Desperation still simmers

Paul Levy, Star Tribune
October 20, 2003

"A farmer is a human being, and a human being is an animal. If you beat at him, poke at him and take everything away from him, he's going to turn and bite back."
– Jim Langman, president of the American Agriculture Movement, Minnesota Chapter, in 1983

IVANHOE, MINN. – It has been 20 years since the sound of gunshots from southwestern Minnesota echoed through barns and fields across rural America, stunning a nation struggling with its worst farm crisis since the Great Depression.

But Jim Langman has never forgotten the haunting words he uttered on Sept. 29, 1983, just hours after the ambush slayings of two Ruthton, Minn., bankers by James and Steven Jenkins, a desperate father and his teenage son who lost their dairy farm and their dreams to foreclosure.

The murders on the Jenkins' former farm near Tyler became a disputed national symbol of the tension between debt-ridden farmers and rural lenders who struggled to survive a flood of delinquencies.

"I have letters that I received from bankers' wives about that statement, but that statement still holds," said Langman, who was president of the Minnesota chapter of the American Agriculture Movement at the time of the Ruthton murders.

Langman said he gave up farming because farmers "are borrowing money and they're substituting debt for profit still."

But the tensions of 20 years ago still simmer. "There's still desperation, but it's a quiet desperation," said Don Pylkkanen, executive director of Citizens Organizations Acting Together (COACT), an activist group that orchestrated farm rallies in southwestern Minnesota in the 1980s.

Not even drought, 20 consecutive months of low dairy prices and this year's average loss of one dairy farm per day in Minnesota have rekindled the harsh feelings that exploded in gunfire and death on that foggy Thursday morning in Lincoln County two decades ago.

Steven Jenkins" The tenseness of 1983 is gone because smaller farmers have gone out of business," said Jim Nichols, the state's commissioner of agriculture at the time. "But farmers back then really were desperate. More than 10,000 farmers called me between 1983 and 1986 — all of them clinging to a thread of hope."

James Jenkins had been through as many as a dozen repossessions of equipment and livestock over a 20-year period. Rudy Blythe, president of the Buffalo Ridge State Bank, was described by residents of Ruthton, population 328, as a friendly man who went out of his way to help others.

But when he learned that Jenkins was seeking loans to start another dairy farm, Blythe told other bankers that Jenkins was a bad credit risk.

The 10-acre farm that Jenkins lost to foreclosure was still vacant when Blythe received a call from a potential buyer who wanted to meet him at the farm.

Little did Blythe and the bank's chief loan officer Deems (Toby) Thulin know that Jenkins, 46, was the anonymous caller and would be hiding behind bushes on the property with his 18-year-old son, Steven, when they arrived. The farmer and his son were armed with a shotgun and an M-1 carbine rifle.

Three families were about to be destroyed over a $30,000 debt. "When I heard that two bankers had been killed, I was scared to death about which farmer it was," recalled LouAnne Kling, who later was appointed Minnesota's Federal Housing Administration (FHA) director under the Clinton administration. "There were so many it could have been."

Thulin, 37, was shot in the throat. Blythe, 42, was shot in the shoulder, chased into a ditch and shot three more times.

A nationwide manhunt ended four days later in Paducah, Texas. A suicide note was found next to James Jenkins' body. Steven Jenkins surrendered to authorities.

Defense attorney Allan Swen Anderson claimed that it was James Jenkins who shot the bankers. But Steven Jenkins was an expert marksman who owned an M-1 rifle. He also owned a shotgun with a bayonet, a pistol, another rifle, a machete, three dummy hand grenades, camouflage paint, a steel military helmet, a camouflage shirt and hat, throwing stars (a Chinese weapon) and a set of professional handcuffs.

The trial attracted national media attention and the courtroom in tiny Ivanhoe overflowed with spectators. Jenkins, who changed his name to Anderson after being legally adopted by his lawyer, was convicted of first-degree murder and remains in prison. Three years ago, he confessed to being the triggerman. He declined to be interviewed for this article.

'1980s were warped'

Paul Sobocinski, who managed a grain elevator in Ruthton in the mid-1970s, was with Jim Langman when he learned of the shootings. They were at a theater in Marshall watching the Jessica Lange movie "Country," about a Midwestern family struggling through a farm foreclosure.

"My immediate thought was that we had to take the anguish and pain of farmers and turn it into nonviolent protest, tell the nation how bad the farm crisis was," recalled Sobocinski, who, in 1984, helped organize Groundswell, an organization of farmers and rural communities that worked together through the farm crisis.

"The James Jenkins situation was going to happen, regardless of the farm crisis, because of who he was," said Sobocinski, who still raises livestock and is now a program organizer with the Land Stewardship Project, a farm and rural organization working to promote sustainable agriculture, with offices throughout the state. "But we'd already been talking about the need to channel farmers' energy in a positive direction to cause policy changes."

Story tools

Star Tribune © 2005 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.
feedback terms of use privacy policy member center company site company directory & contacts
company jobs advertising information newspaper subscriptions & service eEdition classroom newspapers
425 Portland Av. S., Minneapolis, MN 55488 Map