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Friday, July 25, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Day The Klan Came To Town

Seattle Times Eastside Bureau

TOMMOROW is the anniversary of the largest Ku Klux Klan gathering in the state's history. Estimates of the crowd that met in the summer of 1924 in what is now downtown Issaquah ranged from 20,000 to 55,000.

ISSAQUAH

Seventy-three years ago tomorrow - July 26, 1924 - more than 11,000 cars converged on a field one mile west of downtown Issaquah for the largest Ku Klux Klan gathering in the state.

Deputies who clicked off the vehicles on hand counters said there were four to five people per car, The Issaquah Press reported in its Aug. 1, 1924, edition. That would put the crowd somewhere between 44,000 and 55,000 people, although some historians estimate the gathering was about 20,000.

According to historians Joe Peterson and Lucile McDonald, it wasn't unusual for a small town like Issaquah to have an active Klan. The group officially organized nationally in 1915 with an agenda to keep the United States for white, American-born Protestants. The Klan went on to terrorize minorities, especially African Americans, as it organized public whippings and lynchings.

But for what supposedly was the largest Klan gathering ever in Washington, people had to come from Seattle and other areas, traveling the only main road into town, the Renton-Issaquah Highway.

The population of Issaquah was 791 in the 1920 census.

The numbers fit with stories Bill and Eleanor Somsak have heard.

Bill's parents, Mary and Andrew Somsak, lived on a dairy farm next to the meeting place, where they watched in fear.

So much fear that whenever the Klan met, the Somsaks barred their doors.

From the arched attic window that looks out on Newport Way, Andrew Somsak would watch and wait. He and Mary were targets because they were from what today are Poland and the former Czechoslovakia.

"The Ku Kluckers didn't like foreigners," Bill Somsak says. "My dad would sit in that window with the rifle across his lap."

Apparently, there were times, though not the day of the big rally, when Andrew Somsak exchanged shots with Klan members, Eleanor Somsak says.

Although he was less than a month old the day of the big rally, Bill Somsak remembers the Klan. He says they continued to meet in the field, which he calls their camp, but never again in such huge numbers.

Based on his memory and the stories Eleanor Somsak heard from his mother, the Somsaks believe the gathering place was bordered by today's Newport Way, Highway 900, the back of Safeway and the Target parking lot.

The Klan was written up several times in The Issaquah Press in 1924.

"M.A. `Dad' Boyden was owner and publisher of the paper then," says Karl Kunkel, editor of the local weekly today. "He was a well-respected journalist. The stories are probably accurate."

Those stories report that the first Issaquah Klan meeting was held at the Grange Hall in April 1924 under the direction of members from Kent.

Early in June, a class of 17 was inducted, and later that month 16 more. That night, June 25, the Klan burned a cross on a nearby hillside.

According to The Press, 250 people met afterward for a chicken dinner.

The following week, on the Fourth of July, there was a dance in town. Just after it started, a fiery cross and three large Ks could be seen burning on a summit - likely above today's gravel pit - northeast of town.

On the July 26 program was a play by school children, leading into a discussion about two school bills that would be on the next election ballot. There was a patriotic scene depicting the Bunker Hill monument and a 32-piece brass band playing patriotic music. Klan Imperial Walter McDonald lectured on Americanism, and then a cross, 40 feet by 70 feet, was set afire. The grand finale was a $1,000 fireworks show.

That was big money in 1924.

Historian Peterson noted that the Klan gave Catholic dairy farmers in the area a hard time. The milk cans they set out for pickup would be bypassed repeatedly.

Some Klan activity continued into the 1930s, Bill Somsak says, but then it seemed to have died out.

"They'd be nice and neighborly during the day, and then they'd put on those hoods and capes at night," he says, shaking his head.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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