Local History Thursday: Standing Up To The Ku Klux Klan

The Ku Klux Klan on parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. National Archives photo.

Let’s be clear: In the 1920’s, The Ku Klux Klan was a social and political power in Western Slope towns just as it was elsewhere in Colorado. White Protestants throughout the state joined because they were drawn by the Klan’s anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant, anti-corruption message, and by the Klan’s hatred of African Americans. Yet some Coloradan’s, such as Denver District Attorney Philip Van Cise, did resist the Klan. In his own small way, cowboy Charles Smelzer also did his part to combat the organization.

Although he came from the Midwest, Charles Smelzer knew his way around a horse as well as any cowboy. So when he came from Iowa to Gunnison, Colorado around 1910, he became a cowboy and a good one. Shortly after, he was put in charge of 6,000 head of cattle belonging to several area ranches. Fellow cowboys and ranch operators looked to Smelzer as a problem solver.

According to Smelzer in his interview with the Mesa County Oral History Project, the Ku Klux Klan warned local ranchers that its members intended to disrupt ranch operations (to what end Smelzer doesn’t say, but ranchers have long been power brokers in Western economics and politics, and the Klan may simply have been trying to grab a share of that power). Smelzer went out with a spyglass to monitor the cowboys under his charge while they attempted to conduct orderly grazing operations. Klan members with dogs approached the cattle. The dogs chased and attacked the cows and caused panic in the herd.

The following day, Smelzer demanded that the cowboys return to the same spot and guaranteed that this time, the cattle would be herded in an orderly way. He went out on the range accompanied by two local ranchers, including the ranch operator of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad’s herd. The cowboys went out with the cattle and sure enough, the Klansmen unleashed their dogs again. This time, Smelzer was ready. He yelled for the Klansmen to call back their dogs. The Klansmen refused. One dog attacked a calf and its mother. Smelzer shot the dog from 100 yards and dropped it dead. From that time on, Smelzer says, local ranchers never had another issue with the Klan.

For more information about the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado when they were an ascendant power on both the state and local level, check out this blog I wrote in a prior library incarnation at Denver Public Library. Or better yet, read Hooded Empire by Robert Alan Goldberg, an excellent history of the Klan in Colorado that devotes an entire chapter to the organization in Grand Junction and the Western Slope.

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