The Local History

by Logan Camporeale

Reverend C. A. Rexroad: Grand Cyclops of Spokane

The Ku Klux Klan in Spokane

The Ku Klux Klan invokes visions of hooded men burning crosses and intimidating non-whites in southern states. But in the 1920s, those frightening sights would have been familiar to Spokanites, too.

The Spokane Chapter of the Ku Klux Klan was organized in 1921 with elected officers, membership dues, and over 100 members. According to local newspapers, the upstart Klan was relying on political influence more than violence to achieve their goals. Most individuals who belonged to the Klan maintained their anonymity, and the members names were rarely published in the newspapers.

One Klansman though, Reverend C. A. Rexroad, was not shy about his affiliation with the robe and hood. Rexroad, a long time minister, moved to Spokane from Butte, Montana where he became the pastor at the Corbin Park Methodist Episcopal Church. Rexroad came under fire when he was outed in the newspapers as the Grand Cyclops of the Spokane Ku Klux Klan. His photo was plastered in the headlines and his bosses were notified of his role in the KKK. 

Due to public outcry, Rexroad was removed as the National Guard Champlain, his membership in the American Legion was questioned, and the board of the Corbin Park Methodist Episcopal Church met to determine Rexroad’s future. The board unequivocally supported the reverend and vowed to “stand behind Mr. Rexroad no matter what comes or goes.”

Klan gathering described in pro-Klan newspaper, The Fraternalist, June 12, 1924.

Although there was no substantial opposition to the Klan, one group formed a resistance. The Organization of the Three Brothers was founded in 1921 with the hope of removing all KKK members from political office in Spokane. (I have not discovered anyone specifically, but this likely means that Klan members did hold political office in Spokane.) Despite their efforts, the Klan continued to grow through the 1920s.

In 1924, under Rexroad’s leadership, the Spokane Chapter of the Ku Klux Klan held a large initiation ceremony on Five Mile Prairie. One hundred and fifty new members were initiated while they stood at the base of a ninety foot tall cross engulfed in flames. According to a pro-klan newspaper, over 4,000 klansman and 3,000 visitors attended the ceremony. Although smaller than chapters in southern cities or in Portland, the Klan was a powerful political force in 1920s Spokane.

 

This article was originally published in Nostalgia Magazine as part of my bi-monthly column “Heroes and Scoundrels.”

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Walter Lawson: Breaking Down Barriers, Upholding the Law

-Walter Lawson served the Spokane Police Department for eighteen years

When the 1900 United States Census was taken, there were 376 black residents in Spokane, making up slightly more than one percent of the city’s total population. One of those residents, Walter Lawson, moved to Spokane in 1894 where he became an officer for the Spokane Police Department.

Members of the 25th Infantry Buffalo Soldiers at Ft. Keogh, Montana, 1890, courtesy of Library of Congress.

Before arriving in Spokane, Lawson completed five years in the United States Army. He enlisted for his term in 1886 and became a member of the 25th Infantry Regiment, a segregated unit of black soldiers often referred to as the Buffalo Soldiers. During Lawson’s time in the service, the 25th Infantry was stationed in the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Montana. They did not see much active combat but the regiment was involved in the Ghost Dance War, a months-long armed conflict that ended with the Wounded Knee Massacre.

After his service, Lawson settled in Spokane with his wife Millie and began work as a porter at downtown hotels. Hauling luggage was not as exciting as soldier life, but in 1899 his military experience paid off. He was hired as a special policeman with the Spokane Police Department.

Officer Walter Lawson soon after he was hired by the Spokane Police Department, c1900, courtesy of Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

In 1905, a terrible crime occurred in Spokane. An abusive husband shot his wife in the abdomen and knee, and left her to die. The woman bled on the floor for hours before crawling to a neighbors home seeking help. She was taken to Sacred Heart Hospital where she was treated for her wounds, but her attacker was still at large. Officer Lawson located the man the next morning and apprehended him. As Lawson made the arrest, a .38 caliber revolver fell from the suspect’s pocket. Lawson had his man, and the likely assault weapon.

Officer Lawson worked over eighteen years with the Spokane Police Department serving in various positions including as a stock policeman, a driver, and a patrolman. In 1917, while still working for the department, the well-liked officer, husband, and father passed away. Much of the city was devastated. The Police Chief and fellow officers lauded him as “one of the bravest officers who ever wore the blue or swung a nightstick.” Newspapers across the nation exclaimed Lawson’s death noting that the Pacific Coast was now without a single black police officer.

 This article was originally published in Nostalgia Magazine as part of my bi-monthly column “Heroes and Scoundrels.”

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“Baby Face” Bobby Landis

-Bobby Landis killed a cop, an inmate, and attempted multiple prison escapes.

Bobby Landis was a scoundrel. Before he set foot in Spokane at sixteen years of age, he was an accomplished thief, who had shot and nearly killed a druggist. His crimes had earned him a fourteen month stay at a reformatory for young boys, and when released he violated the terms of his parole. This was just the prologue of Landis’ wrap sheet, once he arrived in the Inland Northwest he became an infamous criminal and an uncontrollable prisoner.

Detective Roy Fordyce, Image Courtesy of Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture

On November 13, 1929, Spokane Police Detectives witnessed two boys buying a handgun from a pawn shop on West Main Avenue. The detectives, Roy Fordyce and George Bradley, confronted the suspicious pair as they left the shop. The detectives questioned the boys and, after learning they were staying across the street at the dodgy Spokoma Hotel, asked to search their room. The boys agreed and the group headed up to the third floor of the building. It is unclear exactly what transpired after they entered the room, but moments later the unmistakable sound of gunshots poured from the hotel.

The Daily Tribune, 11/23/1929, Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin

When the firing came to a stop, the boys were apprehended but both officers had been shot, and Detective Roy Fordyce lay dead on the floor. The suspects were arrested and one of the boys, “Baby Face” Bobby Landis, took responsibility for the murder and confessed to shooting his weapon first. After a dramatic trial, the jury convicted Landis of murder of a police officer. The young murderer was spared the death penalty, in part due to his age and his questionable mental stability, and he was sentenced to life in prison at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington.

Landis took the life sentence in stride. Less than a year after he arrived, he made his first escape attempt. The convict made it over the first prison wall but he gave up when guards started shooting at him. Landis was not discouraged though. Eighteen months later, he sprinted across the yard and pole-vaulted over the west prison wall. This time he made it out, but he was recaptured later that day and returned to the prison. In another daring escape attempt, Landis, with a group of fellow inmates, hijacked a prison truck and led guards on a chase through downtown Walla Walla ending in a gunfight that left Landis wounded.

Before he faded from the public eye, Landis added one more dark line to his already extensive wrap sheet. He and another prisoner from Spokane County, Joe McWilliams, had been bumping heads. At some point, Landis had enough of McWilliams antics. One morning, while the two were in the exercise area together, Landis drew a handmade knife and stabbed McWilliams twice, once in the stomach and again in the chest. McWilliams spent the next three months in the prison hospital before succumbing to his wounds. He was not tried for the crime, but “Baby Face” Bobby Landis had killed again.

In just over three years at the penitentiary, Landis nearly escaped three times and killed a fellow inmate. But, despite his turbulent start, the convict settled in to prison life and never committed another major violation. Although he was handed a life sentence, after serving nearly twenty-two years Robert Landis was paroled from the penitentiary in 1951. “One of the prison’s all-time worst headaches had,” according to the Spokesman-Review, “mellowed and matured with manhood.”

This article was originally published in Nostalgia Magazine as part of my bi-monthly column “Heroes and Scoundrels.”

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Francis Cook: The Father of (Mt.) Spokane and an Early Spokane Booster

-Francis Cook’s legacy is evident in green space sprinkled across Spokane County.

On an early summer morning in August 1912, sixty-one year old Francis H. Cook climbed into an open roof automobile alongside some of the most important people in Spokane and Washington State. The caravan of finely dressed dignitaries included W. J. Hindley, Mayor of Spokane, Marguerite Motie, the first Miss Spokane, and Marion E. Hay, Governor of Washington State. The group, joyfully waving green and yellow pennants, headed northeast to put a capstone on one of Cook’s most important accomplishments, a freshly graded road to a newly accessible recreation paradise atop the tallest mountain in Spokane County.

Francis Cook and dignitaries in a procession of automobiles on Riverside Avenue before embarking on their journey to rename Mt. Spokane on August 23, 1912. Image Courtesy of Washington State Archives, Digital Archives

Francis Cook came to Spokane in 1879 when only about 300 white people called the city home. He started the region’s first newspaper, The Spokan Times, and he was one of the city’s first and most effective boosters. Early editions of his newspaper encouraged readers to share the paper with friends and family encouraging them to settle in the “Wonderful Spokan Country.” His paper included a regular column,

“How to Reach this Country,” which provided detailed instructions and approximate costs to arrange transportation to Spokane. His newspaper was a bullhorn featuring a regular sales pitch for the City of Spokane.

Cook did more than beg people to move to Spokane; he helped develop the city. In 1888, he started the city’s first interurban railroad that connected Downtown Spokane with the South Hill. The steam powered train provided easy transportation to and from Cook’s newly planned neighborhood, the Montrose Addition, which later became the Manito neighborhood and park. In far north Spokane, he developed the area that became the Wandermere Golf Course and neighborhood. Cook’s efforts paid off as he watched the City of Spokane grow from a few dozen pioneer families to over 100,000 residents.

Spokane dignitaries raise the United States and Spokane flags at the top of Mt. Spokane in 1912. Mt. Spokane was renamed on this occasion. It was previously called Mt. Baldy or Mt. Carlton, and not surprisingly, its renaming was met with some resistance at the time. According to the Spokane Tribe, the original name for the mountain is “scq’wulsm,” referring to a place with dried flowers and leaves. Photo courtesy of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (L96-39.49).

Although his life was not without speed bumps, in August of 1912, when he departed with the automobile procession of dignitaries to christen his most recent project, his life accomplishments were realized and recognized. When they reached the top of his new road, which the Spokane Daily Chronicle lauded as “the longest auto grade in the world,” a ceremony was conducted where the United States flag and Spokane’s municipal flag were staked at the summit. Miss Spokane addressed the group, “You, our mountain, have been a true friend to Spokane. Our act this day cannot be more than a weak recognition of our love for you. You shall have the best we have to give—our name itself. I christen thee Beautiful Mount Spokane.” After years of hard manual labor building the road with his son, and after decades of boosting Spokane’s image, Cook was recognized for his work and the mountain was named after the project he cared most deeply about, the development of the City of Spokane.

 

This article was originally published in Nostalgia Magazine as part of my bi-monthly column “Heroes and Scoundrels.”

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Spokanite

What do you call someone from Spokane? A Spokanite, of course.

Words like Spokanite and Seattleite are called demonyms. They are convenient descriptors that are often touted with a sense of pride. Spokanite has been widely used to identify residents of the city for over 130 years, since before Washington became a state and even before the “Falls” was dropped from the city’s name. A search of newspaper databases and Google Books returned an abundance of hits for Spokanite with the first coming from the 1880s. A couple of the earliest occurrences stood out.

The Washington Standard, November 26, 1886

The Washington Standard was one of the first newspapers to publish the word Spokanite. On November 26, 1886, the newspaper reported that the city of Spokane Falls had won back the county seat of Spokane County, after having it stolen away just six years earlier. The short, sixty-three word article recounts a defining moment in the history of the county and purposefully uses demonyms to differentiate the two parties involved: Cheneyites and Spokanites.

Patent Image of Boyle’s Saluting Device

The earliest occurrence of Spokanite on Google Books is from ten years later. The American Stationer, a magazine focused on the stationary and “fancy goods” businesses, used the word in March of 1896. The publication ran a feature about a peculiar invention from a Spokane man named James Boyle, whom they identified as a Spokanite. The invention, a “Saluting Device,” allowed a hat-wearer to automatically tip their hat in salute by simply bowing their head. At the turn of the century, it was expected for men to tip their hat as a sign of respect. According to the article, this device was “intended to relieve the wearer from the labor of lifting his hat.” Boyle received a patent for the invention but, unlike the word Spokanite, his Saluting Device did not catch on.

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