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Buried wall recalls tale of high school's burning
Anti-German hysteria, mob action is sad chapter of Central Montana history.

Lewistown News-Argus **
Sunday December 15, 1996
Christmas Edition
by Carol Poppenga and News-Argus staff

(Editors Note: Much of the material in this article came from "Patriots on the Rampage," by Anna Zellick, published in Montana, the Magazine of Western History.)

   In the spring of 1995 crews excavating beneath the first floor condominium unit in the Esplanade (the former Fergus County High School) unearthed something more than rock and dirt.

    They found a bit of history.

    It was a finely crafted sandstone wall.

    The discovered wall was part of the original school building, constructed in several stages  over a period of years beginning in 1904, called the Free Fergus County High School.

    Local historian and life-long Lewistown resident Anna Zellick determined that the discovered wall was part of the unit built between 1913 and 1917.

    As Zellick and many others in Central Montana know, the Free Fergus County High School suffered a pretty tough lesson in human attitudes in 1918.

    On April 30 of that year the school was set ablaze.

    The following is a condensed telling of the events which led up to the burning of the Free Fergus County High School, events spoken to by the wall which emerged from the ground at Esplanade two springs ago.

Investing in their children's education

    In 1899 the Montana Legislature enacted provisions that allowed voters to establish free county high schools.

    Interested in their children's high school education, Fergus County electors tool the opportunity by petitioning for and approving  a proposition creating a free (no cost) county high school course.

    Classes were scheduled and held in locations around town, including the W.H. Culver photography studio.

    In 1902 the High School board decided to purchase an entire city block in Lewistown. Cost was $1,200. The following year, a $28,070 building contract was awarded to T.J. Tubb for a permanent county high school.

    By 1916, what started as a single stone structure had grown to a complex serving 360 students. Administration office, classrooms, library, laboratories, manual and industrial arts, home economics and even a swimming -pool equipped gymnasium (which also served as an assembly room) comprised the complex.

    On April 6, 1917 the United States entered World War I.

    At the same time, the high school board and Principal Frank L. Cummings were involved in the forthcoming $100,000 school bond election.

    The number of high school students in Fergus County was expected to grow by 5,000 within three years. meaning more space was needed at Free Fergus County High School to accommodate 800 to 900 extra students. The bond issue passed.

    Where does the nations involvement in World War I fit into the picture?

    The school was among the public and private institutions cooperating with the newly created Fergus County Council of Defense.

    The Council was an extension of the National and Montana Councils of Defense. Its purpose was to promote the war effort with emphasis on increasing agricultural production.

    The school's involvement was evident as children took part in the Junior Red Cross, organization of war savings societies, thrift stamp sales, books-collection drives, for soldiers, promotion of gardening and agricultural production.

    Also, by March of 1918, three Fergus County High School faculty members and 48 students and graduates had left for military duty. Through actions at home and abroad, then, the school had demonstrated the patriotic zeal of the times.

    Yet within a few weeks, in the early spring of 1918, the school and its administration became targets of hostility.


    The answer in part, was revealed in the origins of Central Montana's people.

A county of immigrants

    Central Montana, at the beginning of this century, had drawn a large number of European immigrants.

    James Fergus and Angus McMillan were both born in Scotland, Frank Anton Yeager in Alsace-Lorraine, Zacharias Tresch in Switzerland, Ed McDonnell in Ireland and Pete Anderson in Norway.

    They were typical of the many who came to make Central Montana their home.

    The dozens of stone craftsmen who helped build Lewistown were also immigrant stock and hailed from Austria-Hungary (present-day Croatia in the former Yugoslavia).

    The number of children and native-born adults of foreign parentage plus the number of foreign born equaled almost 27 percent of the population of Fergus County

    In Central Montana, it was not uncommon then for religious ceremonies to be held in foreign languages. When the United States went to war in April 1917, it was against what was collectively called the Central Powers, including Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria. Some citizens became suspicious of those who spoke in a foreign language, especially German.

    Patriotism became an obsession.

    A letter to a local newspaper  shows the emotionalisn that was developing: "In our city of Lewistown, disloyalty and treachery are stalking hand in hand, seeking whom and by whom and by what means they may devour."

    Other suspicions were mounting in the region as well, developing into fear of potential saboteurs of war production efforts.  The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was one such group.

    During a visit to Lewistown in July 1917, state secretary of the Employers Association John H. McIntosh said that the IWW was comprised of "traitors to this country (who) were going to be a real menace to Fergus County Farmers and businessmen before fall."

        Later that same summer 12 different fires were set in the Great Northern Railroad yardes in Judith Gap, causing about $75,000 in damage. The news fueled suspicions and mounting tensions.

    Then Fergus County residents learned of another organization, reputed to be a partner of the IWW - the Nonpartisan League. (NPL).

    Farmers in the county, however, were willing to pay the $16 membership fee and join the NPL because the organization advocated radical solutions to problems they faced due to the extreme drought that gripped the region.

    Suspicious of the NPL and the IWW and the underlying anti-German fear were reflected in Lewistown's newspapers, the Democrat-News and the Argus.

Loyalty groups formed in the county

    Argus publisher J. A. Gilluly became one of the vice presidents of the Montana Loyalty League organized in 1918. One of its purposes was to "investigate and root out sedition, disloyalty and pro Germanism."

    Responding to the American Defense Society's request that the German-inspired propaganda be sought out and suppressed, Lewistown Mayor L.C. Clark, with the concurrence of the Fergus County Council of Defense, appointed the Lewistown Loyalty Committee.

    The committee was tasked to classify all foreign-born residents of Lewistown as loyal or disloyal.  Findings were to be reported to the "appropriate" local officials.

    The local chamber of commerce was contacted for its support in the task of identifying disloyal statements.

    The chamber endorsed the committee, urging publication of the names of those against the war and advising the committee to "keep after them until they are completely ostracized by their fellowmen, and make it impossible to earn a living in this community."

    By late March 1918 tension and fear reached a boiling point.

    Well-known real estate broker Edward A. Foster reportedly made disloyal statements. He was confronted, not by the Lewistown Loyalty Committee but by an unofficial committe of loyal citizens who judged him guilty of sedition.

    Foster was made to carry the American flag a distance of three city blocks and back. someone in the crowd that gathered to witness the "sentence" being carried out proposed that the high school be cleaned of German text books.

    Little more was needed to encourage the crowd.

High school targeted by the mob

    The school board was already "guilty" of ignoring public sentiment by allowing the continued teaching of first- and -second year German language classes so that students could obtain their credits.

    Reaching the school, the group-now more accurately described as a mob-presented an ultimatum to the principal: "We want the books!"

    The mob refused principal Frank L. Cummings' offer that the books be delivered to city hall later that evening.

    About 500 people encircled the school while a small group went in to retrieve the books. Cummings was them demanded to kiss the American flag and proclaim his loyalty.

    While the books were burned the crowd sang "America" and the "Star Spangled Banner."

    Additional German books were fed to the flames by druggist Horace Phillips. The books had been in his store stock. The Argus reported that Phillips "wanted to show that he didn't want anything of a German flavor about him."

    A lynching almost took place that same day when the mob rounded up "disloyal" George Anderson, Sr. and his son.

    The elder man had refused to buy Liberty Bonds or War Savings Thrift Stamps on religious and conscientious grounds.

    The lynching was averted by Art Baker, who was administering the oaths of allegiance that day.

    Baker convinced the mob that men who, like Anderson, would not help to defend the flag were "unworthy to so much as touch it."

    Although the Argus labeled the days events as a " Big Day in America and the City of Lewistown, " there was some after the fact concern about the illegal actions.

    It resulted in the formation of a county-wide committee of 100 members.

    Its function was to "investigate all reports of disloyalty and sedition, whether direct or indirect, by word or act of intimation on the part of any citizen or alien within the jurisdiction of hte (Committee)."

    During the following month, April 1918, patriotic efforts in Lewistown focused on the Liberty Bond drive. When the drive closed April 23, Fergus county had passed its $241,000 quota by more than 100 percent.

    A week later, on April 30, the enthusiasm was marred - that evening the Fergus County Free High School exploded into flames and burned to the ground.

    Speculations circulated about who set the school fire.

    A local newspaper article suggested a popular theory that pro-Germans were the arsonists, in retaliation for the book burning. But the accepted theory was that the IWW was responsible.

    A $1,000 reward offered by Montana Gob. Samuel V. Stewart for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the arsonist expired with no claimants after six months.

    Now, almost 80 years later, the identity and motives of the guilty party remain unknown. 

Copyright 1998-2006 - Ann Kramlich and Betty Distad - All Rights Reserved

** Consent to post the stories and photos for non commercial use from the Lewistown News Argus was graciously granted by Dave Byerly owner and Publisher. These stories and photos may not be used by any commercial entity for any reason without consent from the  Lewistown News Argus.