Bank Robbery in Brownton

It was a dark, chilly night in September of 1924. It was a quiet in Brownton – still and silent – a silence that was deafening, broken only by the “click-clack” of a pair of shoes as their owner strolled down the quiet street. It was 1am, and while the tiny town slept, Marshal Sanken was making his rounds. He checked the doors on shops in town, making sure they were secure and locked tight. Occasionally he would cup his hands around his eyes to peek inside a darkened shop window, just to make sure everything was in order in the orderly little town. He felt nothing out of order as he came by the powerhouse – the place where electricity was controlled for the town. Suddenly, and seemingly from nowhere, a cold, gloved hand reached out from the little building and enveloped itself around the Marshal’s mouth. A second hand reached for his arm and subdued the marshal. Inside were five men. They were cutting power to the town and were planning to rob the bank.

The men were armed and meant business. They’d scoped out town earlier that day, and felt they had a fool-proof plan. Under cover of darkness, they would sneak, silently, into town, cut the phone and telegraph lines, break into the bank, darken the interior windows, and blow the vault with nitroglycerin.

You could call it bad timing for Marshal Sanken.

The five men were inside the powerhouse cutting the wires when one of them spotted the Marshal walking down the sidewalk. They remained still, waiting in silence until the Marshal was close enough to grab. As he walked by the powerhouse, the men reached out and accosted him, gagged with a rag, and had his hands tied behind his back.

They took the bound Marshal with them as they made their way to the bank. Once inside, they put Marshal Sanken in the basement and went to work darkening the windows. Next, they blew the vault, or tried to at least. The vault was made of thick steel enclosed in brick and mortar. After four attempts to blow their way inside, they had done little but awaken several townspeople.

One man who was alerted by the explosions was H.E. Seeland, a restaurant owner who lived across the street of the bank. Seeland jumped from bed, grabbed a shotgun, and proceeded to a second story window. He saw the commotion at the bank and fired his gun into the air, hoping to scare the bandits off. Instead, his shot drew returning fire. Shooting from a second floor window, Seeland had the upper hand. While the bandits tried to scramble out of the bank, they were under constant fire from Seeland.

The five armed bank robbers had no choice but to abandon their heist and leave town. The gunfight was sure to alarm the town and soon more people would come to the aid of Seeland. They decided to flee the town, without the loot they sought after. They bolted from the bank and ran out of town as fast as they could, shooting out streetlights and returning fire toward Seeland.

The armed bandits were never caught. The attempted bank heist in Brownton was one of four in the region; Cosmos, Svea, and Kandiyohi were all targets of similar bank jobs. Authorities felt all four attempts were made by the same criminals. To this day, their identity remains a mystery.
-Brian Haines-

The Deadliest Pandemic in History

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”.  Mark Twain

The world is a curious place.  Everyday we make history by doing the same thing we did yesterday.  We wake in the morning, we go to our jobs, try to make a little money, go home, spend time with loved ones, watch the same old headlines, and go to bed.  The next morning, we wake and to it again.  In the average lifespan we repeat this process 31,390 times, and in that span, we see nations wage war, see people suffer, and hope for change.  It’s as if the world were a movie where the setting and the characters adjust, but the plot always stays the same.

Today, our headlines are filled with covid-19, the coronavirus.  The virus has turned the world on its head.  Schools and businesses are closing, professional sporting leagues have suspended play, and many Americans have chosen to quarantine.  There are travel bans, the U.S. is in a state of emergency, store shelves are emptying, and a faction of the population is ready for an all-out panic.  It’s something the likes of most alive have never witnessed, something that didn’t happen yesterday; however, as history shows, this outbreak both is and isn’t all that different from those in the past.

The world has been shaken by sickness many times in history.  Since the beginning, humankind has had to grapple with disease – most notable the black death that swept Europe and Asia in the 14th century, killing more than 20 million people.  More recent however were the H1-N1 (swine flu) that killed over 12,000 in the U.S., SARS, and “Bird Flu” epidemics – however, they all pale in comparison to the deadly Spanish Flu of 1918 that killed an estimated 20-50 million people.

It was March of 1918, nearly a century ago today.  America was gearing up for war in Europe, a war so ghastly it was dubbed “the war to end all wars” – no one felt any nation would be willing to fight a war ever again with such deadly weaponry at hand.  All around the nation, young men were being herded into crowded army camps to train for the trenches.  One such camp was Camp Funston in Kansas.  Hordes of young recruits were sent to the camp during the worst winter on record.  Barracks swelled and troops were forced to sleep in tents under think blankets.

Nearby, in Haskell County KS, a little community was just getting over a mysterious sickness that seemed to only affect the farmers of the community.  It was a flu bug that was shockingly contagious and extremely deadly.  A local doctor was so terrified that he alerted the U.S. Public Health Service.  Being that the outbreak was in a small community, however, the USPHS chose to do nothing, feeling that in a small “backwater” community, the sickness would soon run out of people to infect and this run its course.

Meanwhile, back at Camp Funston, a company cook named Private Albert Gitchell reported to sick bay with flu like symptoms.  He was part of a batch of fresh recruits brought to the camp from Haskell County on February 28th.  Coughing and sneezing, the Haskell Kansas boys crowded into jam packed barracks and spread the disease.  By the end of the month of March, over 1,000 troops were sick with 38 dead.

The first wave of the flu in the United States came on rapidly but left just as fast.  It was March, the end of flu season.  In Europe, however, it took hold and mutated.  Fresh faced American soldiers, with watery eyes and runny noses, walked off the troop ships in France and spread the sickness throughout the country.

By May it had spread across Europe, killing 8,000,000 people in Spain alone where it earned the nickname “Spanish Flu”.  By June it spread through India and China, by July it was sprawling over Africa and South America, and by August it found its way back to the docks on America’s east coast – this time far deadlier than the version that had left so many months earlier.

The infected were suspect to severe nausea, aches, fever, and diarrhea.  Many developed black blotches on their skin and would even turn blue due to a lack of oxygen.  Once a patient turned blue, it was only a matter of hours, or minutes before they would die.  Some became infected only to die as little as 12 hours later, showing no symptoms until the very end.

Troops coming home on boats from Europe were sick, many dying.  Reports were of bodies being stacked like cordwood on the docks.  Masks were handed out, hand sanitation was urged, and large gatherings were banned.  Hospitals could scarcely keep up with the flu and swelled beyond capacity.

In Philadelphia, 200,000 people crammed together on city streets to watch a parade.  Three days later, every sick bed in the city’s 31 hospitals was full of sick and dying patients.  By the end of the week, 4,500 people were dead.  Officials closed the city, all businesses and public services ceased to operate, yet it was too late.  An estimated 12,000 people were killed in Philadelphia alone.

After the deadly second wave of Spanish Flu, the sickness abruptly stopped.  It peaked late in 1918 and diminished to almost nothing.  It simply ran out of victims.  The damage had been done, however, as 500,000,000 people, worldwide, had been infected with the flu, and up to 50,000,000 perished because of it.

Today, as it was in 1918, people are afraid of what tomorrow may bring.  Health officials have yet to get a firm handle on covid-19, there’s no vaccine, and symptoms can be so mild that a person does not know they have it while passing it along to others.  How the coronavirus will unfold is anybody’s guess.  We can hope that it goes to the wayside like so many others, or that a vaccine is developed to eradicate it.  History has proven time and time again that when it’s all over and the dust settles, life will go on.  For now, however, I guess we’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed. – Brian Haines.

The Devil at Lake Marion

It was the roaring 20s, a time of moral decadence.  An era best categorized by bootleggers, booze, flappers, and jazz.  Ladies’ dresses and hairstyles became shorter, music became louder, cars became faster, and liquor, which was now illegal, flowed more freely than ever.  The Great War was over, but the victory party that followed ceased to end.

Rarely was there a place in America that wasn’t touched in some way by the roaring 20s.  Minnesota, a state once thought of as a rural mecca with country values, became the nation’s top producer of illegal moonshine.  The trade was so prevalent across the countryside that it caught the attention of the feds and the likes of Al Capone.  All across the state, ballrooms and dance halls became the centers of 1920’s night life.  What were once quaint venues for weddings and ceremonies, were now filled with jazz music, dancing, and booze.

The Lake Marion Ballroom was a beautiful pavilion style dance hall on the shores of Lake Marion.  Cool breezes floated through the screened pavilion, and the full moon reflecting off the lake made it exquisite.  To the north was a small outcropping of rocks where mist from the waves could wash over those who sat atop them while listening to the music through the screened windows.  To top off the atmosphere was the popcorn stand that stood outside the ballroom entrance and filled the pavilion with the scent of freshly popped corn.  It was indeed a landmark of McLeod County.

To some the ballroom was a place of grandeur, yet to others it was a den of sin and decadence.  At a time when a segment of the population looked to tighten the noose around societal ills, the ballroom was often the sight of moonshine vendors, and it was rumored that “women from disorderly houses from the Cities were brought there for illegal purposes”.  It was also rumored that “the dances have been rough and that some of the dancers of both sexes get drunk; that the rooms of the hotel are all engaged in advance and that the cottages are broken into and the rooms occupied by revelers”.  If such ill repute was indeed prevalent at the pavilion, it is no wonder that such deeds would summon the presence of Satan himself.

It was Sunday, October 30th, 1921, the evening before Halloween.  For years October 30th was known as mischief night, the night when pranksters ran amuck with pleasure.  It was common to wake up on Halloween morning to find outhouses tipped over, unhinged gates, windows soaped, or to see property vandalized.  It was the perfect night for a sinister appearance by Satan himself, and what better place to get a good scare than in a pavilion full of people.

There are many versions of what happened, the following is one of them.

It was intermission at the Lake Marion Ballroom.  The musicians were off stage, taking a break, and the dancers were mingling among themselves.  The weather that night was blustery; it was humid, and a late season thunderstorm was passing through the area.  As the dancers reveled and laughed, a loud clap of thunder shook the pavilion and the rain started coming down.  Another earth shattering thunder, and then a scream from the crowd as a strange apparition appeared next to the mirrored column in the middle of the dance floor, and made its way to the bar.

The lights in the ballroom began to flicker, some claiming they gave off an eerie, un-earthly like color.  Some supposed witnesses recalled that the musicians instruments flew off the stage and splintered as they hit the ground.  Then, from the ceiling, a broomstick began dancing in mid-air and made its way to the stage.

A cry emitted from the crowd “The Devil is here to get his dues.  Repent on your knees.  Pray for forgiveness.”  Then suddenly, in a flash of smoke, fire, and brimstone, Satan himself was said to have appeared.  Some say he came from above, while others maintained he rose from the floor.  He did not speak, but made his way through the crowd.  As he walked by, a section of scaffold resting against a wall crumbled into a heap of iron.

People screamed, people fainted, and people scrambled over the top of one another in a race to the exits.  They jumped in their cars and drove away as fast as their old Model T’s would allow.  Many abandoned their cars and ran headlong into the darkness.  Some were transfixed on the spot, unable to move as the dark prince strolled by.  To those who stayed behind as witness, they say the devil strode out of the ballroom and walked across the water on the lake, disappearing from sight and leaving a scene of chaos in his wake.

The story began to evolve over the next few days, and it gained nationwide attention.  The story was told all over the state, in the Minneapolis paper, as well as a number of smaller publications.  It even hit the papers in Chicago, and some recall that the story was told as far east as New York.

Rumors of the perpetrator’s identity were widespread.  Some claimed it was a prankster, some claimed it was nothing but a ball of lightning and the onlookers were exaggerating the story, yet others maintained that it was the Devil himself, complete with horns, tail, and cloven feet.  Whatever it was, something indeed happened on that October night in 1921.

At a resort in Norwood, just a few days after the episode at Lake Marion, an intense game of poker was being played in a backroom where a well-known gambler was present.  While the players were making bets, tossing chips, and laying down cards, it is said that Satan again appeared.  How he appeared is unknown.  Perhaps it was with a puff of smoke, maybe a ball of brimstone and fire, or perhaps he simply strode through the door.  Whatever his means of appearing, it is said that he accosted the well-known gambler, and in a devilish voice proclaimed, “Now you old rascal.  I’ve got you!”  The events beyond that are a mystery.

Not long after these events, a letter to the editor appeared in the Hutchinson Leader.  Mrs. C.L. Bartlett of Bertha, Minnesota was skeptical, and was inquiring to the facts concerning the events, wanting to know what kind of evidence was available to prove that this was the Devil himself and not some prankster.  A week later a reply to Mrs. Bartlett’s inquiry appeared in the same publication by, of all people, a local Methodist Pastor.

Andrus Richardson was born in Chautauqua, New York in 1869.  Pastor Richardson moved around a lot, and in 1921, found himself in Hutchinson, MN.  On November 16th of that year he wrote a letter to the editor in regards to Mrs. Bartlett’s questioning of the Devil.  Interestingly, the pastor seemed to take offense that anyone would not believe the devil appeared.  He claimed that only a certain “class of people” went to these dances, and went on to list the events that made these dances so “rough”.  He described the scene that night, how the lights became lurid, how the women screamed, and how people left the pavilion stricken with terror; it was almost as if he was there himself.  He ends his letter stating that the hotel is now deserted, and that “dancing among that class of people has ceased”.  Lastly, he proclaims that many who witnessed the spectacle were confined to bed with hysteria, and that those who are hardest to convince it was a hoax were those who were witness to the evil dark prince.  At times while reading through his letter, one could argue that he is saying “job well done”.

To this day the Devil at Lake Marion stands as one of the best known legends in McLeod County.  Nearly a century has passed since the event, yet the story remains strong in the minds of all those who’ve heard the tale.  Who was it?  Was the Devil merely a man in disguise, was the entire episode just an overreaction to natural phenomena, or was it indeed a guest appearance from Satan himself?  Perhaps time will tell.  For now, however, the mystery behind the legend remains just that, a mystery.

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.