There is something of Sherlock Holmes in the way David Riehle pursues the forgotten details of Minnesota rich labor history.
Riehle, 66, currently is helping the University of Minnesota’s Labor Education Service (LES) produce a documentary on the construction of the Minnesota Capitol — one that focuses on the laborers who built it. It is in that context that his Holmesian traits were recently put on display.
It happened in Georgia. A century ago, Capitol architect Cass Gilbert insisted that the People’s House be built with Georgia marble, not Minnesota granite. So Riehle and LES videographer Randy Croce traveled to the Peach State to collect information and shoot some footage at the original marble quarry.
They had little trouble finding it, but something was missing. A rail spur was used a century ago to haul marble from the quarry to a nearby railroad mainline. But after a long search, Croce and Riehle found no evidence of where the spur would have been.
An ex-railroad man, Riehle reasoned that rail builders take advantage of straight lines when possible. He knew that they prefer to join spurs at places near where mainline rails curve. Further, he knew that, in disturbed terrain like the old quarry site, saplings, shrubs and brambles tend to overtake the land. So Riehle set off into the woods, Croce behind him, both hacking away.
Before long Riehle located the deteriorating, still-intact rail spur. He and Croce then traced the grade to the place where marble-bearing railcars would have pulled up to a nearby plant to drop off the hunks of stone for shaping. Elementary, Watson!
Riehle didn’t tell that story. Croce did. Truth is, it is not so easy to get Riehle to speak about himself. He prefers to discuss the sweep of history, the individuals and events that made history happen, and why it all matters.
“I want people to know that everything they see has been built by human labor,” Riehle says.
Riehle is an unapologetic socialist and makes no bones about his larger agenda. He believes educating the public about organized labor’s past struggles is the only route to rebuilding workers’ rights. “I hope for it,” he says. “I have confidence it is going to happen.”
In the spirit of education, he works as a volunteer labor-history tour guide for Friends of the St. Paul Library. He has published voluminous historical articles, including the lion’s share of a yearlong series published in the Union Advocate in 1997. He sits on the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission. These have not been lucrative pursuits. But despite that, Riehle accepts no pay for his LES documentary work.
You might say that Riehle was a union man at birth. His father, Carl, was an immigrant printer at Ramaley Printing and a member of the local typographical union. Though not a union activist, his son says, Carl served several terms as “chapel chairman” — the typographical union’s name for shop steward.
Carl had only an eighth-grade education, but like most printers he was highly literate, even publishing several short crime fiction works. Riehle says he inherited his interest learning and history from his dad.
Dave Riehle’s interests were stoked in his 20s when he met men like Harry DeBoer, Jake Cooper and other old-school labor agitators who played key roles in the bloody but successful Minneapolis trucker’s strike of 1934. In 1969, Riehle wrote an article for Young Socialist magazine about that strike, for which he interviewed DeBoer.
Riehle later took a career as a locomotive engineer, becoming deeply ingrained in the labor movement as a direct participant. At the same time, he continued to research history.
In the early 1980s, George Breitman, a former Socialist newspaper editor from New York, asked him to help document the life of Carl Skoglund. “Skogie,” as he was known, was a Swedish immigrant and a key figure in the 1934 Minneapolis general strike. Skoglund helped form the Socialist Workers Party in 1938 — after being excommunicated by the Communists. His efforts eventually resulted in blacklisting and deportation orders against him. Skoglund, however, never left the country. He died in the U.S. in 1960.
It was one of the biggest projects of Riehle’s career. He dug up vast microfilm files of Skoglund’s pre-WWI dispatches for the Scandinavian Socialist Federation’s newspaper, which had to be translated from Swedish. He inventoried volumes referencing Skoglund that were contributed by Skoglund colleagues like Breitman and Henry Bengston. Riehle interviewed old-timers who knew Skoglund. He collected photographs. Then he repeated the process to document the life of Shaun Maloney, another key 1934 strike figure.
His painstaking research took up most of the 1980s, and the product of his work is now on file at the Minnesota Historical Society.
It would be remarkable if historian were Riehle’s full-time job. It wasn’t. He was working as full-time railroad employee and union activist at the same time. For decades Riehle served in the leadership ranks of United Transportation Union Local 650.
Barb Kucera, LES’s director, says Riehle has few peers as a Minnesota labor historian. She has been editor of both the Union Advocate and Workday Minnesota and has published Riehle’s historical articles for about 15 years.
“He has a body of work that way exceeds what academics — people who do this work as their full-time job — are doing,” she says. “He has done amazing work.”
In 1985, Riehle stepped into some of the history he might otherwise have documented. That year Riehle, Peter Rachleff (now a Macalester College history professor) and others organized a solidarity committee that met at the UAW Hall on Ford Parkway. Its purpose was to support strikers at Austin’s Hormel plant. The group raised money to buy and deliver food to striking workers, and educated union locals about the issues involved in the strike.
“It was a large enough effort that it really made a difference and the moral impact on it was enormous, too,” Riehle recalls. “It was all very visible and inspirational as well as providing real, material support.”
The strike failed after dragging on 10 months. While local union members supported it, the United Food and Commercial Workers International (UFCW) did not. Ultimately, the local Austin UFCW union, P-9, was placed into receivership and taken over by the international. Hormel fired most workers who refused to cross picket lines and replaced them with lower-paid workers.
Riehle considers the Hormel strike a turning point. After Hormel, he says, the nation entered a period — still ongoing, he says — in which collective bargaining stopped being a process by which workers bargain for better contracts and conditions. It’s now about workers struggling to convince their bosses to offer less draconian concessions.
“You don’t negotiate at all anymore,” Riehle says. “You just lock workers out.”
‘A great historian’
In one sense, Riehle’s work on the forthcoming documentary, “Who Built Our Capitol,” brings him full circle. Macalester’s Rachleff thinks it was a failed early effort to save the St. Paul house of an African-American stonecutter who worked on the Capitol construction project that got Riehle interested in local historic preservation.
The documentary project is ongoing, powered by roughly $40,000 in grants from the state’s Legacy fund and from the Butler Family Foundation. (The Butler Brothers were the general contractors on the original Capitol construction.)
Croce says two versions will be made: A 15-minute video will be offered to schools, while a 30-minute version will be offered to Capitol historians, perhaps to be shown as part of Capitol tours. Croce also wants to do an hourlong version, possibly for public television, but he says more funding is needed for that.
When he first came up with the idea to do the film, Croce says his first thought was to ask Riehle to participate. Riehle agreed, and then recruited fellow labor history acolytes John Sielaff and Dan Ganley, who also are contributing. A fifth team member, Victoria Woodcock, is developing a website that will accompany the documentary. The project is expected to wrap up in June.
Croce says that one of Riehle’s chief assets is his dogged persistence. For instance, during renovations, someone discovered a copper clamp on the Capitol finial — the copper orb atop the Capitol dome that looks like a weather vane missing its rooster. The clamp was inscribed with the initials “O.C. Manke” and the date Aug. 10, 1902.
In a short order, Riehle had dug up information indicating that the signer was Otto Manke, a St. Paul cornice maker. He found out where Manke was buried and tracked down both his granddaughter and great-granddaughter. Both were interviewed, and a great deal more was learned about the worker who autographed the Capitol 110 years ago. It will all be featured in the documentary.
It’s pretty typical of Riehle’s approach, says Kucera. “He likes to go trolling through old bookstores and antique shops,” she says. “He finds old, colored postcards of what St. Paul looked like 100 years ago, and things like that. He just loves delving into the actual objects of history, as well as the stories of people.”
It may sound like trivial pursuits, but Rachleff doesn’t see it that way. Six people were killed building the Capitol, after all, and Riehle helped identify them all by name for the first time. People like Riehle are critical to preserving the history of the working class, Rachleff says, because so few in the formal academic world are pursuing that history.
“There is a tremendous history that we do not know, that is not taught in the schools and that is not recognized in mass circulation films or publications,” he says. In that respect, Rachleff says he considers Riehle is “a great historian.”
“We can never really understand where we stand today,” Rachleff says, “without exploring that great history.”
The Riehle File
Name: David Riehle
Job: Retired locomotive engineer and union member in good standing, Local 650 United Transportation Union. Amateur labor historian.
Grew up in: White Bear Lake
Lives in: St. Paul
Education: White Bear High School graduate. “That’s my formal education.”
Family: Married 25 years to Gladys McKenzie, a retired AFSCME union organizer who organized the clerical workers union at the University of Minnesota in the early 1990s. The couple have two grown children that Gladys brought into the marriage. They have four grandchildren.
Hobbies: “My hobby is what I do: history,” Riehle says. “Working on the railroad was my hobby.”