Communist Youth Camp in Van Etten in 1930

Långstedt, Rainer (2015). Communist Youth Camp in Van Etten 1930 becomes nationwide news. In Finnish-Americans in War and Peace (pp. 29-36). Helsinki:St. Magnus Press.

In 1925, the communist party had only 16,328 members in the United States. With 6,410 members, Finns were the single largest ethnic group represented in the American Communist Party and made up 39% of the organization’s membership. As noted previously, while a minority, there were many communist Finnish Americans in the Spencer and Van Etten communities. In the summer of 1930, the surrounding communities had strong reactions when two Finnish American communists opened a summer youth camp for 10–12 year olds in Van Etten, New York. Activities at the camp were a magnet to anticommunist out-of-town activists. The ensuing melee included desecrating the Stars and Stripes, kidnapping, threats of burning down a residence, predictions of a violent overturning of the US government and a Ku Klux Klan parade. As there was little involvement by Spencer and Van Etten residents, the event has largely been forgotten there. Despite this, the incident resulted in coast-to-coast reporting by the Associated Press.
Van Etten in 1930

Background Information

The camp was located about a mile from the village of Van Etten on land rented by Finnish-Americans Bill and Grace Wendela, who owned the neighboring farm. In total, there were about 70 children attending the camp and four camp leaders. The camp leaders and many of the kids attending the camp were of Finnish ancestry. With the exception of one child from Halsey Valley, and a few from Trumansburg and Newfield, the kids attending the camp were not local.58 Ailene Holmes and Mabel Husa ran the camp. Holmes was born in Worcester, Mass. in 1906 to immigrant Finnish parents. She attended Boston University for two years, after which she went to work for the communist party. Before the incident in Van Etten, she had already been arrested for previous communist activities.58

Born in Belden, North Dakota in 1909, Mabel Husa moved to New York City where she became affiliated with the communist party. Her father was born in Finnish Lapland while her mother was from Minnesota. At the time of the incident, Husa’s mother was running for United States Congress in North Dakota on the communist party ticket.

A Chronological Account of the Events

By August 8, 1930, the communist youth camp in Van Etten had been in session for five weeks. Flying over the camp was a red flag with the Soviet hammer and sickle and the text: “Van Etten W.I.R. Camp.” W.I.R. was short for Workers International Relief. On that day, a group from Sayre, Pennsylvania came to the camp, offering an American flag to be flown at the camp. While the camp directors turned down the offer of a flag, it was perhaps the way they turned it down that caused the ensuing melee. Witnesses in the forthcoming court case testified that the directors led the campers in a chant of “down with the United States Government and make a dishrag of their flag.” The following day, Saturday, August 9, word of the incident had spread. While people from neighboring communities descended on Van Etten, most of the local townspeople elected to attend Spencer Picnic, an annual event taking place in the neighboring village three miles to the east. A newspaper article reported, “Probably 1000 cars parked in Van Etten with 2000-3000 people.”60 Members of the Ku Klux Klan, allegedly from Binghamton, donned white robes, parading through the village of Van Etten and gathering in an empty lot opposite the communist STY Hall. The choice of venue was selected to aggravate the communists on the other side of the street. Illustrating the coverage the incident received, a radio host named Winters from the New York City station WHAP addressed the crowd for an hour; then a “large fiery cross was burned to the ground.”61 While the Klan was heating up Van Etten with their cross burning, things were also heating up at the camp a mile from town. People identifying themselves as members of the American Legion and other organizations had traveled to Van Etten from Waverly, New York; Sayre, Pennsylvania; and Athens, Pennsylvania. The group entered the camp, abducting the two camp directors. Taking their captives to the village of Van Etten, they asked that Justice of the Peace William Westbrook sentence the two women for treason. With no warrant, and with the “arrest” not being made by police officers, Westbrook released the abducted camp directors. In the days that followed, the issue did not abate. On Sunday, August 10, an American flag was raised near the camp. On Monday, the 11th, a lawyer was engaged by Mrs. Daisy Felt of Waverly and Mr. Andrew Dennis of Sayre to file a complaint against Holmes and Husa.

Daisy Felt and Andrew Dennis. (Photo Elmira Star-Gazette)

The complaint alleged that the two defendants invited persons under their charge to hoist the Red Flag above the American flag that had been placed on a pole outside the limits of the camp. The young women were said to have led others in yelling and saying in words or substance, “Down with the United States Government and make a dishrag out of their flag.” It was further alleged that the American flag was spat upon by the persons led by Ms. Holmes and Ms. Husa. They are also claimed to have shouted, “To hell with the American Government. We have no other flag than the Red banner of Soviet Russia.” According to the complaint, these events took place in the public view and were witnessed by many and were “perpetrated with malicious design,” according to the complaint. 62 Justice of the Peace Westbrook issued warrants for the arrest of the two camp directors, with the Sheriff making the arrests at the camp. The judge set bail at $200 each, with the trial set to begin in two days’ time. The ladies were freed the following day when Theodore Maki, manager of the Spencer Co-op, furnished their $400 bail. Before being taken to the county jail, the ladies assured Mr. Westbrook that the children in the camp needed no further supervisors. 63 Despite their suggestion, Ms. Beatrice Carlin from the International Labor Defense arrived in the morning and took control of the camp. The general sentiment of the residents of Van Etten could be seen by their display of flags, with one account calling the village “a sea of flags”64 The trial, which was set to begin on August 14, was postponed because the defendant’s lawyer, who worked for the International Labor Defense, had not come from New York City. What started out as a localized disagreement escalated into a matter of national media interest. In addition to reporters from the Elmira and Ithaca newspapers, correspondents from the Syracuse Post Standard and the Associated Press were in attendance. National secretary of the International Labor Defense, J. Louis Engdahl, stayed in New York City where he contacted Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt, demanding that the governor order the immediate release of Ms. Husa and Ms. Holmes. His complaint charged that the camp had been “raided” by the Ku Klux Klan and later by state troopers. The complaint claimed that the camp leaders were beaten as were the children .65 There is no record of Roosevelt responding to the complaint, and Sheriff Tifft and state trooper Sergeant Roche declared that no “raid” had taken place and that the ladies had made no demonstration during the arrest. As if replaying the events of August 9, on August 15, the Finnish communists gathered at the STY Hall while members of the Ku Klux Klan again gathered on the other side of Main St. With word that trouble was brewing at the camp, both groups disbanded. The Klan leader, who refused to give his name, told the press he had heard that a large number of other men had arrived from Sayre and other points farther south with the intention of burning the communists’ camp. He said that the Klan did not stand for such acts and would not take part though they were likely to be blamed for whatever happened in Van Etten that night. A mile away at the camp, a caravan of cars with about 500 men arrived ready for trouble. A delegation of 25 men entered the camp and told the new camp directress, Ms. Carlin that the farmhouse where the children stayed would be burnt down in 30 minutes. The local Finnish communists wanted to take the children to safety in their homes, but Ms. Carlin would not let the children leave. By this time, 2,000 people had gathered at the campsite. Thirty minutes came and went without incident when the sheriff, his assistants, and the state troopers arrived. The sheriff ordered camp supporters on one side of the road and the opponents on the other side of the road. His orders were followed with the groups soon dispersing. Sheriff Tifft arranged that the camp would be guarded until it closed. On August 15, the previous day’s events were now over the front page of the Elmira Star-Gazette. The events in Van Etten were part of national news. The children left the camp that day, one day before the scheduled closing. Friday was also the day of the trial.Tongues Exposed Witnesses included Mrs. Victoria Koons and her two sons George and Samuel, who corroborated the previous witnesses in describing the action of the children to show disrespect of the American flag. She said they all stuck out their tongues. She was asked if all had done this and she replied “Yes, I saw more yards of tongue then I ever did before.” She also said the children cried “to hell with the American flag and to hell with the American government.” Mrs. Koons, a middle aged woman, declared that, as the defendants approached to take down the American flag, “I stood in front of them and said ‘don’t you dare to touch my country’s flag.”66Defendant Denies Charges Ailene Holmes, first of six witnesses for the defense, denied saying or doing anything detrimental to the American flag and made general denials of all charges.“You love the American flag, don’t you,” was [United States Commissioner] Stowell’s first question and when objection by defense council was overruled she replied quietly “I respect the American flag as the country I live in.” Later when asked if she could give any reason why she did not want the American flag at the camp she replied, “Yes, because we know it does not represent the workers who are exploited by capitalism and that is the flag of the bosses.” In reply to a question, she admitted one previous conviction and when pressed for details she said she had been arrested when picketing in front of the Boston courthouse while the Massachusetts government was being asked to give a reprieve to Sacco and Venzetti, later executed. 67
William Westbrook (Photo Elmira Star-Gazette)

On August 16, after listening to five witnesses for the prosecution and six for the defense, Justice of Peace William Westbrook gave his verdict. Both young ladies were charged with desecrating the American flag and were sentenced to serve three months in Monroe County Penitentiary and to pay a fine of $50 each. Ms. Beatrice Carlin, representative of International Workers Defense Committee, said an appeal would be started immediately. Carlin was not the only one expressing discontent with the verdict. Suggesting the justice’s sentence was too lenient, the August 28, 1930, Spencer Needle ended its reporting on the issue with:We frequently hear the comment that it is disgusting to continue to see the articles in some of the daily papers regarding the arrest and conviction of Miss Ailene Holmes and Miss Mabel Husa who were instructors at the Communist camp at Van Etten. The girls were arrested and given a fair trial and a reasonable sentence for the crime committed. They were let off on a minor misdemeanor charge, when in reality they should have been taken under section 161 of the penal law. The penalty for violating same is 10 years imprisonment and $5000 fine or both. Husa and Holmes were initially transported to Monroe County Penitentiary in Rochester, New York to serve their 90-day sentences. The communists in Rochester arranged for demonstrations and collected money to aid the two camp directors. The ladies were let out on $500 bail. Their appeal denied, Husa and Holmes were summoned to begin their sentences on October 30, 1930.68 Husa and Holmes were freed on January 22, 1931. Communist sympathizers planned to pay their $50 fines. The girls announced their intention of conducting a speaking tour through the central and western part of the state.69