Thanks for Asking | Apr. 14, 2011
our local jack-of-all-facts tells you how it is
I heard that there was a KKK cross-burning site in Eau Claire. Is that true?
Thanks for asking. Absolutely true. Folks on the recent Eau Claire Senior Center tour with Bruce Gardow got to see the exact spot. But generally, it’s on the north side hill between Sacred Heart Church and Mt. Simon Park. Prime spot, gotta say: visible to downtown and to the heavily Catholic north side.
So that’s interesting all right, but it’s more interesting because it was part of a larger, regional Klan effort. Klan initiations often took place at Lake Hallie, but Bloomer, Osseo, Chetek, Cadott, Cornell, and Chippewa Falls all reported rituals, meetings, or incidents. One example: on Feb. 11, 1924, Mrs. Neil McGilvray of Chippewa reported to the Fire Department that a large cross was burning on the East Hill (again, a Catholic neighborhood).
Wisconsin’s flirtation with the KKK was short-lived, but nonetheless scary at the time. Between 1922 and 1924, membership grew to more 40,000. Chippewa County alone had 1,300 enrolled.
In other areas of the U.S., Klansmen targeted Jews and Blacks. But in 1920, only 75 Blacks lived among 157,000 other residents in the six counties at the heart of the Chippewa Valley. So, while Jews were indeed harassed in this area, the Klan concentrated its efforts on immigrants and Catholics. Cornell’s German-born priest Peter Minwegen was both.
“At the time of my arrival,” Minwegen wrote in his memoir, “I had been finger-printed like the rest of the Fathers and was obliged to report to the Postmaster for identification. ... My weakness was that I was still technically an alien enemy. I might be a German spy.”
The KKK arrived in Cornell in 1924 and quickly organized. The Klan announced it would initiate new members at an Independence Day celebration. While the ceremonies were in progress, Father Minwegen jotted down license plates. Later he went store-to-store, confronting Cornell businessmen about whether they had attended the rally. All denied it, but the priest’s visit spread fear of a Catholic boycott.
Soon after, Klan members burned a cross on a lot opposite Minwegen’s home. He learned that the school district had an option on the land, but that the option had just expired. For $50, Minwegen bought the option, and from that day forward, the church owned the property. Cornell’s Holy Cross Church still stands on that spot today.
Beyond the good Father Minwegen, a real local hero, we have other Catholics to thank for mounting a strong resistance here. Two examples from Chippewa County: Chippewa’s Catholic County Clerk James Harris refused to let the KKK use the courthouse for a speech by a Klan organizer who wound up speaking on the courthouse lawn. Chippewa Falls Catholic police chief John Flaherty ordered a Texas-based Klan organizer out of the city – and he required the twenty-some carloads of Klansmen following along to remove their hoods as they drove down Bridge Street. Now ... I’m not entirely comfortable with the First Amendment implications ... but, you know, what’s done is done. And also, Na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey-hey-hey, goodbye.
Additions and corrections department: After reading my last column, an astute reader mentioned two more Chippewa River dams, both above the Chippewa Flowage (where the Mighty Chip is two mini chips): one’s on the East Fork at the Snaptail Rapids, between Blaisdell Lake and Hunter Lake, and the other’s on the West Fork impounding Moose Lake. So that makes 10.
Got a local question? Send it (17 S. Barstow St.) or email it (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Frank will answer it! Frank has lived in Eau Claire for most of the past 43 years. He is an editor and researcher at the Chippewa Valley Museum, which is open all year just beyond the Paul Bunyan Camp Museum in beautiful Carson Park. You should go there.