Business and Labor

The Ku Klux Klan Fights the Battle of Greenville, Maine

In 1924, dozens of Ku Klux Klan members paraded through the tiny logging town of Greenville, Maine, to bully some outsiders into leaving.

The outsiders refused to go. Instead, more than a hundred of their friends from the nearby logging camps descended on the town, and held their own march – all night long, in freezing weather.

The outsiders came to Greenville to organize the loggers into a union so they could improve their miserable working conditions. They were members of the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies. The Wobblies had led the successful Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Mass., 12 years earlier, and now they were taking on the lumber barons.

The KKK didn’t like unions any more than it liked French-Canadians. They were more than happy to help the logging companies intimidate the Wobblies and any French Canadian logger thinking about joining a union.

The Ku Klux Klan

The Ku Klux Klan grew explosively in 1924, after all but vanishing in Maine at the start of the 1920s. But a charlatan with a gift for public speaking moved to Maine to revive the Hooded Order.

Eugene Farnsworth had worked as a Salvation Army recruiter, a barber and a traveling magician – until an accident on stage killed his assistant. Not until 1923 did he find his true calling as the state’s King Kleagle.

That year, Farnsworth went on a speaking tour that drew thousands of enthusiastic listeners. His message of hate toward Catholics and foreigners appealed to Maine Yankees.  Protestant ministers often joined Farnsworth on the podium to denounce the French-Canadian and Irish immigrants who worked in the textile mills and logging camps.

Farnsworth met with stunning success. In his first year he built the state’s Klan membership to 23,000. They marched in broad daylight wearing their white robes, and burned crosses at night. They even set off a bomb in the heavily French-Canadian city of Lewiston.

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The Ku Klux Klan near the Canadian border, 1927

Maine, in fact, had the biggest KKK chapter outside the South in the 1920s. By 1925, more than 100,000 Mainers belonged to the bedsheet nightriders.

Maine’s Lumber Camps

The Klan, however, didn’t object when Yankee lumber barons brought French Canadians to work for them as near-slaves.

To harvest Maine’s great forests, the lumbermen needed tens of thousands of workers in their logging camps, sawmills and paper mills. They needed them to cut the trees, to build mills and camps and to drive the logs down Maine’s rivers.

The work in the logging camps required men to spend the long winter in the northern Maine woods. It was hard, dangerous and often deadly.

To find men willing to work under those conditions, lumber companies had to import foreigners. Employment agents found them in Boston, Bangor and Lewiston and tricked them into working in the woods. The camps, they said, were just a few miles from town where they could enjoy themselves during their time off.

The agents would drive the immigrants a short distance into the woods and drop them off. The workers sometimes had to walk 60 or 70 miles to the camp. Or they'd have to borrow money to hire a wagon to get there.

Peonage, Maine Style

Once at the camps, they didn’t leave until spring. They lived in primitive bunkhouses and bought necessities at the company store, usually at wildly inflated prices. Many couldn't quit because of their debts to their employer. Sometimes they didn’t have the strength or the stamina to do the work, but that didn’t matter.

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Winter in a logging camp, 1895

For an entire decade, they were virtual slaves. Maine lawmakers, pressured by the lumber barons, passed a law in 1907 that put loggers in jail if they quit their jobs. Before the Legislature repealed the law 10 years later, 342 men went to jail for walking away from the camps.

In 1911, the U.S. Immigration Commission reported on debt peonage in America. "Since the evils of involuntary servitude have been largely stamped out in the southern States, there has probably existed in Maine the most complete system of peonage in the entire country."

Then in 1920, the Wobblies came to organize the mostly French-Canadian loggers into a union.

The Battle of Greenville

The Ku Klux Klan apparently didn’t want to kick out all of Maine’s Roman Catholics. Instead of confronting the lumber barons who brought French Canadians to the state, the KKK supported them.

Things came to a head between the KKK and the Wobblies during a cold winter weekend in Greenville, a small town on the shores of Moosehead Lake.

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Bucolic Greenville, Maine.

Bob Pease, a Finn who headed the IWW in Maine, and two other Wobblies had moved into a boardinghouse in the town. From there they started to recruit loggers in the camps. Greenville’s selectmen ordered them to leave. They refused, saying they’d done nothing wrong.

A Portland Press-Herald reporter asked Pease why they stayed. “Because we want good wages, eight hours a day in the lumber camps and clean linen in our bunks,” he said. “The day of the old logging camp and the lumberjacks is about over with.”

One Saturday night in freezing weather, 40 members of the KKK came to Bob Pease’s boardinghouse and told him to leave. He called the county sheriff, who sent a deputy to protect them through the night.

On Sunday and Monday, some 175 members of the IWW streamed out of the logging camps to show solidarity for the organizers. Neither the boardinghouses nor the YMCA would put them up. Instead they marched up and down the streets all night long.

“We are going to stick,” said Pease, “and if the Klan starts anything, the IWW will finish it.”  He called the Great Northern Paper Company “slave drivers,” but said the Wobblies were too strong for them.

The lumber interests had brought in the KKK, said Pease. And he pointed out most of their employees were the very people the Ku Klux Klan despised – French-Canadian Catholics.

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The Wobblies wanted to organize all workers into one union.

A Whimper

In the end there was no violence, no trouble. Most of the Wobblies returned to the lumber camps, and the Klan melted away.

The lumber companies found other ways to squeeze out the Wobblies. They refused to hire anyone who’d joined the IWW. And the YMCA and the local merchants discriminated against them.

In response, Pease and the other Wobblies organized a boycott against four Greenville establishments.

For that, a grand jury in Bangor charged them with conspiracy.

On the day of their trial, 37 Wobblies came to the courtroom, only to find the court rescheduled.

Pease and the others received sentences of one to two years in jail. The Wobblies’ organizing collapsed.

But so did the Klan.

In 1926, the Klan membership fell by half. By the next year it had little more than 3,000 members. By 1930, fewer than 300.

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