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FACT OR FANTASY?

FACT OR FANTASY?

It’s a rumor that will not die; an urban myth in a country town, but the reality appears to have more to do with school spirit than racial politics.

The myth is that Dallas, Oregon, is — or at least was — a command center for the Ku Klux Klan.

Let’s be clear from the outset: The Klan did have a chapter (Klansmen call their chapters “Klaverns”) in Dallas in the 1920s, but it did nothing to earn mention in history books or even local newspaper accounts beyond a few rallies and a parade down Main Street. The Klavern died out in the late ‘20s and never returned.

But the myth claims the Dallas Klavern lives on.

The myth got started about a half century after the real Klavern died, and since then has been embellished with so many details that it seems almost plausible.

Here are a few of the embellishments:

  • Secret Klan meetings are held in the basement of the Polk County Courthouse (or a variant of this, in the basement of the Dallas police station).
  • Hooded Klansmen gain entrance to the meetings through a tunnel that runs beneath Main Street in Dallas.
  • The Dallas Klavern is or was the largest chapter west of the Mississippi.
  • People of color who move to Dallas are “run off” by Klansmen bent on maintaining the area’s lily-white status.
  • The Dallas High School mascot, the Dragons, was selected because of its relationship to Klan lore. (The leader of the national Klan is referred to as the Grand Dragon.)

    Dallas Mayor Jim Fairchild said he’s heard the rumors for years, but believes they’ve started to die out.

    “Back 10 or 20 years ago it hurt us,” Fairchild said. “It gave us a reputation as a racially biased city. But that’s certainly not true today.”

    Arlie Holt, historian for the Polk County Museum, thinks the myth of the Dallas Klan sprang from an innocent decision made back in the 1930s when local high schools were giving themselves nicknames.

    Dallas High teams were originally called the Orangemen because of their orange and black school colors. But opposing teams often called them the Prunepickers because of the Dallas area’s many prune orchards.

    Hoping to shed that name, the school flirted briefly with the Dolphins, but quickly decided that a better name was needed.

    “The kids didn’t think Dolphins was ‘kickass’ enough,” Holt said.

    “They wanted something that sounded tougher, but also something that started with a D so it would be alliterative.”
    And so, in 1938, the Dallas High Dragons were born.

    “I’ve spoken with a lot of people who went to Dallas High at that time, and not one of them knew anything about the Klan back then,” Holt said. “They just picked Dragons because it sounded better than Dolphins or Prunepickers.”

    Holt said years later people began to associate the school’s nickname with the Klan.

    “I think that’s how the myth got started, and it’s taken on a life of its own,” he said. “There’s never been any truth to it, and nobody who’s ever taken the trouble to investigate it has ever found anything to substantiate it.”

    School officials say they’ve been vexed by the rumor for years. Dallas High School principal Keith Ussery said several students researched the supposed link for an article in the school newspaper several years ago.

    They concluded, as everyone else has, that the Dallas Klan died out in the ‘20s.

    Holt spoke to a Dallas High class a few years ago and learned firsthand that the myth was still alive.

    “The kids in class had all heard it, and most of them believed it,” he said. “One girl insisted that the Dallas Klan was the largest, most powerful Klan west of the Mississippi.”
    Ussery and others say they have mixed feelings about how to combat the rumor.

    “I can see both sides,” he said. “It might be better to simply not talk about the rumor and hope it goes away. But then again, it seems as if the truth is the best way to kill an ugly rumor.”
    Dallas High students don’t take the rumor too seriously these days.

    “I’d say a majority of the kids have heard about the Klan, but to most of us it’s just a joke,” said Dustin Lytle, 14, a freshman.
    Dustin’s sister Megan, 16, said the rumor is discussed in an 11th grade history class.

    “It’s a piece of history, that’s all,” she said.

    But school officials bristle at the notion that a hate group has anything to do with Dallas High.

    “We have awesome kids here,” said Rebecca Penna, who teaches art at the school and is the advisor to the student government and the yearbook. “It’s certainly not fair to even suggest that they have or ever had anything to do with the Ku Klux Klan. I wish this rumor would die a miserable death.”

    Becca Cudmore, a 17-year-old junior, recalled that last year a student was suspended for walking through the lunchroom dressed in an old KKK costume

    .
    “We don’t really like it when that rumor gets revived,” she said. “It’s nothing we’re proud of.”
    How did the myth get started?

    Holt has a theory of sorts, but he stresses that it is only a theory. It goes like this:

    Back in the 1980s, a new fad was gaining popularity in the education of future teachers at Western Oregon State College (now Western Oregon University) in Monmouth.
    It was thought that teachers could better relate to their students if they were versed in the history and traditions of the local community.

    “Nothing wrong with that,” Holt said, “but somehow I think some teachers at Western got it in their heads that the Dallas High nickname came from the Ku Klux Klan. That’s how I think the myth got started. I think it just grew from there.”

    There’s no doubt that there was a Klan in Dallas, back in the ‘20s, but that was hardly unusual in Oregon. Historian Eckard Toy Jr. noted that by December 1923, Oregon had 58 chartered Klans and “nearly every community with a population of 1,000 or more, especially in the Willamette Valley, had an active Klan organization.”

    America was a roiling stew of political and social philosophies in the years following World War I, and the Pacific Northwest was home to some of the most radical social experiments. Labor unions, including the International Workers of the World, grew in power. The women’s suffrage movement gained momentum. Prohibition turned many otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals because they wouldn’t give up their favorite alcoholic beverages. The freewheeling “Jazz Age” was seen by many as a threat to the nation’s young people.

    Many white Protestants in the U.S. were opposed to the “melting pot” and saw interbreeding as weakening their race. Chinese were still being referred to as heathens.

    Anti-Semitism had flared with the Red Scare in 1919, and Jews were seen as having been prominent in the Bolshevik revolution and in labor struggles in the United States. Black Army veterans, returning from a more racially tolerant France, were seeking better treatment at home. African-American workers on the home front had earned respectable wages and expected the same after the war.

    It was into this period of social uncertainty that the Ku Klux Klan, dormant since the decades following the Civil War, experienced a rebirth.

    The appeal of the new Klan spread to the north and west, and at its peak in the mid-1920s achieved a total membership of four million or more.

    Members served in state legislatures and Congress, and were elected to the governorship in several states.

    Oregon had one of the strongest state Klan organizations in the nation in the ‘20s. The Oregon Blue Book, the state’s official fact book, attributed its strength to “wartime stress, emphasis on patriotism, distrust of German-Americans and anti-Catholic bigotry … in a period of social flux and uncertainty.”
    But the Dallas Klan did little more than hold picnics, harass German-American Mennonites, march in parades and burn a few crosses.

    “For the most part Klansmen in Oregon were very ordinary people,” said Toy, the retired history professor. “They were a lot more verbal than physical.”

    The Dallas Klavern — identified in some publications as No. 19 and in others as No. 40 — had its start in 1922, by one newspaper account, while another put the year as 1924.

    Whenever it got started, it had petered out, like virtually all other Oregon chapters of the ‘20s, by the end of the decade.
    Still, the rumors of its power and presence in Dallas persist. Those who believe in the myth note that it’s impossible to prove a negative — to prove that the Dallas Klan doesn’t exist.

    But Randy Blazak, an associate professor of sociology at Portland State University and chair of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crimes, says the very lack of Klan activity or publicity in Dallas proves that the myth is baloney.

    “The Ku Klux Klan is a terrorist organization,” he says, “and you can’t terrorize anyone if they don’t know you exist.”

    The Klan in Oregon

    Ku Klux Klan influence in Oregon peaked in 1922 when the secret society helped pass a bill designed to eliminate Catholic schools and helped elect a governor who vowed to support the bill.

    The Compulsory Education Bill of 1922 was one of the major agenda items adopted by the Oregon Klan. The bill required all Oregon children to attend public schools, and while it would have outlawed all private schools for children, it was primarily aimed at Catholic schools.

    When the bill was first proposed in early 1922, Governor Benjamin W. Olcott was the state’s chief executive. He had already earned the hatred of local Klansmen when he condemned three assaults perpetrated by members of the Medford Klavern in Southern Oregon.

    He urged local law enforcement agencies to crack down on “masked marauders” engaging in unlawful acts.

    And when Olcott refused to endorse the Compulsory School Bill, the Klan turned the full force of its membership against him.
    Olcott managed to survive the Republican primary — which in those days was tantamount to re-election — but the Klan didn’t give up. It shifted its allegiance to the Democratic Party and helped Walter M. Pierce defeat Olcott in the general election.
    Pierce openly courted the Klan endorsement, and his victory — coupled with passage of the Compulsory Education Bill, drew national attention to Oregon.

    Newspapers and other publications including the New York World, the Detroit Free Press, the Literary Digest, the Brooklyn Eagle, the Milwaukee Journal, the Buffalo Commercial, the Los Angeles Times and the Fresno Republican denounced the Klan’s success in Oregon.

    “If the (KKK) movement were to become permanent, it would be the greatest sort of peril to the nation,” the Brooklyn Eagle stated in an editorial.

    The Los Angeles Times reminded its readers: “A mob is a mob; it doesn’t matter what secret pins or regalia it wears.”
    Historians today note that the Klan of the 1920s — particularly in Oregon — was not as ferocious as its reputation would suggest. In fact, Klan members were not much different in their racial and religious prejudices than most of their neighbors.
    Eckard Toy, a retired history professor and one of the leading experts on the KKK in Oregon, noted that the Compulsory Education Bill was sponsored by the Scottish Rite Masons and that the Masons, the Elks and other fraternal organizations also discriminated against blacks, Jews and immigrants.

    The Education Bill was struck down by the Oregon Supreme Court and later declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court. It never went into effect.

    The Klan’s honeymoon with Governor Pierce ended a few months after he took office in 1923 when Pierce refused to give enough patronage jobs to Klan members. The group launched an unsuccessful recall campaign against Pierce and saw its influence and its membership dwindle for the rest of the decade.

    Salem Speaks Out

    Racial and religious intolerance were common in America in the 1920s, but a Salem newspaper editor of that period led a lonely battle to defeat the Ku Klux Klan — and the people of Salem backed him up.

    George Putnam had purchased the Capital Journal in 1919 and served as its editor and publisher until he sold the paper in 1953.

    In 1922, as the Oregon Klan leaders launched a campaign to take control of both city and state politics, Putnam stepped forward to stop them.

    His editorials were relentless.

  • He blasted the secrecy and the bigotry of the Klan.
  • He opposed the KKK-backed Compulsory Education Bill that would have eliminated Catholic schools.
  • He criticized the Salem Ministerial Association for failing to condemn the Klan.
  • He reminded readers that Klansmen took an oath to follow the dictates of the Klan’s Grand Dragon back in Georgia, effectively giving up their independence as citizens.
  • He defended Governor Benjamin W. Olcott, a Republican, for denouncing Klan activities in Oregon even though Putnam was a Democrat.

    George S. Turnbull, who wrote a biography of Putnam’s crusading work, called the Capital Journal “Oregon’s most active and outspoken newspaper foe of this new expression of political and religious bigotry.”

    In Portland and many other Oregon cities, Klan influence had been sufficient to silence opposition from local newspapers.
    “The (Portland) newspapers feared to publicize the Klan or criticize it lest they lose valuable advertising,” wrote the Reverend Lawrence Saalfeld in his book, “Forces of Prejudice in Oregon, 1920-1925.”

    Saalfeld continued: “The principal newspapers … felt convinced that there was no obligation to oppose the Klan movement when such opposition clearly involved an injury to business.”
    When similar pressures failed to deter Putnam, Klan leaders tried to organize an advertiser boycott of the Capital Journal.
    Putnam called a meeting of Salem business leaders and urged them to ignore the boycott.

    “Portland, he told the group, wanted Salem business and would probably get it if Salem merchants because of racial and religious intolerance should refuse to patronize the local newspaper that stood for a free press and tolerance,” according to Turnbull’s book, “An Oregon Crusader.”

    Putnam’s speech carried the day. The merchants voted to ignore the Klan boycott and support their local paper.

  • One Comment

    1. I am a college history teacher, have been for over 30 years. The Oregon Klan has been a special interest of mine. Your article is full of half-truths and falsehoods, you don’t know the entire story about the Klan in Oregon. You correctly quote Eckard Toy, he is an expert i nthe 1920-30’s Klan. Yhe Klan is still active in Oregon, and Salem, not Dallas had the largest Klan west of the Mississippi. There are still active Klans that meet monthly in several Oregon cities. You shold have attended a lecture I gave at the Salem Public Library in the fall of 2011, concerning the Klan in Salem.

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