Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts. Read part two here.
San Luis Obispo was beset with the bigotry of the Ku Klux Klan, which arrived via some of the Southern-born oilfield workers from Kern County in the mid-1920s.
Father Dan Keenan arrived at our Mission during the midst of this invasion.
Keenan was an unusual priest for his time, perhaps for any era. He respected the lessons of the past but lived in the present. He was a veteran of the “Great War.” He understood the nature of technological and social change. And he was a natural leader who saw a job and knew how to get it done.
San Luis Obispo was rapidly changing whether or not the residents chose to acknowledge those changes.
The Jazz Age speakeasy era didn’t exactly pass by this old mission town with its 8,000 residents.
In 1925, William C. “Bill” O’Donnell, the manager of the chamber of commerce, boasted that the newly constructed, steel-beam reinforced Anderson Hotel had “140 rooms and 140 baths.” O’Donnell didn’t need to add that the Anderson also boasted a well-known speakeasy within its new walls.
The Klan blamed Catholics, Jews, blacks, Hispanics and veterans of World War I for the culture that created speakeasies, as if America’s misstep into Prohibition had nothing to do with it.
On April 22, 1925, an advertisement on Page 8 of The Telegram announced a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan for the following Friday evening at the Civic Auditorium on Monterey Street.
The Civic Auditorium was the 1887 Agricultural Pavilion on the site of the former Kimball Motors, now home to the county offices.
It was a large building. The Grand Dragon of the Klan came over from Taft to stir up feelings against Catholics and Jews.
Stanley Abel, Kern County’s 4th District supervisor from Taft, proudly acknowledged his Klan affiliation and declared that the Taft group deserved “praise for the good work it has done.”
Michael A. Eissinger, a doctoral student at UC Merced, has written about Abel and the Klan in an unpublished essay titled “Kern County: California’s Deep South.”
Abel took pride in an event reported in The Bakersfield Californian on Oct. 27, 1922, when a Taft physician, Dwight Mason, who had recently filed for divorce, was taken from his home to a local baseball park. Hooded Klansmen hanged him until he lost consciousness in front of a crowd that included his estranged wife. After he regained consciousness, Mason was whipped “with ropes and beaten with a revolver.”
The Klan contended that divorce was just an attempt to legalize adultery. They warned that similar treatment would be meted out to all those like Dr. Mason who “violated the sanctity of the home.”
In August 1939, Abel, despite an earlier grand jury indictment for his Klan activities, was still chairman of the Kern County Board of Supervisors. He led that group in banning John Steinbeck’s book “The Grapes of Wrath” from the Kern County library system.
The Telegram later reported that the Grand Dragon drew a 20-minute standing ovation from an overflowing house at the San Luis Obispo pavilion. Community leaders, most especially San Luis Obispo Mayor Louis Sinsheimer, were deeply embarrassed by the Klan’s popularity here.
Catholics, Protestants and Jews alike were searching for a way to preserve something that made the town stand apart from other U.S. cities: The historic Old Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.
The new pastor arrived in the midst of the greatest crisis in the modern history of our Mission.
Beyond the hatred inspired by the Klan, Keenan confronted a parish in ruinous circumstances.
In March 1920, a fire originating in the sacristy behind the altar badly damaged the church. The Mission had suffered from many years of neglect and abuse. Instead of repairing the unprotected and melting adobe walls, clapboard siding was added to the church to maintain its public usability.
The 1920 fire, followed by several lesser fires, showed that the town was in danger of losing its most precious possession.
Fundraising floundered in the early 1920s as the hoof-and-mouth disease pandemic of the early 1920s crippled the beef and dairy cattle industry.
Shortly after his arrival, Keenan met with Sinsheimer to address the issues of the Klan and rebuilding the Mission. Together, the two men created what became San Luis Obispo’s favorite springtime event between 1925 and the early 1990s: La Fiesta de los Flores.
Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.