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The Convention Riot at Benson Grove, Iowa, in 1876
By Laurence M. Larson (Volume VI: Page 122)

In January, 1851, the legislature of Iowa was debating a proposal to create fifty new counties in the northern and western parts of the state, where only five years before the Potawatomi and various other Indian tribes had been in actual and undisputed possession. It is possible that here and there one might have discovered the home of a white man in this great area, but on the whole the fifty new counties were a vast tract of wild prairie, unoccupied and unsurveyed.

One of these new counties was Winnebago, a rectangular area lying approximately halfway between the eastern and the western boundaries of the state and touching the Minnesota line on the north. In 1851 there was not a single inhabitant in the Winnebago district, and none settled there before 1855, when Thomas Bearse built a log cabin in the wooded country about three-fourths of a mile east of the hills that were to be Forest City. Later in the same year several other homes were erected, nearly all in the broad woodland that covered the southeastern part of the county. More settlers went in during the years that followed. These early pioneers were nearly all native Americans: young, courageous, and enterprising men and women who had traveled in leisurely fashion across the land from homes that might be as far distant as Virginia or Vermont.

In 1856, the second year of settlement, a few Norwegian families found homes in the northeastern part of the county, in what was later to be organized as Norway Township. {1} This was the beginning of an important movement which was, in time, to extend into every part of the county. For ten years, however, Norwegian interest in the section remained of little consequence. In 1860 the census credited Winnebago County with 168 inhabitants; by 1865 thc number had risen, but only to a meager 298. Nearly all those who were counted, moreover, were of native American stock. After the close of the Civil War, however, Norwegian set-tiers began to arrive in steadily growing numbers; the census of 1870 showed a population of 1,562. Americans were still going into the county, but the majority of those who went in during these five years bore Norwegian names.

In the late sixties a colony of Swedes was formed in the woods northeast of the site of Forest City. A few Germans had gone into the county and the Irish were not entirely wanting. These elements were small and feeble, however, compared with the robust Norwegian settlements. At the close of the nineteenth century the population of Winnebago County must have been at least four-fifths Norwegian.

Among the earliest settlers was Robert Clark, who came to Winnebago in 1856. He had strength, ambition, and foresight, and he soon rose to first place in the little pioneer community. Perceiving that the high ground which lay on the edge of the woodland and west of Lime Creek had possibilities as a town site, he secured the land and platted the village of Forest City. When the county was organized in 1857, the new town became the county seat, a distinction which to this day it has retained.

Forest City was and long continued to be the center of the native American strength and influence in the new community. For twenty years the settlement in and about the county seat controlled the public administration. "From the settlement of the county" in 1856 "a majority of the settlers expected to make their living by holding township and county offices, or by hunting, trapping, or trading with the neighbors." {2} It was therefore generally believed, at least among the foreign born, that the native element had organized to control offices and other political patronage in the county. That there was such an organization is quite likely, though it may have been entirely informal. Some of the leading citizens of Forest City were running for office at almost every election, and it is quite safe to assume that, as the body of naturalized citizens grew in numbers, the native Americans tried to close up their ranks and to tighten their grip on public affairs and offices. {3}

It was also generally believed among the new citizens that the county-seat "ring" was a venal concern, one that had developed a wonderful facility in the art of looting the public treasury. That the administration was often extravagant, according to the standards of pioneer life, is clear enough; but intentional dishonesty might be difficult to prove. "Money was scarce and they [the pioneers] used in its stead county, bridge, school house and road orders. Many county and township jobs were let at fabulous prices. The result was that these orders were sold as low as forty cents on the dollar." {4}

Although the court house group was dominated by men of American birth, its membership was not limited exclusively to citizens of native stock. A few Norwegian families had traveled far and rapidly along the road to Americanization and had come to regard their interests as identical with those of their American neighbors. There were also a few young Norwegians who had fought for the flag on southern battlefields, and these men seem to have enjoyed the favor of both elements in the electorate; obviously a Civil War veteran could not be excluded from political tile.

The first Norwegian to run for a county office was N. K. Landru, who was a candidate for recorder (register of deeds) in the election of 1866. Landru was defeated by a small margin, but two years later he was successful and in 1870 he was given a second term. In 1867 his brother, H. K. Landru, a soldier with a good record, was elected sheriff. At the close of his term he was transferred to the newly-established auditor's office, where he served for six years. Peter Lewis (Larson) succeeded to the sheriff's office in 1869; he proved a popular official and was reelected three times. O. T. Severs was chosen county surveyor in 1873, but soon resigned the office; the following year he was elected clerk of the courts.

The first Norwegian to serve on the board of supervisors was Andrew N. Brones, who received the office in 1869. {5} Other early members of the county board were R. O. Haughland and W. O. Hanson, who were chosen in 1871 and 1872, respectively.

Of these men Lewis, Hanson, Severs, and the two Landrus were suspected by their fellow Norwegians of training with the "courthouse ring." They were also known to have become members, or adherents, of Reformed churches; and at a time when the American Norwegians, both learned and lay, were engaged in violent controversy over questions of Lutheran dogma, indifference to the old faith was bound to be resented. An even more disquieting circumstance was the popular belief that most of the "Norwegian Yankees" were members of the Masonic fraternity, the reports of whose mysterious doings filled many a simple-minded soul with horror and fear.

In the sixties and seventies the office of treasurer was regarded as the most desirable in the courthouse. David Secor held it for four years (1864-1867). At the close of his second term it passed to Robert Clark, who held it until his death nearly nine years later. Clark was popular with the Norwegians as well as with his own people. There was no contempt in his attitude toward the foreigners; all voters were alike to him; and consequently he carried successive elections by decisive majorities.

Judge Clark's popularity was founded in large measure on a somewhat doubtful use of the public funds. The county had no bank where such funds could be deposited; but Clark carried on a form of real estate and collection business which in some degree served the purpose of a banking institution. He lent money freely, especially in eases where the applicant was in real need of assistance. It was widely believed that Clark's money-lending business was conducted with the county's money; but very few people saw any valid objection to this. If, on the day of settlement with the county board, the treasurer could produce the funds owing, it was considered nobody's business how the money had been used previously.

In making a loan, Clark regarded native honesty as good security, and it may be that, if he had lived to the end of his term of office, the county would have suffered no great loss through his transactions. On August 12, 1876, however, he died suddenly. The news of his death produced a tremendous sensation. The intimate connection between his own private business and the treasurer's office now became a matter of the gravest concern. The county board was called into session and W. A. Burnap was appointed treasurer until a new official should be chosen.

As the voters looked forward to the November election they began to see clearly that the issue was not so much the financial condition of the county as the fate of the old organization. The indications were that the Norwegians were preparing to seize control at the courthouse. Their strength at the polls was growing at an almost alarming rate, for the courts were very liberal in admitting aliens to the rights of citizenship. Most of the applicants for naturalization had, indeed, to address the judge through an interpreter; but they were gradually becoming familiar with American ways and, what is more important, they were finding leaders of their own racial stock with whom they were able to discuss political affairs in their native language.

After much discussion, in which the candidates for the various offices appear to have participated prominently, it was agreed that the sentiment of the electorate should be tested in a mass convention. A central committee was formed, with C. D. Smith of Lake Mills as chairman. He promptly published a call for a convention to be held at Benson Grove, about six miles north of Forest City, on Saturday, October 2l.

Doubtful though the outlook seemed to be, the native element probably was not without hope of being able to dominate this convention. The alien farmers had not yet become political minded; they knew very little about American institutions and seemed quite indifferent to caucuses and other means for political maneuvering. There was, therefore, some reason to believe that the new voters would not appear in very large numbers at the proposed convention.

If such was the expectation of the native element, they were doomed to disappointment, for almost the entire voting strength of the county went to the meeting. In the issue of the Winnebago Summit for the week following the convention, the editor published the following discreet, though not very enlightening report:

The mass convention of Winnebago County last Saturday proved a failure. We will refrain from enumerating the causes of the defeat. They are well known to every citizen who was there. It will be sufficient to say that over 500 voters were in attendance. It was the largest gathering of the kind ever witnessed in our county. The leading candidates for Treasurer were Messrs. Larson, Peterson, and Smith For Clerk of the Courts, Messrs. Hanson, Isaacs, and Grassly; for Recorder, Law and Halversen; for Supervisor, Johnson, Bushnell, and Wadsworth. {6}

It will be observed that the candidates for clerk of the courts were all Norwegians; but W. O. Hanson was regarded with favor by his neighbors in Forest City; he might even have been considered an organization candidate. It was believed, with some reason, that John Law would defeat C. M. Halvorsen, who had little strength among his own people. Knudt Johnson was expected to lead his two native American opponents in the race for the supervisor's office; as a veteran of the Civil War Johnson had a following in both camps.

The real battle, however, was to be over the office of county treasurer. Two strong Norwegian candidates had come forward and neither showed any disposition to quit the field. It seemed quite likely, therefore, that C. D. Smith, who had many friends among the Norwegians in his part of the county, would secure the nomination.

Fearing that trouble might arise during the balloting, the promoters of the meeting had agreed that only the judges and other officials should be allowed to enter the polling place. The voters had to prepare their ballots in the schoolhouse yard and pass them through one of the windows to the officials in charge. Wishing to learn the outcome, most of the voters remained at Benson Grove until late in the afternoon. As the day advanced, it became evident that Smith would not win; but the name of the victor could not be foretold.

It is generally believed that a "gang" had been formed to break up the convention if it should appear that the Norwegians were getting the upper hand. At all events, there was a gang, composed chiefly of Irishmen and led by the three Bevins brothers, Jim, Frank, and Bill, doughty brawlers who had never been known to refuse a fight. Not far from the schoolhouse a covered wagon had driven up, from the interior of which the members of the gang and no doubt others, too, could obtain what was needed to prepare their spirits for the contest, if there was to be a contest.

The Norwegians had not organized to meet an attack; still, there were those among them who had no objection to joining their opponents in a mild or even a serious fracas. Throughout the day there had been much abusive palaver in which both sides indulged quite freely. Among those on the Norwegian side who talked most valiantly was one Hans Peterson, commonly known as "Kjæftehans," who usually tried to live up to his reputation. At four o'clock Jim Bevins threw a decayed apple at Hans, which struck him in the eye. This was the signal for a general riot. Both sides flew to arms, which in this case meant fence rails and neck yokes. At the same time those who were not inclined to fight hurried to their wagons and started for the open road.

The casualties were many, but only a few were serious. Bloody faces were plentiful and one Irishman suffered a fractured skull. Among those who were driving away during the riot was the Reverend J. M. Dahl, a Lutheran pastor of considerable prominence at the time. A terrified Norseman, who was fleeing from the menace of a fence rail carried in the strong hands of Jim Bevins, sought refuge in the pastor's buggy, which he was sure would be respected. But Jim, who had never stood in great awe of the clergy, struck at the two men and broke the rail over the clergyman's broad back. "Old Dahl just grunted 'Woof' and drove on." {7}

The members of the gang had fighting qualities of no mean order, but their opponents were too numerous and finally drove them from the field. {8} The riot brought disaster to the old organization. Though it is quite unlikely that the leaders of the native element were in any way responsible for the riot, it was easy to credit the rumor that the gang had been hired by the courthouse crowd. A feeling of strong resentment swept over the county and when the Scandinavian farmers went to the polls on November 7, two weeks after the convention, they went with a determination to vote, so far as possible, for men of their own speech and race.

The native Americans at the county seat, realizing that public sentiment was at a high tension, made sure that there would be no riotous performances in Forest City on the day of election. The editor of the Summit reported a very satisfactory poll: "To the credit of Forest City the election on Tuesday passed off very peaceably and pleasantly. There was no liquor sold in town during the whole day. Sobriety and order reigned supreme." {9} William Larson, W. O. Hanson, John Law, and Knudt Johnson were the successful candidates. The vote for treasurer resulted as follows: William Larson, 206; C. D. Smith, 183; and Mikkel Peterson, 158.

William Larson was honest and capable, but he was also something of a "grouch," and his year in the treasurer's office did not add to his political strength. In the election of the following year he was defeated by Mikkel Peterson, his rival of the year before. At the same time Norwegian candidates secured the offices of sheriff and of supervisor; but the auditor and the superintendent of schools, both of whom were native Americans, were reelected to their respective offices. This, however, was entirely in accord with the traditions of Winnebago County politics, which normally allowed a competent official the satisfaction of a second term.

By the two elections of 1876 and 1877 the leaders of the immigrant element had come into almost complete control of the county administration, and the same element has kept this control to the present. For a number of years it was exceedingly difficult for a native American citizen to secure an important county office. The Norwegians showed little interest in the functions of the offices of surveyor and of coroner, and they were willing to leave these positions to native Americans. Frequently, too, the sheriff and the superintendent of schools were chosen from the native citizenship: in the forty years following the election of 1876 three native Americans and three Norwegians served in the capacity of sheriff. The more important administrative offices of auditor, treasurer, recorder, and clerk of the courts, however, were usually given to Norwegians. In the same period of forty years thirty-one men, of whom only four were native Americans, were elected to these positions. The history of the county board tells a similar tale: of twenty-four men elected to the office of supervisor in the years from 1876 to 1916, twenty-one were Norwegians.

Though this record might lead one to draw the conclusion that the political development of Winnebago County has been directed by what may be called "clan sentiment," such is scarcely the case. That, in the seventies, there was such a feeling in both camps, cannot be denied; on that point the writer's own memory is clear and distinct. But, like most emotions, this feeling could not long be kept at white heat; racial antagonism could not long endure the wearing force of daily contact, and soon it disappeared altogether.

Nevertheless, a Norwegian name long was, and perhaps still is an asset in the political business of the county. It is a long time since a non-Norwegian was at any disadvantage in competition for office because of his racial origin; still, in a locality where four-fifths of the population belongs to a definite racial group, one may naturally expect to find that leadership in public affairs has come to remain with that particular group.

Notes

<1> Colburn [Kolbein?] Larson, Henrik Larson, Hans Knudson, and Lewis [Lars?] Nelson are said to have come in 1856. History of Winnebago County and Hancock County, Iowa, a Record of Settlement, Organization, Progress, and Achievement, 1:122 (Chicago, 1917).

<2> David Secor, "Reminiscence," in Winnebago County and Hancock County, 1:212.

<3> In the eleven years from 1867 to 1877, one of these leaders was a candidate at eight elections, seeking the offices of auditor, treasurer, superintendent of schools, and clerk of the courts. He was successful five times.

<4> Secor, in Winnebago County and Hancock County, 1:212.

<5> In 1879 Mr. Brones was elected superintendent of schools and he served in this capacity for six years. The writer is indebted to him for important data used in the preparation of this paper. It may be added that Mr. Brones is one of three brothers who served in the Union army.

<6> Winnebago Summit (Forest City, Iowa), October 26, 1876. The Historical Memorial and Art Department of Iowa at Des Moines has a file of this paper.

<7> J. M. Dahl was an interesting character. At one time he had served on the mission field and he came to be known as "Indi-Dahl." Though not a great preacher, he was very successful in organizing churches; at one time his parish extended into four counties. He was also noted for intelligent farming and for unusual physical strength.

<8> The writer is indebted to O. M. Peterson of Leland, Iowa, for information as to what happened at the convention. Mr. Peterson's father was one of the candidates for the treasurer's office.

<9> Winnebago Summit, November 9, 1876.

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