by | Aug 27, 2017 | The Writer's Life | 8 comments

By Francine Mathews

As the country has gone through a deep chasm of soul-searching this August, I’ve cast my thoughts back to a childhood I never knew, only heard about in stories: my father’s early years in rural Western Pennsylvania. 

Why? Because he watched a cross burn in front of a good friend’s house one winter night, and decided to do something about it. He was probably ten years old.

We tend to think of the Ku Klux Klan as a Southern oddity these days–an outgrowth of Reconstruction and the Civil War that spawned it. We know that its targets have been African-Americans and Jews from its inception. But in 1920s America, when the Klan was nascent and powerful, it sprang up all over northern states as well. In places like Colorado and Ohio and Pennsylvania, white Protestants resentful of immigrants and ethnic minorities–Irish, Italians, Poles and Germans who practiced the Catholic faith–used horses and white hoods to intimidate their neighbors. In my dad’s small town of Tremont, where his family had lived for three generations, this meant him.

Joe Barron was born in 1915. On his father’s side, the Barrons had emigrated from County Waterford, Ireland, as so many others did–to flee the potato famine of 1848. On his mother’s side, the Lorenzes had left Alsace-Lorraine to avoid the frequent wars between France and Germany that made the two provinces perennial bargaining chips. Joe was a classic Northern European, blond-haired and blue-eyed, born during the First World War. His father ran the Tremont General Store. His grandfather Lorenz was a mining engineer who died in an underground explosion before he was born.

His childhood nights were lit by burning crosses, left on the lawns of Catholic neighbors by mounted horsemen disguised in white hoods. He found them terrifying, and because he was afraid he hated the crosses and the robed figures who torched them.

In the winter of 1925, the Grand Wizard of the local Klan suddenly died. All of Tremont knew who he was–and that his faithful followers intended to stage a public funeral procession through the main street of town. The Klansmen would go mounted on horses, robed in white, following the Grand Wizard’s hearse.

My father made some plans, too. Heavy snows had recently fallen, and he knew of a hillside not far from the funeral procession’s end point that would make a perfect tactical redoubt. He gathered his friends together well before the ominous parade started and built fortifications. Stockpiled arms. When the Grand Wizard’s hearse hove into sight, they were ready.

The funeral procession was ambushed by a fusillade of snowballs. 

Horses reared and broke from their ranks. Hoods were pelted. Men ducked and swore, and confusion reigned.  The ground was trampled and the hearse veered into a ditch.

My dad and his friends fired the last of their ammunition and took off pell-mell down the back of the hillside before any of the mounted Klansmen could pursue them. 

Sometimes, as the Duke of Wellington noted, retreat is a means to fight another day.

What matters about this story, however, is the aftermath–the reason my father bothered to tell it at all.

When he returned home triumphantly to explain what he’d done, his mother was breathtakingly angry.

It’s possible she was afraid he’d been seen and identified by one of the Klansmen, along with his friends, and that next time the cross–or worse–would burn on the Barron house’s front lawn. Or maybe she was terrifed one of the boys, or one of their fathers, would be strung up from a tree one dark winter’s night, in retribution. 

She ordered my father to change into his best suit, buy a bouquet of flowers with his pocket money, and walk alone to the Grand Wizard’s doorstep.

There, he was required to apologize in person to the man’s widow, for having added to her grief.

My father never forgot his mother’s lesson. She was determined that he learn forgiveness–and learn to ask for it in turn from those who made a hobby of terrorizing their neighbors. She was determined that he turn the other cheek, as his Catholic faith urged. Only then would he defeat the men who rode with torches, in darkness and in hoods.

Joe went on to fight against the Nazis, of course, as a pilot in the Army Air Corps during World War II. There was no question in anyone’s mind, in 1941, what purity of race–and the violence that drove it–meant. But as my father’s generation has aged and passed from this earth, so has that absolute sense of moral certainty in the face of evil. 

Except, perhaps, in the minds and hearts of those who have heard such stories–recognize their truths–and pass them on.

Tell us, fellow readers–what childhood lessons have marked you indelibly?

Happy end of summer–


Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. S. Lee Manning

    A moving story – reminding us all that hatred and racism wasn't a strictly Southern product. My father grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, not the South, where kids chased him throwing stones because he "killed Jesus." Cincinnati is a heavily German town, and there was a large contingent of American Nazis in the pre-war days. My father would refuse to eat in one of the old German restaurants where the Bund used to meet – he'd joke that there were probably dead Jews in the closet. But I don't agree with what your grandmother made your father do. The Klan in the 20ies was responsible for the murders of multiple African Americas, as well as terrorizing Jews and Catholics. Good for him for throwing snowballs at the funeral. There is a difference between trying to talk to someone who has hateful views to try to get them to see how wrong they are – and turning the cheek to haters and murderers.

  2. Jamie Freveletti

    As a descendant of Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants I, too, had heard these stories of discrimination and hate directed at them. In a small town it's likely that he was spotted and she wanted to make it clear where she stood on his behavior in order not to escalate was sounds like an already volatile situation. And this woman was likely well aware of the dangers of abuse of power, because the whole potato famine was caused by the Irish not being allowed to hunt or fish and forced to export their best products to England. These exports continued even as the Irish died or fled to America on "coffin boats." What I like about her response is her firm stance: disrupting a funeral is wrong and if something is wrong you can't do it. Full stop. No excuses and standing up for that belief, even in the face of danger. Would love to hear more stories about her!

  3. Chris Goff

    My first reaction to your story was to feel defensive of my white male protestant father, whose best friend at the age of eight in 1931 New Jersey was a young black boy from the other side of the tracks. My father was raised on Nob Hill, directly across the street from the Morrow estate, the childhood home of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and attended a Protestant Church. Toward the end of the Great Depression, a time when most families struggled financially, he attended Kent Country Day Boarding School in Connecticut, but that didn't stop him from enlisting in the Army at the age of eighteen. During WWII, he was in the second wave on Omaha Beach and part of the company that liberated Saint Lo, France from the Nazis. Later, during the Mortain counter-offensive to Operation Luttich, he prevented an American retreat and was field promoted before nearly losing his life in a courtyard in Mortain. Like all the infantry men engaged in ground operations between December 6, 1941 and September 2, 1945, he was awarded a Bronze Star.

    My second reaction to your story was to applaud both your father for standing up against evil, and your grandmother for realizing that "violence begets violence," a concept first described in the Book of Matthew (New Testament) and later coined by Martin Luther King, Jr. in a 1958 speech. Let there be no doubt, it's extremely important that we decry evil.

    Your story also reminded me of an incident that happened in Evergreen a few years ago. A White Supremacist group had petitioned for a parking permit for a church they were establishing up the canyon from our home. The neighborhood, a smattering of houses on a hillside outside of Denver, were up in arms. The Supremacists had a right to petition for parking, and the fear was the county would grant the permit. It was my husband, Wes, a very pragmatic man, who came up with the solution. He recommended to the HOA that should the church become a reality all of us join. The neighbors were horrified until he calmly explained. If we were all members of the church, we would significantly outnumber the Supremacists and therefore we could change the church rules. It became our Plan B, which fortunately we never had to initiate.

    Like Jamie, I would love to hear more stories about your grandmother. And I have one question. How did the Grand Wizard's widow react to your father's offering and apology?

  4. S. Lee Manning

    Chris, your father's response was a perfect way to effect change. My problem with apologizing to a klans wizard's widow for disrupting the funeral is that it will do nothing to change anyone's mind or heart – and the funeral procession was not merely a funeral. It was a celebration of white power. I'm actually glad that a young boy showed his contempt for what those white robed men on horses stood for. It's important, in my mind, to let them know that they don't have universal support – that people consider them contemptuous is an important thing to do. And I have to say this, maybe because I'm still in a rage at the marching of Nazis chanting Jews shall not replace us – meeting Nazis with passivity did nothing for the Jews of Europe. Trying to understand them did nothing. Meeting them with love did nothing. I'm sorry. I'm still angry at seeing those swastikas, hearing those chants. I am angry still for my uncle at the age of 18 who nearly died in Auschwitz. For his mother and sister, gassed for being Jews. For cousins, shot and pushed into pits, for non-relatives repeated six million times, six million human lives who did not meet Nazis with anger, for six million grandfathers and grandmothers, mothers, fathers, sisters, brother, for babies, for children, shot, gassed, burned alive, starved to death. And let me move beyond the situation of the Jews in Europe to the blacks in this country – I am angry for the thousands of young black men lynched by the KKK, I am angry for little girls burned alive in a church, I am angry for civil rights workers killed and thrown into ditches. If you are going to infiltrate their church to change it from a white supremacist church to a regular church, I have no problem with that. I have no problem with one on one, trying to change someone's heart, but meeting these mass shows of hatred with love does nothing to stop them from killing people. I'm not really advocating violence, except in self-defense, but I don't consider a child disrupting a Klansman's show funeral with snowballs to be violence. Francine's father showed the Klansman exactly the level of respect he deserved.

  5. Francine Mathews

    I have no memories of any of my grandparents; three out of four were gone before I was born. That's the reality of being the last of eight children. I know very little about my dad's mother, as he left Tremont behind at the age of 18 and none of us ever visited. He drove me through the town once when I was around ten, and it was about five blocks long.
    Sandy, I understand your views. But this isn't a story whose plot line I can change. It's my history. I shared it in part because it doesn't offer an easy answer or a necessarily satisfying conclusion.

  6. Chris Goff

    S.Lee – I totally understand where you're coming from. All of those things make me angry, too. When I was 19, I stood on the ground at Dachau and cried. Back then they would usher you into the "showers" and shut the door. I'll never forget the clang, and the stab of fear knowing what came next. And I agree, the snowballs and hearse in the ditch are very fitting for a man like the Grand Wizard. I can't fathom how someone can believe in White Supremacy, or how people can be so passive in the face of pure evil. As a writer, its something I continually strive to understand. Perhaps the best writers' advice I have ever been given is to remember that "everyone is the hero of his own story." That's how Jihadists justify their violence against all infidels. Are they evil, are they psychopaths, or do they believe that all infidels must die as strongly as I feel that all people need to learn to live together? Based on all the hatred in the world and all the different factions that exist, be they groups or gangs or governments, I must be delusional. Still, I know I'm right.

    But how do we delineate evil? I can't get the images of the marching Nazis, most of them young misguided boys, out of my head. Are they evil? Or are they brainwashed, young men who were convinced by evil men to perform atrocious acts. A friend of mine, who was stationed in Frankfurt in the 1970s, married a German girl. When I visited in 1975, she invited me to her parents home. Her father had served in the German army, and I didn't hesitate to ask questions. I was told of how they hid in the basement to listen to the BBC, how they were ordered to stay inside at curfew, and how the next door neighbors daughter–age sixteen–was shot for disobeying the order. She had wanted to bring her bike in from the rain, and she lay in the street until curfew was lifted the next morning and her parents could go outside and retrieve her body. I heard how, when the father was wounded, the mother had been denied permission to go to him and had been forced to traverse the fields, switching our her kerchief so as to look like a different person, to get to the city where he was hospitalized. I heard them all say they didn't know. I found that hard to believe. How could they not know? Yet, I do believe they had convinced themselves of that truth. I didn't like the father for what he had done. I couldn't forgive him for being a Nazi. But, I have to admit, I did like the man who loved his family and did what he felt he had to do to protect them.

    For what it's worth, my husbands idea for thwarting the White Supremacists in our neighborhood would not have changed anything. It might have driven them out, which Clear Creek County did by refusing to give them a permit to have a church on their land. But I'm sure they just moved somewhere else, and became someone else's problem. That's really not a solution. What the solution is, I don't know. For good or bad, we live in a country where we allow people their voice, even if it's a voice we don't agree with. At what point does our right to freedom become our nemesis? Where do we draw the line? Where do we look the other way and condone behavior we would abhor if demonstrated by the other side? For that reason–while I love the snowballs and their repercussion–I have to say that I stand with Francine's grandmother.

  7. S. Lee Manning

    This is a good discussion to have. I understand what you're saying too. Some of the young men marching with torches may be misled and misunderstood, and if you can get them on an individual level, maybe they can be redeemed. But what they're doing now, in marching chanting Nazi slogan with Nazi symbols, represents one of the greatest evils in the modern world. In terms of the culpability of average German people – that's a discussion for another time over a couple beers. It's complex. But those who choose to carry the Nazi symbols or KKK symbols, by doing so endorse mass murder – and as such, they are not worthy of respect in my eyes. I understand the argument that we should always treat others as we would want them to treat us. But what if we know what they would do – is murder us – and our families – or exclude us from this country? Do we still have to show respect for their funerals? Do we have to be polite? The answer is complex – but I tend to come down on the side of the snowball throwers. It's disrespectful and it's disruptive – and in that, isn't it also a form of speech? But even if I disapproved of using snowballs as a form of speech against the KKK, I would not give the Klan the satisfaction of an apology. If I were the parent, and it was my child, and I disapproved, I might impose a penalty, but I would not make that child humble himself to people who believe in racism and murder. Just my personal view. I understand your point of view – and while I think it's admirable, I just can't join in.
    By the way, apologies for mixing up Francine's post about her father and your response about your husband. I've been a little inattentive lately.

  8. Sonja Stone

    Francine, what a remarkable story. Thank you for sharing your father's legacy with us.