The Socialists are coming! The Socialists are coming!
Like some warped Trumpian version of Paul Revere, modern far-right Wyomingites sound the alarm. From U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis, who won election in 2020 pledging to “stop the socialist agenda,” to rank-and-file Republicans, the clarion call warns a “socialist style of government” would destroy the “Wyoming way of life.”
But the fear-mongers omit a key fact. Socialism has been in Wyoming for a century-plus, brought by immigrants, including, as I found out fairly recently, some of my ancestors.
And it’s hardly a threat to the “Wyoming way.” That’s because it’s furthered mine safety laws and eight-hour work days for laborers in dangerous underground coal mines and advanced conservative-lauded values like community, family and fraternalism — even entrepreneurship and private property.
Socialism, as a political force, peaked in Wyoming in the early 1900s, in mining areas in Sweetwater, Carbon, Lincoln and Uinta counties. Immigrants in Rock Springs, a rough mining camp established by the Union Pacific Railroad to fuel locomotives, readily adopted and modified the philosophy.
Among the immigrants were John Putz — a gentle soul I knew as my grandfather — and his brother, Frank, who left Slovenia for Rock Springs around 1894. Like other immigrants, harsh economic and political conditions in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire prompted their departure, and they hoped to save enough to return to their green “old country.” My other Slovenian grandfather, John Krza, also a coal miner, came to Rock Springs a decade later.
The Union Pacific began recruiting miners from southern Europe after the shocking 1885 “Chinese Massacre” in Rock Springs. A white-miner mob slaughtered scores of Chinese miners and their families. The perpetrators were mostly earlier-migrating Northern Europeans who hated the Chinese for their “foreign” culture and willingness to work for less. My historian uncle, Henry Chadey, who established the Sweetwater County Museum, said at a 1985 forum 100 years after the massacre there was no doubt racism was the cause, characterizing Rock Springs, as a “kind of a Southern town. I’m sorry to say this, but they had kind of a Southern attitude.”
Union Pacific’s recruiting from southeast Europe subsequently stocked Rock Springs with a multiplicity of ethnicities that embraced more tolerant, cooperative-oriented political attitudes. This included my Slovenian ancestors, members of one of the largest ethnic groups.
Wyoming immigrant miners first pressed for safer working conditions by joining unions, according to the 1989 book, “Forgotten Frontier: A History of Wyoming Coal Mining,” by retired Western Wyoming College history professor Dudley Gardner. “To the immigrants, the union’s political strength made joining a labor organization attractive,” he wrote, and “to accomplish their goals, miners in Wyoming supported a variety of political parties, including the Socialist Party.”
As the UP’s shantytown on the Bitter Creek began growing, immigrants, realizing they wouldn’t be returning to their homelands, settled in, sent for brides and relatives and built a community center. My grandfather’s brother-in-law, John Mrak, his wedding best-man and later business partner, even brought his parents to Rock Springs after all their children left Slovenia.
The Slovenski Dom, or Slovenian Home, was erected in Rock Springs in 1914, next to the then-buried remnants of “Chinatown.” (My grandfather Putz was listed as treasurer in the 1915 Dom “articles of incorporation.”) Slovenian and Croatian lodges met at the Dom and provided health and life insurance (I still have my paid-up policy, from the SNPJ lodge). Each October, the Dom hosted the “Grape Dance,” an old-country tradition linked to wine-making. My grandfather, who built a wine cellar in his house, arranged annually with other Slovenians for delivery of a boxcar of California grapes to make wine.
The Dom was also a meeting place for the Slovenian Socialists. The South Slavic Socialist Organization, Local No. 136 shelved books in the Dom library, including its dues ledger, where members, mostly coal miners, were listed.
When I visited Rock Springs in the early 2000s, a Dom official, concerned that valuable Slovene books might be lost because the building was leased and no longer a center of Slovenian activity, asked me to take some for safekeeping. That’s when I found the ledger. My grandfather’s brother Frank was a member, identified as a “salooner” in one dues listing.
The early 1900s were a high-water mark for Wyoming Socialists, when they ran candidates in Rock Springs for municipal offices and in 1908 held a statewide convention in Rock Springs. The United Mine Workers hosted Socialist lectures, including one in 1902 by Colorado suffragist and Socialist Ida Crouch Hazlett, according to Gardner. Another historian, David R. Berman, in his “Radicalism in the Mountain West, 1890-1920,” noted that Eugene Debs, 1912 Socialist Party candidate for president, came to Rock Springs in 1910 to speak at the UMW’s Labor Temple. Debs polled about 7% of the five-candidate 1912 presidential vote in Wyoming, with Democrat Woodrow Wilson on top.
The early 1900s were also a time of political turmoil in the U.S. The run-up to World War I and the Russian Revolution inflamed suspicion of Southern Europeans and their Socialist inclinations. In 1917, Congress passed the “Espionage Act.” Debs was arrested and charged with urging the “working class” to “destroy all enslaving and degrading capitalist institutions and re-create them as free and humanizing institutions.” Conservatives began lumping leftists, liberals, socialists and communists together, beginning with the 1918-19 “Red Scare.”
The century-old red-baiting tactic is, sadly, right at home in the politics of 2021 Wyoming.
Settling in, in Sweetwater
What I’ve learned from studying my family history is that my immigrant ancestors survived in Rock Spring by weaving a socialist community net, including joining unions. Sweetwater County evolved into a Democratic Party “stronghold” in a sea of conservative Wyoming Republicans. My father, Albert, also a coal miner, was a staunch Democrat and member of the United Mine Workers of America. I recall attending raucous end-of-campaign Wyoming Democratic Party election rallies, by tradition staged at the Dom. Several featured a fiery speech by U.S. Rep. Teno Roncalio, a Rock Springs “rags-to-riches” Italian immigrant and friend of the Kennedys.
To discredit Democrats and liberals, Wyoming Republicans meanwhile continued the anti-leftist drumbeat. Wyoming Republican Gov. and U.S. Sen. Milward Simpson talked up “the little red schoolhouse” in the 1940s. In the 1950s, U.S. House Republican Rep. William Henry Harrison warned about “socialism and communism.” Even into the 1990s I endured similar ideological assaults when I wrote edgy weekly columns on Wyoming politics and culture for the Casper Star-Tribune, many focusing on the Republican power structure. “AlI of you bewhiskered people with funny names who work for the Tribune sound like a bunch of anti-Americans,” one anonymous person wrote me, misspelling my name “Kraza.”
So what is socialism, and does it pose the grim dangers right-wing politicians claim? According to another of the 1900s Dom library books that I recovered, “Socialism: The Plain English of It,” by W.M. Frysinger, socialism is “not Communism, anarchism or state socialism.” Rather, Frysinger wrote, it is “a better way out,” a “peaceful revolution,” “universal education” — operating public enterprises for public benefit and giving laborers a share of profits. He quotes Helen Keller, who when asked why she was a Socialist, replied simply “I thought.”
As I researched, I also encountered a modern Republican/Rock Springs immigrant irony: Midway between my grandparents’ Putz’s modest home and the Dom was a market, owned by the Gosars — Slovenian and Basque immigrants. One offspring is Paul, born in Rock Springs and currently a Republican U.S. Representative from Arizona. He’s an ardent Donald Trump supporter, and even scaled Trump’s border wall on the American side to demonstrate its effectiveness in keeping immigrants out.
Much-maligned socialism looks a lot like the values that Wyoming’s modern body politic professes to hold dear. Grandpa Putz was a Rock Springs entrepreneur who opened his own blacksmith shop, repaired ranchers’ sheep wagons, fashioned horseshoes and crafted his own tools. He was part owner of an automotive garage and a saloon. He didn’t parlay his enterprises into a big business. No, he was just a loving, caring, family oriented person who savored his work. On Sundays, when we visited Grandma and Grandpa Putz in their modest home, I read their National Geographic magazines and the Denver Post, which opened my eyes to the world.
That’s my recollection of “socialism” in Wyoming — knitting the social fabric of family and community in Rock Springs. For me, true Wyoming socialism means folks trying to make things work for people, not money — hardly a dire threat to the Equality State.
And in these times, with rising health care costs, and when essential services like the internet and airlines are profit- and not people-centered, perhaps, as my ancestors, like Helen Keller “thought,” political socialism might be worth exploring — even in Wyoming.