Historian takes close look at ‘dirty time’ in Billings’ history


Western Heritage Center

In early November 1917, Herman Schwanz, a blacksmith and member of the Billings City Council, was forced to resign over his supposed pro-German sympathies, nine months after the United States entered World War I.

Just shy of 100 years ago, unpatriotic “slackers” in Billings were put on notice.

It was reported in the Oct. 26, 1917, edition of the Billings Evening Journal that residents who refused to buy war bonds — and those who seemed to have “undersubscribed,” given their incomes and assets — would soon be punished.

Slackers would be thrown out of lodges, churches and clubs to which they belonged, and those who owned businesses would be the target of boycotts. If the insufficiently patriotic were public officeholders, their resignations would be demanded, “and if refused, enforced in another manner.”

The warning had been issued by a group known as the Third Degree Committee, made up of “more than 100 business and professional men of Billings” and dedicated to building support for America and its allies in the Great War, which the United States had entered in April 1917. In less than two weeks, the committee made good on its threats.

A member of the Billings City Council was forced to resign, and a prominent architect was pressured to give up his seat on a state architectural board, the Evening Journal reported on Nov. 6.

Worse treatment was meted out to a Minnesota Avenue “meat market proprietor” named E. Kortzeborne Sr., who was marched through the streets of Billings and forced to kiss an American flag in front of the Grand Hotel. Kortzeborne was also ordered to renew his oath of allegiance to the United States, which he did, “all the while protesting his loyalty.”

It was, in the words of Elisabeth DeGrenier, community history at the Western Heritage Center, “a dirty time” in the history of Billings.

DeGrenier will talk about that episode Friday in Helena as part of the 44th annual Montana History Conference, titled “Montana 1917: Time of Trouble, Time of Change.” Running Thursday through Saturday, the conference will feature numerous presentations and workshops for educators and genealogists.

Kevin Kooistra, director of the Western Heritage Center in Billings and DeGrenier’s predecessor as community history, will make two presentations Friday, both on aspects of women’s involvement in the war effort in Billings. A complete program for the three-day event can be found here.

DeGrenier said Kooistra suggested that she look into the incident involving the Third Degree Committee, about which he had previously seen nothing but the Evening Journal article of Nov. 6, 1917. DeGrenier has been doing more research on that era this summer in preparation for her talk in Helena, adding context and detail to what was reported in the press. She has been pleased with what she’s found.

“When Kevin says, ‘Oh, I’ve never heard of that,’ I know I’m onto something good,” she said.

She discovered, for instance that the architect targeted by the Third Degree Committee, C.C. Oehme, apparently was charged with being a German sympathizer based on statements made by his ex-wife in divorce proceedings. He was a prominent architect who had designed Broadwater Elementary School, but his reputation didn’t save him from the wrath of committee.


Elisabeth DeGrenier

Members of the committee went to Oehme’s office in the Stapleton Building at First Avenue North and North Broadway and he was, like Kortzeborne, forced to repeat the oath of loyalty. He was then marched to the Western Union telegraph office and ordered to wire his resignation from the state architectural board to the governor.

Schwanz was confronted during a City Council meeting, accused of failing to buy Liberty Bonds, used to support the war effort. He was pressured to resign on the spot, which he did, but not before attempting to counter the accusations of the committee.

Schwanz, according to the Evening Journal, said the committee had demanded he make a $5,000 subscription for Liberty Bonds, “and at that time I simply was not able to comply with what looked like an arbitrary order.”

Although the Evening Journal allowed Schwanz and Oehme to defend themselves in print, there was no question where the newspaper’s own sympathies lay. It stated flatly that the movement to “lay a firm hand on pro-German sentiment in Billings” was begun “in order to prevent violence on the part of patriotic citizens later.”

The unnamed reported added, at the end of the story: “The delegation which made the sudden move last night was representative of the city’s best citizenry.”

Billings was hardly alone in all this. The Montana Sedition Project, undertaken by the University of Montana School of Journalism, documented the cases of 79 Montanans convicted of sedition during the World War I era, most often for making treasonous or unpatriotic remarks supposedly overheard by witnesses.

DeGrenier said the Third Degree Committee was “pretty much a group of bullies in town.” She hasn’t found a list of all the members, she said, but the Oct. 26, 1917, Evening Journal article listed the organizers of the committee as O.K. Grimland, chairman, and George Bennighoff, Lee Simonson, T.J. McDonough and Harry L. Wilson.

DeGrenier has found stories about the incident in several out-of-state newspapers.

“It was reported throughout the country … and the Third Degree Committee was praised for this,” she said.

DeGrenier said she will simply be making a presentation on what happened in Billings in 1917 and will not draw any conclusions, or make any references to contemporary events.

“I’m trying to be as objective as I possibly can, but how can you not look at the parallels?” she said. “It’s inevitable.”

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