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Plains Folk

Lynching the Lightning Rod Man

The lightning rod man drove up to a farmhouse and, espying a boy outside, said to the lad, “Is that your father lying there in the shade, sonny?”

“No, sir; pa’s away, an’ me and ma is the only ones to home; that’s a dead book agent. D’ye want to sell ma anything?”

“Thunder, no!”, and the lightning rod man beat his retreat.

That was the joke circulating in our papers in 1880, a time when farm folk were fed up with the drummers who fanned out from the liveries in town to hawk their dubious wares to consumers in the country.

“First the piano harp man who did a good business,” recounted the Jamestown Alert in 1900, “then the fanning mill man who did still better; now the range men have eclipsed the others, the nursery stock man is headed this way and methinks if our eyesight were a little better we could see the lightning rod man coming over the hill.”

“Any good shooting on your farm?”, inquired a hunter of a farmer.

“Splendid!” was the reply. “There’s a lightning-rod man down in the clover meadow, a cloth peddler at the house, a book agent out in the barn and two tramps down in the stock-yard. Climb right over the fence, young man, load both barrels and sail in.”

Newspapermen not only delighted to print such exchange items as that one, but also editorialized on the shadiness of lightning rod reps. Sometimes they were clever about it. “The lightning-rod man must be allowed a good profit,” said the Bismarck Tribune in 1880, “for when he sells out his business he never can get much for the good-will.”

Others were more direct. “It would appear that the days of the voluble and ubiquitous lightning rod man are numbered,” the editor of the Bottineau Pioneer announced optimistically in 1888. “Science is against him.”

Reports from neighboring Minnesota were, if anything, even more adverse. In 1892 three lightning rod agents were arrested in Buffalo for, the press reported, “practicing a big fraud on farmers.” The case collapsed when the judge instructed the jury with a directed verdict of not guilty.

Five years later press reports popped up that Belgrade, Minnesota, “was the scene of a lynching bee,” the object of which was “a lightning rod agent who has gained much unfavorable notoriety in the last few days.” Subsequent reports revealed that there had been no lynching, only that there had been some swindling and an angry gathering of farmers.

Local citizens who were taken in by salesmen were subject to ridicule. “One of the most influential citizens of Benson county,” announced the Devils Lake editor in 1903, “was roped in by a lightning rod man at Chautauqua this week.”

Then in Galesburg in 1910, a correspondent reported that George Gagnon, of Page, had been seen passing through “with a load on, that is, the auto was heavily loaded with a lightning-rod man and his paraphernalia.” The editor was puzzled in that Mr. Gagnon had “never been known to indulge in anything stronger than strawberry pop.”

With all this negative publicity, you would think it would have been impossible to sell lightning rods in North Dakota. And yet most every farm soon sported them. How did that happen? I think I can tell you, next week.

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