History in Focus: The demise of the fiery cross
During the summer of 1924, the influence of the Ku Klux Klan quickly spread through Northwest Colorado based on its ideas of pure Americanism, law and order, and prejudice toward immigrants and Catholics (see The Fiery Cross in the Craig Press of July 12, 2019). While specializing in displays of intimidation and power, the Klan aimed to control the state government in the November election.
In “Hooded Empire: The KKK in Colorado,” Robert A. Goldberg details the Klan’s shrewd and quick rise to power throughout the state. In July 1924 insurgent Klansmen infiltrated precinct meetings in a bid to elect delegates to the state conventions of both parties. By September, realizing its strength was in the Republican party, the Klan took advantage of lax primary laws allowing citizens to vote in party primaries regardless of political affiliation. Democrat Klansmen migrated over to the Republican primary and with this surge of votes the Republican ticket was overtaken by the hooded empire. In the Yampa Valley, the Klan controlled the Routt and Moffat County Republican party (71-78).
Through the summer and fall, the Klan was the central issue of the upcoming election. Protestant churches were divided over the Klan’s attempt to narrowly define and appropriate Christianity. During his Sunday sermon, Steamboat Springs Methodist minister, Reverend M.T. Habgood declared, “the acts and beliefs of that organization (KKK) were contrary to the laws of the land and the commandments of God.” (Routt County Sentinel, 8/29/1924).
Meanwhile, Reverend S.M. Roberts of Oak Creek argued, “right would triumph over the murderous efforts of politicians and other public men SUCH AS NEWSPAPER EDITORS, WHO FEAR THE POPE, more than they fear God and their country, and that America would be preserved for Americans.”
In a scathing editorial, Charles Morning, a Routt County Judge of 19 years, claimed the Klan was responsible for his defeat in the Republican primary. Of 200 registered Democrats in the Hayden precinct, only 32 voted in their primary. Following the orders of Klan leaders, the rest voted in the Republican primary for Klan-endorsed candidates, thus hijacking the primary (Craig Empire, Oct. 8, 1924).
Even Moffat County Democrat candidate for state assembly Edwin “Big Ed” Johnson — later governor in the 1930s — felt compelled to publish a statement in the Craig Empire declaring, “I favor the separation of church and state, and for the same reasons the separation of the Klan and state” (Oct. 8).
Aided by a booming economy and the popularity of President Calvin Coolidge, the Republicans swept into state power by winning the governorship and a slew of state offices (Goldberg p.81-82). However, Moffat County Democrats (non-Klan candidates) fared well in the local election, including “Big Ed” Johnson, indicating a chink in the armor of their state-wide victory (Craig Empire, 11/5/24). The Klan had reached the summit of its power, but its crude ideas and inability to govern led to a quick downfall..
In April 1925, a “People’s Party” emerged during the Craig municipal elections “running on a platform of strictly nonpartisan and visible government” as a challenge to any Klan-supported Democrat or Republican (Craig Empire, 4/1/1925).
On April 8, the Craig Empire jubilantly headlined, “Peoples Party Swamps Klansmen.” Above all issues, “Party lines were absolutely obliterated early in the campaign and the Klan became the outstanding issue of the fight.”
In celebration, an impromptu parade led by the city’s fire truck loaded down with cheering men meandered through Craig ending with a “monster bonfire” in front of the armory, now the Museum of Northwest Colorado. Finally, the party moved up the street to the Good Eats Cafe with live music by the Harmony Kings and went on until well after midnight.
As Craig celebrated, Klansmen simmered in anger. A few days later, on Good Friday no less, they detonated two sticks of dynamite that “rocked all of the houses in town” and brought attention to a huge burning cross on the Sand Rocks (Craig Empire, 4/15/25). But this fiery cross signaled the beginning of the end.
In January 1926, with dwindling membership the local Klan klavern quit meeting at the Odd Fellow hall and retreated to a small venue near Cedar Mountain (Craig Empire, 1/20/26). Soon after, the kindling of highly emotional and bigoted ideas burned out on the Klan’s cheap imitation crosses, and Craig moved forward after a complicated and dark chapter in its early history.