Hidden History—Commies Under the Big Sky
It is a story so sensitive that for decades many Montanans were ashamed even to talk about it.
A new book published by the Montana Historical Society Press at last brings to light a nearly forgotten chapter of state history when communism gained a strong foothold in state politics during the 1920s and 1930s.
The Red Corner: The Rise and Fall of Communism in Northeastern Montana, by Verlaine Stoner McDonald, recounts newspaper wars, farm labor activism, communist picnics and youth organizations, ugly corruption, and scandal.
McDonald’s journey into the history of the Communist movement in the region began in 1985 when a hired hand came across some old newspapers on her family’s farm in Sheridan County that was homesteaded by her great grandparents in 1909. One of the newspapers, published in nearby Plentywood in 1932, bore the headline: Vote Communist Tuesday, Nov. 8.
Although she had lived in Sheridan County most of her life, McDonald only began to discover the radical history of her community as she read through the yellowed newspapers.
It was a headline that appalled the residents of Sheridan County, Montana.,” McDonald writes in Red Corner.
“When the March 4, 1932 issue of the Producers News was published,” she continues, “much of the nation was gripped by dark events unfolding at home and abroad. The infant son of American icon Charles Lindbergh had been kidnapped and was being held for ransom. The military forces of Imperial Japan were ravaging China. Meanwhile, fifteen million Americans were out of work as the nation’s economy teetered on the brink of collapse.”
In northeastern Montana, though, a world away from Japan and the Lindbergh kidnapping, it was headlines published in the Producers News that struck a nerve.
“Remarkably,” McDonald writes, “it was a local story in their hometown newspaper that inspired outrage among Sheridan County resi-dents. Headlined, Bolshevik Funeral for Valiant Young Pioneer, the story was about fourteen-year-old Janis Salisbury, who had died from complications related to appendicitis. Instead of a church, Salisbury’s funeral was held in the local Farmer Labor Temple, and it featured speakers from the local branch of the United Farmers League, an affiliate of the Communist Party, as well as members of the local Communist youth group. The editor of the Producers News, a member of the Communist Party, wrote a contro-versial account of the funeral, describing the service in detail.
This editorial decision would have profound consequences for the Communist farm movement in northeastern Montana, which in the 1920s had achieved stunning political success. The ‘reds’ had occupied every elected county office and sent a covert Communist state senator to Helena. Local youths could attend camps where they were actively indoctrinated with Communist dogma, and the radicals’ newspaper was circulated nationwide. Janis Salisbury’s father, Rodney, was on the ballot in an attempt to become the nation’s first Communist governor. Sheridan County was, in the estimation of one historian, ‘one of the most class-conscious areas in the nation.’
At the heart of McDonald’s story are The Producers News editor Charles “Red Flag” Taylor, a communist organizer, and his comrade county sheriff Rodney Salisbury, who allegedly combined graft, prostitution, and bootlegging with his politics.
For nearly two decades Taylor’s organization held sway over politics in northeastern Montana through his newspaper, which for a time was an official organ of the Communist Party USA.
“Taylor and some of his cronies,” states a press release from the Montana Historical Society, “were even elected to the Montana Legi-slature.
Other newspapermen like the pugnacious Burley Bowler, editor of the Antelope Indepen-dent, opposed Taylor and the radicals. Eventually, Bowler’s editorials, the strong ties to religion that most immigrants had, and other factors contributed to the rejection of the Communist movement in northeastern Montana. By the late 1930s, even after FDR’s New Deal policies had failed to prevent unemployment during the Great Depression from reaching all time highs, people in Sheridan County had to a great extent put their radical past behind them. The historical record, though, involved stunning events for rural Montana: an armed robbery of $100,000 from the county treasury, a Young Communist camp, an adolescent’s “Bolshevik funeral,” and a legacy for northeastern Montana that included surveillance by FBI agents who pursued certain radical leaders even into the 1960s.
“When I attended school in the 1970s and 1980s,” McDonald told the Montana Historical Society, “the county’s Communist movement was not discussed, certainly not in classrooms and never in polite conversation.” McDonald used newspaper accounts, oral histories, FBI reports and internal communist party files to learn about the areas radical past.
Montana author Ivan Doig praised McDonald’s detective skills, scholarship and “local savvy” in putting her book together. “This extra-ordinary chapter of Montana history, little known at best and often deliberately obscured, at last has found its clear true voice.”
About the Author
Verlaine Stoner McDonald received a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California and is now Associate Professor at Berea College in Kentucky. She was born and raised in Sheridan County, Montana.
Source: Montana Historical Society.