The Roaring 20s

The 1920s was an era unto itself, so much that it was the first decade to be given a nickname.  They called it “The Jazz Age”, or better known as “The Roaring 20s”, and roaring it was.  The world was on the brink of change.  Automobiles, electricity, moving pictures, jukeboxes, and airplanes—marvels of the modern age brought about a new mindset in the American public.  The world was now a much faster, much louder, and more bombastic place than it had ever been before.  It was as if the old world, the world as it had been for centuries, was over—ended at the conclusion of The Great War, and to follow was a much newer, much shinier modern world, one that called for a victory party.  In America, however, the victory party ceased to end and wouldn’t do so until the decade to follow.

It’s an ironic twist that the decade of decadence was ushered in under perhaps America’s most controversial act of the 20th century—the Volstead Act, a move by the United States that enforced the prohibition and sale of alcoholic beverages.  The effects were disastrous.  A faction of the general public was unwilling to give up their right to drink.  The result was a rise in bootlegging and organized crime.  Across America, the manufacturing and sale of illegal liquor surged.  It was served in the backrooms and basements of underground establishments called speakeasies—accessible with secret passwords.  They started as small, simple backrooms where one could buy a drink, but later evolved into bigger, hidden establishments complete with music, women, and alcohol of all sorts.

With the prohibition of alcohol, it seemed the average American was now a lawbreaker, a social change that ushered in an era of being care-free and having looser morals.  To the horror of moral crusaders, it appeared that women, too, were now taking part in the ills of society.  Prior to the 1920s, drinking establishments were considered “off-limits” to women.  Those who did occupy bars and saloons were considered a lower class of females.  The social change of the 1920s, however, resulted in a surge of young women visiting speakeasies.

To accent the newer and faster lifestyle of the 20s, drastic changes were being made to women’s fashion.  Bobbed, or shortened hairstyles were all the rage, yet it wasn’t just the hair that was shortened, dresses, too, became shorter, looser fitting, and much “louder” as they were adorned with beads and tassels.

With the emergence of speakeasies, and a high demand for illegal liquor, organized crime syndicates grew throughout the era.  The high number of criminal organizations, all vying for territory in the sale of illegal alcohol, turned several large American cities into violent battlegrounds.  Crime bosses like Al Capone of Chicago, or Johnny “The Fox” Torrio, charitable yet vicious men, became iconic figures of the crime world.  They, with the likes of bank robbers like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, created a culture of crime in America with law enforcement struggling to keep pace.

The 1920s also saw a new era in America’s favorite pastime—the game of baseball was changing as well, and in a way that echoed the changes in the decade.  For years, baseball was stuck in a “dead ball era”, a style of play that favored low scoring games and pitching.  The 1920s saw a new icon on the diamond, however, and he embodied everything that made the 1920s “roaring”.  George Herman Ruth, known by his fans as “Babe” Ruth, brought a heavy hitting style of play that turned the game into a homerun slugfest.  The game was now much bigger, and more bombastic.  To accentuate his style of play, Babe Ruth was boisterous, flamboyant, and did everything in excess.  In sports and popular culture, he became the embodiment of the decade.

There’s no denying that the 1920s were a decade of change.  It was a decade to usher in the modern world, demonstrated greatly by the passing of the 19th amendment.  Passed by Congress on June 4, 1919 and put into effect on August 18, 1920—the 19th amendment gave women the right to vote in America.  It was a milestone that was decades in the making, one that required a long and difficult struggle to achieve.

America was a nation on the rise during the decade.  Not only was the social sphere of the nation advancing, but also was technology and industrialization.  Due to a rapid rise in the nation’s wealth, mass production and mass consumerism was changing the face of the nation.  Suddenly, department stores, catalogues, and chain stores began popping up around the country, making it possible for the same items to be sold coast to coast.  The result was mass culture, people able to purchase the same items coast to coast.  For the first time in history, America was a consumer society.

As the decade wore on, each year became more “roaring” than the last.  Like all parties, however, the end had to come.  On October 29, 1929, the roaring 20s came to a crashing halt—the day known as Black Tuesday when the stock market collapsed, and the era of the Great Depression began.  In the years to follow, several Americans found themselves on the brink of poverty, working and striving to survive in a harsh economy.  It was a decade that saw the rise of fascism in Europe and a massive drought that kicked up dust storms nationwide.  Much like its predecessor, the decade too earned a nickname, the “Dirty Thirties”.

Though the roaring 20s were over, the era impacted American history like few others did.  Today, we look back on the time and remember it for the events that made it known as the Roaring 20s, a decade that was decadent to say the least.

I hope you enjoyed the story, but also, I hope you join the McLeod County Historical Society in ringing in the dawn of a new “Roaring 20s”.  On Thursday, December 12 at the Crow River Golf Club, the MCHS will be holding its first ever Roaring 20s Gala.  There will be drinks, fine dining (sirloin steak or almond encrusted chicken breast), games of chance, live jazz music, silent and live auction, and the comedic stylings of Dan Bublitz Jr.  Call the Historical Society (320)587-2109, or e-mail to register you and a guest for this special evening.  Reservations are $50 per person and must be made prior to the event.  RSVP by Friday, December 5th.  This event is a fundraiser for the MCHS and is being sponsored by New Era Financial of Hutchinson, MN.

Then and Now Photo Series

July 17th, 2019, The Hutchinson Center for the Arts and McLeod County Historical Society will be hosting a photo exhibit at the Center for the Arts building in Hutchinson.  The photos are a side by side comparison, old and new, of street scenes from each of McLeod County’s nine communities.  To accompany the photos are booklets that tell the history of the communities. The reception begins at 5pm and runs until 7pm.

A Real Frontiersman

With bullets cutting through the air, and whizzing over his head, Albert H. DeLong ran for his life.  The Indians were attacking, firing bullets that ripped at the ground in front of his path, bullets that sent dirt and rocks flying through the air, yet he and the rest of the scouts of the Ninth Minnesota proceeded up Kelley’s Bluff, intending to take what high ground was available to fend off the attack and make way for the rest of the Ninth.  As he reached cover on the bluff, and gazed down into the tree line, he heard the bloodcurdling war whoops of the attackers charging out of the woods.  Greatly outnumbered, he and the rest of the scouts could only watch in terror as they prepared themselves for what might have been their last day on earth.

Albert H. Delong was born on April 12, 1842, in St. Lawrence County, NY.  At the age of seven years, he and his parents became part of the westward expansion.  It was 1849, the year of the westward 49er.  While a great number of people were heading to California, however, the Delong family set their sights on Wisconsin in the North Country.  For ten years they stayed put; then in 1859, they again headed west, this time heading for Minnesota.

There could be no better place for a young man of seventeen to live.  Minnesota abounded with northern wilderness.  The hardwood groves, vast prairies, wild game, and a Native American presence made the young state a mecca for boyish adventurers, and Delong quickly took advantage.  In the communities of Green Leaf, Cedar Lake, and Hutchinson, the young man gained a reputation as a hunter and trapper, and befriended a well-known Mdewakanton Chief named Little Crow.  In addition to all this, he paid for a claim in Ellsworth Township and leased a flour mill at the outlet of Cedar Lake.

Albert DeLong was twenty years of age in 1862, and like many in Minnesota, was skeptical at first news of trouble with the Dakota Indians in 1862.  In fact, he ignored a warning given to him by a friend known as Charley Minnetonka.  He later remarked how Minnetonka had always worn civilian clothing, but on the day of his warning, was wearing a bright red robe and acted strangely when he warned Albert of a “Big fight coming”.  He finally realized the truth behind Minnetonka’s warning on August 18, when he learned that five settlers were killed in Acton by four Dakota men from the Rice Creek band.

Because of his knowledge of the countryside and of Little Crow, DeLong was made a scout for the Ninth Minnesota, a Union regiment of local volunteers and new recruits created to defend the region from warring bands of Dakota.  The regiment reported to Glencoe on August 31 and was given orders to march to patrol Forest City, Acton, and Hutchinson.  September found them camped in the front yard of an abandoned farm near Kelley’s Bluff.

It wasn’t long before the camp realized they were in the midst of a large force of Dakota under the leadership of Little Crow.  It was decided that the encampment should break camp under cover of darkness and retreat from the area before they were ambushed.  They were late, however, and it was dawn before the Ninth was ready to push out of the area.

DeLong and some other men were scouting ahead of the Ninth.  They followed a trail that left the woods and went onto the prairie.  While heading up Kelley’s Bluff, DeLong and the other scouts spotted rifles glistening in the sun below, meaning Little Crow and his men were waiting to ambush them.  In mere moments, a yell came from the wood line and the Indians charged, waving blankets and firing muskets at the scouts ahead of the main force.  While DeLong and the scouts ran for cover, twenty men from the Ninth charged Little Crow’s force to allow the rest time to climb the bluff.  Once the entire force was in position, it was debated whether to entrench themselves on Kelley’s Bluff, or try and retreat toward the stockade in Hutchinson.  Before the decision to retreat was made, DeLong had stolen away from the battle, snuck through Dakota lines, and was heading toward Hutchinson for reinforcements.

The Ninth began their retreat south.  The wounded were placed in wagons, the dead left behind as they fled.  They made it as far as Cedar Mills where the Dakota caught up with them and the fighting commenced.  In an attempt to slow the advance of the Indians, food and other goods were thrown from the wagons in hopes that the Dakota would stop their chase and pick them up.  It worked, and the pursuit began to lag.

A short way out of Hutchinson, a group of reinforcements from the stockade, with A. H. DeLong in the lead, met up with the rest of the Ninth.  By nightfall they made it to the safety of the fort.  The wounded were brought into the hotel, outside of the stockade.  The following day, Little Crow regrouped his forces and attacked Hutchinson, destroying all but the stockade and one home.

Albert DeLong lived in Greenleaf for a number of years before moving to Hutchinson.  He married twice and had one son.  DeLong was the first chief of the Hutchinson Fire Department when it reorganized in 1893, and was a charter member of the Gopher Campfire Club.  In 1935 he was the last survivor still living from the battle of Kelley’s Bluff, the last survivor of the battle of Hutchinson, and the last living member of the Litchfield G.A.R.  In 1936, the long and adventurous life of Albert DeLong ended.  He was a man among men, and the last true frontiersman of central Minnesota.

Martin McLeod: A Man of Exceptional Quality

He wasn’t used to the snowshoes.  The snow was deep, and the cold, blowing wind around him made walking in the shoes increasingly difficult.  He didn’t walk so much, but rather dragged his feet through the snow.  The rawhide thongs on the shoes cut into his moccasins, chafing his feet.  Each step was excruciating – more excruciating than the last –  so much that his blistered feet began to bleed, leaving behind a trail of blood on the hard outer crust of snow he walked on.

Martin McLeod was new to the region.   He was in his early twenties, a clerk from Montreal and unprepared for the rigors of the Minnesota wilderness.  He came west with a group of explorers headed by a man named James Dickson, an impractical idealist with visions of ruling over a self-constructed kingdom.  They broke trail from Lake Superior and found themselves at the Red River Colony.  However, within a year the group had become disillusioned with Dickson and began to scatter.  McLeod and two others accompanied a guide south toward the mouth of the Minnesota River.  It was to be a long, arduous journey of seven hundred-fifty miles through the Minnesota wilderness, in winter, and on foot.

The trek south was hard.  McLeod nearly drowned, nearly froze to death, and he was often on the verge of starvation.  In his journal he recorded “Out of provisions, obliged to kill one of our dogs; “dog meat excellent eating.”    During one instance, the small group was waylaid by a wet, snowy blizzard from which they were separated and forced to survive on their own.  McLeod was one of the lucky survivors.  Using his snowshoe to dig a shallow trench in the snow, he wrapped himself in a waterlogged buffalo robe and waited out the storm in clothes that froze to his skin.

Martin McLeod came to the North Country at a time when the promise of wealth came through the fur trade.  With the help of Henry H. Sibley, as well as a number of other prominent traders of the time, McLeod soon became a well-known fur trader in the region.  Few white men found themselves trapping or hunting for furs, but rather became merchants who depended on the Indians for labor.  McLeod was one of these, traveling between trading posts and Indian encampments encouraging the natives to hunt and bring in more and more furs.  This tactic was successful in bringing in high quality furs, yet it played a role in overhunting as well as oversaturating the fur market, both of which helped to usher an end to the trade.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, as the fur trade came to an end, McLeod as well as the other trade merchants began looking toward treaty negotiation between the United States and Native Americans as a means to create wealth.  Many of them, McLeod included, ran for public office as a way to lobby officials in an attempt to buy land from the Indians, who in turn would receive stipends from the government with which they could buy goods from the trade merchants.  With money guaranteed from the government, many trade merchants began selling on credit and inflating their prices.  When the Indians’ money ran out, the traders would lobby for new treaties.  It became a vicious cycle that ultimately led to war between factions of Dakota Indians and white settlers in Minnesota.

Martin McLeod was one of the few who took umbrage to the way treaty negotiations were made with the Indians.  Never one to approve of the whiskey traders pushing their product on the natives, McLeod resented the fact that his peers pursued treaties that benefited them at the expense of the tribes, going so far as to distance himself from his peers to the point of being reclusive.

The late 1850’s saw McLeod discontent with the direction Minnesota was heading.  He withdrew to his home and fell deep into debt.  By 1860 he was broke.  On November 20th of that year, Martin McLeod died.  It was a quiet end to an adventurous life.