Klan exposed, driven from Chippewa area

The Eau Claire chapter of the Ku Klux Klan posed for a picture about 1927. The Klan was quite active in the area, at one time boasting of having several thousand members. However, it's rea came to an end in this region about 1930 and today only a few pictures remain. Northern Chippewa and southern Rusk counties were reputedly strongholds of Klan activity.

     Tracing history requires chronicling the unjust as well as the just.
     Therefore, the short-lived role of the Ku Klux Klan during the hectic and free-wheeling days of the 1920s in the Chippewa Valley, must be recorded.
     The Eau Claire-Dunn-Chippewa-Rusk county area was one of four centers of KKK power from 1921-30, when the organization shriveled.
     Chippewa County was a particular stronghold of these white-hooded men who believed blacks, Jews and Catholics threatened the American way of life as they viewed it. Therefore, most KKK members at least professed, if they didn't practice, Protestantism.
     The Klan arrived in Wisconsin in 1920 via Atlanta, Ga., where it was established. The state's first known klavern was formed at Milwaukee when a group of businessmen boarded the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter V 55 Hawk anchored in the Milwaukee River in the fall of 1920.

Membership rises rapidly

     Klan membership in Wisconsin grew almost rapidly between 1922 and 1924 when more than 40,000 persons claimed membership. In addition to west central Wisconsin, other KKK strongholds were at Milwaukee-Racine-Kenosha, Madison and in the Fox River Valley.
     Northern Chippewa and southern Rusk counties eventually boasted the highest percentage of membership per population of any county in Wisconsin.
      The reason: there were no blacks and few Jews in the area, so an influx of eastern Europeans (slavs) since the 1900s, gave rise to anti-Catholic attitudes.
     Rumors of Klan activity in Chippewa Falls erupted occasionally in the early 1920s, but it wasn't until Feb. 11, 1824, when Mrs. Neil McGilvray reported to the Chippewa Falls Fire Department that a large cross was burning on the East (Catholic) Hill.

Propaganda zeroes in

     Klan propaganda zeroed in on Catholics in this area, with heavy emphasis placed on Catholic allegiance to the Pope. A bulletin issued by the local Klan in 1923 urged parents to "Inlist your boy or girl in the Tri-K Juniors, Cradle Roll or Junior Preps. Teach these children Americanism, in every way you can, guard that little minds so they will not be influenced by the communists, foreigners or Catholics."
     Peak Klan membership in Chippewa County occurred between 1924 and 1925 with KKK officials boasting 4,000 in Chippewa County alone.
     Most Chippewa County Klan initiations took place in the Town of Hallie, although rituals were in Bloomer, Jim Falls and Cadott.

Women active too

     Female Klan members participated in rituals defined in the Kloran of the Women of the Ku Klux Klan. They occupied themselves with fund raising events, but occasionally dipped into politics.
     In July 1928 female KKK members passed a resolution at a Lake Hallie meeting, pledging to work to prevent election as president of the U.S. that year of a "Tamanyite, nullificationist, a dripping wet Romanite."" The reference was to Democratic candidate Al Smith who opposed Republican Herbert Hoover.
     But there was opposition to the Klan. It came from county officials who were Catholic. Police Chief John Flaherty, a Catholic, ordered noted Klan organizer J. N. Neff of Brownsville, Tex., out of the city and he required 25 carloads of hooded Klansmen to remove their hoods as they drove down Bridge Street en route to a Cadott Klan meeting.
     County Clerk James Harris, a Catholic, refused to let the KKK use the courthouse for a speech by a fiery Klan organizer who wound up speaking on the courthouse lawn the summer of 1925.

Harassed Klansmen

     This is partly the reason for the decline of the Chippewa County Klan; many county officials were Catholics who harassed the KKK at every opportunity. Women of the Klan also fell on hard times, dropping from an official peak membership of 38 in 1928 to 10 by 1930.
     A witness to what he described as "the nefarious schemes" of the KKK in Cornell is the Rev. Peter Minwegen, now well in his 90s and a former priest at both Cornell and Jim Falls during the Klan predominance.
     "Slowly and secretly they began their conspiracy," Father Minwegen related in his still-unpublished memoirs. "The worked like termites," he recalls.
     In a chapter titled simply "The K.K.K." Father Minwegan noted, "through prejudiced non-Catholics they got acquainted with men in key positions in the community (Cornell) who were enlightened with the noble objectives of this patriotic society which was trying to save the nation from an imminent invasion of the Roman hordes led by the Pope to destroy liberties of the country."
     The Reverend Minwegan said the KKK "did everything to provoke the first act of violence on the part of Catholics" by distributing altered Knights of Columbus oaths which purported that when the Pope gave the signal, Roman Catholics would begin systematic slaughter by "killing, stabbing or strangling of all their Protestant neighbors without exception."

Circulated literature

     Klan members in Cornell, according to Father Minwegen's memoirs, circulated postcards implying immoral behavior by priests and nuns.
     Urging restraint on his parishioners, Father Minwegan recalled "the day the climax of our endurance was reached."
     It came at the Cornell paper mill where insults were leveled against Catholic church figures.
     At that time Catholic students at Cornell High School were insulted, according to Father Minwegen, who said a principal ridiculed priests and nuns in front of the class.
     It was following this incident Father Minwegen went to Chicago to discuss KKK activities at the mill with the Cornell mill owner, a Mr. Osborne, who vowed to have two investigators at Cornell in the Fourth of July when the KKK announced it would initiate 5,000 new members.
     Several hundred, not thousand, KKK members were welcomed into the brotherhood that day. While ceremonies were in progress across the Chippewa River, Father Minwegen began jotting down license numbers of cars. Later he confronted prominent Cornell businessmen, going store to store, asking each if he belonged to the Klan and whether he was at the July 4 KKK meeting.

All deny membership

     All denied it, according to the priest, but they feared an economic boycott by Catholics and "developments from that moment came fast and furious."
     Father Minwegen said a pro-Klan newspaper employee at Cornell was fired "on the spot", the mill night superintendent who played a leading roll in harassing Catholic employees was relieved of his position and KKK promoters from the South began leaving town, "leaving no address but many unpaid loans."
     The priest said a conspiracy was organized to rid Cornell of his presence.

Learned of plot

     However, the priest said he learned of the plot "when a man who could not keep a secret made it known that they had valuable news from Chicago that by a certain date the Catholic priest (he) would be gone." A banquet already had been planned for the occasion, he said.
     The alleged plot included a transfer of Father Minwegen, arranged by powerful interests through a Roman Catholic Cardinal in Chicago. However, Father Minwegen said he had friends in the church, too, who thwarted the transfer.
     Before he left Cornell, Father Minwegen pulled off perhaps the greatest coup against the powerful KKK at the time.
     A fiery white cross was burned in a field opposite the home Minwegen was living in at Cornell. There was no church there at the time. The priest recalled seeing "about 50 of them, in their masks and white nightshirts, calling me the black-robed devil who gets drunk every morning."
     The following day Father Minwegen drove to Eau Claire to learn who owned the land on which the KKK performed its ritual the night before.

Purchased the land

     Learning the school district had an option on the land for playground purposed, but that the option expired the week before, Father Minwegen paid the $50 and from that day the church owned the property.
     Thus, this spot where the KKK once burned a white cross became the only Catholic Church in Cornell. It's name? Holy Cross Church.

--Tom Lawin
--Research from memoirs of Father Peter Minwegan
and from a master's thesis by Paul Ostwald.

Extracted from the Eau Claire Leader Telegram
Special Publication, Our Story 'The Chippewa Valley and Beyond', published 1976
Used with permission.

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