Preserving a part of Le Mars' past

Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Artist Randy Becker used a primitive woodcut process to illustrate "The Abduction of Judge Bradley," one in a series of three that depicted the Farmer Holiday Association movement in Le Mars in the early 1930's. Franklin Elementary School fifth graders will be holding a bake sale Friday, April 20, to purchase the print.

Dateline: Le Mars, Iowa, April 27, 1933.

Judge Charles. C. Bradley was abducted from his Plymouth County Courthouse courtroom today by self-proclaimed "minutemen," militant members of the Farmers Holiday Association.

The Farmers Holiday Association, a grassroots farm organization who borrowed its name from the growing custom of banks in trouble to declare a moratorium -- or holiday -- on withdrawals to fend off economic ruin during these depressed times in the midwest.

The militant mob of farmers, some masked, some bleeding, many steeped heavily in corn liquor, stormed the courthouse in an effort to intimidate, kidnap and assault Bradley.

Bradley, that afternoon, held in his hands the mortgages of 15 Plymouth County farm properties brought to him by insurance companies.

The senior judge, by all accounts, was in no mood to acquiesce the growing mob.

"Take off your hats and stop smoking cigarettes," Bradley reportedly said. "This is my courtroom!"

The angry mob stormed the bench, grabbing the judge by the throat and legs before dragging him to the floor, demanding that Bradley promise not to approve any new foreclosure.

When Bradley refused, things turned ugly.

FHA members dragged Bradley out of the courthouse and into a waiting vehicle, heading east of Le Mars.

Their intent: to lynch the judge.

The Des Moines Register reported at the time that a half-inch noose around Bradley's neck was used to lift him off the ground.

Blindfolded and de-pantsed, Bradley remained steadfast throughout the ordeal, refusing to render a decision on any of the foreclosures before having the opportunity to study the cases before.

Disappointed in their efforts to make Bradley crack, the disgruntled farmers back off, allowing the judge to go before driving him back into town.

As Mary Boehmer reads the account of the Corn Belt Rebellion to her fifth grade students, she realizes this piece of Le Mars history occurred just outside of her Franklin Elementary School window.

"It's amazing!" she notes. "You can actually see the courthouse from my classroom. And to think, this all happened 74 years ago, almost to the day!"

"If that doesn't bring history alive," Boehmer smiles, "nothing will."

According to Boehmer, her students enjoy learning about Judge Bradley and the Farmers Holiday Association.

"It's a story that has blood...violence...gore," she kids. "C'mon, what normal fifth grader wouldn't go for a story like that?"

But as a Le Mars native, Boehmer admits she had never heard of the Farmer Holiday Association or Judge Bradley prior to teaching Iowa history.

"It's amazing!" she speculates. "I've lived here my entire life yet I knew nothing of this part of Le Mars' past!"

"The fact that this farmer rebellion gave way to New Deal policies that helped farmers a few years later was significant," Boehmer allows. "Plus the fact that it all transpired in my own hometown makes it incredibly relevant."

Through her course teaching, Boehmer discovered that Randy Becker, the father of her student Jack Becker, shared with her an interest in the Judge Bradley incident.

In fact, Becker, a Le Mars-based artist, had created a woodcut series of art pieces on the entire Depression Era Corn Belt Rebellion movement. Three of the eight woodcuts centered specifically on Bradley and the Farmers Holiday Association.

"I created these pieces over a three-year period in the late 1980s," Becker recalls. "It was my reaction to the then current farm crisis going on at the time."

Utilizing an ancient art form that incorporates both raised and lower surfaces, the artist painstakingly crafted pieces that he felt would represent the mood and the style of early 1930s.

"I studied the Corn Belt Rebellion extensively," Becker remembers, "and tried to get my hands on everything that I could. But when it came to Le Mars and the Judge Bradley incident, there was very little kept history to be found."

"I poured over past editions of Daily Sentinel and the Globe-Post," he suggests, "but came away wanting more."

Becker couldn't even locate a photo of Judge Bradley.

"When I actually did a woodcut entitled 'The Abduction of Judge Bradley,'" he explains, "I had to use a little artistic license in how I depicted (Judge Bradley) mainly because I didn't know what the man looked like."

Once Boehmer discovered that prints of these original woodcuts existed, she had an idea.

"I thought it would be nice to have my fifth grade class organize a bake sale to raise money to purchase one of the prints," she says. "Other cities is Iowa had these prints but Le Mars, the city in which this incident took place, did not."

"I didn't think that was right," Boehmer adds.

Boehmer and her students quickly arranged a date and time for the bake sale.

"We'll have it from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m., Friday, April 20, at Franklin Elementary School (400 Third Avenue, Southeast, Le Mars)," she announces. "We're hoping to raise $350 to buy the print and then donate it to the Plymouth County Courthouse."

This was significant to Boehmer.

"Here is an important part of Le Mars' past," she explains. "And it depicts something that occurred right in the very courthouse where the print will be hung. From a historical perspective, I think that's very important."

Becker agrees.

"When I first approached the county to see if they wanted the woodcuts," he mentions, "I understand there was some resistance. That it didn't show Plymouth County in the best light."

Becker continues: "Or perhaps there were members of the county board of supervisors who may, in fact, have remembered the incident in their own childhoods."

"The art is dark," he contends. "I know that. But I think I depicted the time accurately."

"I think enough time has passed," Becker says. "That's why my family will match what (Mrs. Boehmer's) class makes (in the bake sale) and donate the second print in the series."

As will Plymouth County Auditor Kae Meyer.

"The county will be purchasing the third in the series artwork," she says. "I'm not from Le Mars originally so I was not familiar with the Bradley incident. But I think the pieces are significant because it depicts an incident that happened right here in the courthouse."

"All the pieces in the series should have a home in Le Mars," she recommends.

"We're always looking for ways to make history interesting," Boehmer observes, "and to make it stay relevant. Le Mars was the scene for just such an incident and it should be something that is remembered."

"It is something that we should always remember," she adds, "for many years to come."

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