There are very few surviving photos of Arthur C. Townley — the North Dakota socialist, organizer and political boss who shaped the state in the 1910s.
But in one of them, he is doing what he did best: working a crowd.
Townley is in a suit, his dark hair slicked back, caught mid-sentence and with his hand blurred as he gestures at the rough-faced men before him — a sepia-toned sea of newsboy hats and folded arms and drooping mustaches. The open prairie stretches beyond, past rail cars and a depot and a few lone buildings.
It’s impossible to know, at that moment, what Townley was saying. The undated photograph is from the 1920s — past the peak of Townley’s power — but he was on the record as an opponent of big business, and of the rail companies or the grain elevators stealing from the pioneers who worked such a hardscrabble life. To the common farmer, those were the basic truths of plains living, and Townley made a career of fighting against it.
It’s hard to imagine as much today, but during the 1910s, North Dakota was the center of an American “socialist experiment.” Historian Elwyn Robinson’s famous book on the state recalls farmers from as far as Norway and German Russia traveling the world to arrive in a place that looked almost nothing like home, doing intensely hard labor to feed themselves and their families, rising at 3 o’clock and working until dark. In the winter, they might be forced to make breakfast wearing their mittens.
All that to find themselves cheated by the corporations — especially the grain elevators, which often played dirty at weighing and paying for their crops. Robinson also recalls a key statistic from elevators at the head of Lake Superior: That in 10 years, they shipped nearly 27 million more bushels of wheat than their books had logged them receiving.
And early socialism had plenty of proponents, especially among Norwegian immigrants, who were used to such politics back home. By 1912, Robinson recalls the state socialist party had a weekly newspaper based in Minot. “It attacked and ridiculed the National Guard, the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at the University of North Dakota … and a deity which presided unfeelingly over capitalist injustice,” he wrote. It even called the Boy Scouts the “hired Hessians of capitalism.”
In fact, farmers’ grievances, and the tension between farmers and corporate interests, was one of the most powerful political forces in the early state. An 1893 petition, signed by nearly four dozen Barnes County farmers, described grain millers’ “unbounded greed,” and said they “exact exorbitant toll from the farmers when grinding their wheat or exchanging flour and other commodities for their wheat, (and) the sacrifice which farmers have to make to them, without any law regulating their traffic, is greater than they can bear.”
The world that Townley walked in was primed for leftist politics to sweep through the state. “Socialism” was far from a political dirty word back then.
But today that kind of socialism is far from the norm. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, perhaps the country’s most famous socialist, may have won the recent Democratic-NPL presidential primary. But President Donald Trump, who has fashioned his career on his big-business acumen, carried the state in a Republican tidal wave in 2016 and will likely do so again in November.
How did we get here?
‘A devil of a ways down’
This is the first in a series of articles, produced by Forum News Service and the North Dakota Newspaper Association Education Foundation, that seeks to answer that question. North Dakota is a deep-red, Republican state, but one with a state bank and a state mill and elevator — artifacts of a socialist past. It’s a land of sprawling farms, but increasingly tied to the petroleum industry. Its history runs through angry wheat farmers and Air Force bases and floods, nestled between mountains and Midwestern sensibilities.
What built it? And why do its politics work the way they do today?
One answer is Townley. A Minnesota native, he was born around 1880 near the Minnesota-Dakota Territory border and was a farmer by his late 20s. But North Dakota winters were as hard then as they are now, and he was crushed by a sudden frost. The costs he racked up on farming equipment left him $80,000 in debt (in 1916 dollars). He was bankrupt — and quite badly.
“You know, $80,000 in the hole is a devil of a ways down today. Being that far down 100 years ago, I can’t even fathom it,” UND historian Kim Porter said. “He’s left without a job — he’s left without activities. He’s hanging out there with nothing to do and no money and — well, not even no money, he’s down there with negative money. And people chasing his tail.”
Townley joined up with local socialists, and then, when his relationship with the local party fell through, turned to his own devices. He and his political allies criss-crossed the state of North Dakota in a Ford Model T, whipping up support for what would become the Nonpartisan League.
And farmers and the Nonpartisan League had the momentum. Demands to do something on behalf of the farmers had been growing for years, and there was enormous farmer anger over the failure to build a state grain elevator. By 1916, the League was strong enough to seize the levers of power in the state. In just a few years, they set about laying the foundation for the Bank of North Dakota and the State Mill and Elevator, the latter of which would open in 1922.
But the Nonpartisan League fell out of power as quickly as it had found it, making enemies as quickly as it won votes. By 1918, J.D. Bacon, the owner of the Grand Forks Herald, wrote a scathing pamphlet about Townley and the NPL, calling Townley the movement’s “sole ruler, the dictator, the czar. All authority of the league was in his grasp, and he did not loosen a particle.” Business interests closed ranks against the League’s socialist policies, and League officeholders were recalled. Just a few years later, Townley served 90 days in jail on a 1919 conviction for alleged anti-enlistment activities amid fervor for World War I, and he never found his way back to his stranglehold on North Dakota politics. Robinson recalls fears of “Bolshevism” sweeping the state, with one newspaper calling him “Comrade” Townley.
In a diminished state, the Nonpartisan League lived on — influencing and even upending North Dakota politics for decades. But it was eventually folded into the state Democratic Party in 1956, when the partisan politics of North Dakota started to look like they do today.
The rest of Townley’s career was bizarre. A state Historical Society account of his life recalls him running for Congress in 1930 on an anti-prohibition platform (so the government could hop into the beer and liquor business). But by the 1950s, he had renounced socialism, supported Sen. Joseph McCarthy (the famous red-baiting demagogue) and thought the private sector could do a better job than the state bank and state mill. Townley died in a car crash in 1959.
“As Townley’s life spiraled downward, his schemes became stranger,” the society’s account recalls. “He became a faith-healer for a while. When oil was discovered in western North Dakota in 1951, Townley tried to sell ‘doodle-bug’ services to petroleum engineers. Townley said that a doodle-bug could find oil underground by means of a … rod that would tip downward when passed over the oil pool.”
But the institutions Townley helped build are still some of the state’s defining features. And Porter, the UND historian, said the same blue-collar spirit of the early NPL still echoes through American politics.
“You still see that today,” she said. “Farmers, laborers who are laboring for themselves, maybe a carpenter or a plumber, somebody who says, ‘I worked hard, I sweat, I get dirty, I smash my thumb, but nobody wants to give me a fair shake.’”
This series is a joint effort by Forum News Service and the North Dakota Newspaper Association Education Foundation.