A simple white robe in his mother’s discard pile led Chuck Rambow to unearth a wealth of information about the Ku Klux Klan in the Black Hills, and Meade County in particular.
Rambow said his mother nonchalantly told him that he could use the robe to make cleaning rags, but Rambow realized just what kind of robe it was and peppered his mother with questions about its origin.
She revealed that her parents both were members of the KKK in the early 1920s in Meade County.
“We always considered them to be upstanding citizens,” Rambow said of his grandparents. “When I found out that my grandpa and grandma were members, I wanted to know what motivated them.”
His grandfather, who was Irish Protestant, had a keen dislike for Catholics and knew that KKK members shared his sentiments, Rambow said.
“My grandpa told his three girls that they would never marry a Catholic or a Democrat,” he said.
Rambow said the KKK opposed Roman Catholicism because they feared Catholic involvement in politics.
Rambow's research was compiled for a graduate-level course he took with David Miller in the 1970s at Black Hills State University. He has also shared the information at history conferences over the years.
The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan made their appearance in South Dakota by July 1921, Rambow said. The principle Klan salesmen appeared to have been from the Indiana Klavern and began to gain support in the southeastern corner of the state around Canton and Beresford initially.
By 1925, the Klan blanketed the entire state with Klaverns in virtually every major town. The Black Hills area was entered as early as 1922 and the Klan found a ready following among many who felt that Roman Catholicism was truly a national threat.
In Sturgis and Lead, the fear of Catholic control was particularly strong. Lead had an active and aggressive parochial school in operation, while Sturgis had the parochial school through the 12th grade and also an academy retreat for the training of nuns.
So, it was reported that crosses were burned in at least two locations in Sturgis, Sly Hill and Glover Hill, with regularity in a direct visual line with Saint Martin’s Academy.
Rambow said the crosses, which measured from 12 to 25-feet tall, were wrapped in oil soaked gunnysacks then burned. Just prior to the firing, the members of the Klan would set off dynamite charges to garner the attention in the community.
Klan members also opposed bootlegging, prostitution, and many other vices that had come into the Black Hills with the discovery of gold.
Rambow tells of one occasion when a lady of ill repute from Rapid City was told to leave town. He said she laughed at and mocked the supposedly righteous leaders of the Pennington County Klan. She was then whisked off the street one September evening and taken to Farmingdale where she was stripped and bathed in tar and feathers. Needless to say, she hurriedly left the Rapid City area on the next train.
Marcus, a small community just east of Sturgis, was a hot spot of Klan activity throughout the 1922 to 1928 period. On one occasion, while a dance was in progress, attended by many Catholics and it was said a few bootleggers, a cross was fired on a little hill just southeast of Marcus directly above the dance hall.
A cry went up from the Catholics, “they’re burning our cross, they’re burning our cross,” and many staunch Catholics rushed to put the fires out.
Rambow said not many days later, a circle was wrapped in gunny sacks and fired against the black of the sky upon the same spot that the crosses had been burned, in obvious retaliation for the Klan activity.
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The usual tactic of Klan entrance into a community was to have professional organizers individually contact the local Protestant ministry to find out what was worrying a community and offer the Klan as a solution.
But, in Sturgis, the local ministerial association had already made their peace with the Catholics. Father Columban Breganzer, the popular and respected rector of Saint Martin’s Academy since 1903, worked closely with the Presbyterian minister, C.C. Erskine, and several others of prominence in the community, some who were active Klansmen, to keep the lid on the religious tension and to keep a bad situation from getting worse.
Rambow said at one point in 1924, the Sturgis KKK had a membership of 186. Meetings were held in the oversized loft of a barn on Davenport Street. The loft actually was at ground level and there were stalls below.
“I showed the picture to George Hill at one point and he said his parents and other folks rented stalls in the basement of the barn,” he said.
The Klan also knew it needed to encourage the next generation of Klansmen, so they supported KKK fraternities at both Spearfish Normal School (now Black Hills State University), and at South Dakota School of Mines, Rambow said.
“The local fraternity of the KKK at Spearfish Normal had been formed earlier and by 1925 had gained a substantial membership,” he said.
E.C. Woodburn, an ordained minister and then president of the normal school, held chapel at 10 a.m. every day. It is said that at one of these sessions he delivered a provocative sermon against the Ku Klux Klan. A number of young men of the fraternity took exception to his comments, went out one night to Woodburn’s garage, borrowed gasoline from his own car, and set a flaming cross in his front yard. Only the fast thinking on the part of the neighbors kept his house from burning. Rambow said that Woodburn delivered no more anti-Klan speeches, at least not in public.
According to several old-timers the area Klonklaves sponsored by the KKK were also filled with excitement and a feeling of adventure. One well-attended gathering was held at Sturgis in August of 1924. The affair was liberally advertised with large arrows and K.I.G.Y. (Klansmen I Greet You) signs painted on every bridge and signpost from the Minnesota border to Sturgis.
Another large Klonklave was held in Belle Fourche over the Fourth of July in 1925 at which lengthy parade celebrated the success of the Black Hills area Klan. The event was attended by almost 5,000 Klansmen and women representing at least 43 states.
The Klan, which had run its course in the Black Hills area in about five years, from 1922 to 1927, seemed to have run out of relevant or significant issues by 1927.
And Klansmen, who assumed their identities were sheltered, were revealed by their own carelessness.
“In 1926, the Klan had a nighttime parade with torches. Well, everyone in town knew everyone’s horse, so they knew who was in the parade,” Rambow said. “They also knew a man’s shoes, so word spread through Sturgis who the Klansmen were. They started boycotting the businesses of those they knew were in the Klan.”
The extinction of the local Klans can also be attributed to the fact that the KKK just plain scared many people, Rambow said.
As Klan strength declined, the North and South Dakota organizations were merged with the Minnesota Klavern. The Tri-State Realm was perpetuated for a time after 1927 by the inevitable die-hards, but by the middle 1930s the north central Klan was dead, Rambow said.
Today there is little evidence in the Black Hills area of the existence of the local Klaverns except for a few crosses carved on several local hillsides and the memories of many old-timers of the area, he said.
The chances of such an organization gaining any strength in the locality in the future seem very remote, Rambow said.
“Locally, the general feeling is a sigh of relief that the outbreak of violence that may have occurred in the 1920s did not happen and that today we are well rid of those chauvinistic vigilantes of the Invisible Empire, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.”