Curt Brown

White Hoods on the Mesa

The white hood is is topped with a blood-red tassel. Its eye holes look like the sideways figure-eight of infinity. This Klu Klux Klan relic isn’t in some dusty attic in the Deep South. It sits on a table amid the archives at Fort Lewis College on the mesa above Durango, Colorado.

“The hoods are made with a rigid oil cloth to keep the points up,” says Jeanne Brako, the center’s curator. She takes out more hoods and a dirty, white cotton robe with a red, fringed sash embroidered with a white rose. A round patch on the breast shows what looks like a cross with a framed drop of blood in the center. The final item that Brako pulls from the archival box is an old flour sack from the Bayfield Milling Co. Adorned with an image of an Indian chief in full headdress, the sack was apparently used to squirrel away the robe and hood between meetings and cross burnings.

Bayfield sits along he Los Pinos River, 20 miles east of Durango in the southwestern corner of Colorado. My late-parents built a home on this trout stream in 1980 and my wife and I moved here a few years ago to stage second acts after a lifetime in Minnesota. A history buff, I attended the annual meeting of the Pine River Valley Heritage Society and walked out a board member. That, in turn, led me to a yellowed newspaper clipping from the Durango Herald that told the backstory of the white hood on the archive table.

In 1984, a guy named Jeff Bryson was remodeling the second floor over Akers Garage on Mill Street — the main drag in this town of 2,000 people—when he discovered a locked wooden box in a crawl space. He hoped it was full of cash. Instead, he realized he’d unearthed a cache of artifacts from Bayfield’s racist past: old KKK records and outfits. They dated back to the 1920s, when the Bayfield Chapter of the Knights of the Klan — Pine River Klan No. 69 — numbered more than 100.

A man named Akers, who ran the garage, apparently was the Klan’s local secretary and kept the hoods, signature cards, letters and membership dues lists. He also kept the forms for ordering robes from KKK headquarters in Atlanta and pattern instructions to make them at home. Bryson donated it all to the Center of Southwest Studies — a treasure trove of Native American rugs, dolls, writings and photographs at Fort Lewis.

I ride to our meeting in a white 2008 Nissan Rouge driven by Joanne McCoy, my 80-year-old friend and fellow board member of the Heritage Society. Joanne was born and raised here and returned to complete life’s circle after more than thirty years in Denver. She and her sister live in adjacent houses.

We’ve brought a couple white robes of our own to this meeting. When a woman named Betty Abernathy died a few years ago, the robes appeared at her Bayfield estate sale. Someone donated them to our museum — located next door to the old Akers garage and open four hours on most summer days.

We show our robes to Brako, the longtime curator and a textiles expert. Beside the real robes laid out on the table, our robes are much whiter. One includes a tag from Penney’s Worldwide. We all agree it was probably a sheet turned into a Halloween costume — not an authentic KKK robe like the other one spread out on the table. Joanne even brought a copy of a 1954 school photo with several children in a class room wearing black face and a hooded kid in white. A ghost among singers? A racism history skit? Who knows?

After studying the artifacts, Joanne and I head to the center’s library where Michael, the tattooed librarian, fetches three boxes with records and lists. Joanne recognizes many of the names from families in the valley — including her grandfather, William Hickman. He showed up on a list of potential recruits but declined to join. His wife Mittie’s name was apparently on the box, Joanne had heard through family stories, but we don’t find Mittie’s name anywhere. Joanne is relieved but insists she’s not responsible for the sins of her ancestors.

“Good heavens, it’s so interesting to see all these names,” Joanne says. “Here’s Oswald. His wife taught in the school. And Kelso Darnell. He was the school janitor. And here’s the school bus driver.”

The irony strikes us. The names of the members of this secret, hate-filled fraternal organization are now unmasked — even posted on the center’s website — https://swcenter.fortlewis.edu/finding_aids/kkk.shtml

Digging through these records and touching the hoods and robes feels creepy. And surprisingly out of place. Reaching back nearly a century, and fingering vestiges of hate and bigotry, is chilling enough. But doing it on a high-plains mesa in the Four Corners region — 1,500 miles west of Atlanta and the Deep South — makes it even more numbing.

A Fort Lewis College student’s research presentation kindled my interest in the Bayfield KKK. Jessica Thulson, who’s studying to become a middle-school history teacher, spoke about the Klan in Bayfield in the 1920s during a seminar of the history department’s best and brightest students.

I brought the topic up at our next Bayfield Heritage Society meeting. Some people, including Joanne, thought the subject was appropriate for a temporary exhibit at the museum or an evening discussion. Others worried about alienating longtime Pine River Valley families, whose $40 annual dues keep the museum’s lights on. My motion was tabled.

But the Pine River Library, named among the best small-town libraries in the nation, agreed to host a community discussion. To me, it’s like the pile of shoes collected at concentration camps and displayed at the Holocaust museum in Washington — hard to look at but an important way to spark discussion and confront ugly chapters of the past.

Mary Wingerd, a respected historian from Minnesota, spoke at Fort Lewis College in 2015 about the difference between heritage and history. Heritage is where you are now and where you want to go, based loosely on the past. History is an accurate accounting of what went down, warts and all.

On a gorgeous, spring Thursday evening, a babysitting training class is wrapping up in the large meeting room at the library. Giggling teenage girls have been muted with talk of shaken baby syndrome and sudden infant death.When they file out, we set up about fifteen chairs for the 6 p.m. KKK community conversation. We scramble to pull out more chairs as fifty people pour in — one of the largest groups since the two-year-old library began hosting book readings, cooking classes and other events.

Jessica Thulson shares her research about the town’s old guard and how threatened it felt by immigrants flowing in after the first World War. At Latino work camps on Smelter Mountain, by the uranium processing plant, crosses burned in the 1920s.

“Sounds like Trump,” one woman hollers.

Jessica tells everyone how Father Kipp, the Catholic priest, purchased a double-barreled shotgun after a cross was burned at his Sacred Heart Church. With few, if any, blacks in the area, Latinos, Catholics and Jews were the targets of the Klan in the 1920s. Its members marched silently down Durango’s Main Avenue, instilling fear.

Jessica says there is no evidence of violence — no lynchings or assaults. But one woman in the audience recalls a talk she had with an old-timer, whose Russian parents ran a store back then. “She once came home from school and saw a cross burning in her front yard and hid in the bushes until it flamed out,” the woman says. “It sent a chill down my spine hearing that story.”

Andrew Gulliford, a history professor from Fort Lewis College, explains that Bayfield’s KKK chapter “absolutely reflects what was happening nationally” in the 1920s. Farms were failing and women were starting to vote, smoke cigarettes and hitch up their skirts. Communists were asserting themselves from Russia to labor unions. Change was coming and small towns like Bayfield were digging in their heels.

In those pre-TV days, joining fraternal groups such as the Elks and Moose clubs was a popular form of entertainment and camaraderie. “The Klan,” Gulliford says, “mimicked those organizations.”

A retired history professor and writer, Duane Smith, urged the group not to judge their ancestors through today’s lens. “It’s a sad chapter in our history,” he said, “but who’s to say we wouldn’t have been members, too?” It was a small-town thing in the 1920s, a rural-vs.-urban dynamic with people in towns like Bayfield clinging to their white, Protestant ways.

Nik Kendziorski, the center’s archivist, says he gets calls every year from people who find grandpa’s KKK robe or hood. “They all ask the same thing,” he says. “What’s my family’s KKK stuff worth?” The center, he tells them, only accepts donated materials; he doesn’t offer estimates.

The last question of the evening comes from Jessica’s mother, wondering how her daughter’s research affected her personally. The Thulsons belong to the same Catholic church where a cross was set ablaze in the ’20s.

“I’m thankful that things have evolved,” Jessica says, “and I live in a time where my priest doesn’t have to get a shotgun.”

Curt Brown writes a weekly Minnesota history column in the Minneapolis Star Tribune and has written two books and two e-books on topics ranging from a wicked 1905 gale that smacked Duluth to a look at America’s last family making barber poles, available at tinyurl.com/curt-books.
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