When frontier socialism thrived in Wyoming

 

The last name of a man in the dues ledger of the South Slavic Socialist Organization, No. 136, startled me -- “Putz.” I glimpsed it not long ago in old documents at the “Slovenski Dom” in Rock Springs, Wyo., a town where politics once mingled with lodge fraternalism in the Old West.

It’s because my grandfather’s name on my mother’s side is Putz, a version of “Puc.” The name originates from Slovenia, which was once a part of Yugoslavia and achieved independence following the upheavals of the 1990s.

A “socialist” in the family? Nobody uttered that word when I was growing up, a third-generation Slovene in gritty Rock Springs. Back then, anything that hinted of leftist leanings raised suspicions. But now, as the 2012 election suggested, and President Obama outlined at his inaugural, working collectively is the new political normal – solving our problems “together.”

Rock Springs was a Union Pacific Railroad coal camp in the early 1880s, attracting an adventurous and economically desperate brew of nationalities: Balkans, Italians, Irish, Mexicans, Asians, African-Americans, all lured to the hard edge of the Red Desert. Both sets of my grandparents immigrated to Wyoming, part of a human stream that fueled industry from Butte to Trinidad and Price to Pueblo. My grandmother never learned English, resolutely expecting to return to the “old country.” This dirt-street, makeshift town where nothing grows isn’t for me, she must have thought.

The Slovenes in Rock Springs formed a social and fraternal lodge and built a meeting hall, the Slovenski Dom, exactly a century ago. They also brought robust, left-radical politics, mixed with accordion music and wine, to the Dom, where lodge members could buy health and life insurance.

The national headquarters of the Socialist Party in Chicago furnished the dues ledger to the local party, which also met at the Dom and stored materials there, including a thin paperback titled “Kommunisticni Manifest,” in Slovene. But also shelved was “Socialism: The Plain English of It,” a 1915 publication by W.M. Frysinger of Healdsburg, Calif., which pointedly notes socialism “Is Not” communism, backs property ownership and eschews violence.

The party maintained a checking account at a Rock Springs bank. One statement showed a check made out to the Dom, where my grandfather, John Putz, was a lodge official. He adapted more easily to Wyoming than his wife did, and parlayed his blacksmith skills into a shop that supplied custom horseshoes and reconditioned sheep-wagon springs. He also had interests in the Nash garage and a saloon -- a true small businessman.

The account book listed other familiar names: Kos, Subic, Potochnik -- relatives, or friends, from my Rock Springs days. But never did anyone I knew nor my parents murmur a word about “socialism.”

If anything, local Yugoslavs downplayed their ethnicity, even posing with a banner declaring allegiance to the United States. No surprise, considering the rampant suspicion of foreigners, especially Eastern Europeans, during both world wars, and later during the red-hunting Sen. Joseph McCarthy era. I’ve read that similar lodges in Minnesota and elsewhere fell under considerable scrutiny during those times.

Wyoming, dominated by conservative rancher-Republicans, followed suit. In the 1940s, Republican governor and later Sen. Milward Simpson, father of former Wyoming Sen. Al Simpson, warned that some teachers were communists: “The little red schoolhouse is redder than you think,” he warned. Republican Rep. William Henry Harrison of Wyoming alleged "socialism and communism" were invading the government. McCarthy himself campaigned in Wyoming for Republicans. Rock Springs, meanwhile, with its coal-miner unions, evolved into an island of Democrats.

I remember Rock Springs schools as an ethnic mishmash that nurtured open-mindedness and my own willingness to ask questions. I also recall Democratic rallies at the Dom, listening to politicos like Wyoming Rep. Teno Roncalio, a local Italian youth who rubbed shoulders with the Kennedys.

But the ledger entry, it turned out, belonged to my grandfather’s brother, Frank. “Your grandma always said his brother was a socialist,” my Rock Springs aunt declared when I called her, the last living direct link to my past. But no, she added vigorously, my grandpa was never a socialist. So I don’t know for sure what my grandfather’s political preferences were, but my memories of him suggest his heart was with the fraternal leanings of the collective and the lodge.

Now, a century later, much of that old-style fraternalism seems vindicated. I like to think that my relatives were on the cutting edge of the new politics of collectiveness, and, perhaps, even socialism.

Paul Krza is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in New Mexico when he’s not travelling the world.

 

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