“If anyone walks down Lisbon Street in Lewiston, he will certainly think that he is in … an alien land,” where foreigners speaking a strange language are everywhere, an observer claimed.

There are “few real Americans” left in the city, another man griped. He also noted that “a few real Americans” in Lewiston “are working day and night to reclaim the city for those to whom it rightfully belongs.”

That was in 1924. And the aliens the writers complained about in the “Maine Klansman” were immigrants from Quebec, speaking French and practicing what some natives viewed as a dangerous religion, Catholicism.

The language on the streets of Lewiston is rarely French nowadays. The religion of the newcomers is typically not Catholic. But today’s immigrants, like those of yesteryear, are sometimes viewed with suspicion and fear.

As the old adage goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Almost a century ago, a Maine songwriter named F. Eugene Farnsworth penned some lyrics hailing the “heroic men of yore” and worried that “our fathers would be weeping” if they could see how their children had failed to follow their lead.


Dedicated to “the lovers of Law and Order, Peace and Justice,”  Farnsworth published his sheet music in Portland in 1923 — the same year he rose to prominence as the King Kleagle of Maine’s resurgent Ku Klux Klan.

By the summer of 1924, crosses were burning in both Lewiston and Auburn, the flames fanned by an anti-Catholic sentiment so strong that it dominated the state’s gubernatorial election. Tens of thousands of Mainers donned white robes and marched in solidarity with the group’s racist agenda, including parades on the streets of Lewiston.

Atop Mount David, a rocky outcropping on the west side of Bates College, Klansmen gathered after midnight on an August night to light a fiery 12-foot high cross and set off what was described as “a dynamite bomb” to celebrate the nomination of the KKK’s favorite candidate.

The resounding boom, meant to call attention to the flaming crucifix, shook residents out of bed in both Lewiston and Auburn “and badly frightened many living near the college,” a news account noted.

In that same period, at least a dozen other bombs exploded in towns surrounding Lewiston, meant to strike fear into French-speaking voters and keep them from casting ballots and gaining power.

Though the Klan ultimately faded, its dramatic Jazz Age rise is perhaps the most vivid example of a time when bigotry stalked the community — where the battle between “us” and an equally imaginary “them” threatened the peace and well-being of nearly everyone.


As social media warriors stir the community’s passions in the wake of some troubling incidents at Kennedy Park, including the death of a man brought down in a brawl that may have ethnic overtones, many have bemoaned a lost innocence, recalling a time that, they believe, was brighter and better.

Some see the presence of a large Somali community in Lewiston as evidence of a city that has lost its moorings.

It’s nothing new.

A century ago, the city’s Protestant majority expressed almost exactly the same fears about the newly arrived French Canadians, who made up half of the city’s residents by 1920.

The natives fretted that Catholics were beholden to a distant pope, couldn’t speak English and seemed unwilling to fit in.

In March 1923, during a speech in Auburn, Farnsworth maintained that he didn’t despise “the plain Catholic people.” Indeed, he said, he sympathized with them.


“I know what they’re up against, perhaps better than they do. What I oppose is the Roman Catholic political machine in this, our United States,” he said.

Farnsworth cited a litany of foes.

“This is not an Italian nation. This is not an Irish nation. This is not a Catholic nation. It always has been and always will be a Protestant nation,” he said.

He complained as well about what he saw as the insular nature of the immigrants’ business community, insisting that “the n—-r, the Jew, the Catholic all spend their money with themselves. Americans spend their money with everybody.”

Farnsworth, who was likely born in Canada, told his audience that he sought to save the United States, and Maine in particular, for “100 percent” Americans.

Farnsworth and the Klan didn’t go unopposed, however.


As he pressed for the public schools to rely on the King James Bible, avoid hiring Catholics to teach, and have students recite the Lord’s Prayer each day, Farnsworth and his allies found they didn’t have universal support.

Lewiston educators, for example, urged residents to help them “drive Ku-Klux-Klanism from the school board” and spoke out against its hateful philosophy.

“The spirit of Ku-Klux-Klanism in closing our doors, and keeping everybody out, is not advantageous to us in any way,” one school board member said.

Gov. Percival Baxter, the most prominent critic of the Klan’s rising power, called the organization “an insult and an affront to American citizens.”

Though Baxter doubted the Klan could take hold in Maine, he soon found out otherwise.

Boosted by Farnsworth’s charisma, the Klan claimed to have signed up more than 20,000 members in 1923 alone, a fair number of them in Lewiston, one of the hotbeds of its support.


It threw its political support behind a Portland state senator, Ralph Brewster, as its choice to become Baxter’s successor. That Brewster, who pressed to ensure public money wouldn’t flow to parochial schools, won the governor’s race in 1924 says something about the Klan’s clout.

It’s worth pointing out, though, that Lewiston voted overwhelmingly for Brewster’s opponent. Androscoggin County was the only one in Maine to oppose him.

After Brewster’s victory, the Klan’s grip on a big portion of Maine’s voting public faded quickly after Farnsworth’s exposure as a fraud, a thief who swiped many of the dues paid by Klansmen.

The steady but peaceful resistance of the immigrant community and its allies also helped drive the Klan into the ground in Maine.

By 1927, the Klan had vanished from Lewiston and disintegrated across Maine.

While the battles of the past have slipped beyond memory, as Lewiston once again confronts the challenges of integrating a large immigrant community, there is at least a little irony involved.


One political scientist who has written about the issues involved in the Somali influx said his work focused on the social unrest created as the immigrants confront “this overwhelmingly white, insular, Roman Catholic community.”

History shows it didn’t get that way easily.

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Cover of sheet music for a song penned by F. Eugene Farnsworth in 1923, the same year he rose to prominence as the leader of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan in Maine.

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