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Things got hot in Barton County 100 years ago thanks to the Nonpartisan League
Out of the Morgue
OTM np league pic
Pictured here, a 1919 cover of the League’s newspaper, The Nonpartisan Leader, portraying organized farmers and workers standing tall against big business interests.

This week, the Tribune is pleased to present an essay by local historian Karen Neuforth recounting of the time, 100 years ago, that the Nonpartisan League came to town. 

With all the political and social upheaval our country is facing, it was interesting to learn that just 100 years ago, in June 1920, Barton County was going through quite a round of upheaval itself. Ranging from fist fights to tarring and feathering to “riding ‘em out of town on a rail”, some of Barton County’s citizens were determined to pull no punches in opposition to what they perceived as a threat to our country.

Starting in 1917, a political organization called the Nonpartisan League (NPL) began soliciting Kansas farmers for memberships. Founded in North Dakota in 1915 by Arthur C. Townley, a former organizer for the Socialist Party of America, the group advocated for state control of farm-related industries, including mills, grain elevators, and banks.  Although their initial political efforts in North Dakota brought their candidates into control of the state legislature, the governor’s office, and a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, their position of power in that state didn’t last long.

With the opening of World War I, Townley’s opposition to the war and calls for conscription of wealth were not terribly popular among many people. When their efforts to recruit members in Kansas began in earnest, they were frequently accused of pro-German and isolationist sentiments. Rallies and speeches given by Townley and his associates frequently caused a considerable amount of trouble – especially among men who had just returned from the battlefields of Europe.

As the NPL organizers started to move into Central Kansas, they were met with quite a bit of hostility. The St. John Weekly News noted on November 6, 1919, as Stafford County was preparing to welcome home their soldiers, “Every indication is that certain Stafford county folks have made up their minds to make things decidedly warm for all Non-Partisan League organizers that come into the county.” The following April, the Ellinwood Leader reported that the Edwards County Sheriff had been called out northeast of Belpre “on complaint that a mob was threatening violence to Non Partisan organizers” and that the mob was from Stafford County. Similar scenes were repeated in other parts of the state.

Things started getting hot in Barton County when the Great Bend Tribune (May 26, 1920) reported that “Members of the Non-Partisan League in Barton and adjoining counties are advertising a big Farmers Picnic which will be held in the Wolf Grove at Ellinwood next Tuesday, June 1. The speaker of the day is Walter Thomas Mills, who has for years been engaged in organizing labor unions both in this country and abroad and who is now making a campaign in the interests of the League. Whether or not the League should or should not be is a pertinent subject at the present time and there will doubtless be a large crowd at the gathering to hear the arguments advanced by Mr. Mills of the subject.”

The next headline from the Tribune on May 31, was “RARIN’TO GO”. The article continued: “Everything is set for a visit to Ellinwood by the American Legion in keeping with plans which were made at a recent meeting of that organization to the effect that the Non-Partisan League speeches scheduled for tomorrow in the Wolf Grove of that city would not be made.” Word was sent from St. John that they would contribute ex-servicemen to the “wrecking party”, as would Hoisington, Claflin, and Ellinwood itself. When a number of men, presumably members of the NPL consulted the county attorney about this, they were told that “if Mills, the main speaker of the day made seditious remarks that the officers of the county as well as the American Legion would be there to take him in full charge.”

As promised, the ex-servicemen arrived in Ellinwood and the headline in the Ellinwood Leader of June 3 read “NON-PARTISAN LEAGUE PICNIC PROVED FIASCO”. The article continued, “Whether or not the manner in which the American Legion boys broke up the Non-Partisan league picnic here Tuesday afternoon of this week was the right way to handle the affair, will always be viewed with a question of doubt in the minds of a majority of the citizens of this community. Ellinwood and vicinity is composed of a peace-loving one-hundred per ct. American people, who do not believe in mob law.” 

According to the Leader, the scheduled NPL speakers drove into town about 1:00 p.m. and word was promptly sent uptown where most of the Legion members were meandering about the streets. “The bugler sounded ‘Assembly’ and the whole crowd rushed to the scene of festivities.” Reaching the picnic grounds, they quickly surrounded the speakers’ car and pulled Mills out onto the ground. Apparently, something of a fracas erupted with punches and bottles being thrown and a pocket knife appearing. About the time things were calming down, Sheriff Yancey arrived and he hauled the two who were wielding the bottle and the knife off to jail.

The Legion crew loaded the speakers back up in their car and drove them to Great Bend, where “they were placed on exhibition and made to parade the streets, later being taken to the stockyards and placed in a cattle car. Later in the evening the party was ‘egged’ out of Great Bend”, returned to Ellinwood and placed on the east-bound train. “It was the most exciting day Ellinwood has had in many a day, and one which we do not want repeated.” 

There were a lot of hard feelings about this incident and the citizens of Ellinwood called a meeting a few days later to demand an explanation from the Legion members, which resulted in a resolution condemning “this action … and deplore the acts of outsiders that have cast a shadow of scorn on our thriving city and community.”

Once more, things got hot on March 12, 1921, when ex-United States Senator J. Ralph Burton was scheduled to speak to NPL members in Ellinwood. Having stopped in Great Bend for lunch, Burton was “requested not to go on to Ellinwood”, according to an article in the Kansas State Historical Society’s Collections, Vol. XV, “… a large number of Nonpartisan League members invaded Great Bend and demanded of the sheriff that their speaker, ex-Senator Burton, be permitted to go on to Ellinwood. In the meantime a great crowd of citizens and farmers gathered in the courthouse square. A Nonpartisan League member started a fight by striking a young ex-service man and calling him a vile name. He happened to be with a crowd of farmers from the south side, who were so incensed at the action of the Nonpartisan League member that a free-for-all fight immediately developed, and nearly everyone in the courthouse square was on one side or the other. The fight finally resulted in the worsting of the Nonpartisan Leaguers, who left for Ellinwood, and met on the way five ex-service men in a car from Lyons. The Nonpartisan League members stopped these men and took their wrath out upon them, treating them badly. After they were released the Lyons men went back home, recruited some twenty-five or thirty men, went to Ellinwood, found the leaders of the Nonpartisan crowd who had beat them up, and there proceeded to handle them severely, finally tarring and feathering them.”

Eventually this “war” was ended when the national headquarters of the American Legion ruled that the Legion could take no stand against the Nonpartisan League, because of the nonpolitical character of the Legion.