More than 80 years ago, about 200 hooded, white-sheet clad Ku Klux Klan members marched through the streets of Yampa as immigrant workers from nearby lettuce fields watched.
For some, the image of the KKK parading through towns of Northwest Colorado seems unthinkable, but local Yampa historian Paul Bonnifield said their presence was very much a social and political reality in the 1920s.
Bonnifield, who holds a doctorate in history and has done research on the KKK in Routt County, will give a talk Wednesday night as part of Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Enrichment Program. Along with Bonnifield's lecture, the program will feature a Martin Luther King tribute video in honor of Black History Month.
The organizer of the program, Janie Swartz, said she heard Bonnifield give a talk about the subject in December in Yampa and thought it would be of interest to people in Steamboat Springs.
"We are so liberal here, we can forget that it hasn't always been that way," Swartz said.
Bonnifield, who has lived in Northwest Colorado for most of his 68 years, said he had always heard inklings of the KKK in Routt County. But it was not until recently, while he was doing general historical research and flipping through old newspapers, that he realized how much of a role KKK played in the community.
" I did know there was a Klan in the 1920s, but I didn't realize it was to the extent it was until I got into the papers," Bonnifield said.
Although the KKK is known as a secretive society, its presence in Routt County was not hard to document, Bonnifield said. The members' activities and the political candidates who sided with their views were splashed across the front pages of the local newspapers.
"Everyone knew who they were and talked about it," Bonnifield said.
The KKK held meetings, burned crosses and even had political candidates run for offices in Routt County.
One KKK meeting had members march through Yampa in their secretive garb. The Klan members paraded down the three blocks of the town as immigrants from India picking lettuce in nearby fields watched, Bonnifield said.
The KKK was not the only radical organization at the time. Oak Creek also had a strong socialist party and labor unions.
"They were the reactions to the changes that had come on after War World I," Bonnifield said.
The organizations were formed partially in response to the large numbers of immigrants who lived in Routt County at the time to work in the coalmines and fields.
Bonnifield said that just about every European language was spoken in Oak Creek during the 1920s and that there were workers from Japan and India, as well.
A "super patriotism" ideology also proliferated throughout the county and country during the era, and Oak Creek was a wide-open town with gambling and prostitution, Bonnifield said.
The lessons learned about the KKK in Routt County more than 80 years ago still can be applied in today's world, but Bonnifield said the lecture Wednesday night will be a history lesson and not a sermon.
"I think we can learn a great deal by looking at history objectively," he said.
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