Arthur Kirk was a farmer who became a tragic symbol of the desperation in agriculture in 1984. Kirk farmed land near Cairo, Nebraska, that had been in his family for three generations. In the early ’80s, he owned about 2,000 acres, but over the years, he had lost all but 240 acres.
In 1984, he and his wife Deloris owed over $300,000 to Norwest Bank in nearby Grand Island. As in most farm loans, the money was "secured" by the value of the land, machinery, livestock, and other property. Earlier, he had had a good relationship with the bank.
But in the early ’80s, Kirk had trouble making his payments as the farm economy got worse. He came across literature from a group called the National Agricultural Press Association. This group and others blamed the farm crisis on eastern bankers who were conspiring to force farmers off the land and were going to take over food production. Many of these groups believed that Jews, bankers, lawyers, judges and even the Masons were plotting together.
Arthur Kirk, farmer near Cairo, NE in 1984.
Courtesy The Grand Island Daily Independent, October 24, 1984
No larger image available.
The literature that Kirk read advised farmers facing foreclosure to file lawsuits in federal court claiming that the banks’ actions were illegal under "truth in lending laws". Kirk filed his case in July, 1984. His was among 40 such suits filed that year, and the federal judge had already ruled in the first of these cases that they were without merit.
In the meantime, Kirk sold some about $100,000 worth of livestock and crops that had been pledged to the bank. The bank went to court to protect its interests.
Hall County Courthouse.
Courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture
On October 23, 1984, three Hall County Sheriff deputies went to Kirk’s farm to serve legal documents demanding the return of the $100,000 from the sale of crops and livestock. They got to the farm about 1:45 in the afternoon. The deputies later said that Kirk pulled a pistol out and threatened the officers. He claimed that a sign with the words, "Posted, Keep Out," barred anyone from coming uninvited onto his land.
The deputies left, but stayed close by and watched as Arthur Kirk continued to bring in his soybean harvest.
About 4:30 P.M., a reporter from The Grand Island Daily Independent arrived at the farm and talked with Arthur. Kirk told the reporter:
"It’s not the sheriff’s duty to carry out the banker’s dirty duties like that."
Kirk indicated that he was going to fight for what was left of his farming operation. He told the reporter it was time for farmers to fight back . . . "like they had in 1776." He suggested vigilante groups (civilians who take the law into their own hands) might be needed to protect farmers. "If they ever get organized — they’re not organized — they’ll have to be reckoned with."
Kirk denied that he was a member of radical groups like the Posse Comitatus, a group that was beginning to gain attention in stressed rural areas. But he defended the reputation of the Posse. "That’s a much maligned term," Kirk told the reporter:
Kirk indicated he thought his telephone was tapped, and that someone had been listening to his telephone conversations for several weeks. Kirk said,
"I’m not afraid of them. . . . I’d rather fight them in court, but I’ll do it this way. . . . I don’t belong in a dirty, damn jail."
In the meantime, law enforcement officials had gone before a judge and gotten an arrest warrant for Kirk. They also asked that the State Patrol SWAT team be called in with their automatic weapons and special training. The police were aware of a number of guns that Kirk owned. At first, the county attorney denied the request because the charges against Kirk were not serious enough. But the judge agreed with the police, and the SWAT team was called in.
The farm was surrounded. That evening, the State Patrol started talking with Kirk over the phone. At one point, they brought in Arthur’s wife Deloris and Steen Stone, a Palmer Nebraska farmer who had met Arthur at a National Agricultural Press Association meeting a year earlier. Both Deloris and Stone talked with Arthur, but he refused to leave the farm.
Kirk later telephoned the reporter around 8:30 P.M. He said,
"I know they’re coming for me. . . . I am ready to die, but I’m going to take a lot of them with me."
A potentially deadly standoff had developed.