In Trying Times, a Kansas Community Faced Down Its Fear of Outsiders

Rural residents along Interstate 70 expected caravans of troublemakers from big cities and formed a self-defense group against the nation’s ills.

10/24/2021 3:45:00 PM

In rural Kansas, residents saw threats from outsiders during a fearful year of disease and political unrest in the U.S. Some decided to do something about it.

Rural residents along Interstate 70 expected caravans of troublemakers from big cities and formed a self-defense group against the nation’s ills.

Oct. 23, 2021 11:59 am ETGRINNELL, Kansas—A few weeks into thelockdown, a van with Colorado plates pulled up to the Hometown Grocery & Cafe in Grinnell, a town of 269 people in a county of 2,600. “I’m here to buy all of your toilet paper,” the driver said.

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Through the shop window, owner Gwen Wolf could see toilet paper stacked high in the woman’s van. Many of Ms. Wolf’s regulars lived on farms far from the nearest town, and she didn’t like the idea of strangers depriving them of necessities. “I showed her the door,” recalled Ms. Wolf, a Gove County native.

Two more cars from Colorado appeared at her store and word spread fast: Outsiders were pulling off Interstate 70 and snatching up Gove County’s dwindling supply of toilet paper.“They’re welcome to do what’s best for themselves, but not at our expense,” said Lance “L.T.” Coburn, 23 years old, who runs an automobile-restoration shop with his father.

As disease,racial unrestand political violence spread through the U.S. over the past 19 months, communities around the country found themselves grappling with the sense that the most immediate threat they faced was from other Americans, rather than foreign adversaries.

Police in Colby, Kansas, a town of 5,500 in Thomas County, about 40 miles northwest of Grinnell, received intelligence reports last year from other law-enforcement agencies that Black Lives Matter protesters from Colorado planned demonstrations in Kansas, said Colby Police Chief Ron Alexander. Similar reports reached the Gove County Sheriff’s Office.

Gwen Wolf, owner of the Hometown Grocery in Grinnell, Kansas, talking with a customer.Jody Beckman and Chance Beckman having lunch at Hometown Grocery.The store serves as a hub of the community.A man leaving Hometown Grocery with his dog.The reports were followed by rumors, inflated in the retelling, of protesters planning to rampage through towns along I-70, fears that proved unfounded.

Callers demanded Chief Alexander take action. “They were worried we were going to end up like Minneapolis or Portland,” he recalled. The chief gave assurances that police wouldn’t tolerate violence.Mr. Coburn was among the Gove County residents who saw local menace in distant events, and decided to do something about it.

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On an early fall evening last year, eight or so people, including Mr. Coburn, decided they needed to act on their own. They held the inaugural meeting of the Gove County Emergency Response Group at a park in Gove City, population 86.By December, their weekly meetings were drawing dozens of people, some from local volunteer fire departments and emergency services, said Andrew Todd, 30, one of the organizers.

The group’s inception coincided with a cluster of Covid-19 cases that briefly left Gove County with the highest death rate from the pandemic in the U.S. Sheriff Allan Weber, a well-loved figure, died of the disease a week before Christmas. A sheriff’s deputy contracted Covid-19 and so did everyone at the county’s emergency-operations center.

Lance ‘L.T.’ Coburn does auto repair and restoration work with his father in Quinter, Kansas.Members of the Gove County Emergency Response Group thought that they might be needed to prevent outside agitators from exiting the freeway. “All of the worst stuff comes from I-70, that I know,” said Roger Wilson, 60, manager of a hunting preserve. “You can’t be quite as sure about who you’re dealing with.”

Mr. Coburn said he pictured group members guarding the doors of the local pharmacy to safeguard medicines. Or, they might station themselves at freeway exits, giving out a gallon or two of gasoline to those in need and pointing them down the road.The group wasn’t a secret, but members didn’t publicize it, either.

A group of women who jokingly called themselves the Enlightened Ladies Club caught wind and were suspicious. They leaned liberal for the most part in conservative Gove County and sometimes dined together to share views. “We were anticipating some sort of vigilante group,” said Patrice Ostmeyer, who works part time at the public library.

Members of the civil-defense group said they saw themselves as reinforcements for local authorities, not as a militia. “We don’t want to be associated with that name, and that’s not what we’re doing,” Mr. Todd said.Worried about its image, the group went public early this year, posting a mission statement at the Dairy Queen, feed stores and the Pit Stop gas station.

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“Gove County Emergency Response Group works to help maintain peace in Gove County,” the flier said. “By educating citizens in our area of preparedness and self-defense; inviting citizens of all backgrounds and races to stand unified against lawlessness in times of disaster and civil unrest; and building strong relationships with law enforcement through cooperative community efforts.”

Gene Tilton grows crops and raises cattle in Quinter, Kansas.Gene Tilton, 84, whose family arrived in the 1880s, was among those who didn’t think the community needed a self-defense group. “If the need did arise, it wouldn’t take long to rally one,” said Mr. Tilton, who grows crops and raises cattle on 10,000 acres.

Michael Machen, who has practiced medicine in Gove County for 35 years, inhabits the liberal end of the local political spectrum. He attended the wedding of L.T. Coburn’s parents, and he delivered L.T. himself. Dr. Machen hired the Coburns to restore his 1966 Ford Mustang.

“They’re good guys,” Dr. Machen, 67, said of the group members he knows. “That said, we’ve already got an emergency response team here that involves people that are real law enforcement, and emergency preparedness people that are trained to do that.”Dr. Machen found the group’s concerns overblown. “If someone pulled off the highway and went to

Dollar Generaland there was toilet paper, sure they’re going to buy it,” he said. “But I don’t see that as a threat to our way of life.”Members of the Emergency Response Group were surprised by the suspicion they aroused. They scheduled a public meeting to explain themselves. One of the guests was Sheriff Shawn Mesch.

He had just been named interim sheriff when news broke of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. That was when he decided to find out more about the self-defense group that had cropped up on his turf.While visiting Mr. Todd’s father-in-law’s farm to inspect a new pickup truck for registration, Sheriff Mesch accepted an invitation to attend the group’s public meeting.

Tyler Tuttle playing with his daughter Journie in Grainfield, Kansas. Mr. Tuttle said he was approached about joining the Gove County Emergency Response Team.Downtown Grinnell, Kansas.Cows grazing in rural Gove County.Mary Jane Goetz pulls Nora and Zela Goetz from the post office in Grinnell.

On a cold Sunday night in January, some 50 people gathered at Mr. Coburn’s garage in Quinter. To make room, he moved aside his restoration projects—a 1969 Jaguar XKE and a 1955 Ford F-150 pickup.The meeting opened with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. The fire chief gave a talk on fire preparedness. A firearms instructor talked about safe ways to interact with police when pulled over while ferrying a gun in the car.

Mr. Todd asked Sheriff Mesch: “Are we doing anything here that’s illegal?” The sheriff said no. He also made it clear to the gathering that he wouldn’t put up with armed civilians taking the law into their own hands.“They have the right to assemble like everybody,” Sheriff Mesch said later. “But I wanted to let them know where I stood.”

The sheriff said he saw no looming threat to residents of his county, and certainly didn’t anticipate any trouble his deputies and other trained first responders couldn’t handle. “I appreciate their sentiment, and if they were needed I would ask them,” the sheriff said. “But that’s the only way.”

The sheriff’s rebuff gave the group pause. Over the following months, leaders retooled their message. Instead of emphasizing their willingness to protect the county from urban rioters, members postedmessages offering residents aid in coping with snow, tornadoes, fires and similar hazards.

Gove County Sheriff Shawn Mesch.During a deep cold spell in February, the group announced that members were on call to assist with frozen pipes or dead car batteries. They sponsored first-aid training and a “Homesteader Gardening Class.” They posted information about treating rattlesnake bites

“We’re here to help people,” Mr. Todd said. “The last thing we want to do is make people uncomfortable.”Some local skeptics wondered if the group was polishing its image while secretly remaining more militant than members would admit. Others believed that the group’s members sensed their neighbors’ unease and made a sincere decision to shift course.

Don Tilton, Gene Tilton’s 64-year-old son, was concerned when he first spotted the group’s fliers, he said, and attended a meeting at the Coburn garage to scout out its intentions.“I walked away,” Don Tilton said, “satisfied that we were all trying to help each other and look after each other.”

He hasn’t heard much chatter about the group recently. Gove County, he said, has moved on.Light breaks through the clouds after a storm in Grinnell, Kansas.—Aaron Zitner contributed to this article. Read more: The Wall Street Journal »

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