Communism in Cuyuna country: The story of Karl Emil Nygard

While electing a Communist in modern American politics seems the stuff of science fiction, a combination of old world ethos and new world problems lifted 26-year-old Karl Emil Nygard into the role of Crosby mayor during the bleakest days of the Great Depression.

Political historian and recently retired Vermillion Community College instructor Pam Brunfelt, an expert on Karl Emil Nygard, gives a presentation on Crosby's Communist mayor in “Radicalism on the Iron Rage,” a seminar hosted by Unlimited Learning the afternoon of Tuesday, July 9, at Heartwood Senior Living Center in Crosby. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

CROSBY -- In the wake of Black Tuesday, Crosby awoke to something of a red dawn. Communism was alive and well along the Cuyuna Iron Range.

The recipe for political extremism were there -- a community of immigrants heralding from conflicted regions abroad, a workforce of disaffected iron-ore miners and an economy reeling amid the darkest depths of the Great Depression.

Into this stepped Karl Emil Nygard -- a 26-year-old Swede-Finn with a shock of red hair to match his explosive temper; a young man who would be anointed the only Communist mayor in the United States, whose election by the people of Crosby represented the height of a region’s desperate battle against poverty and economic blight.

Political historian and recently retired instructor at Vermillion Community College, Pam Brunfelt -- the preeminent expert on Nygard -- gave a presentation on the man and the social factors that surrounded him in “Radicalism on the Iron Rage,” a seminar hosted by Unlimited Learning the afternoon of Tuesday, July 9, at Heartwood Senior Living Center in Crosby.

“It’s one of the most incredible stories I’ve ever come across is this Communist mayor from this tiny mining town,” Brunfelt said. “In the long history of the political history of this country, is it important? No. But, it represents something that isn’t present in most history books. That is the story of a struggle by ordinary people for economic justice.”


Living an unabashedly red life -- even pre-McCarthyism of the 1950s -- is, itself, going against social and political norms, Brunfelt said, but Nygard was raised in an environment decidedly against the grain.

Born in 1906 to Swede-Finn parents -- an ethnic subgroup, Brunfelt noted, that didn’t fully belong wherever they originated or settled -- Nygard found himself in a community of immigrants who carried a cultural heritage of defiant individualism in one hand and a propensity for hardliner, far-left idealism straight from the old country. Some of the meeting halls for socialists and avowed Communists still stand to this day in Crosby.

These immigrants were notably educated, urban and liberal for their time, Brunfelt said, and the fire of collectivism didn’t dim in the taconite mines -- if anything, it added fuel to the fire.

Years before the stock market crash on Oct. 29, 1929, this motley and multiethnic crew of iron-ore miners were fighting what they saw as institutions of oppression -- from staging mining strikes to protest unfair wage systems and working conditions, to civically disobeying (and in some cases, serving prison time) for refusing the draft during World War I.

Then the Great Depression, Brunfelt said. Between 1929 to 1932, 96% of production stalled in the mines, Inland Steel hemorrhaged $10 million in ‘31 alone, and more than half of Crosby’s iron-ore miners were laid off while those that remained worked paltry shifts and garnered decreased pay that amounted to little more than charity from mine owners.

Families struggled to get by. Respected professions, such as dentists, had to make do with chickens and garden vegetables for pay. Every single bank on the Iron Range -- except the Deerwood Stage Bank -- closed.

“Put yourselves in their places,” Brunfelt said. “They’ve got large families. There’s no work. Your savings are tied up in weak banks. How are you going to feed all those kids? Is there any wonder why they elected a Communist mayor?”

And so, sandwiched between the precipitous fall of the Hoover Administration and the advent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the plight of the working poor meant Communism flourished in Cuyuna country. Contrary to some perceptions, Brunfelt rejected notions the people of Crosby were somehow hoodwinked or “accidentally” elected a Communist mayor.


“Are you kidding me?” she said. “They knew. They knew he was a Communist.”

Nygard had been up for election multiple years and in multiple roles. Writing under the pen name of Ada M. Oredigger, he had written a slew of articles and open letters highlighting the struggles of workers and extolling his vision in the Crosby Crucible. And so, Brunfelt said, it was little wonder he won handedly on a worker’s ticket in 1932.

Nygard’s tenure was typified by this vision -- policies laid out in an agenda that, Brunfelt said, was intended to ensure all the workers’ needs were met and that barriers to economic security were overcome.

Whatever the success of these initiatives, they were quickly overshadowed by Nygard himself, who became a celebrity, Brunfelt said, speaking at engagements as far away as New York City and Milwaukee and Detroit, in the Twin Cities, and even rural conservative strongholds such as Fergus Falls. He had a problem for hyperbole -- namely, he’d oversell himself, said Brunfelt, who pointed to a score of situations where the young mayor said he “single-handedly” stopped a mine from closing down, or stopped a political rival from gaining power, or reshaped Crosby’s economy in some way. Little, if any of it was true.

Word of this had a way of trickling back to Crosby, Brunfelt said, and when unfounded rumors abounded that mining companies wouldn’t rehire workers so long as Nygard was the town’s chief executive, it was all in the cards. Much as Herbert Hoover’s unpopular policies propelled Nygard into office, his 1933 election as mayor reflected the fate of the 31st president -- the Swede-Finn phenom lost in a landslide.

Nygard’s post-public life was something of a disappearing act.

He worked as a humble dairy herd inspector and settled in Becker County. Despite being known as the nation’s first and only Communist mayor, Brunfelt said, the man faded from the public eye to the point he passed through McCarthyism and the Red Scare unaffected. There wasn’t a word of Nygard’s political leanings or his role as mayor in his obituary when he died in 1984 and his three children didn’t learn of his Communist affiliations until years after his death -- much of it largely by chance and Brunfelt’s own investigation.

Though, Brunfelt noted, private thoughts differ from public actions. While Nygard distanced himself from the Communist Party in later years, the man was said to be a devoted Marxist until the end of his life.


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