Communities, like people, often have chapters in their past that they prefer to bury and forget. So when Verlaine Stoner McDonald was growing up in Sheridan County in Montana's furthest northeast corner, she never learned about a Communist movement that swept through her home region during the 1920s and early 1930s. In school they never taught her that at one time outspoken Reds were elected to virtually every public office in the county. She never heard of a local Communist youth group called the Young Pioneers. Indeed, for a short time, tiny rural Sheridan County was a major focal point for America's fledgling Communist Party.
McDonald is now a college professor in Kentucky. The chance discovery of a faded newspaper with a headline reading, "Vote Communist Tuesday, Nov. 8," spurred her interest and eventually led her to write a detailed history of her home county's radical past.
In seeking the origins of rural unrest in northern Montana, the author discovered several likely causes. During Montana's homestead boom, scores of Scandinavian immigrants populated the area. In their home countries many had participated in active Socialist parties. Once they began farming on the prairie, they found an active Grange and later Populist movement that sympathized with and spurred their discontent over high railroad rates, high interest rates, low wheat prices and exploitation by eastern wealth.
McDonald also takes note of Montana's home-grown radical tradition led by the Western Federation of Miners and the Industrial Workers of the World. These, however, were largely urban, labor movements and did not push the leftward turn in Sheridan County nearly as much as local economic conditions. In the years following World War I the price of wheat plummeted and drought plagued Montana's dry land farmers. The resulting discontent led to the rise of the Socialist-leaning Nonpartisan League that spilled into Montana from North Dakota.
The Nonpartisan League sent Charles E. Taylor to Plentywood to establish a newspaper. Much of McDonald's narrative is the story of the flamboyant, charismatic Taylor and the newspaper he founded, the Producers News. Taylor, a lifelong Socialist, had spent very little of his life on a farm. He regarded Plentywood as a "godforsaken little hole." Still he somehow quickly established a rapport with Sheridan County's rural population. Locals who knew him later described him as "charming," "brilliant," and "a real character." A local historian later summarized that within months of his arrival there arose "a Taylor legend, an almost superstitious faith in his capacities. Even his enemies swore he could solve any problem, out argue any man." Taylor's own self-promoting writings in the Producers News spurred this growth of a personality cult.
Local voters eagerly responded to Taylor's message of class warfare between Montana's farmers and eastern moneyed interests. Nonpartisan League Socialists gained election to virtually every county office. Taylor himself won a seat in the Montana Legislature.
With Taylor leading the charge, most of Sheridan County's agrarian radicals abandoned the Nonpartisan League in favor of the avowedly Communist Farmer-Labor Party. With the open support of the American Communist Party, Taylor became the group's national chair. The story made the front page of the New York Times and gave northeastern Montana a measure of nationwide attention. McDonald does a nice job of relating what was happening with the Communist Party at the national level to events in northeastern Montana.
As the long drought continued, farmers re-elected Communist candidates in Sheridan County in 1924 and 1926. But, as McDonald points out, even at its height, the Red movement in northeastern Montana began sowing seeds of its rapid demise. As he rose to celebrity, Taylor's business and political interests kept him out of the state most of the time. Meanwhile, the Producers News began featuring more articles reprinted from the national Communist organ, the Daily Worker. Without Taylor at the helm the paper lost its rapport with local farmers - the very people whose interests it claimed to represent.
Rumors spread of Communist sheriff Rodney Salisbury's ties to bootleggers and the owner of the local brothel. Salisbury also carried on a long-running affair and fathered three children with a local woman who was already married to another man. Then, shortly after the 1926 election, armed robbers struck the county courthouse making off with more than $100,000 in payroll funds. Although the culprits were never caught, many, including Plentywood's rival newspaper editor, suspected that had been an "inside job" led by Salisbury.
Such wild charges often filled the pages of rural newspapers of the era, and McDonald's narrative is sprinkled with examples. Of one of his chief rivals, Taylor once wrote, "This traitor to every confidence reposed in him is defunct of honor, defunct of manhood, defunct of honesty, and is defunct of a country." Such colorful language could never appear in print in today's era of lawyers and libel suits.
The book lists a variety of causes for Communism's rapid decline in Sheridan County. Rains in the late 1920s brought a measure of prosperity and dampened the radicals' appeal. Then, beginning in 1928, Republicans and Democrats did something that would be unheard of today. They joined forces to nominate candidates who defeated the
Farmer Labor Party incumbents.
In 1931, Taylor converted the Producers News into the official national newspaper of the Communist United Farmers League. This decision, according to McDonald, "sealed the fate of the radical movement in northeastern Montana." The national party sent a new editor to Plentywood. He was a native of New York City who neither knew nor cared about the interests of northern Montana's farmers. Editorials railing against a "capitalistic master class" exploiting "toiling masses" fell on deaf ears.
Eventually, once the programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal brought further relief to Sheridan County (The WPA even built a new courthouse in Plentywood) the Communists faded into insignificance.
Understandably, throughout the Cold War years, Sheridan County's residents endeavored to keep their radical past hidden. McDonald notes that for decades the FBI monitored the activities of several of the region's former Reds. Not until the fall of the Soviet Union did the county's residents begin to recover the fascinating events of its short-lived Communist era. McDonald's well-documented narrative could well represent a culmination of that recovery process.
Today residents are not particularly proud of what occurred in that bygone era. But they are no longer so ashamed that they seek to hide it from their schoolchildren.
Don Spritzer is a historian and a former research librarian for the Missoula Public Library. His book reviews appear periodically in the Missoulian.