Allowed it to wither


This building is the former office of the Henning Advocate, I was told.   It could very well have been the office back in my high school days, but I don’t remember ever having a reason to know where it was located.  Even less do I know whether this was the location of the Alliance Advocate back in 1891 when the newspaper got its start under Frank Hoskins.

Even though I don’t know the exact location, I’ve learned a little more about how the paper got its start.  It was a an Alliance party newspaper, a counter to the Northwest Alliance party newspaper, the Great West, which was published in St. Paul and which had been established a couple of years earlier.   The Alliance party grew out of the Northwest Alliance, as an outgrowth of internal factionalism.  The internal infighting is in part what doomed the Alliance (or Alliances) to a short life.  The Great West was the organ of the parent organization, and the Advocate was the organ of majority dissidents who formed the briefly successful successor.

Last time I posted what John W. Mason, who had no sympathy for any Alliance faction,  had to say about Frank Hoskins and his newspaper, describing him as inflammatory and vituperative in person as well as in print.   It seems that the Great West was run by an editor of similar temperament.  The following is from Prelude to Populism, an article written by Donald F. Warner for Minnesota History magazine in 1951 (Vol. 32, No. 3, pp. 129-146):

As a veteran politician, [Ignatius] Donnelly knew the value of a rigorous journal.   Accordingly, he brought Dr. Everett W. Fish to St. Paul to found the Great West, a weekly devoted to Alliance news and interests.  A professor of medicine turned journalist, Dr. Fish added a bright splash of color to the local picture.  He was a vine-ripened fanatic to whom the world and the people in it were a simple study in pure black and white, without shadings.  To him, the interest of the farmers was the cause of the angels, and he ceaselessly attacked those who devilishly opposed it.  His only method of fighting was to cut and slash violently; the beauties of subtlety and indirection were lost upon the doctor.   When he was angry, which was quite often, the columns of the Great West were an awesome sight, for adjectives and adverbs spluttered from his pen and ran into epic, if sometimes incoherent, diatribes.  He was delightfully catholic in his choice of victims, never hesitating to attack an Alliance man who departed from the straight path which Fish conceived to be the party line of the organization.   Many an agrarian partisan, guilty of some minor departure, yelped in pain as a flaying editorial in the Great West nipped out a piece of his political hide.  Only Donnelly, Fish’s patron and hero, was immune; and Donnelly had to spend much time soothing those of his friends and followers whom the editor had scourged.  This was an endless task, for the good doctor was as unpredictable and as difficult to control as a forest fire; when smothered in one spot, he was apt to blaze forth in another.  Yet, with all of his faults, Fish was a tower of strength to the Alliance.  His brisk prose revived the waning spirits of its members and his evangelical fervor converted thousands to the cause.

Those who know their Minnesota history of this era may find it surprising to see the irascible Ignatius Donnelly playing the role of peacemaker.   But there were occasions when Donnelly, who was more frequently a loose cannon  himself, could do just that.

Parker later explains that the anti-Donnelly faction (for that is sort of what the Alliance party was) started the newspaper at Henning with “high hopes,” and then “allowed it to wither.”

But I’m not sure what he meant by that.  The Alliance party is long gone, but the newspaper itself is still going strong, 130 years and a couple of minor name changes later.   Some time after the tumult of the early 1890s,  Frank Hoskins left for the Twin Cities, coming back in 1898 to get his revenge in local elections.   But the paper continued.    All that does lead to a couple of questions, though:

  • Where did this Frank Hoskins come from?  What was his background?   What did he do after he left Henning?   Did he continue his involvement in populist politics?
  • Why Henning and not any of the other nearby towns?

The latter question is of a little interest to me because I have a vague recollection of controversy and conflict in the 1960s between Farm Bureau and National Farmers Organization farmers.    Most of the farmers I worked for summers (hay baling, mostly) were, if anything, aligned more with the Farm Bureau, which is a more conservative organization.   But we knew of farmers who were partisans of the NFO, which it might seem echoes the old Alliance party to some extent.  But it was a touchy subject, and we were careful how we talked about it.

In 1965 the Farm Bureau ran a week-long summer camp for high school students at a lake in the south end of the county, and invited each area school to send two representatives.   Frank Formanek, the principal of Henning High School, asked me if I’d like to be one of those from our school.    It was definitely a right-wing occasion — I was glad to hear some speakers whom I had previously known only from radio and books — but I also met my first proto-hippies among the student representatives.  From them I got almost my first inkling of some of the tumult that would make headlines in the student protests of the later 60s.

As far as local politics goes, in 1964 I did some door-to-door work in Henning for Barry Goldwater.  In the “election” held at our high school, Lyndon Johnson won by far.   But Goldwater carried the town.    So would this indicate a political shift or a generations-later continuation of the old populist era politics?   Or is there no connection whatsoever?

It’s an interesting question to me not only because I went to school in Henning, but also in part because of some family stories of this era, in a different Minnesota town, that go back to the 1890s.   All I will say for now is that I once asked me grandfather, while he was still alive, who he voted for in his first presidential election.   I about fell off my chair when he said, slowly and firmly, “William Jennings Bryan.”  This did not at all fit what I thought I knew about him (and he was very outspoken, politically).   I should have asked a lot more questions, but it’s too late now.   But in the years since I’ve thought back over some of the other things he told me about the 1890s and the first decade of the 20th century, and it has made me want to understand that era a little better.    This is one of the reasons I’ve latched on to this connection with the old Henning Advocate as a starting point for further study.

I now have (on loan) the following books which may help me learn more about Frank Hoskins and the Henning Alliance Advocate:

  • Keillor, Steven J. 2000. Cooperative commonwealth: co-ops in rural Minnesota, 1859-1939. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.
  • Soike, Lowell J. 1991. Norwegian Americans and the politics of dissent, 1880-1924.  Northfield, Minn: Norwegian-American Historical Association.
  • Tweton, D. Jerome. 1988. The New Deal at the grass roots: programs for the people in Otter Tail County, Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.

The latter book is about a later era, of course, but it may be helpful in understanding the political history of Otter Tail County.

Tweton later wrote a book about Germans from Russia who settled in North Dakota.   Long before we lived in Minnesota, our family lived among some of these German-Russians in North Dakota.   I am just barely old enough to remember some of them.    I recently read the book with an eye to possible bike rides, but I didn’t find anything that made me want to point my bicycle in that direction just now.    One has to think a little differently about bicycling out on the plains where things are spread out over greater distances.   For now some additional rides to the lake country of Otter Tail County seem to be a more interesting possibility.  I already have marked my maps with the farmstead locations of a couple of local Alliance farmer-politicians.     But even that will hate to wait, because more rides to Black Hawk sites back here in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana are coming up soon.

YTD mileage: 1119.5

This article is tagged and categorized as follows: