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Lambert: The REAL Story about Plainfield's Ku Klux Klan History

Yes, there were huge Klan rallies here in the 1920s, but -- with KKK chapters across the country -- such events were held in small towns all over the Midwest.

A Paved Road, A Small Town, An Unshakable Legacy

Along with gasoline stations, diners and other amenities, the also brought notoriety to our community when one of the largest Midwest gatherings of the Ku Klux Klan found its way to Plainfield's doorstep.

The Inquiry

Following a previous column, several readers questioned the contrast between and the pervasive stories of Plainfield’s association with the Ku Klux Klan in the 20th century. Others have wondered about the facts behind the stories of a widely reported Klan gathering at Plainfield in June 1922.

The Facts

News reports revisiting the large the Ku Klux Klan meeting in continue to promote many misconceptions about our once-rural community. 

The sordid tale of the 1922 Klan gathering is routinely revived by the press with almost gleeful sensationalism. The modern-day accounts seldom explain the national temperament of America in the days of those second-era Klan rallies. Without any context or perspective, the stories present an inaccurate portrayal of Plainfield in that time.  

The 1920s Klan gatherings—more than one took place in Plainfield—were indicative of the convergence of three things: evolving moral ideologies, the establishment of a local Catholic parish, and the development of the Lincoln Highway through the region. 

The Plainfield Klan rallies were typical of the public gatherings the Klan organized across America from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Changing Times and Viewpoints

Although the first era of the Ku Klux Klan developed after the close of the Civil War, that fraternal-turned-terrorist group disbanded by 1880. It would re-emerge after a series of events at the dawn of the 20th century.

Three popular novels written by Thomas Dixon between 1902 and 1907 reintroduced the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan to a new generation of Americans. Dixon's novels romanticized the Klan and presented his view that racial equality would result in the destruction of civilized society.

Following the publication of Dixon’s novels, the 1915 silent movie The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith set the stage for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. The epic film—filled with stereotypical portrayals—reinforced many prejudicial ideologies as it attracted audiences in countless theatres across America. 

The new era of the Klan was organized on Thanksgiving Eve 1915. Established in Atlanta, the Klan developed under the leadership of William Joseph Simmons, a suspended Methodist minister. 

Klan activities were a reaction against modernism in all its forms. At the time, Americans were facing many challenges to their traditionally Protestant, Anglo-Saxon ideals. Increasing numbers of Eastern European immigrants, many of whom were Catholic or Jewish, along with many Catholic French-Canadians, were entering the United States.

Many of those immigrants arrived with foreign religious traditions and a willingness to work at wages lower than those being paid to many native-born Americans. Simultaneously, many southern blacks were moving north seeking work. Labor unions were organizing and threatening the traditional workplace with perceived undertones of socialism and communism.  

A 1923 public lecture in New England galvanized many Americans when Klan supporters claimed Catholics and Jews were taking over city governments, police forces and school faculties.  

In addition to ethnic and religious challenges, working- and middle-class Americans were assaulted by a changing view of “modern-era” morality that included flappers (young women who rejected conventional decorum and fashion) and lots of alcohol consumption.

Despite the Klan’s opposition to modernism, the technological advances of the era provided the vehicle for the Klan’s grip on the nation. The increasing popularity of radios in the 1920s helped spread the Klan message over the airwaves. Automobiles and hard-surfaced roads allowed members to move easily from one locale to another and spread the message.

Unintentional Allies

Incorporating Bible reading, hymn singing and prayer into their rituals, the early 20th century Klan promoted a public agenda of high moral standards, Protestant Christian values and the prohibition of alcoholic beverages, which appealed to many middle- and working-class Americans. 

Consequently, the Klan often found sympathetic supporters in local chapters of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who fought against the ravages caused by alcohol consumption. 

Similarly, many well-intentioned and ill-informed Protestant ministers endorsed the Klan’s public proclamations of moral living. And some of those ministers who extended the “hand of brotherhood to all” from the pulpit were, secretly, members of local Klan chapters.

It was not uncommon for Klansmen, garbed in ceremonial robes, to publicly deliver flower bouquets to school teachers or present monetary donations to churches and other community organizations. The Klan would often befriend black congregations, providing donations towards their building and Sunday school funds.

It was a false friendship, as one historian observed, because the goal of the Klan was to “first intimidate the Catholics, then the blacks.”

Exerting their political power, the Klan’s influence won numerous elections for city and school officials, state legislators, governors, and congressmen throughout the 1920s. The influence of the Klan in the early 20th century was so pervasive that even U. S. President Warren G. Harding (1920-1923) was linked to the organization, although those reports are disputed and inconclusive.

At the height of its popularity, Klan membership was estimated at between 3 million and 6 million nationally.    

Midwest Stronghold

As early as 1910, a Ku Klux Klan chapter was organized at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The sanctioned university organization started appearing in The Illio, the university yearbook, in 1916 and included a list of members’ names. The “social fraternity” remained in existence until at least 1925.

After a local Klan chapter was organized in 1921 at Evansville, Ind., the state became the Klan's largest stronghold north of the Ohio River. From Indiana, the Klan’s influence spread throughout the Midwest. Indiana's Klan leader was David Curtis Stephenson, a Texan who had worked as a printer's apprentice in Oklahoma before becoming a salesman in Indiana. 

W.J. Simmons, the Klan’s founder, was replaced in November 1922 by Hiram Wesley Evans, who quickly structured several loosely organized chapters across Indiana and Illinois. Stephenson was granted control of the Klan chapters of Indiana and given permission to organize in 20 other states—including Illinois.

Stephenson parlayed the role into a powerful and lucrative position. He quickly became a millionaire from the sale of robes, hoods and other Klan paraphernalia as well as by increasing membership.

That same year, several sizable Klan gatherings were organized across America, including one in Gainesville, Fla., and several in Indiana.

On July 4, 1923, under Stephenson’s direction, the largest Klan rally in America was held in Kokomo, Ind., where an estimated 200,000 Klansman arrived by automobile, bus and train from locations throughout Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and points beyond.

The movement spread to the Northeast and the Great Plains states within a short time. Before long, the Klan boasted a membership that stretched from coast-to-coast.

Organized in April 1924, the Issaquah, Wash., Klan chapter hosted a June 26, 1924, community festival complete with a brass band, plays presented by school children, carnival amusements and food vendors entwined with speeches about Americanism and morality. 

In September of that same year, a Klan rally with 10,000 participants convened in Hamilton Township, N.J., and attracted Klansmen from 11 states. Within a month, on Oct. 19, 1924, a crowd of 15,000 gathered at Worcester, Mass. In August of the following year, about 45,000 Klan members marched on Washington, D.C., as a demonstration of their political clout.

Many local chapters of the Klan established public offices, often located on the main street of a community.

Across America, public Klan gatherings—both small and large—were organized with increasing frequency. To prevent Klan gatherings, some communities passed ordinances that limited the Klan’s ability to gather, march or sponsor community festivals. When the elected officials at Bellingham, Wash., refused to allow the Klan to participate in the city’s Tulip Festival parade on May 15, 1926, the Klan was forced to hold their rally the following day.

Plainfield in the Cross Hairs

As World War I drew to a close in 1918, several recent graduates of Plainfield High School devised a plan to establish a local Ku Klux Klan chapter. Two factors motivated the young men. 

First, the local Catholic mission church had evolved into a full parish. Before the congregation had become self-supporting, Joliet priests traveled by streetcar each Sunday to conduct services in Plainfield.

Between 1909 and 1916, the local Catholic congregation purchased the former Universalist church building, which was enlarged and remodeled. The local congregation erected a rectory and purchased land for a cemetery. The Rev. Henry Epstein was installed as the first resident priest of St. Mary's Church before the rectory was completed.

A secondary factor, although considered less threatening, was the semi-regular institution of “Negro Nights,” which provided an increasingly popular entertainment venue for African-Americans in Electric Park.

The small band of local Klansmen was disregarded by a larger number of Plainfield’s young men. Many local residents of rural Plainfield ignored the group, which was dismissed as “foolishness” and a poor use of the limited free time afforded young farm boys who were burdened with many chores.

Yet, the young marauders rode on horseback around the community as they attempted to intimidate local Catholic families and black visitors to Electric Park. While park management apparently prevented any disturbances, the local police force, which consisted of fewer than five men, seemed less able to prevent any large gathering—by Klansmen or others.

At first, local Klansmen traveled from Plainfield to other nearby communities by streetcar. Later, automobiles provided the local group easier and more secretive access to area Klan chapters.

The Lincoln Highway Connection

In 1920, the population of Plainfield numbered 1,150 residents, with Plainfield Township contributing another 750 residents. Surrounding townships added as many as 1,500 more residents to the general Plainfield area, which—at best—may have numbered at total of 3,400 men, women and children.

Amazed by the appearance of 125 automobiles that started travelling the Lincoln Highway daily, local businessmen and the small police force were generally unprepared for any large crowds in the generally sedate community. 

By 1922, Lincoln Highway was partially paved and the route through Plainfield became . After years of promoting the route to hundreds of tourists, the road opened the floodgate for an event that will live in infamy.

Plainfield Overrun

At about 4 on the afternoon of Saturday, June 3, 1922, the residents of Plainfield noted a steady stream of automobiles converging on their sleepy town. As far away as Morris, cars packed with anxious men sought directions to Plainfield.

Nearly 8,500 automobiles streamed into town until the early hours of Sunday morning. Automobiles bearing identification from Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa mingled with those from every corner of Illinois. It was reported that the vehicles, parked side-by-side in long rows, equated to 57 miles in length.

For hours, automobiles streamed up the lane to Fraser’s Woods, where robed Klansmen stood guard and allowed entry to only those who divulged a secret password. As the crowd grew to an estimated 50,000 attendees, hot dog stands, soft drink vendors, cigar stands and every sort of “circus refreshment” sprung up, seemingly out of nowhere. 

The rally, organized primarily by the Indiana leadership of the Klan, swelled Plainfield to nearly 50 times its normal population. Reportedly, the Klan’s founder and national leader, W.J. Simmons, was among the assembled followers. The gathering involved local Klan chapters from “every Illinois city north of Springfield” and was reported to be the largest Klan meeting of its kind up to that time.

Reporters from Plainfield, Joliet and other news organizations were invited to the event but were segregated to a confined area from which they could observe the gathering. They reported that the first few hours of the gathering revolved around socializing and consuming “crates of ham sandwiches.” 

But at around 11:30 p.m., the gathered men donned robes and hoods and began their ceremonies promptly at midnight. The rites—which culminated in the induction of nearly 3,000 candidates and the burning of an enormous cross—concluded just before dawn on June 4, 1922. Cars were still leaving Fraser’s Woods at 7 in the morning.

News accounts of the event noted that “for the first time in its history, according to old residents, Plainfield was an ‘all-night’ town. Motorists passing through the village at 5 o’clock (Sunday) morning found grocery stores, restaurants and garages open and doing business. Not a drop of gasoline or oil remained in the pumps of Plainfield garage tanks. All ham, cheese and similar picnic commodities were gone from the shelves of grocery stores. Plainfield had no more food or automobile supplies for sale.

The Aftermath

Following the 1922 gathering, local advocates of the Ku Klux Klan continued to meet and recruit members through acts of community charity and dispensing of Klan literature.

In March 1923, seven robed Klansmen interrupted the guest speaker at a public meeting of 200 men and women at Plainfield’s Social Center. Without a word (for fear of being identified by their voices), the Klansmen presented a letter to the moderator of the meeting, the Rev. George. F. Courrier, minister of the local Methodist church. Unruffled, Courrier read the letter, which included a donation of $100 to the social center. 

A few weeks later, the local chapter, which embraced all of Will County, was granted its charter and known as the Fort Beggs Chapter. Activities in the county, which had been organized by the Indiana Klan leadership, were turned over to the local chapter.

Also, in 1923, robed Klansmen presented teachers of the local schools with flowers in gratitude of the school’s policy of opening each day with The Lord’s Prayer and closing the day with the pledge to the American flag. Within a short time, a presentation of $25 was made to the local Evangelical church for a new rug for their Sunday School rooms.

In 1924, the Fort Beggs Chapter organized a community festival with entertainment, lectures and a carnival, complete with refreshments provided to the attendees without additional charge. Although nearly 9,000 tickets had been sold in advance, more than 10,000 people traveled from near and far to the Electric Park racetrack, where a class of 200 candidates was initiated. Once again, the town swelled to nearly 10 times its regular population.

According to some old-time residents, one final Klan rally was held deep within the strip mines that are now Lake Renwick. By some accounts, the 1925 gathering was smaller, numbering around 10,000 attendees. However, no press record seems to exist of the 1925 gathering.

Demise of the Second Era

As in Ray Bradbury’s famous 1962 novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes, the scenes of Klan gatherings in Plainfield in the early 1920s were carnival-like spectacles of good and evil … spectacles that played across the United States with unimaginable frequency, primarily in small towns with good accessibility and minimal police interference. 

After 1925, incidents of alcohol consumption, mistresses, rape and misappropriation of chapter funds among regional and national Klan leaders surfaced with increasing frequency. The corruption and immorality among the Klan leadership alienated many local chapter members.

Simultaneously, Klan organizers altered their policies regulating the payment of salaries for chapter leaders so that pay was fixed and no longer based on a commission from membership fees of newly recruited and continuing members. 

As increasingly violent activities of many Klan chapters were widely reported by the press in the late 1920s, interest in the Klan and its divisive ideals began to fade. As the Great Depression unfolded and some of the predicted outcomes did not come to pass, fewer and fewer Americans supported the Klan and its activities. 

By 1940, the once powerful organization had been reduced to fewer than 45,000 members nationwide. Many once-ardent supporters destroyed their paraphernalia associated with the organization. The Klan officially disbanded in 1944, when the federal government demanded payment of more than $600,000 in back taxes.

Next Week: Air Mail, Radios and Square Dancing: The Legacy of a Threatened Site

Have a question about Plainfield’s history? Send your inquiries to Michael Lambert via Plainfield Patch by emailing karen@patch.com.

John Weiffenbach May 03, 2012 at 02:35 PM
Perhapes the next installment should talk about Plainfield's stop participation in the underground railroad?
Tim May 03, 2012 at 04:31 PM
Mr. Lambert, I usually enjoy your stories. They normally include a very detailed look at the history of the area. However, I notice there is no mention of the burning of black families homes in the 1980s in Plainfield. Or of the black postmaster that was assigned to the plainfield post office in the 1990s that continuously received threats against her life. Plainfield still has an ugly underside, that is deliberately kept out of public view. Pretending it does not still exist, and that it is just an over-hyped relic of the past, is dangerous.
Miguel Sanchez May 03, 2012 at 05:27 PM
How do your recollections relate to the history of the KKK in Plainfield?
Mark May 03, 2012 at 05:32 PM
I too am saddened that the 80's and 90's were not mentioned. The FBI was involved in the Postmaster’s issue. Com'on Michael finish the story!
Tim May 03, 2012 at 06:36 PM
Because those recollections, are of the activities perpetrated by the KKK in Plainfield in much more recent history than what is mentioned in this article. Just because the organization itself was formally dissolved, doesn't mean the members in the area suddenly stopped holding the beliefs that they do.
swibman May 03, 2012 at 07:10 PM
does anybody know where in plainfield the meetings took place?
Michael Lambert May 03, 2012 at 07:44 PM
Readers, I ended the column at the end of the "second-era" of the Klan for three reasons, neither of them ulterior. The "second era" ended in the early 1940s; however, the Klan continues in what is termed the "third era" which began in the late 1940s that is tied directly to the civil rights movement. The second reason for ending the story at this point is that this story follows the same outline of taking a story from our past to a natural conclusion. As I said in my preface, this article came out of specific inquiries about the June 1922 rally and the changing perception of social attitudes between Plainfield residents of the 19th and early 20th centuries. That is the story I wrote. The third era is a much different story; I regret that some of you feel that I did not tell the "whole story." Personally, I am not under any false impression nor do I pretend that hatred in any form is a "relic of the past." Thirdly, I am grateful for Karen's editorial decision to run the column in its entirety (more than double of my regular column run) rather than serialize it. I appreciate your comments. Please know taht I try to write my columns based on requests and, thanks to many loyal readers, I have a terrific backlog of requests. As I continue to write, I will add the "third era" to my list of topics and inquiries. Be patient: Rome was not built in a day and its history wasn't written in a year!
Michael Lambert May 03, 2012 at 07:45 PM
I have addressed many aspects of the local Abolitionist movement and will be highlighting those efforts, again, in an upcoming column.
C Hayes May 03, 2012 at 09:07 PM
As was said in the article, the site was @ Fraser's Woods, which was located at the end of Fraser's Rd where River Rd meets it. If you were to go South on River Rd and keep going down the private road past where you would turn east onto Fraser Rd- you would find Fraser's Woods.
swibman May 04, 2012 at 02:18 AM
whats in fraser woods now?
Jim W May 05, 2012 at 11:42 PM
Trees.
Emily June 28, 2012 at 04:55 PM
Wasn't there an inter-racial couple who lived on (or near) 126 close to Indian Trial Junior high whose home was burned down in 1985 or 1986? I was in school at the time and remember it but can find no information about it. I recall the KKK taking responsibilty.
Dwight September 21, 2012 at 10:57 PM
Good job trying to "whitewash" Plainfield's history. Here's a link to that more recent racism from the 90's that got mentioned: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1992-10-20/news/9204040936_1_incidents-post-office-ku-klux-klan Plainfield has no choice to change, but you can't get past racism by denying it. You have to own it and and confront it. Pulling a blanket over your head and saying, "that was only in the past, we're past that now" will only allow the present day more subtle racism to go unchecked. Racism is just more careful now, not in the open. Plainfield must constantly keep checking for the parasites of racism on its soft-white underbelly.
Tim September 21, 2012 at 11:06 PM
Yes, Emily, there was. The was also a black couple in Plainfield Township, about 1/2 mile away from the location this story is written about, whose house was the target of multiple firebombs, and burning crosses in the front lawn. This was in 1988. Mr. Lambert is giving a dangerous impression that this is something that is in the 'distant past' for Plainfield. He has claimed this would be addressed in a follow up article. It has been almost 6 months now. Instead, we got to read about the history of the ice cream sundae 'dispute'. If I wanted to read stories written at a 6th grade level, I would read the newspaper.

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