History: The 1934 Custer farmer riot. 

September 30, 2021

George Casper appears on the left side of this photograph that accompanied a news wire story about farmers traveling to Washington, D.C. to meet with the vice president-elect.

History: The 1934 Custer farmer riot. 

Around the County/History is a presentation of Preferred Credit Union, www.preferredcu.org, located locally at 266 N. Jebavy Dr., Ludington.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

The Great Depression of the 1930s was a time of uncertainty and unrest throughout the world. The political climate of the world was changing with the rise of fascism, socialism and communism.

A view of Custer along what is now called Sanders Street.

One group that was hit particularly hard during the depression was the farming community. Secured loans didn’t exists like they do today and banks were calling in mortgages from farmers. In addition, farmers began to feel uncertain about the prices they were receiving for their crops. 

Several organizations existed to represent the voice of agriculture. The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry (known commonly as The Grange) began in 1867. The American Farm Bureau Federation began in 1911. Both were grassroots-based organizations starting at township and county levels, then state and federal levels. Michigan Farm Bureau, for example, was founded in 1919. 

A group whose roots are a little more difficult to find, and whose existence likely didn’t last very long was the Michigan Farmers’ League. According to newspaper reports in the 1930s, the group had clear ties to the communist party. It had a reputation of organizing local meetings and brining in farmers from out of the area to increase numbers. 

One such meeting happened in Custer on Aug. 21, 1934 involved an estimated 400 to 500 people and turned into what was described as a “near riot.” 

The meeting was led by George Casper, the 27-year-old son of Lithuanian immigrant farmers John and Agatha Casper, who resided on or near the modern day Shafer Farm on Darr Road south of Sippy Road in Eden Township. John Casper arrived in the U.S. from Lithuania in 1892, Agatha arrived in 1895, the same year the two were married. The Caspers moved to Mason County in 1917. 

In 1932, Casper ran, unsuccessfully, as the Communist Party candidate for state representative of Mason County. According to records at the University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library, the Communist Party of Michigan was formed in 1919, but was soon targeted as a subversive organization. Later that year, he was sent to a farmers’ relief conference in Washington, D.C. known as the Dirt Farmers. Farmers from 26 states were represented at the conference where they called upon House Speaker and vice president-elect John Garner with proposals for farm relief including $500 million for immediate relief of destitute farmers; government purchases of farm products; government price fixing on farm commodities; a debt holiday; and holiday on mortgage foreclosures and evictions during the depression. 

In the winter of 1933, Casper and Beulah farmer Clyde Smith, began holding a series of meetings throughout the region, including several in Mason County, discussing the farm mortgage and tax sale moratoriums. 

Smith, 59, had been a the Communist Party’s 1932 candidate for congress. 

On March 1, 1933, Casper led a group of farmers on the steps of the Mason County Courthouse protesting the foreclosure of the William and Agnes (Schultz) Vansconis farm in Eden Township, located on the southeast corner of Meisenheimer and Custer roads in what was commonly referred to as Fern. William Vansconis was in his mid-60s at the time. The family, immigrants of Lithuania, had moved to Mason County from Pennsylvania in 1919. Three years prior, their 24-year-old daughter, Julia, passed away. 

In 1928 the Vansconises had received a mortgage from the Peoples State Bank of Scottville and, according to a notice of default publication in the Feb. 13, 1933 edition of the Ludington Daily News, had failed to make payments. The balance was $3,495.36.

The terms of the loan allowed the bank to collect the entire balance if any default had occurred, a common practice in those times and a very frequent practice during the Great Depression. 

According to a newspaper article, a crowd of approximately 150 persons, mostly farmers, gathered near the north entrance of the Mason County Courthouse on the morning of March 1, 1933. 

“The crowd gathered rapidly shortly before 10 the appointed hour fo the sale,” the newspaper article stated. “One delegation immediately sought out the sheriff, who was inside the courthouse at the time and endeavored to persuade him to postpone the sale. Headed by George Casper of Eden Township, William Vansconis and others, the deputation stated more time is needed by farmers in meeting obligations that mature during the present emergency.

“In the meantime the majority of the crowd, gathered in front of the north entrance of the courthouse, was being addressed by Clyde Smith of Benzie County, who other farmers said, had organized today’s protest demonstration. 

“After listening to the deputation, Sheriff Colyer said he would announce his decision within 10 minutes. Stepping to the north entrance but a few minutes later the sheriff held up his and and, addressing the crowd said: 

“‘Most of you fellows know me and know I am in sympathy with the man who is having  a tough time of it these days. I am going to adjourn this sale for 30 days because I believe the legislature is going to do something about this mortgage business before that time is up. If it doesn’t there will be still another extension granted when the 30 days are up.’

“The sheriff’s remarks were greeted with much applause and shouting. In response to Mr. Smith’s suggestions that a parade be organized, many of the crowd headed by a contingent carrying banners and proceeding on foot wound its way down Ludington Avenue and up various other streets of the city.”

Though the foreclosure was postponed, the efforts were not successful. In April 1933, the Zansconis farm was foreclosed.

An April 1, 1933 article of the Detroit Free Press talked about the impact the bank’s closing had on people’s lives when farmers nearly rioted at the Mason County Courthouse:

“A group of 125 farmers gathered on the steps of the Mason County Courthouse to protest the foreclosure sale of two farms. Two men were taken into custody during the disorders but were released after questioning.

“The farmers gathered to protest the foreclosure sale of the farm property of William and Agnes Zansconis in Eden Township and Peter and Katie Hajec in Grant Township, threatened Sheriff George L. Collier as he ejected one man from the auctioneer’s platform. There was a scramble on the courthouse steps and the sheriff and a group of deputies took two men into custody.

“Circuit Court Judge Hal L. Cutler spoke to the crowd and, as rain began to fall, invited them to hold their protest meeting in the circuit court rooms. They filed into the courtrooms and the sale was completed there being no competitive bidding.

“The foreclosure sales were called in behalf of the People’s State Bank of Scottville, now closed, by L.G. Hammond, receiver, who is liquidating the bank.”

“The mortgage on the Hajec farm was $932.24.

The Peoples State Bank of Scottville closed in February 1933 but continued to liquidate its assets. See related story here. 

Smith, George Casper, and George’s brother, John, were arrested in Newaygo County on charges of criminal syndicalism in relation to a protest that took place in White Cloud. The incident took place about a week after the March 1933 protest at the Mason County Courthouse. 

Syndicalism is defined as a radical political movement that advocates bringing industry and government under the control of federations of labor unions by the use of direct action, such as general strikes and sabotage.

The White Cloud protest apparently involved a group of 400 persons protesting a mortgage foreclosure sale. The protest turned into a riot as the group began fighting with sheriff deputies. 

“William Eaves, a farmer of Everett township, testified that George Casper last January made a speech in the Gleaners hall at Everett declaring it was “time to get out guns and tear gas and go after mortgage holders and banks,” a newspaper article stated. “George Casper’s arrest followed a few minutes after this testimony.” The Everett protest had taken place earlier that year. 

The arrest didn’t stop George Casper or Clyde Smith from organizing more meetings. In 1934, their focus shifted to commodity prices. 

In April 1934, Casper was appointed secretary of a grievance committee established by local farmers to address prices paid by R.W. Roach canning factory in Scottville, along with Heinz Pickle Co., which had a local plant in Free Soil and the Squire Dingee Pickle Co., which had a local plant in Custer. 

“A demand for two grades of pickles at $2.75 and $1.50; two grades of green string beans at $4 and $3; one grade of yellow string beans at $3; a demand there be no discrimination in patronage; a demand that all grievances be settled through the farmers’ organized grievance committee.

“Resolutions were adopted by the committee, one copy going to the press, other copies to be presented to Roach Canning Col, Heinz Pickle Co. and Squire Dingee Pickle Co. Resolutions will be presented to the three companies following meetings which are being planned for Victory, Free Soil and Carr Settlement.”

But, the meeting that was the tipping point happened on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 1934 at the Custer Town Hall in the Village of Custer. The first floor of the building was the township hall while the second floor served as the meeting place for the Custer Odd Fellows. 

George Casper organized the Michigan Farmers’ League meeting. Casper was serving as the secretary of the state organization. 

“According to E.P. Reene, deputy sheriff in Custer Township, Tuesday’s trouble started even before the scheduled meeting began,” an Aug. 22, 1934 newspaper article stated. “Called for the purpose of hearing a report on the string bean and pickle price situation which report was to have been given by Casper, the meeting was also attended by numerous non-sympathizers who arrived early in the evening in a long string of cars from Scottville and other points.”

According to reports, the room was jammed when the meeting was finally called to order by Casper. A few minutes later, Deputy Reene entered and stopped the meeting and asked the chairman from whom they had received permission to use the upper floor of the hall. 

It later developed that Frank Martinchek of Custer Township, and an active member of the Communist Party, had received permission to use the lower floor for the meeting but had been told to stay out of the second floor section where the Custer Odd Fellows lodge, which occupies the same building. Keys for the lower floor had been turned over to Martincheck by Elmer McKenzie, township clerk. 

“According to Martincheck, the keys did not immediately fit the lock on the first floor door. A stranger, he says, then grabbed them from him and started for the second floor. Although authorities state that the second floor lock had been forced open, Martincheck disclaims any knowledge of how the entry was effected.”

The newspaper article continues: “The discussion between Dep. Reene and Casper, in which Reene ordered the crowd to leave the second floor quarters, was as far as the meeting got. According to onlookers it served as a signal for a tension which spread rapidly in the room and among non-members of the league who were standing outside the hall. Words were exchanged in the hall. A few minutes later Casper descended the stairway and made an exit though a first floor window on the north side of the building.

“Others followed, some of the crowd taking after him while other persons attempted to interfere. Casper, according to reports, ran north along the highway and soon disappeared.”

Then, the violence broke out. 

“In the meantime, surliness had developed throughout the entire gathering.”

Lloyd Smith, described as being 30-years-old, apparently got into a fight with Fortenatis Zukas, 48, of Eden Township. 

“Smith got into a controversy with Zukas and soon the pair was rolling on the ground. According to Smith several of Zukas’s friends came along and joined in the fight, eight of them, he says having kicked him in the face and beaten him generally before he was able to free himself. It was during this melee that he was stabbed.”

Smith was apparently stabbed in the back and “severely beaten, receiving a broken nose, a black eye and numerous bruises. He was taken to the office of Dr. C.M. Spencer (grandfather of current Scottville mayor Marcy Spencer), where his wounds were dressed after which he was returned to his home in Custer.” 

“Many in the crowd joined in pursuit of Zukas following an allegation that he was responsible for the stabbing. Zukas in turn fled to the nearby home of Joe Laiskonis on US 10. The crowd gathered quickly and surrounded the house. Undersheriff Ed Anderson of Ludington arrived shortly thereafter and, accompanied by Dep. Reene, entered the house, procured Zukas from a second floor room and took him to the county jail for examination. 

“The crowd milled about the house and village for more than an hour before finally disbanding.”

The next day, when George Casper did not come home, his brother John contacted the Michigan State Police and the Michigan Attorney General’s office, via telegram, to report him missing. 

“The attorney and two detectives came in response to a telegram sent to Lansing Wednesday by John Casper, brother of George,” an Aug. 23, 1934 newspaper article stated. “The message stating George Casper was possibly the victim of a lynch mob, demanded state police aid in locating him.

“After talking with George Casper, who had returned to his home later Wednesday, the Lansing trio this morning said there was no foundation for the kidnapping report. Casper related his story to them, saying he had spent the latter part of Tuesday night at the home of a friend, returning to his own home in Eden Township later the next day.”

In the meantime, Zukas was released on $1,500 bail following his arraignment. Eventually, the charges against him were dismissed due to lack of evidence. 

The following week, on Aug. 27, 1934, Casper appeared at another meeting of the Farmers’ League, this time at the German hall in Ludington, to explain what happened at the farmers’ league meeting in Custer. The meeting also featured Herbert E. Aldrich, described as a Muskegon resident and former Mason County resident, who was the Communist Party candidate for the Ninth Congressional District. 

“The incident of last Tuesday will not stop Farmer’s League organization work, Casper said. He stated it is not the farmers’ fault that prices of necessities of life are high. The farmer does not receive the benefit of these prices, as declared. 

“Explaining breaking-up of the meeting, Casper said it was an attempt to terrorize farmers, ‘a dare to them to meet for the purpose of discussing their problems in an effort to pull themselves from the grip of the depression.’”

Casper also gave a history of the meetings held by the league previous to the Custer session. 

“It was known the famers must organize to protect their interests, he stated and meetings were held in Mason, Manistee, and Oceana counties. The famers were in accord with the proposals to right the difficulties he explained and a communication asking a meeting between officials of the Roach company and a group of farmers was presented to an official of the company by Casper. The company wanted to choose the farmers’ representative, Casper said but this did not meet with the approval of the farmers. During the conversation outside the canning company factory, when the letter was presented, Casper said one of the officers called him a trouble maker and another said a “rope should be put around your neck” at which a law officer answered ‘yes’ the speaker declared.”

George Casper died on Sunday, Oct. 5, 1969 at the age of 62. According to his obituary in the Oct. 7, 1969 edition of the Ludington Daily News, he moved to Dearborn in 1926 at the age of 19. The obituary stated that Casper worked for Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn but did not discuss his years as a political candidate for the Communist Party or his time organizing farmers. It’s speculation, but it’s likely he moved to Dearborn in 1926 and became involved in the union movement and was encouraged to then run for political office in his hometown, which is not unusual. Probably once back up in Mason County, he got involved with the farmers’ causes because he too was a farmer and it would help his political ambitions. 

In 1939 Casper married Violet Stankus. They had four children. His brother, John, died in 1960 and he was survived, at the time, by three sisters. 

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