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The Inside Agitators

Members of Farmers' Holiday on strike.
Members of Farmers' Holiday on strike.

Nevertheless, while the attack on Judge Bradley was undoubtedly inspired by outside agitators, of whom "Mother Bloor" was one of the more distinguished Communists, all of those who were caught and tried in the subsequent military occupation were residents of Plymouth county or nearby territory. Many of them were bona fide farmers.*

It was tough the morning after, hard on those who'd grabbed Judge Bradley from his court, threatened to hang him, put him in the back of a truck and took off out of town like a boar on loan. Truth be told, they'd treated him as if he were himself the cause of all their financial problems; they'd put a hubcap on his head like a helmet, jerked down his trou, tied a rope around his neck, let him know they were about to hang him.

But Judge Charles C. Bradley, in the dirt at the side of a country road, would not budge from his commitment to law and order, wouldn't do what the mob demanded, wouldn’t swear never again to carry out one more blasted farm foreclosure like the one in Primgahr they'd just witnessed. Too many good men, they claimed, too many fine farm families were being tossed off their land when it became impossible for them to keep up with payments because--as the whole world needed to know--a man couldn't make a living on corn that wasn't worth a dime, and milk any good farmer might just as well dump as bring to market. How’s a man supposed to pay what he owes when there's no money anywhere? That judge in his holy courtroom in LeMars, they told each other, he’s just the enemy we need.

And that's how it was that the rioters were there that afternoon, April 27, 1933. They were juiced up with righteous anger because ordinary, hard-working farmers couldn't prosper when they barely could live. They went to Le Mars to find the damned judge, grabbed him right out of his court and did everything but hang him, their anger somehow melted, perhaps by time slipping by, and just perhaps by a brace of good sense when Judge Bradley, given the chance, prayed for justice for all people. Somehow they regained their senses, reined in their anger and didn't string Judge Bradley up as they'd promised.

The anger didn't subside. It would take some time--years!--for handsome prices to return. But you can’t help but think that the next day some felt shame. As the quote from Judge Bradley’s obituary says, it was easy to blame outside agitators, the commies bringing about no good by lighting fires that could burn down the whole county. It was "outside agitators" that turned decent farmers into thugs, church men into killers. It was outside agitators that brought grief to the county.

But it turns out that when the marauders were identified by the Plymouth County sheriff, they were all locals. There wasn't a commie among them. “Many of them were bona fide farmers,” that obituary says.

Not only that, along with some prison sentences, there was some regret, some embarrassment, some shame.

It's just so much easier to count on others when it comes to shame and regret. Life is easier with "outside agitators." It's so much easier to pin the blame on outsiders.

In 1933, right here in Siouxland proper, not all that far down the road, incensed farmers grabbed a judge right out of his courtroom, drove him out into the country, hung a rope around his neck, slipped that rope over a telephone pole, and then, blessedly couldn't do it. Amazing.

Lord knows their anger had cause. Lord knows good people lost their way of life from economics far out of their control, problems with no solutions they could make whole.

It would take a decade and another world war for economic misery on the farm to disappear.

But the grand idea of blaming "outside agitators" for our problems wouldn't disappear and likely never will.

It's just too much a part of how we make our way.



Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.