by Kelli Huggins
In the summer of 1930, a local scandal erupted when people discovered that there was a Communist summer camp for children operating in the town of Van Etten. The fervor of the Red Scare had died down since its peak in the early 1920s, but many Americans still feared the threat of Communism. The Van Etten Workers' International Relief Camp housed 100 children ages 7-17 who hailed from New York and surrounding states. The camp was the target of local animosity from the time it opened on July 6. Leaders reported shots fired at camp from a car and the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross nearby. There were rumors that the children were neglected and that the camp used a hen house for a kitchen, but these were all untrue. However, these incidents were just a prelude for the life-threatening drama that would erupt in mid-August.
On Tuesday August 12, 1930, Mabel Husa and Ailene Holmes, the directors of the camp, were charged with desecrating the American flag. The women, both in their early 20s, were charged based on accusations by local American Legion members stemming from an incident at the camp on August 8.
The exact events of August 8 are difficult to ascertain because both sides told different stories. That day, members of the Legion and the Patriotic Order of America arrived at the camp uninvited and tried to present the camp leaders with an American flag and asked that they run it up the pole. Husa and Holmes refused the offer and told the group to leave. Undeterred, the Legion members raised the flag across the street from the camp. Then, a boy from the camp allegedly ran out with the camp flag (which was similar to the Soviet flag) and ran it up a nearby telephone pole so that it was higher than the American flag. After that, the stories diverge. According to the Legion members, Husa allegedly led the children to the flag to boo at it. Mrs. Victoria Koons said the children stuck their tongues out at the flag, expressing her disgust with the following weirdly descriptive statement: "I saw more yards of tongue than I ever saw before." The children were also said to chant anti-American and anti-flag slogans.
Holmes and Husa refuted the Legion's claims. Holmes said she respected the American flag and considered it her flag, but she did think it "represented the rule of the boss class over the workers' class." She also claimed that the children's "boos" were directed at their visitors, not the flag, and that they were chanting "Down with the American Legion" and "Down with the Ku Klux Klan."
The situation turned dangerous a couple days later when the women's trial was delayed briefly in order for them to secure council. On Thursday, August 14, 1930, a mob of 500 men surrounded the camp with the intention to burn it to the ground. 25 of those men went into the camp to tell them to remove the children but they were told the children would stay. In less than an hour, the crowd outside had grown to 2,000 people. A local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan was meeting nearby on school grounds and headed to lend their support to the mob. Simultaneously, a meeting of Finnish immigrants and descendants was also meeting and they joined in to support the camp leaders (there was a large influx of Finnish immigrants to the region beginning in the early 20th century). Police were able to first split up the supporters and detractors, and eventually, dispersed the entire group by 1:30 am, thereby averting any violence.
The camp closed Saturday and children were sent home. When the trial resumed, 150 people packed the small Van Etten Town Hall. On August 18, the women were found guilty and sentenced to three months in the Monroe County Penitentiary in Rochester and received $50 fines. Husa and Holmes remained defiant. Talking to reporters, Husa decried the "un-American attitude of the men who call themselves Americans and who in numbers would seek to attack three defenseless women and 70 helpless children to gratify their supposed sense of patriotism...Surely it must require great bravery for our visitors to throw stones with women as their apparent targets...The Reds, whom that crowd seems intent upon destroying, cannot do much worse by way of showing disrespect for law, liberty and the rights of human beings regardless of their religious or political beliefs."
Public sentiment on the case was divided. Many in the press were sympathetic to the women, especially in light on the incident with the mob. One report of their arrival in Rochester is as follows: "Two pleasant young ladies, barely past the high school ages, with blonde bobbed hair and the healthy tan of a summer in the open on their cheeks, arrived in town...They didn't have any horns on their heads nor any bombs secreted on their persons..."
An August 30 editorial in the Ogdensburg Republican-Journal was more scathing: "The whole episode savors of that superheated 'patriotism' that caused so much trouble in this country during and directly after the late war. So far as reported, the camp was being conducted peacefully until the appearance of the mob...What right had the men to interfere in the business of the camp? By what exceptional virtues were they qualified to dictate patriotism to the camp? The action of the mob was much like the Ku Klux Klan...The mob's 'patriotism' was the poorest sort. The country would be much better off without it. Assuredly no medals for bravery need be awarded for mobbing two women and a group of children.
On August 27, the women were released from the prison on $500 bonds after being granted appeal. They lost the appeal on November 19, 1930. Even though we historically associate these types of incidents with the first Red Scare of the immediate post-World War I years and the second McCarthyism Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s, the story of the Van Etten camp in 1930 serves as a reminder that fears about the rise of Communism did not disappear in the years between.
Kelli Huggins is the Education Coordinator at the Chemung County Historical Society. To see this and more of their blog, click HERE