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February 2, 2014

Wearing a Legacy: Inspired by Debs, a variety of places and things beyond Terre Haute — from a town to beers — bear his name

A town and a school. Two styles of beer. A radio station, a street, a township, and a house for college students. Even a parade.

Any of those places or things named in honor of legendary labor and social activist Eugene V. Debs could theoretically exist in Terre Haute. Alas, none do. The house on North Eighth Street where Debs lived until his death in 1926, preserved as a museum, stands as the only item in his hometown bearing his name. Those aforementioned memorials occur elsewhere in America — a tiny community in Minnesota, breweries in Chicago and Michigan, and neighborhoods in New York City, the Bronx and Ann Arbor, Mich.

Here, Debs’ name graces just his home and final resting place at Highland Lawn Cemetery.

In conservative Indiana, remembrances of a five-time Socialist Party presidential candidate remain, unsurprisingly, rare. That public anonymity gets shaken this month. A feature-length movie, loosely based on Debs’ legacy, premieres Feb. 15 in downtown Terre Haute’s historic Indiana Theatre.

The plot pits Debs’ fictional, hard-drinking grandson (played by Terre Haute native William Tanoos) against a corrupt prosecutor (portrayed by veteran actor Tom Sizemore) in a race for governor of Indiana. “The Drunk,” which also stars Jesse Ventura and Tanoos’ fellow co-writer Paul Fleschner, references causes championed by the protagonist’s famed grandfather — civil rights for women and minorities, a minimum wage, child labor laws and Social Security.

Debs’ relentless pursuit of those causes in the early 20th century inspired people to name things after him, like WEVD radio in New York City (now a sports station, WEPN).

And the tiny town of Debs in northwestern Minnesota.

‘We all knew about Debs’

The 1912 presidential campaign triggered its creation. Nationally, Debs drew an astonishing 6 percent of the vote running against victorious Woodrow Wilson, former president Theodore Roosevelt and incumbent president William Howard Taft. Among Beltrami County, Minn., voters, Debs was the top choice. He carried that county. Afterward, a group of local men formed the Socialists Club, organized a town and named it Debs, according to documents located by Dan Karalus, executive director of the Beltrami County Historical Society. The town bustled during a logging industry boom. It featured a general store, creamery, post office, auto repair garage, clothes shop, baseball team and a school.

Yes, children were educated in a school named for Debs until a consolidation sent its 60-plus students to nearby Bemidji in 1969.

Ray Dalby, born and raised in Debs, attended Debs School through the eighth grade. The students learned the namesake’s background. “We all knew about Eugene V. Debs,” said Dalby, now 82, “but that kind of faded away.”

So did the town. Its population has dwindled to a handful of residents. “It ain’t much,” said resident Dave Fessel.

The 58-year-old Minnesotan bought Debs School in 1995 and operated it as a bed-and-breakfast for several years. Built by Scandinavian brothers in 1915, the school joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. Today, Fessel uses the structure simply as his home. Like Eugene Debs, Fessel formerly worked a railroad job. “I thought it was neat that he was a fighter for the working class,” Fessel said by telephone last month. Other Minnesotans apparently shared his admiration. Moorhead had a Debs House hotel. Also, Eugene Township was named for Debs.

Fessel put tidbits about Debs in brochures for his bed-and-breakfast before it closed. “People asked questions,” he recalled.

Debs the man isn’t mentioned much in Debs the town these days.

“I don’t think 90 percent of the people that are left around here know who he was,” Dalby said last week by phone.

One tradition continues, though. The annual Debs Fourth of July parade began three decades ago and still draws more than a thousand people. The procession consists of floats and entries from horse clubs and churches, farmers and politicians, making two circles around the town, using a paved road and one that is gravel. Occasionally, a participant makes reference to Debs himself. A float, made by kids in 2008, included a jovial youngster dressed as the labor organizer, U.S. flags and a “Eugene V. Debs for President” sign.

Dalby grew up in Debs, moved in 1959 to St. Paul to live and work, then retired and returned in 1990. He calls Debs “a typical, northern Minnesota farm community.”

Red ale, of course

Rather than downplaying Eugene Debs’ rebel spirit, two separate Midwestern brewers boldly toast it. Revolution Brewing in Chicago and Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, Mich., both produce beers named after Debs.

Larry Bell and a group of friends, which included a labor attorney, used to conduct their own annual Eugene V. Debs Memorial Kazoo Night in the centerfield bleachers of Detroit’s old Tiger Stadium. “Between innings, we would hum old working man’s songs — ‘I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad’ and what not,” Bell recalled. Each year, they’d carry a Debs-related trinket, poster or T-shirt. One shirt bore a tongue-in-cheek twist of a famous Debs quote: “While there is a Tigers game, I am in the bleachers.” One poster showed Debs as a home plate umpire, fending off an arguing Tigers Manager Sparky Anderson and saying, “Sparky, when I call a strike, I mean it.”

After Bell founded Bell’s Brewery 29 years ago, his friends pushed him to craft a beer to go along with their tradition. “And I said, ‘Well, with Debs, it’ll have to be a red ale,’” Bell said. “Red” was slang for socialists in the Cold War era. Thus, Debs’ Red Ale was born. Mostly available in draft form, “It’s a very firm ale,” he said, with a mild caramel flavor.

Bell and his buddies ended the Debs Memorial Kazoo Night after the Tigers moved to new Comerica Park in 2000. “The Debs people said Debs wouldn’t do skyboxes,” Bell said.

Detroit played a role in the creation of Eugene Porter, a Debs-inspired, dark, chocolate-malt-flavored beer made by Revolution Brewing. In his college days, future Revolution Brewing owner Josh Deth lived in the Eugene V. Debs Cooperative House at Ann Arbor, Mich. Co-op houses allow students to save money on housing by putting them in charge of its daily functions, sharing in food purchases, cooking, cleaning, discipline, bill paying and entertainment. Deth studied Debs’ history, prodded by a friend who attended Debs Society functions in Detroit and brought back memorabilia like an “erase capitalist greed” pencil.

Years later, Deth launched Revolution Brewing in 2010. While mulling potential new styles of beer, Deth and his staff thought of Debs. Thus, the Eugene Porter became one of Revolution’s original brews. “It was just too good of a connection and too good of a story to pass up,” Deth said.

Despite the Revolution name and attitude — as Deth puts it, “We’re taking back the beer from the corporate conglomerates” — the craft brewery maintains a light-hearted approach. Eugene Porter cans depict a smiling Debs jubilantly hoisting a keg above his head. “We’re not heavy-handed at all with our politics or our philosophy,” Deth said.

A Debs lifestyle

Two-dozen college students call the Debs Cooperative House at Ann Arbor home, year-round. Most residents attend the University of Michigan, but a few are students at nearby Eastern Michigan and Concordia universities, and Washtenaw Community College. Commonly called the Debs House, it opened in 1967 and stands as one of 18 residential houses in Ann Arbor’s Inter Cooperative Council.

The concept emerged in college towns in the 1930s. A different type of cooperative housing development, aimed at offering working-class families high-rise apartments at low rates, includes the famous Co-op City in New York’s Bronx borough, the world’s largest cooperative. Subsidized by labor unions, it emerged in 1973 as “a city within a city,” and features a street called Debs Place, and another named for Terre Haute author Theodore Dreiser.

Similar names of progressives are attached to the college co-op houses in Ann Arbor. “Most of our houses are named for folks who tried to make the world a better place,” said Susan Caya, ICC director of education.

Though students own and manage the houses, a paid ICC staff handles things such as broken windows, burst pipes and centralized financing, Caya explained. In addition to saving money on costly college expenses, students experience an atmosphere that welcomes social change and progress in Debs House, and others. A few students find a co-op isn’t a good fit, Caya said, but for most, “overall, I would say it’s a positive experience.”

Debs House remains unique among the co-ops. One of the smallest houses, “A unique group of people have always inhabited the house,” Caya said. Living under its bright red roof, the student residents include artists, musicians and “environmentally and socially conscious people,” according to the house’s webpage. Campus activist organizations often meet in Debs House.

Not all student residents move in with a knowledge of Debs, Caya said, but a display of pictures and historical information hangs on its walls.

He is a fitting choice as its namesake, though, Caya said.

“I think [Debs] would be impressed, because the co-op is a social change instrument,” she said. “The members that choose Debs are a little less mainstream, and they would never change the name.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

The movie

What: Debut of the feature film, “The Drunk.”

Where: The Indiana Theatre, 683 Ohio St., Terre Haute.

Who: Stars are Tom Sizemore and Jesse Ventura, with Terre Hauteans William Tanoos and Paul Fleschner appearing.

When: 8 p.m. Feb. 15.

Tickets: $10 general admission, $40 VIP. Available in person at Larry Paul Tanning Spa locations — north shop at 1501 Fort Harrison Road, phone 812-466-2555; east shop at 2615 Poplar St., phone 812-232-6888; Sullivan shop at 822 Wolf St., phone 812-268-1826. Available online at facebook.com/thedrunkmovie or eventbrite.com.

Debs on tap

To find information about a pair of Debs-inspired beers, go online to:

• Debs’ Red Ale (by Bells’ Brewery): bellsbeer.com/brands

• Eugene Porter (by Revolution Brewing): revbrew.com/beer/detail/eugene-porter

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