Prairie Pulse 1209: Bruce Pitts; Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party
Articles,  Blog

Prairie Pulse 1209: Bruce Pitts; Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party

(electric guitar music) – Hello, and welcome
to Prairie Pulse. On today’s show, Matt Olien had a chance to visit
with a very special guest. – Coming up later
on Prairie Pulse, we’ll take a look
at the beginnings of the Minnesota
Farm Labor Party. But first, our guest
is Dr. Bruce Pitts. Now retired from Sanford Health. Former Chief Medical
Officer there. And we’re going to talk about
some other things though, that are interesting to our
public TV viewers today. But first off, Dr. Pitts,
just kind of tell folks a bit about yourself,
your background, where you’re from originally,
and what you do now. – Sure, well I… As you know, I’m a physician. I grew up in Rhode Island
and trained in Philadelphia. Which is a lot of where
my interest in American
History comes from. I’ve been out here
for over 35 years. And practiced my entire career at Merit Care and
then at Sanford. I retired 18 months ago. And took on a new passion. I’m not really a
historian, by a long shot, but I’m doing
historical time travel. Through the eyes, right
now, of Thomas Jefferson. And this has taken me
to other venues as well. – Yeah, let’s talk
about your association with the Jefferson Hour
and Clay Jenkinson, – [Matt] our good friend.
– [Bruce] Yeah, yeah. – How did that start? – [Bruce] Well,
Clay was, when I… My wife and I planned to
spend last winter in Paris. Clay asked if I would like to be the Paris correspondent
for the Jefferson Hour. And he knew my
interest in Jefferson. And I said, “Sure,
that sounds like fun.” And that worked out quite well. And we did a number of
broadcasts from Paris last year. Jefferson’s Paris
and Paris today. I just got back from a trip that recreated Jefferson’s
travels through France in 1787. And we’ll be broadcasting
with Clay about that as well. So it’s really been
a great deal of fun. It’s been very instructive and it really has
been time travel. I really have been able to
get into 18th century France in a way that I
couldn’t have otherwise. – For people that don’t know, how long was
Jefferson in France? – Jefferson was our ambassador to France for five
years,1784-1789. And in 1787, he took
a four month trip around the country by himself. Now when you were there you discovered something I know
we really want to get into. – [Matt] And that’s
– [Bruce] That’s right, – [Matt] an American cemetery
– [Bruce] that’s right. – you found there with a lot
of North Dakota connections. – That’s right. – And tell us the name of
the town where you found it and then what you found there. – Well, Clay had
asked me to find the monastery where
Jefferson used to retreat for periods of time. And it was hard to find, but it is in a place
called Mont Valerien, outside in the suburbs of Paris. It was known as Mont
Calvary in his time. And when I went there to find
remnants of Jefferson’s time, there were none. The monastery was long gone. There was a fort. There was a memorial to members
of the French Resistance that had been shot by
the Nazis at that fort. And as we walked around we
came to an American cemetery. The town is named Seresnes. And the cemetery, like
all American cemeteries, is quite beautiful. – They keep them up
nicely there, don’t they? – They do. They do just a beautiful job. This is the smallest
American cemetery in Europe. It’s the only one
that contains soldiers from both World War
I and World War II. – And there’s some
North Dakota connections – [Bruce] There are,
– [Matt] and Teddy Roosevelt – [Matt] connections, yeah. – [Bruce] it was interesting. I went there looking to
try to tap in a little bit to the spirituality
of what Jefferson must have experienced there. And we certainly
did at Suresnes. We wandered through
the 15 hundred graves, looking for people
from North Dakota. And then we wandered into a little building
off to the side. And it was a very small house. Two large folios. Two leather chairs. And in the folios were
lists of all of the deceased who were buried at Suresnes. Then a man came out. Bearded gentleman, tall. And said, “Can I help you?” I said, “Yes,you can. “We’re looking for
North Dakotans.” He said, “Well come on in, “we’ll find them.” His name was Angelo Munsel and he found the names of the 22 North
Dakotan who are there. And we went to either their
graves or to the places where their names are inscribed, if their bodies were not
available for burial. And began to talk to
Angelo for three hours about what is happening now
at these American cemeteries. And it turned out to be an
incredibly moving experience. We’re five or six generations
out from these young men and in North Dakota’s
case, all men. There are also women buried
there, who died in World War I. – [Bruce] And it’s no longer– – [Matt] All the North Dakotans are World War I
at this cemetery? – Yeah, that’s right. All 22. – Okay. – They died from a
variety of causes. And Angelo said, we
know why they died. We don’t know anything
about how they lived. And as these become less
memorials and more museums, they want very badly
to curate the lives of the people who
were buried there. To know more about
how they lived. And this became, for
me, a personal mission. I said, “Okay, Angelo. “I have 22 names, that’s
what I am going to do.” And for the last few months, I’ve been doing everything I can to learn about the 22 North
Dakotans who are there. Not only why they died
and how they died, but also how they lived. What they were doing
here before they left. And it’s been an
incredible journey. – And how do you go about that? Have you contacted ancestors? How has it been going so far? – You know, I have been
using documents so far. The North Dakota
and the SU archives has been incredibly helpful. There are books that include
the names of these people. There’s And there are a
variety of sources that I have been able to use. They have the
repository of all of the draft registration
cards for all people who were inducted into the
service during World War I. And that’s just an incredible
resource to find out where they lived, what they did, and who they might
be related to now. There was one man who’s name
was George Leslie Rourke, who died in battle. He’s one of the few who
died in battle, actually. Many died of disease. – [Matt] I know they did, yeah. – Or drowning, after
the sinking of a ship. – [Matt] Yeah. – But George Leslie Rourke
grew up outside of Langdon. There are a lot of Rourkes still in Langdon
and from Langdon. Everyone is familiar
with James Rourke, – [Matt] Sure. – who developed the
Rourke Art Gallery. That family has also
done a marvelous job of creating a family tree. And so that probably is going
to be the richest source of interviews that I will have
as I move forward with this. And I just was exploring
that yesterday, so I haven’t had the time yet to introduce myself
to the Rourkes. – And what are you going
to do with the interviews? Are you going to publish a book? – Yeah, my intention
is to publish a book. I think there will
be vignettes about a variety of individuals. What they did. Where they lived. There are four Georges. And it’s fascinating how
these people’s lives unfolded. There was a George Boosalis
who lived in Fargo. He was born in Greece. Came to the United
States with his family. Lived at number one
8th Street South, with his mother
and three brothers and two other Greek gentlemen. Ran a fruit shop. And his brother
ran a candy shop. He was inducted and
never made it to France because the boat he was on
with three other North Dakotans was sunk in the English Channel. And so he drowned. Another George was George Peck. And George Peck
was a vulcanizer. – [Matt] What’s that? – He was a rubber producer. And I never had
read about a vulc– I knew a lot about
Vulcans from Star Trek, but nothing about vulcanizing. And he ran a vulcanizing
shop in Fargo. And there was a lot
about him in the record, about what he was doing
before he was inducted. He also never made it to France because he died of
influenza and pneumonia on the ship going over, along with three
other North Dakotans. So it’s a tragic
story of disease that took more lives
than battle itself. – And of course at the end
of that war the pandemic, the worldwide pandemic. – [Matt] I know that
– [Bruce] That’s right. – a lot of people think that that whole virus
started in France. I don’t know, as
a medical person you probably know what
I’m talking about. – Yeah, yeah. And the American
Expeditionary Force, by the time the war ended had 1.9 million
Americans in Europe. And they had 190,000
hospital beds. They were always full. And overflowing
because of the pandemic that affected not just
soldiers, obviously, but the civilian
population as well. And probably had a lot to do with ending the
war when it ended. Because both, especially
on the European side, the Axis side, it really
caused a huge crisis in Germany at that time. – Now, I might be wrong, did you find a
Roosevelt connection? – [Bruce] Yeah,
– [Matt] at the cemetery. – [Bruce] this was fascinating. – I know he lost a son in
the war, I know he did. – He did. I, as I mentioned, we were going to Mont Valerien, in Suresnes, looking for Thomas Jefferson. When I was talking to Angelo, he mentioned that at the
time that World War I was, the American presence
there was gearing up and Americans were
starting to die. There was huge pressure
on the military to bring all of the
American dead back to the States for
interment here. When Roosevelt’s
son, Quentin, died– – [Matt] I didn’t know if
it was Quentin or Archie, I couldn’t remember, yeah. – It was Quentin who died. He announced that he was going to bury Quentin in France. And that Quentin would
have wanted to die with the people he was serving. And that caused a
significant change in the thinking of
the American public. To the point where, in the end, about 1/3 of the American
dead from World War I were buried in Europe,
and 2/3 came back. Then Angelo just
dropped, he said “By the way, the
Roosevelts used to own “all of that land over there.” And what had been Mont Valerien, a religious retreat,
had a connection, another connection
to Teddy Roosevelt. His brother, Elliott,
was kind of a bad actor. Bit of a drunk. And was married to
a woman named Anna. And he had several
little children. One of whom was named Eleanor. And in the late 1880s he was sort of disgraced
and went to Europe. And wound up in an
asylum is Suresnes. His wife rented land
on Mont Valerien. And then subsequently bought it. And it stayed with the Roosevelt
family until the 1930s, when it was given to the city
to transform it into a park. So running into the story
about Teddy Roosevelt and his son Quentin, and his brother Elliott
owning the land, I found a lot about
Teddy Roosevelt. Which is equally
interesting to Clay. And much less about
Thomas Jefferson. But that’s the nature of
historical time travel. With real time travel, you don’t always wind up where you think you’re
going to wind up. – [Matt] And of course,
the Roosevelt connection to France continued, – [Matt] because Ted Jr.
– [Bruce] That’s right. – was involved in
the Normandy landing. – [Bruce] Exactly.
– [Matt] He was not a Spring chicken – [Bruce] That’s right.
– [Matt] when that happened. – That’s exactly right. And there are two
Roosevelts buried in Europe. One from World War I and
one from World War II. – Why is this important
right now, Bruce? 100th anniversary of the
start of World War I. Sometimes people forget World
War I more than World War II. But why is this
important now to do this? – It’s important to me because
of the human connection. And the importance
of remembering those who gave their lives
for this country, regardless of the conflict,
regardless of why or when. It’s the 100th anniversary. The anniversary will
go on through 2018, because it was a four
or five year conflict. And I think it’s a
good time for people to reflect upon their
heritage and the sacrifices that their ancestors
have made for us. World War I does not
have the presence in our minds of World War II. And that’s probably
a generational thing. The French actually
see it as one war. – [Matt] Yeah, I suppose. – Yeah, that never really ended. It’s, I think, interesting. I think it has great
emotional appeal. And the one thing I
did come away with from Suresnes was the
very distinct feeling that the serenity, the
peace, the beauty that Jefferson found there continues to exist,
at this cemetery. It’s a lovely place. – Now Bruce, I know
if people think they have connections
to these people – [Bruce] Please do.
– [Matt] Do you want them to contact you? – [Matt] How can they
– [Bruce] Please do. – contact you? – [email protected] – That’s easy, P-I-T-T-S, yes. – Yep. So that is the best way
to get a hold of me. And I’ve been in touch
with a few people. This has actually turned
up interesting connections. There was a fellow who
visited Suresnes after I did, and this Angelos said, “Well, if there’s somebody
else who’s asking, “has similar interests, “maybe you want to contact him.” And he contacted me. And it turns up that he
grew up in North Dakota, even though he hasn’t
lived here for years. And we get into more small world stories
through these connections. But, you know, with names like Barnick,
Broosalis, Rourke, Peck. Peck from Dickinson. I mean there was just a variety. I have 22 names and people who
I’m trying hard to research. And there’s only about
whom I’m found nothing. So… – [Matt] Okay, and your
research continues. – [Bruce] My research
continues, yep. I spend a lot of time
going through old books. Going through… I’m going to go down to
the World War I museum in Kansas City and do some
work in their resources. And I’m going to start
contacting families to see what they remember
and what they may have known. – A couple more questions
about Jefferson. Why do you think he is
still important today? And what is it about Clay’s show that really resonates
with people? – So much in today’s politics
is attributed to the founders. And so much of that
attribution is simply – [Matt] is wrong. – false. (laugh) – I knew you were
going to say that. – You can take a founder
and you can twist them to any purpose whatsoever. Plus, a person with the
longevity of Thomas Jefferson changed over the
course of their lives. He said things at one time that maybe they had changed
their mind about later. So, it’s easy to twist them
to the views of the moment. I think what Clay
does so beautifully is to get into
the mind and heart of the historical Jefferson. The real Jefferson. And how he might reflect
upon what’s happening today. Recognizing that he
too would have changed were he still alive. And I think he does
that brilliantly. And I think it
brings people back to a deep understanding
of what made this country what it is and what we need
to continue to preserve, in terms of Jeffersonian
ideals and Lightman ideals. And also the ongoing
conflict that democracy is. – And there’s a realism too, because with Clay makes
a comment on his show about a current president or
what Obama might have done, or Clinton or Bush,
he’s done that through study of
Jefferson’s life. So his answers aren’t
just based on whim, they’re based on
research he’s done about what he might
think of something. – He is remarkable
in terms of his grasp of Jefferson’s thinking
and his ability to immediately contact
in his own mind with quotes and sources
that demonstrate what Jefferson would
have said and thought. He’s not living
out his own agenda. – [Matt] Right. A couple minutes left, let me
ask you about Sanford quickly. – [Matt] Expansion going on.
– [Bruce] Yes. – Can you talk about what this is going to
mean for the community and the region? – You know, I think it’s
going to mean a lot. From a health care perspective, the new facilities
are going to bring a much needed modernization
to the services that are available
in this region. Not only because of what it
will provide to patients, but it’s also incredibly
attractive for recruiting doctors and nurses, scientists
and the other people that make a health
care system go. So I think it’s going
to have a huge impact on quality of service, the availability of adult
care services in this region. It’s very exciting. – Is there, you know,
when people need
surgery or special… really, it’s pretty much
covered here isn’t it? – [Bruce] It is. – I mean, there’s
some things where you might have to refer people – [Matt] to Mayo or whatever,
– [Bruce] Yeah. – [Matt] but it’s pretty…
– [Bruce] There were very few conditions which a referral out of Fargo-Moorehead
is needed. And of course, there
are people who want it. And we over-support that. We encourage people, we
want them to be comfortable with their care, whether
it’s here or elsewhere, but the level of
expertise that has evolved in this community is phenomenal. Something that
I’m very proud of. – When are you going
back to Europe next? – Are you having any more trips? – [Bruce] Well,
we just got back. – Okay. – We just got back from
a trip that recreated Jefferson’s 1787
tour through France. And we’ll be back in
March and April in Paris. And broadcasting
from there as well. – Okay, are you going to find
any more cemeteries you think? – [Bruce] You know,
I think I will. I have a whole litany of things that I didn’t get done when
I was there last Winter that I hope to get
done this Spring. – What’s the reaction of the
French people to Jefferson? Or when you’re there and they
know what you’re doing there? Are they familiar with him? – [Bruce] As you might imagine, the French do not have a
uniform response to anything. (laughs) – [Matt] Okay. – That’s what I love about them. There are sort of two… if you ask any French person
to name one American president, they will name Jefferson. – [Matt] Really? – You know, he is the
president that comes to mind. On the other hand,
when François Hollande was in this country last winter, visiting the United States, and Obama took
him to Monticello, the French were outraged that an African
American president would take a French president to see the home
of a slave owner. Because that’s what they see. – [Matt] Right. – And so, like everything else,
the French love controversy. And they even can make
Jefferson controversial. (laugh) – [Matt] Interesting. – Yes. – About 30 seconds left. Again, if people want
to get a hold of you about the cemetery,
their ancestors, or also maybe you have a
website for the Jefferson Hour, those two things as well. – [Bruce] The website
for the Jefferson Hour, I do have entries there and they would certainly
forward those to me. And that’s And mine is, again,
[email protected] – Okay. Thank you Bruce, – Thank you. – For being here. – Pleasure. – Dr. Bruce Pitts, the
former Chief Medical Officer at Sanford, now researching Jefferson Hour for
Clay Jenkinson, and finding cemeteries as well. Stay tuned for more. – At the turn of
the 20th century, Minnesota’s entrenched
Republican Party was challenged by
the most successful, radical third party
in American history. From 1918 to 1944, the
Farmer and Labor Party was strong enough
to wrest control of the state’s government away from the entrenched
political parties, profoundly transforming
Minnesota’s political climate. (banjo music) – [Richard] The Midwest
had a one party system because so many of the states were brought into the
Union as Republican states. And that initial
development of their parties meant that it was hard for any kind of other
competition to grow up. And the Democratic Party
basically had it’s stronghold in New York City and
in Northeastern cities, and in the South. And the rest of the country
was a Republican stronghold. In a one party system, voters curiously are not
very loyal to the one party. There’s something
about competition that makes for partisan
identification. And the lack of competition,
of party competition, and the fact that
the Republican Party didn’t have to fight
to build an electorate meant that a large
number of voters really were ready there
for being picked up by people who wanted to
start a protest organization. Because these people
weren’t particularly loyal to the Republican Party. States are laboratories
of democracy. That is to say that one of the great things about
American Federalism, is that you can
have experiments, policy experiments and
political experiments and organizational experiments. So there’s a kind of
dynamism and innovation that’s built into
American politics. And for me, that was really
what was so fascinating about the Farm and Labor Party, is that it showed
the possibility for dynamism and innovation that American Federalism
makes possible. Farming is a very
insecure business. So that insecurity was
something that farmers in the 19th century and
in the 20th century, until the 1930s, were hoping
to politically fix somehow. Workers didn’t have protections. They didn’t have
protections for hours. And more important,
they couldn’t organize. They would get stomped
on if they organized. So farmers were insecure. Workers were insecure in terms of their organizational rights. Or so it seemed to people, because they were distant
from banks and from cities and from what seemed
to be the center of financial and
economic powers. They seemed to be,
essentially at the mercy of other people making big
decisions about their lives. That created a context that was
very favorable in Minnesota. Between the strength of
the socialist trade unions and suddenly the emergence
and the setting up of shop in St. Paul of the
non-partisan league. And then their organization out in the rural
areas of Minnesota, the two basic kinds
of economic insecurity created the potential
for a coalition. (upbeat piano music) In the 1920s and 1930s if you
were an aspiring politician, there were only two
places you wanted to go, you wanted to
become a Republican, or you wanted to become
a Farmer-Laborite. There was a very talented
socialist trade union, who is completely obscure today, who was actually very
important in the development of the Farmer-Labor Party. A guy named William Mahoney. He was a person who threw
himself into this idea that we ought to
have an organization that would function
between elections. To keep the discussion going
about what they’re all about. And to focus on how we are
going to get good candidates to run for the
different positions. Then in the ’30s
it really takes off as a third party. And it’s really the most
successful state level third party we’ve ever had. And it’s in that sense a
unique political organization. And that’s a growing
concern until 1938, when Harold Stassen takes over all the reasonable
sections of the platform and just says, “If
you get me, you’ll get “a reasonable Republican
who just happens to believe “everything the Farmer-Laborites
have stood for.” But the party limped along. And then in 1944, decided, yep, we’re going to go and we’ll
move into the Democratic Party and the Democratic Party said, “Come on over, we want you, “because we’re trying
to build ourselves. “The Democratic Party
is now the new party. “It’s the strong party. “And we want to
bootstrap ourselves “into getting the kind of
strength in the electorate “that Democratic Parties are
getting everywhere else.” The reason that we don’t have
state level third parties, like the Farmer-Labor Party is that the New Deal
was a big success. And it permanently strengthened
the Democratic Party. – [FDR] I recognize that
the many proclamaions from state capitals
and from Washington the legislation, the treasury
regulations and soforth, couch to the most part if
banking and legal terms, ought to be explained
for the benefit of the average citizen. – [Richard] All of the
prestige of doing good things in American politics moved
over to the Democratic Party. And so it’s just
very hard to start a plausible third
party organization. The Minnesota
Farmer-Labor Party, success, failure? It fails because it’s
not around, right? So we don’t have
Farmer-Labor politicians. Success, it’s a success
in the sense that it created a
political tradition. And it’s encoded in the name of the Democratic
Farmer-Labor Party. And to that extent,
voters every election get reminded that they
have a political tradition here in Minnesota
that is right there on the ballot in front of them. It created politicians
who were more open-minded, I think, about social policy. And certainly much more
open to organized labor than Democratic Party
politicians elsewhere
in the country. Politicians who were heirs
to the kind of progressivism that the Farmer-Labor
Party tried to institutionalize
and make permanent. – Well that’s all we have on
Prairie Pulse for this week. And as always,
thanks for watching. (electric guitar music) – [Voiceover] Funding for
Minnesota Legacy programs are provided by a grant
from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. With funding from the vote of the people of Minnesota
on November 4, 2008. And by the members
of Prairie Public.

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