A Gifted Rabble Rouser
On this date in 1920 Chris Levang, a Nonpartisan League state senator, announced that A.C. Townley was stepping down as director of the League. Levang spoke at a gathering of farmers at Langdon. Levang said Townley would focus his time on organizing farmers outside of North Dakota. William Lemke, a Fargo attorney, would take over the leadership of the league.
Townley was described as a gifted rabble rouser, a political strategist, and a genius. He was also a failed farmer. He had invested everything he had in a bonanza farm north of Beach, focusing on flax. When the farm failed, he lost everything.
After losing the farm, Townley had become a field organizer for the North Dakota Socialist Party. It wasn’t a good fit. He was good at selling memberships, but seemed to have little interest in socialist ideology. None-the-less, he realized he had the skills to alter North Dakota politics. With his profound abilities as an organizer and rabble-rousing stump speaker, he created the Nonpartisan League.
He stirred North Dakota farmers to band together and exert their collective power. He knew that in order for the League to be successful he had to sell thousands of memberships, first in North Dakota and then in neighboring states. He crisscrossed the state in a borrowed Model T to sign up new members. His advice to his colleagues was, “Cut out all this fine stuff and get down in the manure pile with the farmer and get the money.” One farmer said Townley’s presentations started out slow, but as he warmed to his topic, he invariably brought people in the audience to their feet. One farmer said that when Townley was on the podium he looked five foot ten. But by the time he was done you would swear he was ten foot five.
In 1916, NPL candidate Lynn Frazier was elected governor, but lost a recall vote. As the NPL luster faded, Townley’s political power also faded. After resigning his position with the League, he drifted from one undertaking to another. He survived the Depression as a door to door salesmen. He ran unsuccessfully for governor of Minnesota, and was unsuccessful in two runs in North Dakota for the US Senate.
Townley was working as an insurance salesman when he was killed in a vehicle accident in 1959.
Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher
Pioneer Express. “Out of State.” Pembina ND. 12/17/1920. Page 2.
Bank of North Dakota. “A.C. Townley.” https://thebndstory.nd.gov/276/ Accessed 10/29/2019.