4th in a 5-part series

The difficulty one encounters in recreating the days of Ku Klux Klan dominance in Indiana during the 1920s is that all the adults who witnessed or took part in those events are gone.

The reason that obstacle doesn't hamper an examination of Kewanna's KKK history is due to Wade Bussert, who as a Kewanna High School senior in 1975 became interested in the subject. He interviewed nine local people with memories of the Klan days, two of them being former members, and produced a paper for his English class taught by Doris Hill (who gave him an A).

Wade's family, the Barnetts, helped settle Kewanna in 1837 and has been there ever since. I first read his Klan report in "Fulton County Folks, Volume II," published by Fulton County Historical Society in 1981. Recently he graciously shared with me some of the research he produced 24 years ago that gives a more personal look at this distant phenomenon.

Kewanna's Klansmen were part of the larger Fulton County chapter and participated in some of its activities, but also pursued its own agenda at home where Catholics were a major object of their displeasure.

Why this was so can't be adequately addressed here. By the 1920s the Catholic church had been a respected part of southwestern Fulton County for many years. St. Ann's Catholic Church first located in 1860 north of Grass Creek. It had been on the Kewanna scene for only a few years, however, moving into its present church building in 1919, four years before the Klan's outbreak. Some of the group may have resented these new churchgoers in their presence.

The Klan was persistently obvious around Kewanna from 1923-25, until Grand Dragon D. C. Stephenson was carted off to state prison as a convicted murderer and the order lost all semblance of respectability. Only once, however, did the Klan shock the community.

That came one evening while Father Michael Shea, the priest at St. Ann's, was speaking at Kewanna High School's baccalaureate ceremony. The Klan crept up behind the school, set off a stick of dynamite and burned a cross, venting its objection to the priest's appearance. To his everlasting credit, it was said, Father Shea did not acknowledge the explosion of bigotry in any manner, continuing his remarks without interruption.

The Klan met regularly at The Grove, a stand of trees at the corner of East and Park streets on the south edge of town. Bussert for a time possessed a copy of the Klan's secret membership list and showed it to those he interviewed. It contained 577 names, only six less than were on the similar list that surfaced in Rochester about this time. Not all the names were from Kewanna, then a town of perhaps 700 people, but also from Rochester, other county towns and Pulaski and Cass counties.

Kewanna Klansmen paraded regularly down Main Street and often burned crosses at the Pennsylvania Railroad depot on the east edge of town. Except for the dynamite explosion, no violence was remembered by any of Bussert's informants.

One of the latter was Herb Washburn and he had vivid memories of those days because his father, Dr. John Washburn, the town's family physician with an office on Main Street, was a vehement opponent of the Klan.

Dr. Washburn got possession of the Klan membership list somehow, had it printed himself and distributed copies to lift the veil of secrecy so zealously guarded by all Klan organizations. He once put a sign in his office window taunting Klansmen: "When the roll is called up yonder will my name be on it?" The next day another sign was pasted on the window from the Klan. It read: "We'll be there; 100 percent strong." Herb said his father was threatened with violence on a few occasions. "It bothered him not at all," recalled the son.

For Bussert, Washburn remembered many Klan threats against opponents, but could recall no action as a result. The Klan generated a lot of ill feeling among citizens on both sides, he admitted, and he particularly resented its call for removing Catholic teachers from the schools. "That was silly. We had lots of such teachers and they were good ones."

Otherwise, Herb had a rather light-hearted attitude about the Klan. One of its members was a friend who told him the night of a parade that he would drop his torch when he passed so Herb would know him. It happened just that way, causing Herb to shout out: "Well, if I had a face like yours I'd wear a mask all the time."

Margaret Brennan, a Catholic interviewed by Bussert, confirmed the incident involving Father Shea and recalled that church members in town "were uneasy about the Klan's attitudes toward them but never were afraid of being attacked or killed or anything like that." Her father John, she said, spent time traveling the countryside advising farmers "not to listen to such trash as the Klan was telling."

It is reassuring to learn of those who courageously opposed the Klan in Fulton County, such as Dr. Washburn and John Brennan. Its most implacable foe, however, was Harold Van Trump of Rochester. His inspiring story will conclude my venture into this suppressed, shameful period of local history.

Published Dec. 7, 1999