1934 Nebraska labor riot shares common threads with current labor battles

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May 9, 2011 - 7:00pm

The big metal historical marker on the lawn of the Sherman County Courthouse reads: "The Loup City Riot, 1934." For long time residents, the common reaction to that sign from first time visitors is predictable "A riot in Loup City? Really?"

Perhaps it might be more accurate to call what happened that day a "brawl." Strikers from the local dairy, their supporters from a radical farm group and a number of men sent in to keep the peace' ended up in a fist fight on the courthouse lawn. No buildings were torched and it only last ten or 15 minutes. It earned the title riot both because the event had deep roots in a political cause of the time and because some of the participants... at least those identified as outside radicals were charged with inciting a riot.


Items on display at the Sherman County Historical Society

The historical marker that the State of Nebraska installed to commemorate the event begins the story: "During the Depression low farm prices, accompanied by dust storms and drought, created unrest among farmers and workers in Sherman County and across Nebraska. The Farm Holiday movement, which encouraged farmers to withhold agricultural products from the market, was active. Representatives of left-wing political groups arrived to promote their own programs for economic recovery."

Local amateur historian Dennis Welty points out that those economic tensions were even a little worse in central Nebraska in the 1930's. "Sherman County was one of the poorer counties in the state," Welty pointed out. "The farmers were having a lot of problems; a lot of farm foreclosures in the area. Although the New Deal programs that President Franklin Roosevelt initiated were starting to have an impact, Welty says the circumstances were still dire. "the farmer's didn't have a lot of the government support that they do now, so it was very tough on the farmers then."

Economic conditions fostered a radical movement in Middle America: The Farm Holiday Movement. History professor William Rowley wrote in the magazine Nebraska History , "the Holiday urged farmers to withhold their products from the market until prices rose to a fair level." Members of the movement set up picket lines in Sioux City, Des Moines and Omaha blocking other farmers from delivering their goods. The picketing, according to Rowley, "inevitably led to widespread violence outside these cities and created a general uproar in the corn belt."

This was also a time when working conditions in a lot of factories and businesses were, to put it mildly, difficult. The Ravenna Creamery was the largest employer in Loup City. In additional to dairy products there was a separate poultry operation. Workers mostly women were hired to pluck chickens after the birds had been scalded in boiling water. According to Welty, "a lot of the women worked who allegedly had low wages and poor working conditions."

A fading, hand-typed flyer on display at the Sherman County Historical Society announces a strike of the Creamery workers and lays out demands. The workers wanted their shifts limited to an eight hour day, with overtime paid for additional hours. They demanded clean rest rooms and said the company should not force them to handled diseased birds.

The factory workers demands found a sympathetic ear with farmers. "They were trying to improve their economic status," explained Welty. "Both laborers and farmers I think were suffering financially and that was something that brought them together."

Both groups were also recruited by organizers from the East Coast representing the American Communist Party. That did not sit well with local business leaders and it put the two newspapers in Loup City on a collision course. The moderate Sherman County Times raised concerns that local protesters "were turning to outsiders" and "making a mistake when importing law breakers and ex-convicts to lead them."

The other paper, the People's Standard, attacked President Roosevelt's New Deal programs; describing them as "poison" that "lulled some farmers to sleep" in order to keep citizens from organizing protests. Dennis Welty argues that the local newspapers "fanned the flames and it created hostility between the factions."

The tension was real when word spread that there would be a rally supporting the chicken pluckers at the Courthouse on Flag Day. According to Burt Sell, "the chicken pickers went out and had a meeting with the Farm Holiday and they were out there in full force." Sell was an organizer for the Farm Holiday movement in Nebraska and recalled that day in an oral history interview conducted in 1962. He had enough of a reputation, as Sell tells it that the Sheriff told him "if I showed up in Sherman County that day, it wouldn't be healthy for me." Sell went to the courthouse rally anyway.


Click here for clippings from a Loup City newspaper.

Among the hundreds of people of gathered on the courthouse lawn were a combination of farmers brought in by truck from neighboring counties and curious local folks. The big name speaker and main attraction was, as described by William Rowley in his article "the notorious Communist agitator and "grand old lady" of the American Communist party, seventy-two year-old Mother' Ella Reeve Bloor." Bloor had moved to Nebraska from New York City to advocate her brand of socialism in farm country.

The editor of the more conservative newspaper in town and a group of local business leaders, already fearful of the Communist outside agitators, had promoted the creation of a group of vigilante's to help the Sheriff keep the peace. In the days leading up to the courthouse rally up to 40 extra men had been deputized. The deputies were some of the younger men who were well equipped to fight" according to Dennis Welty. "Maybe some of them had reputations to be good fighters so they had selected people who could handle themselves if things broke out."

The organizers of the rally felt the fears over Mother Bloor's oratory were overblown. "She was not a violent speaker. She spoke the truth," according to Burt Sell's son Orville in his own oral history interview. Orville was also an active supporter of the Farm Holiday movement, and went to the rally that day. "She was a socialist. Which she had a right to be. She never advocated any trouble, in fact she advocated against trouble."

The Sheriff said deputies were there to keep the peace. Others felt they were there to pick a fight. Both sides came armed some with nightsticks filled with lead weights some with socks stuffed with bar soap.

One of the speakers was handed a note signed by "a group of respectable Loup City citizens" saying it was time to break up the rally. From the crowd, according to William Rowley's account, someone shouted "Hey rube" which was thought to be a signal to start clearing out the crowd. As Rowley writes what followed was "a ten-minute flurry of fists and blackjacks. Afterwards each group blamed the other for starting the brawl.

How the fighting broke out and who started it remains as hazy as that summer day, but the man who bore the brunt of the deputies fury was farm protestor Burt Sell. He remembered it this way: "This little fella smashed me one in the mouth then the next thing that happened was some fella standing behind me hit me with a rubber hose filled with shot. Well neither one of them put them down, but it put me in a condition where it wasn't easy to get me down, and I started fighting. Well they broke my jaw and I got quite a dent there from it and I about swallowed my teeth."

The more conservative newspaper ran the headline ""Loup unhealthy for agitators" over an article that boasted of a victory over the Communist outsiders: "Red blooded citizens in Sherman County displayed their loyalty to the stars and stripes last Thursday when they drove red invaders who came here looking for trouble out of Loup City."

Dennis Welty doesn't think it was quite that clear cut. "Were the outsiders trying to defend themselves, or were they the ones that actually initiated it. I don't know, my impression is they were more or less trying to defend themselves, you know... it depends on who you talk to."

Burt Sell not only ended up in the hospital with a broken leg, he was put on trial for inciting a riot along with Mother Bloor and five other protesters. A jury found them guilty and put them in jail. The trial got national attention.

At the Sherman County Historical Society, looking over a scrapbook full of clippings about the riot, Dennis Welty thinks there's something to reflect on coming out of that 15 minute courthouse brawl. "The lesson I take away from all this. Don't pay too much attention to the extremes of reporting. Look at the issues not the attacks on people, I guess."

The radical farm movement of the Great Depression never did gain much additional traction. For Loup City, that little riot may not have changed history, but every Flag Day some people can't help but think about how quickly heated political rhetoric got way out of hand.



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