Think politics is brutal these days?

Back in Minnesota’s frontier days, a shooting helped decide a vote on public-owned electrical utility in Detroit Lakes.

A lot of people have heard the story of how E.G. Holmes, who seemed to own half the Village of Detroit, shot tavern owner Mike McCarthy in the head in June of 1900, with the bullet deflecting off the big Irishman’s metal hatband.

McCarthy lost that battle with his political rival, but won the war the next day, when the townspeople swung his way to vote out Holmes’ Light and Land Company and have the village start supplying its own light and water service.

But there’s more to the story, and Holmes cuts a more sympathetic figure than is commonly known, according to Kevin Mitchell, who works at the Becker County Museum and took a deep dive into the historic shooting during a recent brown bag luncheon at the museum.

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“You really have to dig into the background of these two to understand the power struggle in Detroit Lakes,” he said.

In those days the village was simply called Detroit, and the slightly built Holmes, a Civil War veteran from New York, did very well for himself there.

Wealthy and financially savvy, Holmes seemed to have ownership or part ownership in just about every business on downtown Washington Avenue. He was involved in real estate, insurance, utilities, groceries and had financial interests in one of the two newspapers in town.

Washington Avenue in 1909, nine years after the shooting. (Photo courtesy of the Becker County Museum)
Washington Avenue in 1909, nine years after the shooting. (Photo courtesy of the Becker County Museum)

But the dapper Holmes was not exactly beloved by the residents of the railroad community, and was especially disliked by former city council member McCarthy, known for his fighting skills, whose saloon was across Washington Avenue from Holmes’ bank.

(The bank was in what is now the State Farm office in the Graystone Annex, and the saloon was in what is now Veterans Memorial Park).

“Mike McCarthy was one of Holmes’ loudest critics,” Mitchell said. “The two had been at odds for quite a while, mostly over electricity.” Their feud started earlier with land trades associated with Holy Rosary Church.

Holmes held a 10-year contract (at $1,080 per year) to provide electrical lights to the village of Detroit. There were two years left on that contract, and a referendum was to be held on whether the city should stick with Holmes or replace his company with city services.

What isn’t so well known is that Holmes had actually bailed out the city a few years earlier: The townspeople had approved an 1891 special election to build water mains, pumps, steam-powered electricity and other amenities for the city. “But the city runs out of money and can’t complete the project,” Mitchell said. “Holmes stepped in with a 10-year contract to build all the things they couldn’t do.”

Now, eight years into that 10-year contract, the city wanted out.

“Holmes felt like he saved their butts and wasn’t being treated fairly,” Mitchell said.

So the townspeople were to vote on the future of the village’s power plant -- whether to keep it private or take it public.

The political campaigning leading up to the referendum was intense, and dirty. Pamphlets were produced and distributed by both sides, with varying degrees of accuracy. Holmes, who already had a bad reputation in town, called McCarthy’s pamphlets “trash” and “lies,” and countered with his own pamphlets.

On the day before the referendum, McCarthy walked over to Holmes’ carriage as soon as Holmes had gone into the bank, took his pamphlets out of the carriage, tossed them into the middle of the street, told a gathering crowd that they were all a “pack of lies,” and burned them.

He falsely told the crowd that Holmes was a Civil War deserter, saved from a well-deserved hanging only by a pardon from President Abraham Lincoln.

He stirred the pile with his cane while talking to make sure every page was burned.

Inside the First State Bank, Holmes was trying to keep his cool. When McCarthy and the fire had calmed down a little, Holmes left the bank, made his way to his carriage, and climbed in.

“There he is!” cried McCarthy. Holmes tried to ignore him, but McCarthy started to climb up into the carriage. McCarthy’s intentions were never made clear, but Holmes' reaction is not in dispute: He drew his pocket revolver and shot McCarthy full in the face.

McCarthy cried out and fell back on the street, blood streaming from his face. As he lay there, his wife rushed to his side, examined him, and cried out that “Mike is dead! Holmes killed Mike!”

But to paraphrase Mark Twain, news of his death was greatly exaggerated.

“The wound turned out not to be dangerous,” Mitchell said. “The ball glanced off his head.” Some credited his metal hat band with saving his life.

Right after the shooting, talk of lynching was in the air, and Holmes went for protection to the sheriff’s office and laid low -- legend says he holed up for the night in the Minnesota Hotel, and old “Deadshot” Esterly kept watch.

The Detroit Record published soon after the shooting and urged people to stay calm and let the justice system do its work. “Detroit has not been noted for its law observance in the past,” wrote Editor George D. Hamilton. “Excitement runs high and all sorts of wild talk is rampant. Our advice to all parties is -- keep cool.”

A newspaper headline after the shooting. (Courtesy photo)
A newspaper headline after the shooting. (Courtesy photo)

According to the newspaper story: a crowd kept milling around uptown, with some who didn’t like Holmes thinking it was a chance to get even. “We can get Holmes now!” cried one tall, thin man, “Let’s lynch him!”

His good friend planted a swift kick where he thought it would do the most good, “Stop that kind of talk,” he muttered angrily.

The referendum vote the next day was 260-102 in favor of village-owned lights.

The steam plant (which was in what is now a parking lot behind the Detroit Lakes Police Department) became a public power plant, which eventually became the Detroit Lakes Public Utilities, which last year transferred $605,000 to the city’s general fund.

“Did the town vote differently because of what happened? I don’t know,” Mitchell said.

Holmes was bound over a week later, and released on bond for an October court hearing. He was eventually acquitted of the shooting at trial, successfully arguing that he acted in self-defense.

McCarthy sued Holmes for $10,000 in damages from injuries sustained in the shooting. The case was thrown out of court.

But McCarthy had the last word in the matter. After the court decision, he put his stout cane to good use, strolling slowly and deliberately down main street and breaking every window in the many businesses owned by Holmes.