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Owatonna has ‘Hooded History’ with KKK

kkk, klan, owatonna, history, hood
Local historian and librarian Nancy Vaillancourt displays a Klan hood that was given to her by a local woman. Vaillancourt talked at Owatonna Public Library last week about the Owatonna area’s “Hooded History”. Staff photo by Joni Hubred
Joni Hubred, News Editor

It all started with an unusual question: Why was Owatonna such a hot bed for the Ku Klux Klan?

Blooming Prairie Library branch manager and local historian Nancy Vaillancourt was working in the Owatonna Public Library (OPL) children’s department when she was asked to answer that patron inquiry. She didn’t find much–just a 1926 clipping from the Ellendale Eagle about a meeting at an Ellendale church.

From there, she said, “I knew the time frame to start looking.”

Vaillancourt last week shared what she has learned about the Ku Klux Klan during her “Hooded History” presentation in the OPL Gainey Room. These days, she said, “I regularly embarrass my children with my knowledge of the Klan.”

Her focus on Thursday was on the 1920s, one of three historical periods during which the Klan was active. The others were post-Civil War and during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Vaillancourt said a post-World War I depression, urban growth, and a lingering anti-immigrant sentiment likely drove the resurgence, along with the landmark silent movie “Birth of a Nation.” The Klan’s targets in Minnesota were Jews who had settled in northern Minnesota and, in this area especially, Catholics. The group claimed Americanism and protestant Christianity among its values; Catholics were considered a threat because of their allegiance to a foreign leader–the Pope.  

Their recruiting efforts in this area included some local churches. Vaillancourt showed an article in the Sept. 12, 1924 issue of the Owatonna Journal Chronicle that quoted a Concord pastor who praised the Klan. After robed Klansmen silently marched down the aisle at the Old Concord Chrisitan church, Rev. Mr. Meeks gave them his blessing and members shared the group’s principles with the large congregation.

This also happened at Lutheran and Methodist churches in Owatonna, Vaillancourt said.

In September of 1925, the Klan held its second state-wide Konklave at the Steele County fairgrounds. Activities included three weddings against the backdrop of a flaming cross and a parade that ran down Cedar Avenue, around Central Park, and then back to the fairgrounds.

While the group claimed 10,000 attendees, Vaillancourt showed a photo of the grandstand with far fewer people. Based on records of payments made for each attendee, she said, it was “probably more like 2,400.”

The Klan did something unusual in Steele County: It purchased a tract of land, at Rice Lake and Willow. The 1926 and 1927 state Konklaves were held in “Klan Park,” property that was eventually sold and now is home to soccer fields as part of Owatonna’s Hammond Park.

“I think it’s just that the children practicing there are from all different backgrounds,” Vaillancourt said.

She believes the answer to her patron’s original question about Owatonna being a “hotbed” of activity lies in those three Klan gatherings. But the community did not tolerate Klan activity for long.

Vaillancourt said a building at Rose and Pine in Owatonna, which then housed the Canfield School of Business, was a Klan gathering spot. When the local Knights of Columbus found out, members lined up their cars outside and hit their high beams as members left the building–outing locals who were involved in the secretive society.

“I’ve heard a few fists were thrown that night,” Vaillancourt said.

Elsewhere in the state, lawmakers passed an anti-masking law to prevent Klan members from hiding behind their hooded masks. The Midway News in St. Paul published member lists, and churches hosted anti-Klan speakers.

What eventually brought the group down, though, was a scandal in Indiana that started with leader David C. Stephenson kidnapping and raping Marge Oberholtzer, a young woman he had asked out on a date. She eventually died after Stevenson bit her, and the wounds became infected, but her deathbed statement resulted in Stevenson’s conviction.

As the sordid story unfolded nationally, “people got a really bad taste for the Klan,” Vaillancourt said.

After her presentation, Vaillancourt shared some memorabilia that included Klan-made coins, news articles, and a white hood given to her by a local resident.

Vaillancourt also shared a story about a woman who complained to a local newspaper after publication of a column sharing the area’s history with the Ku Klux Klan.

“In 2004, people were denying it happened,” she said. “But it happened here.”

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