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Column: It was a time of fear when officer carried machine guns

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared Feb. 11, 2006.

WORTHINGTON — One of these columns recalled recently the courage of Nobles County Sheriff Elden Rowe during the Great Depression in confronting a highway blockade set up by protesting farmers to keep farm produce from going to market.

A young student told me she is doing a school paper. She wondered: Were there other incidents like this?

I was looking through newspaper files. I have the book, “Holiday.” Do you know the town of Truman — oh, maybe 70 miles east of Worthington? A bank was foreclosing on a farmer at Truman. There is an estimate that 5,000 people came to that sale, many of them associated with the Farm Holiday movement. This was to be another of the penny auctions — a bank might foreclose but the auction would bring the bank no more than several dollars.

The sheriff of Watonwan County (St. James) arrived on the auction scene near Truman and mounted two machine guns atop his car. The auction crowd was not intimidated.

Ernest Johnson from Jackson County was there. He remembered “everything selling for three, four, five, six cents, somewhere in there.” One man bid 20 cents for a team of horses and “someone knocked him down, just that fast …”

There was a farm sale near Reading. Pete Peters, Worthington’s respected auctioneer, was to cry that sale. Pete stepped onto the open front porch of the farmhouse to announce terms of the sale. Louis Ebeling of Rushmore, who was in the crowd, remembered in a published report, “here was the head guy of the Farm Holiday. …” He said, “Before you have a sale today, you’re going to have to turn the papers over to this man and you’re going to have to leave him enough equipment so he can farm an eighty (an 80-acre farm).”

Pete Peters, auctioneer, surveyed the crowd before him. He instructed the clerk to go to the bank and to make clear that the farmer whose land, livestock and equipment were being sold must be left with 80 acres and enough equipment to farm his land. The clerk advised the bank of the situation. The bank accepted the crowd’s terms, and the sale began.

The most troubled years were 1932 and 1933. Focus still is on the farmlands where developments were grievous. Gordon Thompson, a legendary Worthington city clerk, resides at Maple Lawn home at Fulda. In an interview from 20 years gone by, Gordon remembered it was a tough time for everyone.

“One of the ways I think the farmer had the advantage over the city folk,” Gordon said, “was that in those days most of them had chickens, cows, hogs and everything else, so they got a good deal of their food off the farm. … I think most people in those days had gardens, but generally, the Depression didn’t play any favorites.”

Bill Nystrom, whose family farmed and maintained a large orchard south of Worthington, went on to serve two terms in the Minnesota Legislature as a representative from the Minnesota Farmer Labor party. Bill also was state vice president of the Farmers Union through two decades. In 1933, Bill was one who was called to Washington to tell Congress what was happening in the countryside.

News reports — sheriffs with machine guns — made it apparent the nation could be teetering on armed rebellion.

Bill recalled there was no money for him and other witnesses to get to Washington. “The first fellow we wanted to see was E.O. Olson. He had the creamery there in Worthington … Mr. Olson gave us 25 dollars.

“The next person we went and saw was Mr. [E.F.] Habicht,” of Habicht’s Department Store on 10th Street. Ernest Habicht was bound by a Chamber of Commerce agreement that forbade contributions of this kind but, Bill Nystrom remembered, “He wrote down 10 dollars for us … 10 dollars then meant something.”

The farmer witness set off from Worthington along hundreds of miles of gravel highways in a Model A Ford to testify before Congress. He slept at boarding houses. “When I came back, I appeared one evening before the Chamber of Commerce meeting.”

Everyone — rural Minnesota, all the nation — wondered what the Congress would do, and they wondered what would become of the farms and the towns and the people. It was a time of fear.

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