Communists in the neighborhood?
By Sonja Kosler Staff Writer I believe the communist party will bring us out of our present condition...I vote communist because this party is more for the common people...Communism will not fool us. System of todays government is not much good.....
By Sonja Kosler
I believe the communist party will bring us out of our present condition...I vote communist because this party is more for the common people...Communism will not fool us. System of todays government is not much good...
Those are a few responses in a 1932 voter survey in East Otter Tail County--during the gritty depth of the Great Depression.
With Communism now discredited and obsolete, the comments of those voters seven decades ago seem naive, odd and quaint. During the Red Scare of the 1950s, these same folks may have been wire-tapped by J. Edger Hoover himself.
But in the early 1930s, with economic collapse all around, there was a vocal minority right in East Otter Tail County that believed Communism was a possible solution.
Retired Concordia College professor and researcher Clair O. Haugen told the story of communism in the New York Mills area at a program April 6.
With academic precision, he told about 30 people at the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center about the cultural, social, and economic forces that brought some Finnish immigrants in the area to embrace the communist ideology during the 1920s and 30s.
A grave marker near the gate in West Leaf Lake Finnish Cemetery began Haugen on his quest. The tombstone of Mr. Arthur Leskela who died in 1934 prominently displays the hammer and sickle long associated with the Communist Party. Haugen says it was a difficult task locating accurate, specific information about the communists in the area.
There were communist social halls located near New York Mills, Heinola, Menahga, Leaf Lake, and Sebeka. Haugen points out that even though the red flag was prominently displayed over the door, people often came to the halls for innocent social gatherings.
The communist hall was also a community hall.
At one time newspaper publisher, the late Russell Parta, estimated that 25 percent of the Finns living in the so-called New York Mills triangle of communist halls were communists or sympathizers with the cause. Others report only 10 percent.
Regardless of the numbers, there was indeed an active communist movement in the area. Finnish immigrants came from parts of Finland located near the Russian border and brought their political radicalism with them. The New York Mills triangle communists advocated for limitations on work hours, social security, a regulated free market and other economic and social programs now in place in our daily lives. They were isolated from the soviet brand of international communism.
Many who emigrated to the Soviet Union were very disappointed in the brand of communism they discovered there where people advocated open revolution.
In 1919 a United States Congressional committee singled out New York Mills as THE hotbed of communism in the United States. In 1930 the American Communist Party moved its District 9 United Farmers League headquarters to New York Mills. By 1945 most of the activity had dissipated.
Many audience members shared stories from personal and family history about the communist influence in the area. There is a vast oral history of the movement that is yet to be captured in writing.
The communist social halls are gone, but some reminders of the communist movement still remain. The symbols on Arthur Leskelas tombstone are quiet evidence of stormy times in East Otter Tail County.