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Column: A landlord vs. tenant showdown, circa 1910

WORTHINGTON -- Sept. 25. The final five days of September loom ahead.

These are the days the migration began. Through the balmy days of spring and the hot days of summer old guys sat on slatted green benches on the Nobles County courthouse lawn watching people on the downtown sidewalks, watching teams and wagons pass, watching closely the chugging new automobiles.

As the hours of darkness began to exceed the hours of daylight, as the air grew chilly, the white beards abandoned their benches and began climbing the stairs to the large courtroom on the courthouse second floor where, through the passing of a day, sunshine beamed through windows on two sides. 

There were dull days in the courtroom but there also were days of high entertainment, and you never knew. It was about 100 years ago to the week, and it was 4:30 in the afternoon. Time to head for home. Supper often was at 5. The judge concluded to hear one more case, the case of (to hide local names) Tenant vs. Landlord.

Landlord owned 80 acres slightly more than a half-dozen miles west of Worthington. Tenant, who held a lease to the upcoming March 1, made a home on the eighty with his wife, five boys and two girls.

There had been ongoing friction. For reasons never explained, Landlord wanted to come on the farm to measure the corn ground. For reasons never explained, Tenant refused to allow the owner on the land. There was a loud exchange one afternoon in the general store at Org. Tenant pulled out a closed jackknife and struck Landlord on the nose and head.

"Hey! It's my land!"

"Ya? Well I'm renting it."

Exasperated, Landlord arrived on the eighty early one morning with his grown son. Landlord began measuring with a tape. Tenant, standing in the hog pen, spied the intruders and rushed to the scene, placing himself squarely before the younger man. "I will smash you up so bad you won't be able to walk off!" he shouted. The young man said Tenant "kept at it all the time, hit me on the breast and shoulder, kept backing me up ... punched me." Tenant was wearing driving mittens.

For reasons not explained once again, this account greatly amused the old men from the lawn, who were settled on the varnished courtroom benches. They began to laugh loudly.

"Enough!" said the Judge. Spectators had a right to be in the courtroom. But if the onlookers did not keep quite, the courtroom would be cleared.


Trial resumed the next morning. Tenant was called to wrap up his narrative.

Old Landlord said, kneeling by the corn, he looked about for a club but he couldn't see one so he pulled a revolver from his pants pocket and said, "I'll fix you." Landlord fired. As Tenant turned to run, a brisk north wind blew open his felt coat. Tenant "felt the coat pull as a bullet struck it." As he ran inside the house he heard a second shot.

Tenant was soon outside once again, now armed with his own revolver in one hand and a shotgun under his arm.

As the stories unfolded, there was question whether anyone had actually fired at anyone else. Landlord said he had fired into the air and shot twice to scare Tenant but had never shot anywhere near him.

Landlord's attorney lifted the old coat Tenant had worn and studied the hole in the coat. He said nothing. Then he mused the hole was three times the size a bullet would make.

"I can't tell what this hole was made with." He questioned Tenant: "Wasn't this hole made with a pick axe?"

The defense asked for a recess and the jury was sent from the courtroom. Defense counsel suggested there actually had been a series of assaults and the Judge concurred. "Could have been a murder," he said. But Landlord did have a right to be on this property.

Defense counsel said Landlord would change his plea to guilty of assault in the third degree. He was fined $100. Jury was dismissed.

The old guys on the benches had something to talk about, to chuckle about for the rest of the winter.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.