South Bend, IN. Following in step with the rest of the northern Great Plains, Montana’s Sheridan County has undergone a political realignment in the past decade and a half. In the 2008 presidential election, John McCain barely eked out a victory in Sheridan County over Barack Obama, winning with a mere 49.2 percent of the vote. But just eight years later, Donald Trump decisively carried the rural county in Montana’s far northeastern corner with 67.6 percent of the vote. In 2020, he notched an even more formidable 69.1 percent.

Yet Sheridan County’s recent swing to the political Right is neither the first nor the most remarkable electoral realignment to occur in this county of farming communities that shares borders with both Canada and North Dakota. In the 1920s and 1930s, a wave of agrarian Communism engulfed Sheridan County. Area voters elected Communist-aligned radicals to the Montana State Senate and House of Representatives and installed them in nearly every office in county government. A Communist newspaper, Producers News, became one of Sheridan County’s two leading weeklies. A “Farmer-Labor Temple” became a gathering place for the budding Communist Youth Leagues springing up in small towns around the county, while a summer camp organized by local activists served as a key site for stoking adolescent enthusiasm in left-wing politics. Sheridan County’s Red reputation became so well-known that outsiders dubbed the county seat, Plentywood, “Little Moscow.” More than anywhere else on American soil, Communists would achieve astonishing popular support and unmatched electoral success on the windswept plains of Sheridan County, only to witness their local, grassroots movement there wither and die by the end of the 1930s.

In her 2010 book, The Red Corner: The Rise and Fall of Communism in Northeastern Montana, Verlaine Stoner McDonald resurrects this surprising but largely forgotten episode of agrarian radicalism. Over ten years after its publication, McDonald’s stellar work of microhistory continues to provide food for thought to readers interested in both the political promise and limits of agrarianism, localism, and left-wing populism.

McDonald grounds her account in the broader context of farmers’ movements that inspired residents of the Upper Midwest and Great Plains in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Political forerunners like the Greenback Party, William Jennings Bryan’s Populist Party, Eugene Debs’s socialist campaigns, and North Dakota’s Nonpartisan League had tilled fertile soil from which the more radical vision of Sheridan County’s agrarian Communists would grow in the 1920s. McDonald takes readers into the eclectic circles of Sheridan County’s radicals as they coalesced and organized in the late 1910s. We meet Hans Rasmussen, a Danish immigrant and homesteader; Arthur Rueber, a former minor-league baseball player turned socialist activist; and Rodney Salisbury, a mercurial county undersheriff who constantly dodged rumors of collusion with Sheridan County’s bootleggers and prostitution rings. We also meet Charles E. Taylor, a small-town journalist from Minnesota who took the helm of Sheridan County’s Producers News in 1918 and would become the mastermind of the region’s Communist insurgency. McDonald also takes readers into the closed-door meeting in 1920 where all four men vowed their loyalty to the Communist cause, plotted out their plan to take hold of the levers of local power, and agreed to cloak their radicalism beneath their public involvement with more mainstream farmers’ advocacy groups.

Their strategy quickly bore fruit. Two years later, Sheridan County sent Taylor to the Montana State Senate in Helena, elected Rasmussen as county surveyor, and voted in Salisbury as sheriff. By 1924, Sheridan County’s agrarian Communists had amassed enough power locally to begin to express their true political colors more overtly. Taylor’s Producers News began to regularly reprint articles from Communist newspapers and to defend and celebrate ongoing developments in the Soviet Union.

McDonald is a communication professor by training, and her approach to analyzing the rise and fall of Sheridan County’s agrarian Communists bears the marks of her disciplinary background. She emphasizes how Taylor’s rhetoric in the Producers News built a political movement by generating class consciousness among his rural readership in Sheridan County. Taylor’s journalistic prose was “a mix of earthiness, humor, wordplay, and occasional outright abusiveness,” McDonald observes, well-suited for his farming audience. Like other small-town newspapermen of his day, Taylor was quick to level sharp criticism against his opponents⎯typically journalists at competing, mainstream newspapers and the “Mainstreeters” who made up the county’s merchant class. McDonald argues that Taylor’s deft use of print media was a principal driver of popular support for Sheridan County’s Communists. Indeed, when a new editor, installed by the Communist Party’s New York headquarters, took the helm of Producers News in 1931 and shifted the paper away from Taylor’s swarthy vernacular towards a more doctrinaire, propagandistic style, local enthusiasm for the movement tanked.

Although McDonald does point to Sheridan County’s Protestant culture as a source of friction that slowed the momentum of its agrarian Communists, the religious dynamics of Sheridan County’s dalliance with Communism receives relatively little exploration in The Red Corner. The Communist organizers of Sheridan County gained a political foothold in a region permeated with the Protestant religiosity of Scandinavian immigrants, and yet The Red Corner only briefly and obliquely delves into the radicals’ religious views. The moments in the book in which religion does feature prominently⎯such as the local backlash over a teenage Communist’s funeral that was not merely devoid of religious content, but featured a singing of The Internationale and a pledge of allegiance to the Soviet flag⎯are tantalizing glimpses into the tensions between religious faith and radical politics there were at work during Sheridan County’s Communist moment.

In the end, according to McDonald, support for agrarian Communism in Sheridan County withered rapidly in the mid-1930s as its local organizers drifted away from the region or became disillusioned casualties to the bitter factionalism that characterized the larger Communist movement in America. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which offered a more mainstream political rallying point for the farmers who had once gravitated toward more radical politics, compounded the decline of Sheridan County’s Communists. As the decades passed and the Red Scare cast a shadow over American life, Sheridan County residents quietly tried to forget their community’s Communist past, relegating it to the hushed recesses of communal memory.

And yet echoes of Sheridan County’s Communist moment reverberate to the present. Donald Trump burst on to the American political scene in the mid-2010s and captured the attention, affection, and votes of rural America, ironically mirroring (from the political Right) the same earthy rhetoric and class-based invocations of the “silent majority” that featured heavily in Charles E. Taylor’s Producers News. Despite their clear differences in political posture, both Taylor and Trump won the loyalty of their rural constituencies because of their perceived authenticity even though it was not entirely clear whether they were operating in the best interests of farmers. Considering the events that have transpired since the book’s initial publication in 2010, The Red Corner remains not only an engaging account of an exceptional moment in the American past, but also a narrative that touches upon issues roiling the United States’ present political climate as well.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Fascinating review, thanks for sharing. Reminds me of Grass-Roots Socialism by James R. Green (LSU Press) about the dominance of the Socialist movement and party in Oklahoma and surrounding states, well into the 1940’s. Less factionalism than the CP. But the decline then transference to the conservative right by the next generation makes for an interesting tale.

  2. “Sheridan County’s recent swing to the political Right”
    This piece could use some clarification on how you are defining “political Right”–Trump ran on a platform that brutally attacked the GOP establishment and their positions, and moved in directions that it is easy to see would appeal to this area. The fact that he outperformed McCain (and I assume Romney as well?) by 20+ points doesn’t mean the voters shifted at all–he ran on a completely different platform, and one that if anything was vehemently opposed by what most observers call “the political Right”, “movement conservatives”, etc.

  3. Very interesting review, Mr. Young. I live in the opposite corner of the state. Seeing similar dynamics, as regards voting for authenticity (real or imagined), and so on. I’ve had occasion to think of Coxey’s Army a number of times lately, another largely forgotten and rather pertinent historical episode.

    Aaron

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