. "Well, there was this businessman. Folks said he made his men ride with him that night."

But there were other rallies, obviously attended by more than a few coerced employees. The Daily Journal, June 6, 1924: "Klansmen… gathered on the hillside of a picnic ground about a mile from Pelican Rapids last night for one of their open air demonstrations. It is estimated that a crowd of 1,500 was present and a class of 100 initiated." The Daily Journal again: "A fiery cross was seen burning on the banks of the Mill Pond Thanksgiving night… it has been reported that there are 200 members in the vicinity."

The dreaded Ku Klux Klan had its origins in the misery of the post Civil War South. Northern Radical Republicans, seeking to punish the South for its rebellion, had declared military rule, suspended civil liberties, denied the vote to anybody who had aided the Confederacy—which meant nearly all white Southerners. Frustrated white political aspirations found direction under the leadership of former Confederate general Nathan B. Forrest, a former slave trader and perhaps the most gifted cavalry officer in American history. Never defeated in combat, he is said to have sat down and cried when Robert E. Lee surrendered, because he would "have to stop killing Yankees." As the Klan’s first "Grand Wizard", Forrest was indirectly responsible for countless kluxings—murders, whippings, tar and featherings—in a reign of terror that lasted eight years.

Klan activities fizzled in the late 1870’s, partially due to relentless prosecution by Federal authorities, partially because much of the Klan’s political agenda was codified into law. By 1890, Blacks were routinely denied the vote, discriminated against in jobs and housing, segregated in public accommodations, and were terrorized by the police when they had audacity to object.

Enter D. W. Griffith, pioneer filmaker, son of a Confederate veteran. In 1915 Griffith produced and directed The Birth of a Nation, Hollywood’s first feature–length movie, eventually seen by an astounding 25,000,000 Americans. The Birth of a Nation was the saga of two families—on Northern, one Southern—caught in the turmoil of war and Reconstruction. The "Nation" was the invisible empire, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, riding to rescue besieged old folks, to protect one white virgin from Negro rape, to avenge another after the fact. Audiences whooped and cheered in Chicago, in South Carolina, they wept and fired revolvers at villains on the screen.

Art usually imitates life. This was a classic case of the opposite. The first klavern of the reborn Klan sprang up in Atlanta, a week after the film opened. By 1921, the Klan was five million strong and Imperial Klaliff David Curtis Stephenson of Indiana was given authority to organize Minnesota.

A prospective member had to swear to be "native born, true and loyal citizen… a white male Gentile person… a believer in the tenants of the Christian religion, the maintenance of White Supremacy, and principles of pure Americanism." Perhaps a thousand joined in Otter Tail County, though the actual number will never be known, since membership roles were a tightly kept secret. Even the organizers, one R. H. Batty and a Reverend Fink, used assumed names.

Obviously, a Klansman had to look hard to find Negro to bully. One black family in Fergus Falls had a cross burned in its honor, but most of the Minnesota Klan’s wrath was directed at Bolsheviks, bootleggers, prostitutes, home–wreckers, dope dealers, recent immigrants, and especially Catholics, who were rumored to be storing rifles in a Fergus Falls church basement awaiting orders from the pope.

Enthusiasm waned when neither Bolsheviks nor Catholics attempted to overthrow civil authority, faltered when Minnesota made it a criminal offense to parade in public wearing a mask. Finally, in 1925, Imperial Klaliff Stephenson was jailed for the drunken rape–mutilation of a young Indiana college student. By 1930, it has hard to find a Klansman in Otter Tail County—or at least anybody who would admit they were.

So who were Pelican’s 200 Klansmen? Who was the local Imperial Wizard, Exaulted Cyclops? The late Twig Leaf told of signals given from the old Frazee mill. There were four windows up there, he said, arranged like a cross. Someone would turn on the light and masked men would ride. Suspicions of a mill owner, manager, or employee were corroborated in an interview with Lynville Puckett, done by local historian Marguerite Andrews. But then Puckett tempered his statement with a disclaimer about "how gossip goes in a small town."

When asked about these intriguing tidbits, Grace Rogers just shakes her head an smiles.

~Roger Pinckney