Selections from the George L. Crookham, Jr., Papers
- Documents from the administration of Idaho Gov. Frank Steunenberg (1-28-1897 to 12-27-1900)
- Steunenberg family letters (1-8-1904 to 1-13-1906)
- Correspondence from Idaho Gov. F.W. Gooding and Albert E. Horsley/Harry Orchard to Charles B. Steunenberg (4-17-1908)
The Crookham Papers comprise the largest known private collection of documents from the administration of Frank Steunenberg, fourth governor of the State of Idaho (1897-1901).
Gov. Frank Steunenberg (1861-1905) was a pivotal figure in the labor strife in the late 1890s in the northern Idaho mining district known as the Coeur d’Alenes. The district had previously experienced violence in the early 1890s, soon after Idaho achieved statehood. At that time, after the Idaho National Guard was called in along with federal troops, order was restored but peace was not: it was more of a cease fire. The mass arrests, and the herding of men into temporary enclosures known as “bull pens,” resulted in simmering resentment among the laboring class.
By the end of the decade, disputes over wages and working conditions erupted into rioting and bombings. Gov. Steunenberg, himself a member of the typographical union, was forced to declare martial law and call in troops in hopes of controlling the violence. However, the Idaho National Guard was on duty in the Philippines, so Gov. Steunenberg had no recourse but to send a request to President William McKinley for federal troops. The soldiers ordered to Idaho, the Army’s Twenty Fourth Infantry Regiment, were members of one of four black units in the service. Called Buffalo Soldiers, these were the troops who once again made mass arrests, confining hundreds of miners and their supporters in the hated bull pens.
This labor unrest in both Idaho and Colorado became known as the Mining Wars. Miners eventually returned to work, but certain labor elements carried a lingering grudge against Gov. Steunenberg for his actions. After retiring from office, Frank Steunenberg resumed his business interests in Caldwell. Five years later, on December 30, 1905, he was mortally wounded when he opened the side gate to the yard of his home triggering a dynamite bomb. He died soon after, but family members immediately assumed the crime was an act of revenge by lawless elements from North Idaho.
Captured within hours and confronted with overwhelming evidence, a former miner named Albert E. Horsley (also known as Thomas Hogan and Harry Orchard) soon confessed to being the bomber. Ensuing events resulted in the arrest in Colorado of a trio of officials of the Western Federation of Miners. Extradited to Idaho under questionable legal procedures, these three men, implicated by Orchard as conspirators in the assassination of Frank Steunenberg, would be incarcerated in Boise for nearly a year and a half before their trials began. During this 16-month period, WFM officers William (Big Bill) Haywood, Charles H. Moyer, and George A. Pettibone would become household names as a feeding frenzy of press interest brought international attention to Boise.
Continuing coverage kept the world riveted on the Haywood trial in 1907, an event known in later years as “The Trial of the Century.” Key players included Idaho Senator-elect William Borah for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow of Chicago for the defense. Haywood, although found not guilty by the jury, would never shed the taint of suspicion engendered by the trial. In the years to come the increasingly radical tactics he adopted as a labor organizer kept him in hot water with federal authorities. Eventually defecting to Soviet Russia to avoid prosecution, he died in Moscow in 1928, a hero of the Communist Party. Orchard died in the Idaho State Penitentiary in 1954.
For the next seven decades this saga simmered on history’s back burner. Over the years a few scholarly works addressed aspects of the western mining wars, but it remained for author J. Anthony Lukas in the late 1980s to recognize the overarching significance of ex-Governor Steunenberg’s murder in Caldwell, Idaho. The recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for Common Ground (1986), Lukas was sensitive to situations in American history that illuminated class differences. From 1989 to 1996 Lukas investigated the events and tensions surrounding the western mining wars. The result was Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets off a Struggle for the Soul of America (1997).
As he explained in “The Making of Big Trouble,” (published posthumously in Idaho Yesterdays, Vol 41, No 2, 1997), Lukas met George L. Crookham, Jr. (1907-1999), as the result of a tip given him as he was pursuing research at the Idaho State Historical Society Library in 1989. Crookham, a nephew of Frank Steunenberg, was chairman emeritus of the Crookham Company in Caldwell. (This family business, founded by George L. Crookham, Sr., in 1911, continues to specialize in vegetable seed production.) Crookham in 1964 had become guardian of the documents the Governor had saved when he left office in 1901, as well as family correspondence relating to the traumatic events of December 30, 1905. Upon meeting Lukas, Crookham gave him free reign to examine what had become an historical bonanza. Lukas became the first professional writer to see these documents, which proved to be the catalyst for the rich imagery contained in the opening paragraphs of Big Trouble’s chapter one.
In the “Notes” section of Big Trouble (p. 755), Lukas refers to the “Papers of George Crookham, in possession of George Crookham, Caldwell, Idaho.” This on-line collection comprises the core of that collection and retains the title Lukas gave to it. The Crookham Papers were donated to the Robert E. Smylie Archives at The College of Idaho in Caldwell in February, 2006. The donation was made on behalf of the members of the Steunenberg and Crookham families by George Crookham’s son and daughter, William “Bill” Crookham, of Caldwell, and Judy Crookham Krueger of Corvallis, Oregon. Family members had met in Caldwell in September, 2005, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of Frank Steunenberg.
The College of Idaho is publishing this on-line selection from the Crookham Papers in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of “The Trial of the Century.” Annotation of the entries will continue. Eventually the entire collection will be available on-line. We solicit your comments, questions, additions, and corrections.