Fourth of July in Henning


Ride date:


This is a view of the main business district in Henning, MN.  The old Advocate office is shown in the foreground.  The current Citizen Advocate office is further down the street.

I don’t know what the people here did for the Fourth of July this year, but when I rode through on July 8 there were no leftover signs of a celebration.    But back in 1891, there was a big Fourth of July celebration that started in controversy and ended in near riot, with one fatality.

Even before the big day, there were complaints that “the celebration was going to be nothing more than a big alliance picnic.”   A traditional celebration was planned for the morning, with parade, music, speeches, horse races, and baseball games.   The farmer’s Alliance (note the lower case “f”) planned a more political event, a picnic, for the afternoon.

The Alliance organization had strong support among the farmers in this part of Otter Tail county, especially but not only among the more recent generation of American immigrants.   Most of the merchant types in Fergus Falls, Battle Lake, and even some of those here in Henning were opposed to it.  Here in Henning the Alliance ran its own grain elevator, which competed with the other elevators, including one owned by the railroad.  The Alliance had been allied with the state Republican party a few years earlier, but by this time did not feel welcome or well treated there.   The Fergus Falls Weekly Journal represented old, established businesses, mostly Republican, that were dismissive of it.

Not all of the Alliance opponents were Republican businessmen, though.  The Alliance was an offshoot and in opposition to  an older organization, the Farmer’s Alliance — Ignatius Donnely’s organization.   It also had partisans in Otter Tail County, and was stronger in the southwest part of the county.   But in the eastern part of the county that included Henning, the Alliance was stronger, and it had its own newspaper to promote its side of the struggles.

The Henning Advocate, then known as the Alliance Advocate publicized the afternoon picnic on the same level with the Independence Day celebration.   That brought out protests from those who thought it a sacrilege.  The Alliance had put up a liberty pole.  A couple of nights before the celebration, anti-Alliance men hung an effigy on it — whose effigy we aren’t told.

BTW, I wish I knew where this liberty pole had been located, as well as where other events in the story took place.   In my part of Michigan, a town square would be a likely place, but as far as I know, town squares have never been a feature of villages in this part of Minnesota.   Henning was a community  that sprang up along the railroad — the town came to the railroad rather than vice versa.  There are such villages in Indiana and Michigan, too.  I can’t think offhand of one of those that ever had a town square, either.


There is no town square in Henning, but if I had pointed my camera in the opposite direction, I might have caught a view of a town triangle, a park in a corner parcel where  the streets that are aligned with the railroad meet those that are square with the world.  I have no idea if that would have been a gathering place in 1891.  A 1912 plat map calls it “Reserve Block B”, whatever that means.

Back to July 4, 1891.   One of the Alliance men couldn’t resist getting an early start on the Alliance part of the festivities, and gave a morning speech that railed against monopolies and the robbing of the farmers.     A wheat dealer from another town got up on the stage to mock and mimic him.   It’s not clear whether he waited until the object of his mockery had finished speaking.   This celebration was not an alcohol-free event — the North Dakota Elevator Company had provided free beer — so inhibitions may already have been lower all around.   The Alliance men had him arrested and jailed.

The leader of the local Alliance organization was Charles W. Brandborg, a farmer who had been instrumental in establishing the Alliance Advocate that same year.   He had insisted on the jailing of the heckler.   A crowd of supporters of the jailed man gathered outside the jail, and then went after Brandborg.   Brandborg warned them to stand back.  One man moved toward him, and Brandborg knocked him down.    While he revived, the crowd grew ugly.   Brandborg started for home, but some of the crowd followed, and started throwing stones at him.   Brandborg grabbed a rail for self-defence.  He swung it once, missing a man, but with a second swing hit a newly arrived Swedish immigrant, Ole Anderson, on the head.   Some men in the crowd carried him back to town.  He died a few days later.

This led to further uproar that was reflected in the opposing newspapers.   Charges against Brandborg were later dismissed after a court hearing, but he became dispirited and withdrew from his leadership roles at the Alliance Advocate and the county organization.

That was not the end of the controversies, but it’s where I’ll stop.  I got most of the above from two of the books I referred to earlier, Norwegian Americans and the Politics of Dissent : 1880-1924 (Lowell J. Soike, 1991) and Cooperative Commonwealth : Co-Ops in Rural Minnesota , 1859-1939 (Stephen J. Keillor, 2000).   These two authors got their information mostly from the opposing local newspapers, including the Alliance Advocate, and from the Charles W. Brandborg papers in the archives of the Minnesota Historical Society.   It’s not at the top of my to-do list, but it might be interesting to see if any of those sources give more clues as to exactly where on the Henning landscape these events took place.

But even though I don’t know where the speechmaking was done, where the jail was located, and where the liberty pole had been erected, we do know where Charles Brandborg lived.  His homestead was outside of town, to the southwest, within fairly easy walking distance.     On the above Google Map you can see Brandborg Creek Road and Brandborg Creek itself, though you may have to click the satellite button to see the creek.   It starts near the school athletic fields and flows to the southwest.   The C.W. Brandborg farmstead is just out of view to the west.   A 2005 plat map shows the names of property owners nearby that I recognize from my high school days.

I referred to the school athletic fields.  On the satellite view I was disappointed to see no sign of the place where I played high school baseball, in a manner of speaking.   (When someone asks me what position I played, I explain that it was usually on the bench in the dugout.)  If I remember right, it should have been somewhere near the oval track, near the source of Brandborg Creek, which I presume is here a dry creek most of the time.     Whether that was the place for foot races and baseball games at the July 4 festivities in 1891, I don’t know.

YTD mileage:  1134.0

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