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.

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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.

Slovenian immigrant John Putz, inside his Rock Springs blacksmith shop. (Courtesy of Paul Krza)

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.”

An archival photo of the Slovenian Dom in Rock Springs. (Courtesy Paul Krza)

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.

Dues listing for Frank Putz, 1916, in the South Slavic Socialists’ financial ledger. (Paul Krza)

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.”

The South Slavic Socialists’ financial ledger, listing dues and expenses of the organization, once shelved at the Slovenski Dom and acquired by the author in the early 2000s. (Paul Krza)

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.

Paul Krza

Longtime Wyoming journalist Paul Krza also taught school in Cody, wrote sports news at American Forces Radio in Germany and spun records in his hometown, Rock Springs, where he learned journalism when...

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  1. I want to thank Arlo Vasquez for reminding us of the evils of Communism,
    especially that brand of Communism that comes automatically from what he thinks
    is socialism. Does he include fire departments, seat belts, or poliomyelitis injections?
    We don’t know. He might want to consider how conservatism can easily slide
    into Fascism, such as when well dressed young men chant “Jews will not replace us”
    or an impassioned mob of voters attacks the U.S. Capitol with the intent of over-
    throwing a legitimate election.
    All it takes is a narcissist with criminal intent like AdolphHitler, and Boom!,
    kiss your “democratic Republic” goodbye. It won’t require any deception, just the
    gullibility and ignorance of a significant part of the electorate.

    1. Fascism is an offshoot of socialism and communism. Lenin congratulated Mussolini. You are living in fascism this very moment under Facebook and Google and the Biden regime. The Trump administration bears no resemblance. Read a history book that was not written by a fascist. Amazing what the truth will teach the uninformed.

      1. Wanting to still be president after he lost.

        Weaponizing the justice department against his naysayers.

        Thinking laws (tax) don’t apply to him.

        Firing anyone who disagreed with him.

        Encouraging an insurrection on the day his replacement is sworn in.

        Sharing information with dictators that he “admired”

        Casting doubt on free and fair elections because he didn’t like the result.

        Using military and police to disperse peaceful crowds for a photo-op

        Saying he wanted to rewrite law so he could serve more than a limited two terms.

        Targeting journalists and saying they are the enemy of the people.

        It sure isn’t Biden or any other president that has done these things. It was your lord and savior chrump.

        When will he walk on water?

  2. Excellent history lesson.. thank you! I’m a retired progressive from Colo. living in Superior. Knew what i was getting into but didn’t think it would be this bad. In the last election so many amazing Democrats including women were running for office and look what we got! And at a time when we knew big changes would have to happen with the coal and oil transition. State has to decide how we’re going to make progress going forward and maintain their population and growth. Can we start with a simple income tax perhaps??

  3. Although the anecdotal family history was interesting, the inference that socialism is great is misguided. Although far from perfect, our democratic Republic has offered more opportunity, more freedoms, and more prosperity than any other system. Remember that even the pilgrims attempted Socialism and it failed.

    The deceptive promotion of Socialism/Communism by the far-Left coalition of media, tech, academia, celebrities, the wealthy elites is contingent on the ignorance, or worse, the revision of history. The reality, that history proves time and time again, that Socialism/Marxism/Cultural Marxism/Communism only leads to totalitarianism. Far more people have died under Marxist tyranny than the World Wars combined. Take a moment to let that sink in. The notion that the “means of production” should be in the hands of “the people” as defined by Marxism, has only led to power and control being seized by a select few “people”, who then oppress everyone else using the power of “The State”. You needn’t look further than the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Venezuela, and what is currently happening in the USA or Peru for real-world proof that belies all the rhetoric.

  4. I enjoy reading about history. Thank you for sharing a piece of yours with the rest of us. We came to Wyoming to retire. As with all things, socialism is only as successful as the wealthy allow it to be. In California it is a weapon of the rich to bludgeon the middle class. Here it must demonstrate its usefulness or be demonized. The 2 party system is working. Thank goodness for open discourse.
    We appreciate the co-ops and the low taxes and the sense of community in Wyoming. You simply do not have that in California. Don’t let your appreciation of socialism’s good points blind you to the other side of history. We must keep watch on our public servants to enjoy our blessings.

  5. Miss the days of Teno and Mr. Krza’s column. The Star Trib was actually a newspaper back then.
    I was raised in Sheridan County Montana and it was run by the Communists for six years during the 1920s. There are actually a couple of books that have been written about it. The Red Corner: The Rise and Fall of Communism in Northeast Montana by Verlaine Stoner McDonald, and Waiting for the Revolution a Montana Memoir by Anne Salisbury Troxel. “Red Flag” Charley Taylor was the editor of the Communist paper the Producer’s News and he was every bit as colorful as John Reed !

  6. When I traveled to Wyoming a couple years ago to teach a privately-sponsored course on guitar building, I remember some really nice people–neighbors and bee keepers that my host was helping. Then on a trip out of town, I saw a church with a marquee that stated that church goers were required to carry a gun as admission to that church. Horrified, I asked my host about it and he declined to answer. I think he was too embarrassed to talk about it.
    That seems to be the ethic I’m hearing about Wyoming these days–a bastion of hard-right ultra-conservatives who care nothing about the country, dedicated to Donald Trump and void of any real patriotism or concern about sustaining our democracy. What a pity. Paul Krza’s article is the real story, what needs to be done to keep Wyoming an essential part of this country. Heed him, please.

  7. Nice story. Today’s Rocket City has a fairly diverse community of people compared to the rest of Wyoming’s smaller towns (excluding Jackson). And has better wages when extractions remain strong.

    “political socialism might be worth exploring — even in Wyoming.”

    LOL. Socialism has become all sorts cherry-picked political philosophies. It is too easy for the opposition to define it in the most negative light. Along with federal handouts, Capitalism, even with its worst aspects, will define Wyoming’s political philosophy well past our deaths.

    Some things in your story never change and never will. Like bringing in immigrant workers at below prevailing wages. In Wyoming, the epicenter for this is in Teton County. Exploiting the economic desperation of Eastern Europeans, Latinos, etc for private gain by employers is the meat of many a business plan. Especially when employers can’t export jobs.

    “Chinese (railroad workers) received 30-50 percent lower wages than whites for the same job and they had to pay for their own food stuffs… They also had the most difficult and dangerous work, including tunneling and the use of explosives.”

    Sound exactly like Jackson.

  8. Thanks, Paul. You’ve provided another step in documenting Wyoming’s multi-ethnic heritage.
    John F. Freeman’s observations are spot on.
    Many Wyomingites who claim to be conservative are content to let someone else pick up the tab – channeled either directly or indirectly through state and federal governments.
    It’s an interesting Wyoming spin on the revered “Code of the West,” the Wyoming State Code of Ethics.
    As Krza notes, we have much to learn from our ancestors.

  9. Bravo. But I would also like to add Teno Roncalio, Wyoming’s at-large U.S. representative in the earlier 1970’s. The son of Italian immigrants, he was the last Democrat to represent Wyoming in Congress. When we bought the Pinedale Roundup, he sent us a letter congratulating us on our acquisition and telling us that he had hoped to buy that paper when he retired because he always loved Pinedale.

  10. We’ll cherish this great historical record and snapshot of the family tree. Thank you for doing your part to educate us all. Just think, one day your descendants will be writing about you! 🙂

  11. Nice article. As far as I know there was a lot of socialism going on in the country in the period of your grandparents. Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota and other states of this region. One of my favorite movies, Reds, with Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, and Jack Nicholson explores and romanticizes that period. The movie, like your article considers a history that most people don’t know about.

  12. I travelled the West for business for most of 30 years, and wherever you found mines you found us Slovenians! (And Croatians and Serbians…)
    Yes, another part of history not taught in the classroom – the very American version of Socialism that existed in the US in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries – ala Eugene Debs. Thanks!

  13. Yes, sir…’bout time someone decided to ACCURATELY define democratic-socialism versus the demonics of freedom & liberty-crushing, crippling, coma-inducing, corrupt, cancerous communism!!

  14. Dear “boss,” my longtime editor at the Casper Star,
    We didn’t have a union at the paper, but we definitely had community, camaraderie and common purpose! I miss it every day.

    Katharine Collins, Cora, WY

  15. Terrific article Paul. So glad to see someone remembering and honoring their roots. Wish more of the “conservative” crowd from Sweetwater County would do so. Really good to read you again. Be well

  16. Thank you. Our history is not about whether it’s left or right politics, but about what is right and what makes common sense for the welfare of all people, especially the most vulnerable.

  17. Thanks Paul for continuing to reflect our Historic Wyoming roots shared by the few remaining natives that grew up here and setting the record straight. Keep on keepin on!

  18. Paul, what a delight to see that you’re still writing columns! Thank you for explaining what liberal socialism really meant to folks in early Rock Springs. If I recall correctly, it was Gov. Herschler’s state lands commissioner who opined that Wyoming is the most conservative socialist state in the nation because of an entitlement mentality. Or as Utahan Bernard de Voto explained, the Western attitude toward government, especially the federal government is “get out, and give us more money.” Cheers.

  19. This is a great article! I have greatly enjoyed your work over the years, especially your weekly column in the Casper Star-Tribune in the 1980s. Best wishes!