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Minnesota Motor Corps

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Black and white photograph of Motor Corps vehicles at Camp Lakeview, Lake City, Minnesota, September, 1918.

Motor Corps vehicles at Camp Lakeview, Lake City, Minnesota, September, 1918. An estimated $300,000 worth of automobiles were present. Photograph from Minnesota Historical Society Sound and Visual Collection II.4

The Minnesota Motor Corps was the first militarized organization of its kind in the United States. Made up of volunteers and their vehicles, the corps existed for the duration of World War I. It provided disaster relief, transported troops, and aided police. The Motor Corps’ services proved crucial, but many viewed it as a state-sponsored police force that infringed on the rights of citizens.

In 1917, the Minnesota Motor Reserve was formed under the sponsorship of the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety (MCPS). It was founded by Roy B. Simning, secretary of the Minneapolis Automobile Trade Association. The Motor Reserve was meant to secure cars in each county under the direction of sheriffs and to provide transportation for state troops and posses. Though it had some success in Minneapolis, the reserve eventually became stagnant.

Winfield Stephens, of Pence Automobile in Minneapolis, proposed reorganizing and militarizing the organization. Adjutant General Rhinow and Governor J. A. A. Burnquist approved. The Motor Corps was authorized in May of 1918 under the authority of the adjutant general; Stephens became its commander.

The corps was not recognized by any government act. Even so, control shifted from local sheriffs to the state military. Rhinow considered the Motor Corps part of the Minnesota Home Guard. Though the two organizations often blended, the Home Guard was created by law while the Motor Corps was not.

The Motor Corps was organized into a brigade of ten battalions, numbering 2,583 officers and men from around the state. The corps’ headquarters was at Colonel Stephens’ car dealership in Minneapolis. The motor battalions were supplemented by three additional units. A Medical Corps was commanded by Major Thomas Warham and an Aero Division was commanded by Captain John P. Ernster. The Red Cross formed an official auxiliary of the Motor Corps.

Volunteers equipped themselves and their vehicles at their own expense, and an enlistee promised to furnish a five-passenger motor car for transporting state troops. Most members were businessmen and professionals. The Motor Corps did not recruit people of color or women.

Units of the Motor Corps drilled in fields and met in local halls, car dealerships, and armories. The largest gathering was an encampment held at Camp Lakeview outside Lake City in September of 1918. Nearly one thousand men with six hundred vehicles attended. Adjutant General Rhinow inspected the troops. An ambulance corps of the Minnesota National Guard attended. Drill at the encampment was done in infantry and motor formations, and men were specifically trained to quell riots and break strikes.

The Motor Corps proved its value during two natural disasters that occurred in 1918. On August 21, a tornado passed through the town of Tyler. Units of the Motor Corps from the Twin Cities transported troops and medical supplies to the town over treacherous roads the day after.

The most important duty the Motor Corps performed was aiding citizens after the fires of October 1918. Units of the Motor Corps from the Twin Cities, Duluth, the Iron Range, and other communities drove to the burned-over district. Without food or rest they were sent into the charred areas to care for the injured and recover the dead. The Motor Corps provided the only transportation in the disaster zone and was pivotal in transporting victims, state troops, and supplies.

The Motor Corps participated in slacker raids, tracking down criminals and closing saloons. It was also used to break strikes and subdue political agitation. These actions made many perceive it as a tool of the state and an enemy of the Nonpartisan League, organized labor, and political freedom.

The Motor Corps became a model for other states and Burnquist hoped it would become a federal organization. When World War I ended, a bill to make the Motor Corps a permanent part of the state military was introduced in the Minnesota legislature. Burnquist, the MCPS, and Rhinow had the bill introduced by their followers. They felt the Motor Corps was needed to combat “red socialism” and disturbances. The bill was controversial and faced opposition from organized labor, political activists, and the National Guard. The bill passed the House but was defeated in the Senate. With the war over, and no legal basis for its existence, the Motor Corps disbanded.

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American National Red Cross, Serving the Nation for 75 Years, 1881–1956: Minneapolis and Hennepin County Chapter: 1915–1956, Serving this Area for 41 Years. [Minneapolis: The Chapter, 1956].

“Bill Muffling. Motor Corps is Passed in House.” Minneapolis Tribune, February 14, 1919.

Buell, C.J. The Minnesota Legislature of 1919. [St. Paul?: C.J. Buell, 1919?].
http://www.leg.state.mn.us/docs/NonMNpub/oclc00500242.pdf

Cary, Leonard. How Minnesota Gave to the United States the First Military Motor Corps. Minneapolis: Bancroft Printing, 1918.

Chrislock, Carl H. Watchdog of Loyalty: The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety During World War I. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1991.

“Foes of Motor Corps Storm State Capitol.” Minneapolis Tribune, February 2, 1919.

Inaugural Message of Governor J.A.A. Burnquist to the Legislature of Minnesota, 1919.
http://www.leg.state.mn.us/docs/NonMNpub/oclc18196670.pdf

Luukkonen, Arnold L. “Brave Men in Their Motor Machines—And the 1918 Forest Fire.” Ramsey County History 9, no. 2 (Fall 1972): 3–8.

Collection II.4
Minnesota Motor Corps
Audiovisual Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Photograph collection of the Minnesota Motor Corps. The collection includes images of officers, drill, automobile dealerships, the fires of 1918, and activities during the encampment at Camp Lakeview.

Motor Corps Records, 1917–1919
Minnesota National Guard
State Archives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/gr00864.xml
Description: Enlistment papers, oaths of office, and encampment reports.

Rhinow, W. F. Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Minnesota covering the Thirteenth Biennial Period Ending December 31, 1918. Vol. 1. Minneapolis, MN: Syndicate Printing Co., 1918.
http://books.google.com/books?id=Gj4WAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA340&lpg=PA340&dq=adjutant+general+report+minnesota+1917&source=bl&ots=kAV2FAUdZN&sig=PU11b3ruDqwx98vWiZARSUQ-8js&hl=en&sa=X&ei=JMkuVIK4GY-hyATivoKgAg&ved=0CCEQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false

“Uniformed Reserve of Motorists Made Part of State Force.” Minneapolis Tribune, May 5, 1918.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Motor Corps vehicles at Camp Lakeview, Lake City, Minnesota, September, 1918.
Black and white photograph of Motor Corps vehicles at Camp Lakeview, Lake City, Minnesota, September, 1918.
Black and white photograph of Minnesota Motor Corps encampment, Camp Lakeview, Lake City, c.1918.
Black and white photograph of Minnesota Motor Corps encampment, Camp Lakeview, Lake City, c.1918.
Black and white photograph of First Battalion, Minnesota Motor Corps Band at Camp Lakeview, Lake City, Minnesota, September, 1918.
Black and white photograph of First Battalion, Minnesota Motor Corps Band at Camp Lakeview, Lake City, Minnesota, September, 1918.
Black and white photograph of Minnesota Motor Corps officers and color guard at Camp Lakeview, Lake City, Minnesota, September, 1918. Motor Corps commander, Colonel Stephens, is kneeling left of the colors in the light colored tunic.
Black and white photograph of Minnesota Motor Corps officers and color guard at Camp Lakeview, Lake City, Minnesota, September, 1918. Motor Corps commander, Colonel Stephens, is kneeling left of the colors in the light colored tunic.
Black and white photograph of a Motor Corps airplane about to take off at Camp Lakeview, Lake City, Minnesota, September, 1918.
Black and white photograph of a Motor Corps airplane about to take off at Camp Lakeview, Lake City, Minnesota, September, 1918.
Black and white photograph of Motor Corps officer, Chet Walker, nicknamed "the Army," during a recruiting tour in Red Wing, Minnesota, 1918.
Black and white photograph of Motor Corps officer, Chet Walker, nicknamed "the Army," during a recruiting tour in Red Wing, Minnesota, 1918.
Black and white photograph of Reviewing officers at Motor Corps encampment, Fairmont, c.1918. (L to R) W.A. Curtis, Edward Karow, unidentified, unidentified, Motor Corps commander, Colonel W.A. Stephens.
Black and white photograph of Reviewing officers at Motor Corps encampment, Fairmont, c.1918. (L to R) W.A. Curtis, Edward Karow, unidentified, unidentified, Motor Corps commander, Colonel W.A. Stephens.
Black and white photograph of a column of fours formation at Camp Lakeview, Lake City, Minnesota, September, 1918.
Black and white photograph of a column of fours formation at Camp Lakeview, Lake City, Minnesota, September, 1918.
Black and white photograph of Motor Corpsmen presenting arms at Camp Lakeview, Lake City, Minnesota, September, 1918.
Black and white photograph of Motor Corpsmen presenting arms at Camp Lakeview, Lake City, Minnesota, September, 1918.
Black and white photograph of Colonel Bellows of the Minnesota National Guard giving instruction in riot stick usage. Camp Lakeview, Lake City, Minnesota, September, 1918.
Black and white photograph of Colonel Bellows of the Minnesota National Guard giving instruction in riot stick usage. Camp Lakeview, Lake City, Minnesota, September, 1918.
Black and white photograph of Motor Corps headquarters at Colonel Winfield Stephens Buick dealership in Minneapolis, c.1918.
Black and white photograph of Motor Corps headquarters at Colonel Winfield Stephens Buick dealership in Minneapolis, c.1918.
Black and white photograph of Red Cross Motor Corps truck, St. Paul, 1918.
Black and white photograph of Red Cross Motor Corps truck, St. Paul, 1918.
Black and white photograph of members of the St. Paul Chapter of the Red Cross, Motor Corps, 1918.
Black and white photograph of members of the St. Paul Chapter of the Red Cross, Motor Corps, 1918.
Black and white photograph of members of the Red Cross Volunteer Motor Service, 1918.
Black and white photograph of members of the Red Cross Volunteer Motor Service, 1918.
Black and white photograph of Red Cross Motor Service car providing relief efforts after the October fires of 1918.
Black and white photograph of Red Cross Motor Service car providing relief efforts after the October fires of 1918.
Black and white photograph of Red Cross Auxiliary providing transportation to soldiers, c.1918.
Black and white photograph of Red Cross Auxiliary providing transportation to soldiers, c.1918.
Black and white photograph of a Red Cross nurse, and likely Motor Corps officer, 1918. The car has the Red Cross symbol on the hood and was likely part of the Minnesota Motor Corps.
Black and white photograph of a Red Cross nurse, and likely Motor Corps officer, 1918. The car has the Red Cross symbol on the hood and was likely part of the Minnesota Motor Corps.
Black and white photograph of relief workers unloading coffins from Motor Corps vehicles after the fires of 1918.
Black and white photograph of relief workers unloading coffins from Motor Corps vehicles after the fires of 1918.
Black and white photograph of Captain John P. Ernster, c.1918. Ernster commanded the Aero Division of the Minnesota Motor Corps.
Black and white photograph of Captain John P. Ernster, c.1918. Ernster commanded the Aero Division of the Minnesota Motor Corps.
Black and white photograph of Major Thomas Warham, c.1918. Warham was commander of the Medical Corps, Motor Corps Division.
Black and white photograph of Major Thomas Warham, c.1918. Warham was commander of the Medical Corps, Motor Corps Division.
Color image of a Minnesota Home Guard, Motor Corps Cap, showing Motor Corps insignia.
Color image of a Minnesota Home Guard, Motor Corps Cap, showing Motor Corps insignia.

Turning Point

In May 1918, the Minnesota Motor Reserve is renamed the Minnesota Motor Corps. The new organization is militarized and put under the authority of the state military.

Chronology

1917

In September, the nucleus of the Motor Corps is organized and called the Minnesota Motor Reserve.

Decem-ber 2, 1917

The Minnesota Motor Reserve transports Minnesota Home Guard troops during the Twin City Rapid Transit Company Street Railway Strike.

May 23, 1918

The Motor Corps is authorized and organized by the state adjutant general.

August, 1918

Five battalions of the Motor Corps have been enlisted.

August 21, 1918

A tornado strikes the town of Tyler. The day after, the Motor Corps arrives with doctors, nurses, bandages, and clothing.

August 26, 1918

The state adjutant general authorizes the expansion of the Motor Corps from six to ten battalions.

Septem-ber 21–23, 1918

An encampment of the Motor Corps is held at Camp Lakeview outside Lake City.

October, 1918

The Minnesota Motor Corps plays a pivotal role in relief efforts during the Cloquet and Moose Lake Fires.

1919

Governor Burnquist and Adjutant General Rhinow recommend that the Motor Corps be retained and made part of the state military.

January 14, 1919

The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety declares its orders void beginning on February 5.

February 4, 1919

The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety declares the voiding of its orders does not affect the Motor Corps.

February 13, 1919

The Minnesota House debates and passes a bill to create a permanent Motor Corps.

February 18, 1919

Over three thousand protestors, led by recent wartime Minneapolis mayor Thomas Van Lear, crowd the capitol in protest of the Motor Corps bill. The bill dies in the senate.