This is part three of an occasion series about the history of the Chagrin Valley
From the 1850s, Chagrin Falls has been the central community for the region. The Cuyahoga County Fair began in the 1870s, the regional newspaper the Exponent started in 1874, an Opera House and fraternal organizations like the Masons, Kiwanis, Knights of Pythias and the International Order of Odd Fellows all flourished. Large active church organizations brought speakers to discuss the topics of the day.
During the early part of the 20th century, there was a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. By the mid-1920s, Ohio had one of the largest contingents in the northern states with more than 300,000 members. The Klan message resonated with the issues of the time.
The United States had experienced a tremendous infusion of immigrants, fought the War to End all Wars and was in a post-war recession. The message was “Americanism.” An article in the Chagrin Falls Exponent on Nov. 13, 1919 describes the Christian Americanization Project. Christian organizations throughout the country were concerned that the traditions coming from the ‘old world’ were subverting American ideals. Another article dated April 29, 1920 described an Inter-church Protestant movement to “Americanize Indians, Coloreds and Immigrants.” It was explained that if they could get to the immigrants before they went into the segregated communities around cities, they could be taught the English language and American values. Beginning in the 1870s, Native American children were being removed from their homes and put into Indian boarding schools where they were stripped of their language and culture.
In 1921, Congress passed the Emergency Immigration Act. It targeted immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, placing quotas on how many were able to enter the United States. An article in the Exponent dated Aug. 17, 1922 reported that alien growth had been cut to 80,726 individuals during the previous year and remarked that asylum had ended just in time – over 1.5 million immigrants were prevented from entering the country. A second act in 1924 further restricted immigration.
In October of 1922 there was a large article in the Exponent asking the question, “Did the Klan have a meeting?” The article reported a large gathering of men on the Riddle farm in Geauga County. The men were mostly from the East Side of Cleveland and had driven through Chagrin in a caravan of cars on their way to the farm. They set up a security perimeter, requiring a pass to get through, and the sheriff was contacted. They told reporters that they were just having a barbecue and baseball game.
1923 was when the KKK was most active in Northern Ohio. In April, Township Hall was rented by McKinley Elliot who “was unknown in Chagrin Falls” for the purpose of developing Klan membership. Those who attended were told that to be a member, one had to be white, protestant and born in the United States. The paper reported that many people left the meeting when a charter was produced, and people were asked to affix their signatures. Two weeks later, on April 19, 1923, another meeting was held. For this meeting, the doors were locked, and participants went upstairs to the main hall. (Township Hall used to have an opera house on the second floor). People arriving late were denied entry and the meeting was held in secrecy. The following week, the Exponent reported that the KKK would not be permitted to lock the doors.
The Exponent of May 3, 1923 reported that the KKK would hold a regular meeting on Friday, and a parade in full regalia would be held in Chagrin on Saturday night. The parade received front page coverage in the May 6, 1923 Cleveland Plain Dealer with the headline, “KLAN PARADES IN GLARE OF FIERY CROSS—1,000 March in Streets of Chagrin.” Both articles in the PD and the Exponent describe a welcoming environment. A “Welcome KKK” banner was hung in the entry of Township Hall and the Pythian ladies served sandwiches. When asked by a reporter, one of the ladies said that all of the other women’s groups had declined the invitation to help. Over 500 cars came from all over Northeastern Ohio. After the initial reception, they drove to the Perkins farm in Russell for an initiation ceremony. It was reported that 200 were initiated, 25 from Chagrin. Following the initiation, they returned to Chagrin for the parade. About 50 to 60 men donned robes and, as they burned a 10-foot cross on Grove Hill, they started marching through Chagrin. They marched around the village singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “America.” The event was organized by McKinley Elliot of Cleveland. Mayor Leslie Wykcoff gave permission for the parade, saying that no one had protested, and that as long as they were orderly, they could return. (Mayor Wyckoff was a pro-gambling mayor, but that is another story).
The Exponent from May 17, 1923 reported that the Klan was to hold a meeting in the Park, “an open-air affair.” The Chagrin Falls Band would play, and the Reverend Dr. Turner from New York would speak. His topic was Americanism: One Nation, One Flag, One School, One Language for all. Klan leaders will be in robes with several hundred leaders from Cleveland. The same paper ran a large ad Courtesy of the KKK – “Everybody invited”.
The May 24, 1923 Exponent reported, “Klan idea explained at open meeting in Park.” About 800 Klansmen present with over 3,000 onlookers. The entire text of the address by Dr. Turner was published in the May 24 and May 30 Exponent. He emphasized that we live in a law-abiding nation, with morality, liberty as signified by Old Glory, free public schools and the Bible. A Christian nation, “not for self, but for others.” Turner presented the Klan as an unselfish Christian organization that stands for the Bible, God’s Word and the divinity of Jesus Christ.
The June 1923 Exponent reports a large Klan meeting was to be held in the square in Chardon, there would be a band concert and the Rev. Dr. Turner would speak. Both the July 12 and July 26 issues reported two Klan meetings held on the Spangler farm in Bentleyville, “crosses burned and many initiated”.
The Aug. 30, 1923 Exponent had a special section reporting the schedule for the Cuyahoga County Fair held in Chagrin. The EXTRA reported that the last day of the fair, Sept. 5, would be Ku Klux Klan Day, with a large initiation planned. The Sept. 6 edition reported a large public initiation as they sang “America,” prayed and “the speaker brought forth much applause.” Three fiery crosses burned on the fairgrounds.
During 1924 and 1925, meetings in Chagrin seemed to diminish. The Aug. 20, 1925 Exponent reported that some members from the Chagrin Klan traveled to Washington D.C. to participate in a large parade on the National Mall, where more than 60,000 Klansmen participated from almost every state.
In 1926, the Klan ran a slate in the State Republican Primary. The Klan candidate for Gov. Joseph B. Sieber from Akron received about 15 percent of the Republican votes cast by Chagrin voters. No Klan candidates made it out of the primary, although Seiber placed second statewide.
All of the Klan activities in Northern Ohio reported in the Exponent during this period were organizational. Speeches to explain Klan philosophy and initiations with cross burnings seemed to be the primary motivation. There are no documented reports of local attempts of intimidation or destruction, although there are some oral history accounts. Over the years, rumors have circulated that many prominent citizens of Chagrin were active in the Klan. In all of our research we can find no documentation to confirm the participation of any specific Chagrin citizen, although it is clear there were some. The Klan was a secret society. We do not believe there are any records or minutes of their meetings.
Mr. Bourisseau is president of the Chagrin Falls Historial Society Board of Trustees.