Sherburne History Center

Sherburne History Center
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Friday, June 5, 2020

Fear and Anger in Elk River

An abundance of stories exist describing the anger and backlash against Germany during World War One.  Numerous stories tell of American cities changing street names to no longer reflect a German influence. Or, restaurants changing menu items, such as the hamburger suddenly became a Liberty sandwich, or sauerkraut became liberty cabbage.  Memoirs in the Sherburne History Center collections serve as reminders that Elk River displayed an animosity towards Germany.  The story of this animosity, however, faded from memory and did not come back to light until the 1990s.  The actions in Elk River expose an interesting character trait for the small city. 

In 1917, with the United States preparing for war, patriotic fervor seemed omnipresent.  In the case of Elk River High School students initiated action to force the removal of German language instruction from the curriculum.  Students walked out on strike, refusing to return to the classroom until the teaching of German ceased.  The action threatened to divide the town until the County Attorney entered the fray to negotiate an end to the protest.  The teaching of German would stop, the textbooks were removed from the school, and students were required to attend early morning classes to make-up for lost instruction. 
Although during WWI German text books were removed
from the schools many German language books like
this collection of German folk tales remained in the
households around Sherburne County

The students returned to the classroom and the protest faded from memory until 1990.  In the 90s Holy Trinity Episcopal Church developed plans to paint the exterior of their building.  At the top of the building a slender finial “stretched to the heavens.”  When the painters began to paint the belfry, they found the usual debris of frayed rope from the bell tower, and a large number of weathered, rotten books.  The German textbooks from 7 decades earlier.  Apparently, the German textbooks from the World War One protest had been stored in the church belfry and forgotten.  Only to come to light when the new paint work neared completion. 

The memory of the disappearing German textbooks suggests interesting insight into the community of Elk River.  While the war inspired heated passions that threatened to divide the town, the County Attorney and leaders of Holy Trinity church came forward in an effort to reduce the tensions and find a solution to the student demands.  By the time the war ended and life in Elk River returned to some semblance of normal, the textbooks were forgotten and allowed to sit in the church belfry for nearly 70 more years. 

In large cities and in small towns, World War One generated deep passions and revealed significant emotions for the times.  Fear and anger revealed themselves in the populace of Elk River in these years of the first great war of the twentieth century.

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