Tension caused by traffic fines
Augusta was experiencing growing pains in 1916. People were moving to town. With the construction of the White Eagle Refinery and the Lakeside Refinery, and other businesses connected to the oil industry, jobs were becoming more plentiful.
The El Dorado Oil Field at the time, was responsible for 12.8 percent of national oil production and 9 percent of the world production. Butler County’s economy was on the rise.
Augusta’s streets were unpaved and rutted and rough. The heavy oil field equipment traveling the streets kept them in deplorable conditions.
The City Council at an August meeting in 1916, approved a decision to pave State Street from Third Street to High Street. The paving would be brick on top of a concrete slab.
At that same meeting an ordinance was passed that set the speed limit on local streets at 15 mph. When turning a corner, speed was to be reduced to 8 mph and barrels were placed in the middle of each intersection. Drivers were required to go around the barrel when turning.
The new ordinance that would prove troublesome required that a red light on rear of vehicles should be turned on after dark.
Law enforcement in Augusta at that time was Marshal Crowe and three policemen, one of them, Pat Crowe, the marshal’s brother. Reports at the time indicated the officers had jailed a number of residents for trivial matters and seemed to delight in persecuting the citizens and being vigilant when it came to enforcing certain ordinances.
Law breakers - those with no tail lights - received fines of $16 and the arresting officer received $6.85 of the amount.
A storm was brewing on the evening of Oct. 5, 1916 when W. R. Peal, a prominent Augustan and later a treasurer of Butler County, came riding a horse down State Street. A man on a horse was not rare, but what made it an unusual sight was that Peal had a long pole holding a lantern with a bright red globe and inside was a flickering candle.
The significance of Peal’s tail light and statement didn’t escape most of the people along the curbs and on the sidewalks. They began clapping, hollering, and jeering the marshal, who was patrolling the street looking for law breakers. Marshal Crowe walked behind Peal and his horse and shot eight times in the air. When he started to arrest Peal, the crowd went wild.
Next is when the account gets murky according to several different sources.
Burl Allison’s book “Augusta, Kansas 1868-1990” states that a mob of more than 600 angry citizens quickly formed. The El Dorado Daily Republican reported that a crowd composed of “more than 2,000 men, women and children engaged Augusta’s police force in battle on the main street.”
Fearing for his life, Marshal Crowe jumped into a car and shouted at the crowd to disperse. No one seemed to pay any attention to him.
Peal drew his pistol and fired several shots over their heads. In response, someone threw a brick and hit the officer in the head, knocking him unconscious. He fell from the car and received some blows and kicks from members of the mob. Some others managed to drag the officer away. The marshal and other officers eluded the mob and left town.
In the meantime, someone in the mob suggested that they tear down the one-story brick city jail - undoubtedly occupied at the time with a few traffic offenders. Sledge hammers and crow bars were quickly obtained and the mob proceeded to the jail.
A corner of the building was battered until it came crashing down and the prisoners were liberated, Mr. Peal being among them. A bystander reported “The prisoners went rejoicing on their way.”
The mob continued to Mayor Ed Weidlein’s home, a block away, to demand the dismissal of the entire police force. The mayor wasn’t home. Suddenly, the mob dispersed quietly and went about regular activities, such as going to the downtown movies.
“We don’t need any jail or any policemen,” said one man who had been with the mob. “We’re a peaceful lot, and intend to continue peaceably, law or no law.”
News of the lawlessness spread quickly and two days later, Kansas Gov. Arthur Capper was asked to send militia troops to aid County Attorney C.W. Steiger to restore quiet after the riot when “thousands” stormed the jail and liberated 17.
An official from Topeka arrived and decided his presence was enough to deter anymore problems. He did recommend, however, that Butler County increase its law enforcement force.
None of the police officers chased from town ever returned to Augusta, but according to reports a few days later, someone was willing to be take over for the “vanished” officers when the owner of Robinson’s Grocery had been arrested for no tail light on his vehicle.
Sources: “Augusta, Kansas 1868-1990”, by Burl Allison, Jr.; El Dorado Daily Republican, Oct. 7, 1916; Wichita Eagle, Oct. 6, 1916.
Belinda Larsen can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org