For farmers it was the worst of times. The entire nation was being effected by an economic depression, but for agriculture it was even worse. By 1932 farmers had endured over ten years of depressed prices for their goods to the point it actually cost more to produce the commodities than they were paid for them. The National Farmers Union had lobbied for legislation that would provide aid and tariff reform but to no avail. Things became desperate as farmers couldn’t make mortgage or loan payments and had their property foreclosed upon and equipment seized. In 1932 the Farmers’ Holiday Association organized; the idea was for farmers to take a “holiday” from farming— cease selling their goods and not buy anything from anyone else for a period of time, the intent being to create an awareness as to the importance of farm products and purchases.
Though the farm strike gathered a great deal of media attention, the reality was most farmers didn’t participate, prompting radical members of the Association to block roads to keep those still wanting to sell their goods from getting to the markets. Pickets set up on the north and east edges of Council Bluffs; Sheriff Percy Lainson kept a watchful eye but allowed peaceful picketing. The peace didn’t last; picketers blocked Highway 34 into town from the south and refused deputy Frank Owens’ order to not stand in the road. Ignoring the warning picketers blocked the highway near Iowa School for the Deaf with telephone poles. The Sheriff’s response screamed in bold letters across the entire front page of the evening Nonpareil: LAINSON PREPARES TO BREAK ROAD BLOCK. Sheriff Lainson hired 98 special deputies and promised “to fight it out if it takes 5,000 deputies,” adding “if the Pottawattamie county jail bulges with picketers it will just have to bulge. I’m going to see that law and order are maintained.” Farm trucks that wanted to take their goods to market were to be escorted through the strikers with armed deputies. Sheriff Lainson continued his operations to keep highways open and directed his deputies to arrest every man found picketing and charge him with unlawful assembly. As word spread that 1000 men were on the way to Council Bluffs to aid the picketers the sheriff’s force stood by with submachine guns and riot guns. A tense mood prevailed. The men from out-of-town were said to be heading for the “Squirrel Cage” jail to break the picketers out; Sheriff Lainson reported if the jail was mobbed his men were armed and would handle it “in the best possible manner.” Deputies were instructed that they were authorized to shoot to kill should any farmers try and storm the jail. The Daily Nonpareil published a front page warning to citizens to stay away from the jail for their own safety.
On Thursday, August 25, there was gunfire. A tragedy occurred, but accidental. Claude Dail, a special deputy with just three days of service, was shot and killed from a gun that accidentally discharged during a weapons test. Special Deputy Joe Ludwig was also injured.
Most of the inmates were freed quickly on bail put up by a handful of wealthy farmers. The out-of-town strikers were met by Mayor Myrtue and significant further violence was avoided, but the picketing continued and Sheriff Lainson added fifty more special deputies. Though strikes continued elsewhere, by end end of August the situation at Council Bluffs was essentially over.
The tale of the lone local casualty of the event, Deputy Dail, came to a halt for for over eighty years until it was discovered that his name wasn’t listed on the National Law Enforcement Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. This has been corrected and his name was formally dedicated May 13, 2014 at the 26th Annual Candlelight Vigil during National Police Week. The Historical Society of Pottawattamie County has a memorial to all local law enforcement officers and fire fighters who have lost their lives in the line of duty at the “Squirrel Cage” Jail Museum, 226 Pearl Street.
(Story by Jason LeMaster; Sgt. LeMaster is vice-president of
the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County)