This is the first of an occasional series called Camera Obscura, a deep dive into a photograph that is seemingly inexplicable. If you have any suggestions for future stories, send them to email@example.com.
On April 27, 1926, the Cañon City Daily Record ran a surprising bulletin on its front page. Right under a notice that the local junior high school was putting together a variety show, the local newspaper of the small central Colorado town printed the headline “Klansmen pose for picture on merry-go-round,” along with a brief, staid description of a parade of hooded locals that went from the Klan headquarters on Main Street to the travelling amusement park that had been set up a couple blocks away.
The photo itself, though, wasn’t printed, as the photographer didn’t share it with the paper. In fact, it didn’t show up until more than 65 years later. And when it did, of course, it went viral.
The story of how this photo got to the internet touches on topics as diverse as Colorado demographics and the history of the Ferris wheel—but it also reveals the blind spots in our historical memory. As grotesque as is the image of the hooded men enjoying an amusement park ride, the spectacle was not nearly as unusual as many Westerners might hope.
It’s hard to overstate the influence of the Klan in Colorado during the 1920s. The governor, Clarence Morley, was a Klansman. Senator Rice Means was openly endorsed by the Klan. Denver Mayor Benjamin Stapleton had KKK connections. Yet, the Klan’s hub of power was not in a state metropolis. From 1924 to 1928, Cañon City, a former mining town in the eastern half of the state that had become dependent on the jobs from the nearby state prison, was the Klan capital. The Grand Dragon of the Colorado Klan was Reverend Fred Arnold, the minister of Cañon City’s First Baptist Church and the chaplain of the prison. He ran the Klan offices from the Hotel St. Cloud across the street from the church downtown.
Even though the aesthetic of the Klan remains consistent whether in Colorado or Alabama, in 1926 or 1968, the group went through different expressions of its broadly bigoted ideology. The Klan of the 1920s had different goals from the one that came to prominence in the South in the 1960s. This iteration of the Klan focused its hatred more onto Catholics than black people. Intimidation, not violence, was its m.o.; in Colorado, the Klan seems to have only been responsible for a couple of beatings and no deaths. Despite the hoods, the group conducted its business out in the open with the imprimatur of the government.
And so it was the construction of a local abbey near Cañon City that got the Klan’s attention in the early 1920s.
The Catholic Church decided to fund construction of the Holy Cross Abbey after a large influx of immigrants arrived from Southern Europe after World War I, swelling its ranks. Local Protestants, on the other hand, were worried that the new arrivals were taking too many mining jobs and morally disrupting the town’s temperate culture. (The Klan of the 1920s strongly supported Prohibition. The Abbey, on the other hand, now doubles as a winery.) As a result, Arnold found it easy to recruit a large majority of the Protestants to the Klan, and soon installed Klansmen into every local political office, often under the slogan “100 percent Americanism”.
According to researchers at the Royal Gorge Museum & History Center, the KKK became so popular that children of local Klansmen often wrote “KKK” on the bibs of their school overalls and called themselves the “Ku Klux Kids”.
By the time this photo was taken in 1926, the Klan’s power was at its zenith. According to the Daily Record, the Klansmen were invited to pose for the portrait by the site’s proprietor, William Forsythe, a Klansman himself, who brought his mini-carnival down south from Fort Collins. In addition to running the fair, Forsythe also invented rides. In 1924, Forsythe filed a patent for an “amusement structure” known as the Andean Staircase, which uses a system of cables and pulleys to tow carriages through a diamond-shaped tunnel. (A year later, he offered “All patent rights on wonderful new riding device, with large earning capacity” for sale in the classifieds of Popular Mechanics magazine.)
It’s not surprising to learn that the photographer, Clinton Rolfe, likely had Klan ties as well. Like Forsythe, Rolfe originally came from Fort Collins, where he ran The Rolfe Studios. (A 1919 ad for the studio in the Fort Collins Courier read “Say dad do you realize what a real man-like photo of the Old Man would mean to your Boy? Think it over. Then make an appointment with us for a sitting.”) After he set up shop in Cañon City, Rolfe was profiled in The Daily American, a new Klan-affiliated newspaper. After noting that he now specialized in baby photos, Rolfe wryly noted, “I like Cañon City as well as any city I have ever been in, but would take fiendish delight in seeing it take on a more liberal attitude to progress.”
Rolfe’s actual photo never seems to have ended up in any local paper, and may never have been published anywhere. Instead, it’s likely that it was simply distributed to the Klan members pictured. In 1991, a local family donated a copy to the Royal Gorge Museum & History Center, where it was kept in their archives along with scads of other information about the Klan’s brief hold on power in Cañon City. In 2003, the then-director of the museum, LaDonna Gunn, wrote an essay called “The Protestant ‘Kluxing’ of Cañon City, Colorado” which featured the photo. From there, it leaked out to a few different internet forums like Reddit and Neatorama. The museum shared a scan of the original image with us.
In the photo, the Klansmen of Cañon City Local Chapter 21 aren’t posing on an Andean Staircase, or even a Merry-Go-Round, as the Daily Record headline stated. They are on a Ferris wheel, a symbol of modern ingenuity invented in Chicago in 1892 as America’s response to the construction of the Eiffel Tower. (“Make no little plans” was the directive that brought it into being.) By the mid-20’s, the wheel was at the height of its popularity in the United States. Sitting three abreast and taking up all 12 of the wheel’s buckets, the hooded men face the camera. Like the five Klansmen standing below them, they all seem to emanate malevolence, creating a surreal juxtaposition of progressive and regressive symbols.
The Klan would soon lose its grip on the city, and Colorado in general. Its members were voted out of local and state office. And in 1928, Arnold died unexpectedly. With no succession plan in place, the Klan’s local office folded. The white hooded men who helped run the state slipped into the shadows, but photographic evidence of the Klan’s power, obviously, remained.