FLAT RIVER, Mo. — This old mining town in the southeast Missouri Ozarks once straddled the richest lead deposits in the world. But it no longer exists and the name is all but forgotten — much like the riots here that shocked the nation a century ago this week.
As America’s never-ending debate over immigration rages on, it might be helpful to revisit that incident, variously called the Lead Belt Mining Riots of 1917 or, at the time at least, “The Hunky Riots.”
The precise cause remains up for debate. But it’s clear that the local miners who started it were jittery at the prospect of being drafted for service in World War I. And they feared they would permanently lose their jobs to recent undocumented immigrants who were ineligible for the draft.
There were Italians, Poles, Russians and Hungarians, among others, but they were all generally referred to as “Hunkies.”
The mining companies had been importing them for years, and the pace accelerated when lead prices spiked in preparation for America’s entry into the war.
To make matters worse, some of them came from Austria-Hungary, the German ally that started the war in the first place.
Wielding pitchforks, clubs, knives and guns, and hoisting an American flag, about 1,000 American miners rounded up men, women and children, anywhere from 700 to 1,500 depending on whose version you believe. They beat many of the men in the process, ransacked their houses and stole their livestock.
Two children who were forced out reportedly died later in St. Louis of exposure. But there were also acts of relative kindness. One family with a newborn infant was allowed to stay, at least for a time.
A few foreigners were lucky enough to be marched off to the payroll office where — at the point of a miner’s gun — the paymaster issued their wages.
The future doughboys then marched the foreigners to the depot, where they were loaded onto St. Louis-bound trains. According to one account, “a man stood at the door and punched each foreigner in the ribs and kicked him. As (the train) pulled out, a fusillade of shots were fired into the roof of the car through the open door.”
Fifteen hours later, “there was not a ‘Hunky’ left in the entire … District,” according to one local historian.
In the aftermath, one of the local newspapers announced, “Never before in history, in this country or any other, have things happened like (they) happened in the Lead Belt of St. Francois County last Friday night and Saturday.”
Despite the momentousness of the event, witnesses to the riots quickly succumbed to what the state militia later called “an astonishing loss of memory.”
That rings true down through the ages. I spent many happy hours here as a child, visiting both sets of grandparents, but I don’t remember hearing a word about the riots.
My paternal grandfather was mayor here in the 1930s. My grandmother worked for the local newspaper. And my maternal grandfather was in the midst of it all, working underground as a mine captain.
In fact, I didn’t learn of the riots until my grandparents were long gone. And I have wondered ever since whether my mine captain grandfather played a role in them.
As it turns out, he did. But not in the way I had expected. As with most issues involving American attitudes toward immigrants, it’s complicated.
Well over 6 feet tall and 250 pounds, Henry Duemler was not a man to be trifled with. He had huge forearms and massive, thick hands that could have easily broken a man in two.
His World War I draft card described him as “stout,” an understatement by any measure.
He loathed unions and Democrats, pretty much in that order, and the language it took to properly describe the evil they wrought wove a blue haze around him.
It is said that he carried a sidearm for much of his life, a habit he likely acquired sometime after 1905 when, at age 20, he went to work as a shoveler in the mines.
By the summer of 1917 when he was 32, he had worked his way up to mine captain at the No. 9 Shaft in Leadwood. As both enforcer and bodyguard for the boss, according to family lore, he was known as the superintendent’s “Bulldog.”
My grandfather was at his post 100 years ago, on Friday, July 13, 1917, when the riots broke out.
Europe had been at war for three years by then. But Eastern Europe had been spinning apart since the turn of the century.
Millions of unskilled peasant workers flooded into America after the turn of the century. By 1920, more foreign workers had come to Missouri than at any other time in the state’s history.
Antoni Pacosz, the son of a serf, immigrated to America in 1905. Recruited by German labor agents to work in the lead mines here, he may well have answered to my grandfather.
America at the time “was brimming with resentment about jobs lost to foreigners with unpronounceable names,” said Antoni’s granddaughter, poet Christina Pacosz, in her 2011 essay about the riots.
“I try to imagine the grandfather I have never known,” she writes, “a man who said no to slavery in his village in Poland and came to America with its promise of freedom and wealth.”
In her essay, “A Great Deal of Doing: The Missouri Leadbelt Riot of 1917,” Pacosz says she first learned of the riots from her Missouri-born father, Walter Pacosz, who witnessed the incident as a 3-year-old child.
Walter’s father, Antoni, had been working in the lead mines a dozen years by then and had become friendly with the local sheriff, who warned him of the impending trouble.
Antoni took his son and as many others as he could gather to the boardinghouse he and his wife ran for other shovelers.
“My father vividly remembered mattresses stuffed into windows; all the children huddling in a dark, stuffy room,” said Pacosz, of Kansas City. “The emotional trauma of a small, scared boy is what my father recounted …”
He was rescued by the state militia “after several days and nights of terror.”
Some say it all began with a prehistoric volcano near a coral reef at the bottom of an inland ocean. The result over millions of years was a 300-foot-thick ledge of sedimentary rock infused with lead-rich Galena.
Eons later Native Americans came across hunks of lead lying on the ground above what would later be described as the world’s richest lead deposits.
French explorers dug the first lead mines here and became the first to import unskilled foreign labor — African slaves. Lead from here later helped fuel the American Revolution, the Civil War and both world wars.
The New York City-based St. Joseph Lead Co., known to locals as “Uncle Joe,” showed up around the time of the Civil War.
The company acquired most of the independent mines that were active at the time and transformed the area now known as “The Old Lead Belt” into one big company town.
One St. Louis newspaper described what St. Joe and other mining companies built as a “feudal domain.” They ran stores, farms and even whole neighborhoods. Historian Christopher Gibbs, who grew up in the area, noted that the companies retained control in part by using their influence to keep local communities from incorporating.
The consolidation was also occurring 200 feet below. St. Joe eventually connected all the mines into what a local historian called “one contiguous, subterranean mega mine” with 240 miles of underground rail lines.
St. Joe helped make Missouri the nation’s largest producer of lead, and the state still mines a large portion of the lead produced nationwide.
The company’s influence on Missouri history is undeniable. In fact, St. Joe played a key role in the creation of the Lake of the Ozarks, the nation’s largest man-made lake, 160 miles to the west.
St. Joe’s agreement to buy power produced by Bagnell Dam, which created the lake beginning in 1929, was instrumental in greenlighting the project.
While lead is still mined elsewhere in Missouri, the mines here have since played out and closed, except for a tourist attraction in the nearby town of Bonne Terre, where a flooded remnant of the mines attracts scuba divers from around the world.
Over the course of 108 years, men like Henry Duemler and Antoni Pacosz extracted 8.5 million tons of lead from these mines.
But it took a toll.
Between 1895 and 1925, 147 miners died in accidents. According to death records at the state archives, they died from explosions, cave-ins, falling rock, inhaling gas and being crushed between 2-ton runaway ore cars.
Many of the dead were American-born, but about a fourth of the miners who died during that 30-year span had names like Zovanday and Janisow, Washinsky and Varisuck, Paraszcriak and Owkkowski, Petrovitch and Wajwicz.
And one was named Duemler, my grandfather’s younger brother James, a railroad man in the mines.
He died in mid-January 1926 while replacing a rail tie in St. Joe Lead’s Hoffman Shaft No. 11. He was using a pick to clear away rock when he struck what miners called a “missed hole.”
These were “shot” mines, meaning the ore was freed by drilling holes in the ore and dropping sticks of dynamite inside, then clearing the area and detonating the charge.
But this hole was “missed” until James Duemler’s pick found it.
It was just that kind of “missed hole” — an unpredicted explosive force — that may well have sparked the riots in the first place.
America entered World War I in April 1917, and a month later the federal government began gearing up to draft 3 million men to fight in Europe. By then, the war had been raging for three years, and casualties were mounting.
St. Francois County alone was producing 65 percent of the lead contracted by the federal government in its drive to stockpile munitions for the war.
With production pressures driven by spiking lead prices, the mining companies had been recruiting foreign workers as shovelers for years, paying the 30 cents an hour. It was the worst job in the mines.
In a phrase that still echoes through immigration debates today, Uncle Joe said it had to hire the foreign miners for those jobs because American workers would not accept them.
Over the years, such pressures led to labor unrest.
The riot started just after the American boys were required to register for the draft but before call-ups began.
At 6:30 p.m. on Friday, July 13, 1917, miners were in the changing room when a foreign worker reportedly said something that set it all in motion.
There are numerous variations of the exact words, but one local paper displayed the level of xenophobia at the time by describing the offending words this way:
“Me big strong mans, work in mines, you American, must go to war, me no have to go to war, me get your job, make big money, have your frou and your property when you go.”
The beatings began immediately, with some of the foreign miners jumping out of the changing room windows to escape. Soon, American miners were heading from shaft to shaft to administer more beatings and conduct an impromptu mass expulsion.
Walter Dempsey, a clerk for the mining company, would later tell a local author, V.L. Lawson: “As far as I know, no foreigner made any statements, but the rumor that circulated …”
But it didn’t matter whether those words — or words like them — were ever uttered. The missed hole had been struck.
By nightfall a mob estimated at 1,000 American miners rampaged through the town of Flat River (now Park Hills) throwing rocks and beating anyone who was known or appeared to be a foreign miner.
In his book “The Great Silent Majority, Missouri’s Resistance to World War I,” historian Christopher C. Gibbs said the rioters gathered the next morning to hear speeches and elect leaders “then formed up behind an American flag and headed for the offices of the mining company,” where they demanded that the foreign workers be fired.
Getting no satisfaction from Uncle Joe, they headed for immigrant neighborhoods where they gathered up the foreigners. From there it was off to the train depot for a ride north to St. Louis.
Most of the mob then headed home, but some went back to loot the immigrants’ empty houses.
“The evidence of destruction and robbery committed by small bands of looters … almost beggars description,” according to one local newspaper account, “… and many pitiful stories are told by the aliens who have returned to gather up their effects.
“…trunks were found to have been smashed open, beds overturned, dresser drawers pulled out and scattered about the floors. Many of the trunks had contained sums of money.”
The exact number forced to leave the area is in dispute, but census figures for St. Francois County show a reduction of more than 2,500 in the number of foreign-born citizens, and those with foreign parentage, between 1910 and 1920.
According to the account of another local newspaper, which openly supported the rioters, “The Americans went about the work they had determined to do in a systematic manner, and there was little if any disorder throughout the entire proceedings, which had evidently been carefully mapped out in advance.”
That local support may help explain the action, or rather the inaction, of St. Francois County Sheriff Charles Adams.
Adams was “a tall taciturn man (who) might have played well the part of Gary Cooper,” according to Dempsey, the mine company clerk and stenographer.
Adams walked through the mob and into St. Joe’s offices, where executives were holed up, waiting for him to take action. Instead, he sat in the back silently chewing on a toothpick.
“Despite the request from some of the officials to go out and reason with the mob,” Dempsey said, Adams “wanted no part of it.” Asked why the sheriff took no action, Dempsey replied in a 1975 interview with Lawson, “I think cowardice would be a good word.”
Adams did, however, make a call to Missouri Gov. Frederick D. Gardner, and they agreed that sending in the state militia would be a good option. It was a busy time for the troops; they had been responding to violent strikes, reportedly sparked by other outside agitators — and perhaps by resistance to the war — in Kansas City, Springfield and St. Louis.
Troops remained here until the end of the war to ensure uninterrupted lead production.
After the soldiers took charge, suspected rioters were turned over to Sheriff Adams, who was to jail them pending a county grand jury inquiry. On one trip to the county jail, however, seven of those prisoners somehow escaped Adams’ grasp.
Dempsey was soon drafted into service to take notes for Lt. Charles A. Barlow of the state militia’s Battery A.
And they show something I hadn’t expected; that my grandfather was instrumental in helping to bring the rioters to justice. One of the few in town apparently willing to do so.
According to Dempsey’s notes, Barlow had gotten information from one “Mine Capt. Duemler” concerning two alleged rioters, Charles Lloyd and J.A. Stroup.
Duemler told the militia that Lloyd showed up drunk at the mine safety house the night of July 14 and “told of being down in the mob … Said he had gone home for his supper, and he was to meet the mob … at 1:00 o’clock and lead them through Hunky town.” Stroup apparently made similar admissions.
Some 113 American miners were eventually indicted by a St. Francois County grand jury reluctantly impaneled by Judge Peter Huck. The lead companies even hired a couple of local lawyers to “assist” the elected county prosecutor in the case.
They were initially charged with serious crimes such as robbery, assault, interference with lawful employment, grand larceny and “having a deadly weapon while intoxicated.”
Among the first charged was Charles Lloyd, the first man Henry Duemler fingered.
Later another man, J. A. Overall, was declared the ringleader, telling reporters that he had been elected leader of the rioters Saturday morning and advised the men against violence but was unable to control them.
In all, 130 witnesses appeared before the grand jury, most of them apparently speaking in defense of the rioters. But given the serious outbreak of amnesia around the incident and a paucity of available court records on the matter, it’s unclear exactly what they had to say.
In fact, a search through scores of old files in the historic St. Francois County courthouse in Farmington failed to unearth any of the actual court records — taken by a researcher perhaps, or merely lost as an inconvenient reminder of an era few here seem anxious to recall. The case is also absent from microfilmed court records kept in the state archives.
But it appears that Mine Capt. Duemler, who was apparently immune to the mass amnesia going around, was among the few willing to testify for the prosecution — tepid though it was. Newspaper accounts of St. Francois County expenses for 1917 show that he was paid $2.50 to appear as a witness before the grand jury.
In the end, most of the men — including Overall — got off with a $100 fine and no jail time.
All that was left to remember the lead mines here when I would visit my grandfather in the 1950s and 1960s were the towering chat piles, hundreds of feet tall and made up of 250 million tons of mining waste.
A promotional poster for the area once dubbed them “The Great Pyramids of St. Francois County.” We used to climb them as children. They’d erect a Christmas tree on one pile every winter, adorned with electric lights.
But even the chat piles are mostly gone now — hazardous waste ordered removed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
As for the riots, there’s no outward clue they ever occurred. The only book dedicated solely to the incident, self-published in 1976 and now out of print, is V.L. Lawson’s “The Lead Belt Mining Riot of 1917.”
Lawson’s preface notes that “some people tried to discourage the completion of this account.”
A state park and museum dedicated to the heady days when lead was king makes no mention of the riots. An employee there said it was a subject to be avoided or at the very least to be judicious about because “we never know which side of the issue somebody may be on.”
While the local press at the time was divided on the issue, The Lead Belt News, where my paternal grandmother worked for years, was one of the few publications to attempt to view the riots from the perspective of the foreign miners.
The cause of the riots, it said, “seems to be the culmination of long pent-up prejudice against both the companies and the foreigners. The strange part of it all is that the enmity has been visited almost entirely on the foreigners, who in the main have been shipped in here by labor agencies, and are not really responsible for their presence in the district.”
For Poet Christina Pacosz, the riots reshaped the life of the grandfather she never knew.
Antoni returned to the lead mines the year after the riots, as troops stood by to guarantee his safety. He worked hard in the mines and eventually accumulated the princely sum of $6,000.
He returned to Poland intending to buy land. But in the end, he was swindled out of his short-lived wealth. Broke and destitute, he came back to America. Alone.
Thanks to new anti-immigrant quotas, he was forced to leave his wife and American-born children, including Christina’s father, Walter, behind in Poland for nearly a decade.
Eventually they all joined him in Detroit, where many of the other displaced immigrants had also settled. But they didn’t have much time with him. He was killed by a hit-and-run driver in 1935.
As for Mine Capt. Henry Duemler, he was willing to ignore local sentiment and serve as a witness against the rioters. But why?
He was a company man, and the company clearly wanted them prosecuted. So, did he stand firm out of loyalty, or because it was the right thing to do?
He retired and collected his gold watch from Uncle Joe in 1951, then lived a comfortable life for 11 more years. I spent some happy hours with him in those years, though no light was ever shed on those questions. He died of heart failure at age 77 in 1962.
(Ryan Hennessy provided research for this story.)
— Mike McGraw is a special projects reporter for Flatland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow his stories online at flatlandkc.org and @FlatlandKC