Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Profile: Walter Welford

I heard of the Nonpartisan League a few times as I was growing up, but just in passing, never putting a real 'face' to it, to what it really was about. In recent years, an acquaintenance of mine who is an artist - who often incorporates imagery from places, times, and movements into his work - caused me to wonder finally what was behind the NPL. He talked about the League a bit, and even had personal connections to it via older relatives of his.

This got me thinking. Was there any local connections to the movement? I recently found out, there was...

First, a synopsis of what the NPL was:
The Nonpartisan League was an agrarian movement begun in 1915 in North Dakota that soon spread to Minnesota. League members protested the poor market conditions of farmers. The League advocated economic reforms to relieve the plight of farmers, who were exploited by middlemen in the grain elevator, packinghouse, stockyard, and cold storage industries. Decried as socialist from its inception, the League actually rejected the third party approach, choosing instead to endorse whichever candidates pledged to support their program. Once World War I began, Leaguers were ruthlessly attacked as disloyal pacifists, and the Minnesota state government, through the Commission of Public Safety, was instrumental in crushing the League in 1918. After the war, these events led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that the guarantees of the Bill of Rights must be protected from state interference. - Minnesota Historical Society
Now, the local connection. It was through a man named Walter Welford.

Walter's family emigrated to America in 1879. Prior to their leaving, Walter and his parents Thomas and Jane, as well as his 6 siblings, lived on his grandfather Isaac Welford's farm. Isaac died in 1879, a deciding factor that made Thomas take his family to start a new life in America.

Somehow they found themselves in North Dakota by the time of the 1880 Census, which lists Thomas and his family as residents in Pembina, Pembina County, Dakota Territory, with a date of immigration listed as 1879. A point of interest is that Thomas was Postmaster of Welford Post Office, Pembina County. This was a farm post office established January 5, 1886 with Thomas Welford as Postmaster. It was located in the northwest quarter of section 7-163-52, Pembina Township seven miles southeast of Neche. A rural community developed, reporting a population of 25 in 1890. The post office closed July 30, 1904 with mail going to Neche after that. A little bit of trivia many if not most of us probably don't know even though we grew up there.

When Walter grew up, he eventually served as township clerk at Pembina for twenty years. He also served in the State House and Senate. As lieutenant governor, Welford became governor after Thomas H. Moodie was disqualified. Welford was a staunch supporter of the Nonpartisan League (NPL), a farmers' political group. During Welford's administration the state was caught in the grip of the Great Depression. Walter WelfordThe 1936 crop yield was disastrously low because of drought. Welford met with President Franklin Roosevelt and obtained federal aid for drought-stricken farmers. In 1936 Welford decided to run for office again. He beat former Governor William Langer for the Republican Party gubernatorial nomination, but Langer refused to drop out, and entered the general election as an independent. Welford lost the three-way governor's election to Langer. (The third-place candidate was Democrat John Moses, who became North Dakota's twenty-second governor, following Langer's second term.) Welford died in Pembina County, North Dakota on June 28 1952 at the age of 84.

Yes, it's something to be proud of, that we have a local connection to a group that stood up for democracy and for individual rights at a time when people were running scared...
...it is important to remember how hard it had always been to get back freedoms taken away in wartime. But it is just as important to remember how working people fought back, and shaped their own plans to improve American politics and society. Let’s take a few minutes to go back again to Minnesota and World War I. I have said that the state’s business leaders used wartime agencies and wartime public fears to drive home a fierce attack on working people. But right next door in North Dakota the Nonpartisan League won control of all the major governmental bodies between 1915 and 1920, and it instituted the most democratic state government this country has ever seen. Although the League declared its support of the war effort and sold Liberty Bonds, it also demanded “conscription of wealth” and made North Dakota a haven for persecuted peace advocates and socialists from other states. - From Labor in Wartime: Some Lessons from History
Announcement for a February 3, 1917 NPL Meeting in St. Vincent