History in Focus: The fiery cross
In the stormy late night hours of May 30, 1924, residents of Craig were startled to discover a large cross burning brightly on the Sand Rocks above Craig. Throughout the summer this spectacle was repeated throughout northwest Colorado and announced the arrival of the Ku Klux Klan in the Yampa Valley.
By the early 1920s America was in the throes of rapid change. Decades of industrialization and immigration, World War I, Bolshevism, evolution, Prohibition accompanied by bootleggers and organized crime, changing moral values, and the fading energy of the Progressive Era created social, political, and economic tension.
Seizing an opportunity, the Klan reinvented itself to fit the 1920s. In an excellent history, “Hooded Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado,” Robert A. Goldberg explains how the KKK expanded its umbrella of prejudice to Jews, Catholics, and immigrants. It also morphed Christian moral values into demands for law and order and “one hundred percent Americanism.” Finally, hooded uniforms and secret rituals created a chummy fraternal camaraderie. All combined, the Klan deceptively offered at least a sliver of attractiveness to a wide range of otherwise peaceful citizens. And it worked!
The Klan arrived in Denver in 1921 and quickly grew in numbers and influence. By 1923, the Klan controlled Denver politics and was a force in Canon City, Grand Junction and several other cities. As it spread, its flexible and inviting program easily adapted to individual communities.
Soon, the Invisible Empire was snaking its way into the Yampa Valley. Hayden was concerned about Catholic influence in public schools. Milner, Oak Creek, and Yampa were struggling with bootleggers, prostitutes, and gambling, along with a large immigrant miner population (Goldberg, 155).
Moffat County was enjoying its first real boom with the discovery of petroleum. However, the hard-edged drillers brought drinking, prostitution, and gambling. In 1920, Saint Michael’s Catholic Church was established, creating a visible presence to one of the Klan’s favorite targets.
In May 1924, Bishop Bridewell of the Pillar of Fire Church in Denver arrived in Steamboat Springs to speak and start a local klavern. In late August, a regional KKK picnic was held at the C.E. Hadley ranch four miles west of Steamboat where the state’s Grand Dragon, John Galen Locke, spoke and fired up a reported 2,500 Moffat and Routt County Klan members and their families.
In Craig, on Sunday night August 17, the KKK held “services” in a vacant lot on Victory Way. The Craig Courier reported roughly 1,500 spectators gathered as a large cross was lifted into position, ignited, and “sent its gleaming scarlet message across the shadowy faces… delivering the warning of the Fiery Cross.” On cue, roughly 125 hooded klansmen and women’s auxiliary silently and ominously marched from downtown to claim their reserved front-row seats.
After a short prayer and a hymn, Dr. S.M. Roberts, a Methodist minister from Oak Creek, spoke about incompetent officials and lax law enforcement, protection of the purity of American womanhood, and to a burst of applause he stated, “The klan does not intend to allow a pope sitting in Rome to dictate the politics of the United States.”
Finally, he argued Jews excluded themselves from the Klan “for no one may belong to the Klan who does not acknowledge Jesus Christ…”
Soon, the hooded progressives went into action. On June 18 the Craig Empire and Courier reported 100 hooded members of the KKK took over an evening service at the Congregational Church. Rev. Yandell Bean’s sermon confirmed the “principles of the klan were founded in the Bible and in line with the teachings of Jesus Christ.”
More forcefully, the Klan targeted illegal gambling and drinking. Just before 12 A.M. on Tuesday August 26, Deputy District Attorney F.D. Guinn and Sheriff Tom Blevins, along with eight deputized Routt County Klansmen raided Daughtery’s Pool Hall and arrested suspected gamblers. In the Craig Courier Guinn openly stated, “The raid was planned and executed by Mr. Blevins and myself, with the help of the Klan.”
Tom Daugherty argued he was innocent and decried the raid: “I suppose it’s the KKK and the preachers who are back of the raid and plan to close me out. I have been persecuted ever since I came to Craig.”
In September, A. A. Evans and Curtis Chapman, owners of the Victory Theater, were tried and acquitted of illegally showing moving pictures on Sundays. Clearly, local elected officials were being influenced by an extra-legal force operating outside the boundaries of established government.
Most tragically, Korean Y.N. Kang, long-time resident, chef, and owner of Kang’s Cafe was invited by so-called friends for an afternoon country drive and drinking on Friday the 13th. A cynical headline in the June 18 Craig Empire titled “Jinx gets Kang” says he was assaulted, thrown out of the car, and found on the north end of town. While jailed for public drunkenness, his cafe was foreclosed on by Lindsey Wright (Steamboat Pilot, July 23). Kang fled to Meeker, and it appears no one was tried for the assault.
As the Klan gathered momentum, its real goal was control of local political parties in preparation for the 1925 municipal elections. But the angry energy of the Klan soon met with resistance and resulted in a sudden and complete collapse, which will be the focus of next month….