MOSINEE — Gordon “Gabby” Rheinschmidt describes himself politically as an independent.
But for a day in 1950, the World War II Navy veteran, who served on a gunboat in the South Pacific, became a communist.
Rheinschmidt was 22 years old when he led nuns from St. Paul’s grade school to the stockade. With a pistol at his side, he later guarded the soup kitchen on Mosinee’s Main Street to make sure order was maintained in the United Soviet States of America.
And when the one-day coup was over, Rheinschmidt returned to his job at Mosinee Paper Mills, where earlier in the day company executives had been ordered from their building, marched across the bridges over Bull Falls and imprisoned along with the nefarious nuns and other community leaders.
“It took up most of the lot next to the Legion hall,” Rheinschmidt said of the detention camp. “I had a good time. There were a lot of people in town.”
May Day in Mosinee 64 years ago remains one of the state’s most unusual events.
The Red Dawn-like takeover of the Marathon County city included checkpoints at the bridges leading into Mosinee’s downtown, inflating the prices of food at Martin’s Red Owl and the A&P and removing some of the books from the library.
Mayor Ralph Kroenwetter and the editor of the Mosinee Times were both arrested. The police chief was interrogated and ultimately liquidated, residents were told.
None of it, however, was real.
And this fall, a 52-minute documentary film produced by a pair of Seton Hall University professors will help those who were around remember the mock coup and introduce most of us to a time when there was real fear of a Soviet invasion and nuclear war.
“It’s about patriotism, civic service, doing what you can to make your community and your nation a better place,” said Associate Professor James Kimble, who spent four years on a documentary released in 2010 about WWII scrap metal drives. “These are moments we have lost in time. Can we still remember and celebrate what these people did and have it make a difference in our lives today?”
Kimble and Thomas Rondinella, a broadcast and visual media professor, have spent more than a year traversing Wisconsin and to other states to track down participants, many in their 80s. They’ve scoured old newspapers, magazines and newsreels. They figure they’ll spend more than $50,000 on the film and have applied for a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council. A premier is planned in Mosinee but other showings are planned in Wausau, Stevens Point and Milwaukee and in the Wisconsin Film Festival in Madison. They’re also pitching the project to the Public Broadcasting System history series, American Experience.
“It’s kind of been lost. It ends up being overshadowed almost immediately by the Korean War,” Kimble said. “A month and half or so later (after the mock coup) that breaks out and suddenly the Cold War becomes very real, which is what the Mosineeans wanted to communicate.”
Rhineschmidt remembers seeing newsreel footage in the Mosinee movie theater. The same footage was shown in film houses around the nation. Life and Time magazines also covered the event.
“At the time, I never realized the publicity we got out of it,” Rheinschmidt said. “It was quite a deal.”
The elaborate coup exercise was the brainchild of the state American Legion. Mosinee was chosen in February of that year due to its relatively small size but also, according to the Wisconsin Magazine of History, because Brig. Gen. Francis Schweinler, a member of the Legion’s state Americanism committee, owned and edited the Mosinee Times. His position would allow him to help convince the city of 1,400 people south of Wausau to take part in the event dubbed “The American Legion Day Under Communist Rule.”
In a letter sent to residents of the city, Schweinler called the day an “object lesson in Americanism” and “YOU are the person who is revealing to the world how it is to live under communists.”
Enclosed with the letter were ration permits for food and gasoline, an entry permit to the city and a red star to be worn on a lapel to signify that “you are willing to play along and will voluntarily subject yourself to a few harmless inconveniences.”
The letter was among a series of documents, photographs and newspaper clippings stored at the Marathon County Historical Society. When we arrived last week to take a peek, the inventory included a communist flag.
“In the course of Marathon County history, it’s one of the most unique events and really stands out,” said Gary Gisselman, a museum historian. “It’s an important part of our history.”
The headline at the top of the front page of the Wausau Daily Record Herald said “Mosinee Seized by Reds!” The Mosinee Times, though, had a different take.
The paper was replaced with the Red Star newspaper, complete with a photo of Joseph Stalin, and a communist manifesto that explained how the Communist Party runs the government, the abolishing of religious institutions and the creation of slave labor camps.
One section of the Red Star, the “official organ of the Central Committee,” spoke of the “special measures for the reorganization, strengthening and Bolshevization of the Communist Party of the United Soviet States of America.”
The mock coup included speeches by real former communists in Mosinee City Park across from city hall. Students at Mosinee High School filled the gym and were ordered to stand in rows and listen to communist doctrine. One photo showed the police chief being interrogated by Soviet police, one armed with a knife, the other with a club.
Communist propaganda films were shown in the movie theater and banners were hung throughout the city. Over Main Street, one read “One Party-One Leader-One Nation.” On the paper mill: “Nationalized — operated by authority of the council of the people’s commissars” and on the American Legion Hall “Commisariat of USSA Information.”
One photo showed Tom Martin, owner of the Red Owl, painting his store windows with an advertisement for borscht. John Drengler, who owned Drengler’s Bar, made the soup for the outdoor soup kitchen.
“I couldn’t believe how they coordinated all of this,” said Al Erickson, mayor of Mosinee for the past 10 years, as he showed us photos in the council chambers. “There isn’t anything they didn’t think of. It was so real.”
Erickson, 66, grew up in Wisconsin Dells and remembers taking part in duck-and-cover drills while in grade school. He later graduated from UW-Stevens Point and settled in Mosinee where he has a web-hosting business and is working on a plan to revitalize the downtown. One aspect includes the creation of a heritage center highlighting the city’s history, the majority of which didn’t involve the commies.
“Everybody went along with it,” Rheinschmidt said of the mock coup. “I think it made people more aware of the communists. I’m sure of that.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at email@example.com.