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War in cars: the brief history of the Minnesota Motor Corps

Made up of volunteers and their vehicles, the corps existed for the duration of World War I.

Motor Corps vehicles at Camp Lakeview, Lake City, Minnesota, September, 1918. An estimated $300,000 worth of automobiles were present. Photograph from Minnesota Historical Society Sound and Visual Collection II.4
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The Minnesota Motor Corps was the first militarized organization of its kind in the United States. Made up of volunteers and their vehicles, the corps existed for the duration of World War I. It provided disaster relief, transported troops, and aided police. The Motor Corps’ services proved crucial, but many viewed it as a state-sponsored police force that infringed on the rights of citizens.

In 1917, the Minnesota Motor Reserve was formed under the sponsorship of the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety (MCPS). It was founded by Roy B. Simning, secretary of the Minneapolis Automobile Trade Association. The Motor Reserve was meant to secure cars in each county under the direction of sheriffs and to provide transportation for state troops and posses. Though it had some success in Minneapolis, the reserve eventually became stagnant.

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Winfield Stephens, of Pence Automobile in Minneapolis, proposed reorganizing and militarizing the organization. Adjutant General Rhinow and Governor J. A. A. Burnquist approved. The Motor Corps was authorized in May of 1918 under the authority of the adjutant general; Stephens became its commander.

The corps was not recognized by any government act. Even so, control shifted from local sheriffs to the state military. Rhinow considered the Motor Corps part of the Minnesota Home Guard. Though the two organizations often blended, the Home Guard was created by law while the Motor Corps was not.

The Motor Corps was organized into a brigade of ten battalions, numbering 2,583 officers and men from around the state. The corps’ headquarters was at Colonel Stephens’ car dealership in Minneapolis. The motor battalions were supplemented by three additional units. A Medical Corps was commanded by Major Thomas Warham and an Aero Division was commanded by Captain John P. Ernster. The Red Cross formed an official auxiliary of the Motor Corps.

Volunteers equipped themselves and their vehicles at their own expense, and an enlistee promised to furnish a five-passenger motor car for transporting state troops. Most members were businessmen and professionals. The Motor Corps did not recruit people of color or women.

Units of the Motor Corps drilled in fields and met in local halls, car dealerships, and armories. The largest gathering was an encampment held at Camp Lakeview outside Lake City in September of 1918. Nearly one thousand men with six hundred vehicles attended. Adjutant General Rhinow inspected the troops. An ambulance corps of the Minnesota National Guard attended. Drill at the encampment was done in infantry and motor formations, and men were specifically trained to quell riots and break strikes.

The Motor Corps proved its value during two natural disasters that occurred in 1918. On August 21, a tornado passed through the town of Tyler. Units of the Motor Corps from the Twin Cities transported troops and medical supplies to the town over treacherous roads the day after.

The most important duty the Motor Corps performed was aiding citizens after the fires of October 1918. Units of the Motor Corps from the Twin Cities, Duluth, the Iron Range, and other communities drove to the burned-over district. Without food or rest they were sent into the charred areas to care for the injured and recover the dead. The Motor Corps provided the only transportation in the disaster zone and was pivotal in transporting victims, state troops, and supplies.

The Motor Corps participated in slacker raids, tracking down criminals and closing saloons. It was also used to break strikes and subdue political agitation. These actions made many perceive it as a tool of the state and an enemy of the Nonpartisan League, organized labor, and political freedom.

The Motor Corps became a model for other states and Burnquist hoped it would become a federal organization. When World War I ended, a bill to make the Motor Corps a permanent part of the state military was introduced in the Minnesota legislature. Burnquist, the MCPS, and Rhinow had the bill introduced by their followers. They felt the Motor Corps was needed to combat “red socialism” and disturbances. The bill was controversial and faced opposition from organized labor, political activists, and the National Guard. The bill passed the House but was defeated in the Senate. With the war over, and no legal basis for its existence, the Motor Corps disbanded.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.