Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Ku Klux Klan and My Grandmother's House in Vernonia

My grandmother’s house was located at the beginning of a plateau in the Coast Range, about 1500 feet above sea level along a gravel road.  To one side of the house was a fine strawberry field, perhaps 50 yards long and forty yards wide.  To the other side was a somewhat larger field, about half of which contained potatoes and the rest corn and a variety of other vegetables.  Behind and to the strawberry side of the house was a garage and small workshop, a heavily insulated shed where she kept canned foods, and a chicken coop where the chickens roosted after roaming the property during the day.  Further down was an electric, barbed wire fence which I now assume was a property boundary but then, just an obstacle to be carefully crossed.  Beyond the fence was a ravine with a mill pond at the bottom where a shingle mill once sat, its metal wood waste burner tilted a bit and badly rusted out, but its bed of ash still intact with a few charred pieces of cedar log scraps sticking out.  It was dark there and the monster dragonflies whose territory this was flew right up to your face, sometimes provoking a panicky dash up the hill, across the fence and to the safety of the garage or strawberries. 

It’s unclear why my grandmother, then in her late seventies, bought the little house in Vernonia, Oregon and moved there from Medford in 1950.  She probably would have said the reason was to be closer to her boys and grandchildren, though when she moved to Vernonia one of her sons lived 70 miles away and the other about 45. 

Vernonia then was at the tail end of the long and largely successful business of the Oregon American Lumber Company.  Following the depletion of the pine forests in the South and in the Midwest, O and A moved into town during the early twenties as the new owner of two billion board feet of timber from the
Quinault Forest Douglas Fir
remarkable Douglas Fir forests that colonized the coastal Northwest as the last ice age retreated.

The trees were mostly 300-600 years old with a few over a thousand years.  Southern and Midwest loggers preferred pine but would soon be seduced by these remarkable trees that made up 85% of the forest around Vernonia, located near the center of the tree’s natural range.  Often they would rise 100 feet before the crown of the tree would emerge.  Their stands were dense, 1000 trees/acre, and their wood was flexible but strong.  Normal yields of Douglas Fir in the region were 55,000 board feet to an acre.  Oregon American owned many stands near Vernonia producing twice that. 

Before Oregon American, most timber companies used rivers for transporting their logs downstream or they built great timber flumes that led to a mill on a river or bay where they could be cut into timber and
shipped, usually by boat, to customers.  Oregon American was unique in the logging business then because it wanted to ship its logs mostly by rail to a mill in the interior, closer to the trees.  Also, Oregon American wanted to dry the processed logs in a kiln on site and then ship them to customers by rail, the lighter, dried timber meaning lower freight costs.  Most of O and A's customers were in the Midwest.

Just after World War One, Vernonia was a primitive community in which a handful of pioneer families hung on as best they could, clearing trees to grow food and hunting and fishing for the rest.  In 1919, perhaps a hundred and fifty people were living around a cluster of crudely built structures in the Nehalem Valley.  Even the name was a mistake.  It was supposed to be Vernona, after the daughter of one founder, but somehow the letter “i” crept in when the city finally incorporated. 

Oregon American was an excellent operation.  Its mill was powered by electricity, its work buildings cement, its equipment the best.  It pounded out the timber -- 350,000 board feet for each of two eight hour shifts.  By 1924, there were 1500 souls in the town and then, by 1928, 2500.  A company town of sixty or so structures grew up on what people called O and A hill.  Management lived in a row of craftsman homes while smaller worker bungalows tumbled down the hill toward the town and along the east side of the mill pond. 

University of Washington Collections
Kinsey Logging Collection
Oregon American and its owner, Central Coal and Coke, brought several of their southern workers to Vernonia with them, and many were many racial and religious minorities.  The 1930 census had 96 Filipinos living in Vernonia, 55 African Americans, 51 Japanese, 5 Hindus and one Eskimo.  Those who worked at the mill and lived in Vernonia were well below the O and A Hill, segregated by race in shacks and in a hastily put up boarding house.  The census worker called the area “Down River Road” to distinguish it from O and A Hill “Up River Road.”  It was located across Rock Creek, close by the high school ball field.  
Those minorities that didn’t live on Down River Road were scattered in a few locations in the town, in logging camps outside of town or in a big boarding house for Japanese rail workers on St.  Helens Road.  Some worked for the railroad, some owned laundries, some cooked, one was a musician in the dance hall and another was the proprietor of a pool hall, but the biggest employer was the mill. 

University of Washington Collections
Not all lived on platted streets. Gessaro Kuge and his wife Takae ran a boarding house located by the census taker as ‘by the river across the tracks.’  Mr.  Kuge was a timber sorter at the mill as were most of the eight boarders.  They had five children, four boys and one girl, the eldest 16 and the youngest one month.  Takae described her vocation as ‘cook.’  Oregon American paid its minority workers the same as the whites.  About 500 people worked at the mill site at its peak and another 200 at its logging camps in the forest. 

In 1928, the town contained nine churches, two theaters, seven hotels, three schools, two auto repair shops, four pool rooms, five bars and taverns, four doctors, three dentists, two whorehouses and a dance hall. 

Oregon State Historical Society
At the same time that O and A was transforming this community, the revival of the Ku Klux Klan was transforming Oregon and some of it strongest outposts were communities at the edge of the great Douglas Fir forests, like Vernonia, Tillamook and St.  Helens.

From its founding in 1865 in Pulaski, Tennessee by confederate veterans, the Klan has had several incarnations, the first characterized by its resistance to reconstruction and the growing political power of Blacks in the South.  Increasingly, it became a terrorist organization and extremely violent.  By the time federal troops put down the rebellion, the terror had been successful and reconstruction overturned along with the rights of former slaves.  Another incarnation was the civil rights era in the 1960s when the Klan became even more secretive and violent, though its efforts were less successful.

The Klan’s appearance in 1920s America was different, rising from what would have been called ‘the new media’ of its day.  The release of D. W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation portrayed a Klan struggling against a hostile world order that favored immigrants, Catholics and Blacks over whites and Protestants, endangering their women and flooding the country with people who didn’t speak English.  The Klan in the early twenties was organized much like we would organize it today -- targeting specific groups, tailoring messages to time and place and offering substantial financial rewards for success.

Oregon State Historical Society
Klan Parade in Ashland
A public relations company, The Southern Publicity Association, hired regional sales managers, King Kleagles, who in turn hired Kleagles at the state and local level to recruit new membership.  They offered substantial rewards for successful recruitment.

According to Professor Thomas Pegram, who wrote recently of the rise and fall of the Klan in the 1920s, the $10 dollar Klan initiation fee was split this way:
$4 dollars went to the Kleagle who had actually recruited the member.  The regional rep, or the King Kleagle, received $1 dollar and the Grand Goblin, or state leader, got .50 cents.  $2.50 went to the Southern Publicity Association.  The remaining $2.00 went to the Imperial Wizard, the national leader, a man named William Joseph Simmons, headquartered in Atlanta. 

From Klan Catalogue
Other items of value contributed to the financial value of a new recruit.  The Klan costume cost $2.50 to make and was sold to new members for $6.50.  Other items that were part of the ritual Klan playbook were also sold to members.  As Klan membership soared nationally to somewhere around 2-3,000,000 members, about 35,000 in Oregon, the Klan’s founders did extraordinarily well. 

The focus on membership was on existing organizations like the Masons and Elks as well as Protestant churches and evangelicals.  Many ministers became deeply involved in the new Klan. The message behind the new face of the Klan also emphasized social activities and business agendas like referrals and mutual marketing.  As Pegram puts it:

“Within the restricted spheres of religious, racial and often gender exclusivity, the Klan provided meaningful community and sociability for its members.”

The New York Times, in its review of Professor Pegram’s book, One Hundred Percent American, described the twenties version of the Klan as “sort of Rotary, for white supremacists.”

Part of this sense of belonging in Oregon came from early political success.  The Klan messaging in Oregon was working.  Few African Americans then lived in Oregon and the state was more than 90% Protestant, leading to a focus on anti-Catholicism along with vigilantism against bootleggers and speakeasies, public drunkenness and marital infidelity.

The Klan helped put together and backed a ballot measure in 1922 that required all children within the state to attend public schools, shutting down the parochial schools of the Catholic Church.  Governor Benjamin J. Olcott, a Republican, was vigorously anti-Klan and against the Klan’s Compulsory Education Act.  

Some vigilante episodes in Medford led the governor to attack the Klan in the middle of a vicious primary fight against a Klan-backed candidate.  

Medford was the first town in Oregon to be visited by the recruiting Kleagles and the Klan had grown into a strong presence.  A white salesman there was known to be a philanderer and was abducted, taken into the woods and subjected to a “mock lynching” where a noose was placed around his neck and he was lifted momentarily off the ground.  He was returned to Medford and soon left town.  The Medford Klavern also took similar action against a Black man and an Hispanic man involved in the liquor business. 

Statistics about lynching have been kept by the NAACP, The Tuskegee Institute and others since about 1880 to the late 1950s.  Tuskegee’s statistics are considered the most accurate and say that about 5,000 people have been lynched over that time, 3500 of them black.  In that time, 20 whites and one black were lynched in Oregon.  Alonzo Tucker was shot and hung from a bridge in Marshfield in 1905.  A history of blacks in Oregon, “A Peculiar Paradise” attributes a black body found in 1924 to the Marshfield KKK though it is not included in the Tuskegee database.  There is no correlation of lynching in the US to the rise of the KKK in the twenties.   Tuskegee data shows that 258 people, nearly all black, were lynched during the twenties compared to 555 people during the previous decade.

Governor Benjamin Olcott
Governor Olcott could feel his government slipping away in the face of 58 Klaverns across the state.  Some, like Tillamook, LaGrande, St.  Helens, Medford were clearly in the thrall of the Klan, their public officials and law enforcement were Klan members or Klan supporters.  The Medford Mail Tribune fought the Klan, but in Tillamook the paper supported the Klan.  

Two weeks before the 1922 primary, Olcott tried to rally the anti-Klan community in the state:

“The time has come to determine whether our state government shall maintain its orderly way, controlled by the voice of all the people, or whether it shall be turned over to some secret clique or clan, to be made the tool of invisible forces, working in the dark toward aims unknown to others than themselves.  The true spirit of Americanism resents bigotry, abhors secret machinations and terrorism and demands that those who speak for or in her cause, speak openly, their faces to the sun.”

Governor Pierce
Olcott barely survived his primary election but went down in the general after the Klan threw its support to the democrat, Walter M.  Pierce, who hailed from another strong KKK community, La Grande.  The Compulsory Education Act was approved by the voters and Klansman Kaspar K. Kubli – not making this up -- was elected Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives. The legislature soon passed the Alien Property Act, designed to deny property ownerships rights to Japanese.

This was the high water mark of the Klan in Oregon. As quickly as it rose, it fell. Infighting within the Oregon leadership, a sex scandal and fighting over the considerable money the Klan was bringing in – as much as $24,000,000 in 1922 -- helped lead to its demise. Disclosures by disaffected members showed the deep commercial nature of the Klan. By the end of the decade, the Klan had deteriorated significantly. The Klan push for what they called a 100% society was hard to maintain. The system of cross-referrals between Klan businesses hit a nerve. Signs advertising businesses as 100% American -- code for Klan -- started coming down. The compulsory Education Act was declared unconstitutional and a similar version failed badly in Washington State. Governor Pierce was badly beaten in his reelection. It was as if a big storm had blown through and there was considerable relief it was over. 

University of Washington Collections
It could not have been easy on Down River Road’s 200 or so residents.  The five black children of school age in 1924 were denied access to Vernonia Schools.  They went to school in Portland, boarding mostly with relatives, while Portland’s foremost Civil Rights leader at the time, Beatrice Morrow Cannady, negotiated on their behalf.  While certainly intimidated, the people in the shacks were not passive.  They formed their own NAACP Chapter and their kids were able to enter school in their home town in 1925. 

The Klan was quite active in Vernonia and the local Klavern discussed constructing its own building.  The Klan marched in parades and held picnics there and the local paper, the Vernonia Eagle, reported extensively on its initiations. The powerful Tillamook and Astoria Klaverns held large rallies – Astoria claimed 2,000 Klansmen – which moved between Tillamook, Astoria and Vernonia one weekend in 1922.  The glow of many burning crosses fell on those shacks.  In 1924, the Klan decided that little Vernonia was just the place for its state convention.

Klan Rally in Eugene
It’s clear that Vernonia at the time was an explosion waiting to happen.  It’s thrown together population, not only contained fairly large communities of Blacks, Filipinos and Japanese, but also many immigrants.  A big crowd of Klansmen in town and the little Down River Road community never did clash, though doubtless there were humiliations and near misses.   Perhaps the O and A company was a steady hand in town, not wanting race or religion to complicate the business of making, transporting and selling the lumber from those mighty Douglas Firs. 

Fires damaged a great deal of O and A timber in the late twenties and the Depression closed the Mill in 1932.  The Tillamook Burn blew up in 1933 and destroyed many other timber holdings of O and A.  The company reopened in 1936.  It’s unclear what happened to those people in Down River Road when it was closed.  There was security and maintenance employment at the mill in slack times, but finding work was highly competitive, people showing up in the morning to be picked, or not picked.  In 1930, they paid between one dollar and five dollars a month for rent.

In the summer of 1954, we’d moved in with my grandmother during a tough time.  My brother and I slept on a big featherbed our parents had rigged up in the garage.  We’d slowly sink down until little but noses and toes peaked out of the mattress and those were quickly topped with a big comforter. 

We’d walk down the hill, past a very aggressive German Shepard, to the berry bus that would carry us out to Banks and its strawberry and blackcap fields, stopping at the Banks Dairy Queen on the way back to spend most of the two or three dollars we made.  Dropped off in the early afternoon, we'd then head down to play ball at the high school field, across the creek from the shacks.  A couple of kids from the shacks would play catch or join the pick-up games, but I don’t recall if those kids played on one of the several official teams in our little boys league that played in Vernonia, Mist, Goble, Scappoose, Clatskanie, St.  Helens. 

When we lived there, in 1954, the mill was in the process of being cannibalized in a series of mergers and purchases and finally closed in 1957.  It had created 2.5 billion board feet of lumber and cut nearly all the old growth fir in the area.  The last load of lumber sent out from the mill contained a message on butcher paper tacked to the logs:

“Last Load”
“Oregon American from 1922-1957.”
“Ain’t No More!!”

As a college student in 1964 I was driving from Eugene to Cannon Beach to meet friends.  Passing by the Banks cutoff, I made a snap decision to drive to Vernonia over the road where, years earlier, I would hold my breath and wonder if my Dad would pull over, stop the car and invite me to drive the rest of the way, my Mom not approving. 

“Russell!” She would bark.

Down River Road Today
After a disappointing stop at my grandma’s house – the strawberry field had a house on it – I drove down to the high school and walked down to the baseball field across from the shacks at what the census taker called "Down River Road."  It was known as Anderson Park Road after the RV Park the city developed once a successor company to O and A deeded the land to the city of Vernonia.  There was nothing there.  I hopped the creek and inspected the bushes and fill.  I could find no artifacts, none.  No pieces of plumbing or door knobs, a spoon or a clothes hanger. There was nothing to show that people once lived there, strangers in their own town. 

Somehow defeated, I drove on to the coast through the next generations of Douglas Fir.


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  4. Great blog but I need to tell you there are people out there that dont want to hear about the KKK in Oregon. I was BANNED from Vintage Oregon facebook page after I posted just one Portland Rose Parade picture of hooded people and horses.

  5. My grandparents moved from St. Johns to the Hill in '60--My uncle married a Cabellos girl from 'Downhill'; I saw the old Mill burning when they filmed 'Ring of Fire'. Love Vernonia

  6. I lived in Vernonia for a short time as a child, I remember the filming of ring of fire....but don't remember any people of color in that town.

  7. I grew up on Scappoose Vernonia Highway. We heard a few things about the KKK that we always thought were just stories to keep us out of the woods at night. The early nineties I think I was 15 years old and without permission me and a few friends took my parents truck for a drive. I'm not exactly sure what part of the hills we ended up at but I do remember stopping at Gunners Lake earlier that night. We seen a strange glow down a Old Logging spur and decided to drive down there. We did come across a large bonfire and about 8 people that were dressed in robes but no hoods. Having some Hispanic heritage in me I did not stick around to find out what they were doing.

    1. This still goes on today, very evil gatherings in the back wooded portion of columbis and Washington counties

  8. Interesting story...I love vernonia, and recently moved into the area. I will point out that Hindus are not a's actually a religion.��

  9. Thank you. This is very interesting to me. I grew up in Vernonia from the ages of seven to eighteen when I finished high school. I had heard rumors over the years, but nothing as detailed as this. There were still several families of African-Americans there in the 1950's. In the school year, 1953/54 our Student Body President was a young black man, Bob Powell. It couldn't have been easy for the young black students in Vernonia, being such a small minority. I believe that there were only nine of them during that time in the whole school system, but they integrated well into the community.

    My mother lived there for over 50 years. It's my hometown, and I love it.

  10. I lived in Scappoose during the 60's through the late 80's while attending grade school, high school, and college and I never would have guessed this kind of history was common for the area. There are a lot of people that don't want to hear that the KKK came from the democratic party, and it would make sense that Oregon is a Democrat state that there would be so many members within the state. I would be curious to see the membership numbers today.

    1. The democratic party back then aligned with what the republican party stands for today. They switched.

  11. Interesting. Moved there in 1990 and still go back, the history of the town intrigues me. Didn’t know about the kkk stuff tho, but heard stories about rituals going on in the surrounding woods at night. Lived on OA hill

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  13. My great grandfather Alexander Sword was born in Scotland in 1853 and brought to the US in 1856 by his father Alex Sr. where they settled in Illinois. In 1885 Jr. and his new bride Minnie traveled to Oregon and settled near the yet unnamed town of Vernonia, cleared land and started a family.

    In April of 1926 the local KKK of which was reported at the time had nearly 500 members approached Alex Jr. and asked if they could stage an “event” on his property.

    His upper clearing which was directly behind and up on the hillside from what is now the high school football field was easily visible to most of the town and very clearly seen from the non-white housing where the treatment ponds are now.

    There is no family evidence that Alex was a member of the KKK but he did dislike Catholics and at that time the KKK was extremely anti-Catholic. After some discussion with the Klan an agreement was reached and a cross was burned in the clearing. Alex was given a new white Stetson hat for allowing the “event” and as far as we know it was never allowed again.

    I don’t know if my great grandfather was a racist, I do know my own father Bill is and has objected quite often to my marriage to Holli and claims that the Sword family linage has been corrupted by those “damn” Japs.

    I have no great ideas for ending the atrocity of racism; I do know it will outlive me. But if we all work harder perhaps my grandchildren will out live it.

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  15. Interesting history. I grew up in one of those shacks in the black section of "Down River Road." I attended grade school and high school in Vernonia. My dad worked at the mill. We were aware that we were viewed differently than most residents, but we had each other and a sense of pride. Vernonia did not define me. There were people there who showed me that my life did not have to be limited because of circumstance. I recall a teacher, Ms. Ora Bolmeier who provided great encouragement. I am most grateful and blessed for all the Vernonia folks who helped me succeed.

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