Communists in Montana? You Must Be Joking…
See if you can transport yourself to 1920 in extreme northeastern Montana. It must have been a heck of a place; booming settlement, bootlegging, truly radical politics and real support for a guy named Lenin.
Sheridan County, Montana borders on North Dakota to the east and the Canadian prairie province of Saskatchewan to the north. It is about as far removed from Soviet Russia as you can imagine, yet Sheridan County from about 1920 to 1930 was at the very center of the tiny American Communist movement. Led mostly by radical farmers and a bombastic newspaper editor, Sheridan County voters sent an openly Communist state senator and a state representative to the state legislature in Helena. The sheriff and most other county elected officials operated, as they say, under the Red Flag.
The local newspaper – The Producers News – published in the county seat of Plentywood, eventually became an official mouthpiece of the Communist Party USA. The editor, Charles “Red Flag” Taylor, was a brilliant propagandist who, after serving in the Montana State Senate also ran for the U.S. Senate and actively participated in Communist Party activities nationally. Taylor was on friendly terms with William Z. Foster, the perennial Communist Party candidate for president, and brought Foster to Sheridan County in 1932.
This fascinating, and mostly forgotten story, has been well chronicled in a fine new book by Verlaine Stoner McDonald. The book – The Red Corner: The Rise and Fall of Communism in Northeastern Montana – was published earlier this year by the Montana Historical Society Press in Helena. Professor McDonald grew up in Sheridan County and her great-great uncle, Clair Stoner, was elected to the state legislature in the 1920’s. He was a Communist.
One of the most interesting aspects of McDonald’s book is that for decades, as she writes, “during the McCarthy years in the 1950’s and the Cold War, the people of northeastern Montana tried to forget their brush with notoriety.”
McDonald, who graduated from Plentywood High School, “without having heard of the Sheridan County Communists” and knowing that her relative had been a leader of the radicals.
In his review of The Red Corner, Montana historian Donald Spritzer notes that once the New Deal relief efforts of Franklin Roosevelt brought benefits to Sheridan County – the WPA built a courthouse in Plentywood, for example – the county’s Communists faded from significance and the locals seemed more than happy to have the history disappear, as well.
“Today residents are not particularly proud of what occurred in that bygone era,” Spritzer said. “But they are no longer so ashamed that they seek to hide it from their schoolchildren.”
Montana native Ivan Doig, whose splendid book Bucking the Sun, is set in northeastern Montana in the 1930’s gets the last word on the radicals of Sheridan County.
“When there was enough rain,” Doig wrote in his story about the Montanans who built Fort Peck Dam, “the soil of the northeastern corner of Montana grew hard red wheat. When drought came, politics of that same colorization sprouted instead.”
Harry Truman said,“The only thing new in this world is the history that you don’t know” How true.
McDonald’s book tells a great story that has been long forgetten; a rich history of the rural American west and one area’s flirtation with – truth stranger than fiction -Communism.