Tales from the Grubby End: The Ku Klux Klan in Newberg
Maybelle Bents 'Mother Counselor' in women's wing of organization
As tempting as it is to think Yamhill County enjoys a special isolation from the rest of the world and I suppose in some ways it does history tells us otherwise.
This was never more true than in the early years following World War I, when the rebirth of one of Americas more sordid chapters in human and cultural relations spread across the country like a rash.
The rash called itself the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Historians sometimes refer to it as the second Klan, to distinguish it from the original KKK, which was born in Tennessee just after the Civil War and had faded from influence and visibility by sometime in the 1870s.
The second Klan was launched with a cross burning atop Georgias Stone Mountain in 1915. By 1921, the Knights had a million members. By 1925, the ranks had ballooned to five million.
It was especially potent in the rural areas of the South and West. In Oregon, an estimated 14,000 men and women belonged. Every city, town and county was affected.
The Knights of the KKK was an outgrowth of propaganda during World War I which demanded one hundred percent Americanism. After the war, this emotion could not be immediately turned off and became redirected against racial and ethnic minorities considered un-American.
Here in the Beaver state, the targets were African-Americans, peoples of the Orient, Jews and Roman Catholics. Purporting to stand for Christianity, morality and Americanism, the Klan was anything but.
In 1922, the Oregon KKK reached its zenith when it threw the weight of its political might in support of Democrat Walter M. Pierce for governor. Pierce was elected over Republican challenger Ben Olcott.
Flush with victory, the Klan then pushed for the passage of the Compulsory Education Act. It banned everything except public education, a clear slap in the face of the many Catholic, parochial and private schools operating in the state. However, before it could be enacted, the act was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
In Portland, Fred L. Gifford, a Minnesota native, quit his $250-a-month job as a manager for the Northwestern Electrical Co. to take a $600-a-month job as Exalted Cyclops of the local Klan. He soon became Grand Dragon of Oregon, then Deputy Wizard for all states west of the Rockies.
Oregons local KKK chapters, of which there were approximately 60, were known as Klans. In Newberg, according to documents held at the Newberg Public Library, meetings were held under the auspices of Newberg Klan No. 24.
Oregons KKK women were organized separately and operated under two names: Ladies of the Imperial Empire, or LOTIE, until 1923, when it became Women of the Klu Klux Klan or the WKKK.
Newbergs connection to LOTIE is significant.
Buried in Friends Cemetery is Maybelle Bents. Until 1923, and using the name of her second husband, Charles W. Jette, she was the head of LOTIE for the state and was known as Mother Counselor.
Even today, little is known about the details of her involvement in the movement. The fact that the KKK operated in great secrecy and kept limited documents and records serves as an impediment to anyone doing research on its members.
However, thanks to the work of two Portland researchers Sharie Kelley and Lynn Deal who are co-authoring a book about the womens KKK in Oregon and who graciously shared some of their findings with me, details of Maybelles life are starting to come to light.
She was born in 1888 in Wisconsin, at some point later moving to Portland, where in 1905 she married George Chickering. The union produced two daughters and lasted three years. She then became the wife of Charles Wilfred Jette in 1908. This was his third marriage and the union produced a son.
It was during the last several years of this relationship that she became involved with LOTIE, and it was Maybelle who was serving in the organizations top position when an overthrow of the group by the Knights of the KKK occurred in 1923. The Knights plan was to do away with LOTIE and replace it with the WKKK.
According to University of Pittsburg Historian Kathleen Bee, and documented in her book Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s, the WKKK had been created as a money-making scheme to support Oregons first-family of the Klan, the aforementioned Fred Gifford and his wife Mae. The take-over was violent.
To complete the putsch, Gifford needed the LOTIE charter in his possession. To make sure, he sent Rush Davis of Shreveport, La., to Portlands Redmens Hall, where a large contingent of LOTIE members had assembled.
Mother Counselor was in attendance, enthroned and surrounded by her body guard (known as the Honor Guard). Although Bee does not mention Maybelle Jette by name, it can be reasonably assumed that she was the Mother Counselor involved in what happened next.
Crashing the meeting and demanding the charter be turned over, only to be ignored by the women, Davis physically attacked Mother Counselor. He was immediately surrounded by the Honor Guard, who, according to an eyewitness, swarmed upon him, pummeling, pounding and hammering him until he began to cry for help.
A policeman passing by heard the commotion and rescued the beaten Davis. Mother Counselor immediately led her triumphant ladies in a verse of the Star Spangled Banner.
Despite the commotion, the Gifford and Davis contingents prevailed, got the charter and LOTIE was no more. It is unclear if Maybelle later became a member of the WKKK.
Now for the rest of her story.
In February 1922, she filed for divorce from Charles. In December 1924 she married again, this time to a Champoeg/St. Paul hops farmer named Henry Louis Bents, a man 28 years her senior. At some point later they made their home in the Newberg area.
After his death in 1935 (he was 75), she moved to Burley, Idaho, near Twin Falls, where she worked as an advice columnist for the Burley Herald. She wrote under the nom de plume of Wynn Bentley, which she had derived from her middle name and a variation of her late husbands last name.
She also wrote poems, described as sentimental, and was a landscape artist.
She married her fourth husband, Homer Patterson, late in the 1930s. By 1943, they were living in Portland and she was employed by the federal governments farm labor office.
After Homer Patterson died in the early 1960s, Maybelle moved to Clark County, Wash., and lived with family members in Vancouver and La Center before settling down at Cherry Stone Senior Citizen Apartments in Battle Ground. When she died, she was a resident of the Pythian Home in Vancouver. She left behind children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Newberg resident George Edmonston Jr. is the retired editor of OSUs alumni magazine, the Oregon Stater, and is a frequent contributor of history features to this newspaper. Contact him at edmonstg @comcast.net