Marion County’s ‘least-favorite son’ found a home in NYC

Gordon Friesen is the least favored son of Marion County. His life was a source of scandal and outrage to many who knew him and for many a secret not to be passed on to younger folks.

I came to know him in a circuitous route. I picked up his novel, The Flamethrowers, in the discount bin of a second hand bookshop in Wichita in 1966. Mostly I was motivated to buy it because the last name “Friesen” seemed interesting.

The novel, published in 1936, tells the story of a rebellious young man, Peter Franzman, growing up in the fictional Mennonite village of Blumenhof located near the small town of Gallwan in central Kansas at the turn of the century.

The resemblance to Hillsboro and the old Gnadenau village is obvious to anyone with a modicum of knowledge about Marion County history.

The young Franzman lives among insanity, oppression, sexual scandal, bigotry and violence in Blumenhof until he escapes to a college in Oklahoma. The author’s rage at the church and village life spills over on every page. This is not a nostalgia piece about the good-old days.

I was fascinated, and desperately wanted to know more about the novel and its author. I asked the Tabor librarian what she knew about this. She hissed, “We do not talk about Gordon Friesen,” and walked off. And that was the end of that conversation.

Finally, my mother mentioned that a dear friend of hers knew Gordon Friesen and that he lived in New York City. I went to New York and called Friesen and invited myself over to his apartment. (Brash 21-year-olds do thing like this.)

Gordon Friesen was a charming but enigmatic man.

“I haven’t thought about that book for years,” he said. “Life goes by very fast.”

Mostly he wanted to talk about
his little folk music journal “Broadside.”

“We were the first to publish that skinny white kid from Minneapolis, Bob Dylan,” he said. He talked about being a radical organizer in Oklahoma for the Communist Party and how the Dust Bowl and poverty had driven him to a socialist perspective.

“I remember when we would have Communist Party organizing meetings on the banks of the Washita River, and when the local kids came by to snoop we would start singing ‘Shall we gather by the River’ and pretend we were having a revival meeting,” he said, laughing.

It was ironic that at this time, another native Kansan, born in Topeka, Earl Browder, was the National Chairman of the Communist Party USA.

I left Friesen’s modest apartment with my head spinning. Had I met a teller of tall tales, a mad man or a celebrity-or some combination of all three?

Fifteen years later, my friends Dan and Mary Born and I again visited his apartment. Mrs. Friesen, “Sis Cunningham,” fed us coffee and cookies and explained that Gordon was indisposed and in bed.

She talked about their lives in the Communist Party, her years with the Almanac Folk Singers, and their association with folk musicians such as Woody Guthrie, author of the song, “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land.”

Everything Friesen and his wife told me in these two short visits turned out to be true. His only published novel, Flamethrowers, was given excellent reviews by critics around the world but sold only a few copies-due to the depression and its high price of $3.50 for a hardcover copy.

Fewer than 600 copies were sold. The few remaining copies in Oklahoma and Kansas libraries were removed by anti-communist book burners in the 1950s.

Today his novel is regarded by Mennonite literary types as a groundbreaking but flawed coming-of-age novel.

Gordon and Sis were not only close friends with Woody Guthrie but provided a home for him when his health declined. They are now regarded as major players in the development of the resurgence of folk music and hootenannies in the 1960s.

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