Will's War

family photo of El Paso, Texas, writer Janice Woods Windle on the back of her grandfather, William Bergfeld, in 1943. Windle's new book "Will's War," based on her family history, tells the story of her grandfather, targeted for prosecution because of his organizing of farmers and his German ancestry in the early 1900s.
When Virginia Bergfeld Woods was a child in the early 1900s, armed Texas Rangers and federal agents burst into her home on the North Texas prairie and whisked away her father to try him on charges of treason.

He would be hanged if found guilty.

That terrifying event sets the scene for Janice Woods Windle's new book, "Will's War," published by Longstreet Press.

Virginia Bergfeld Woods is Windle's mother. And like Windle's previous historical novels - "True Women" and "Hill Country" - the new book is based solidly on her family history.

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Windle, who went through 3,000 pages of trial transcripts and court documents to provide the story's backdrop, again uses the strong voices of her female relatives to tell the story. Some of them will be familiar to readers of her other books.

"She writes on the importance of women in Texas history and the whole shaping of the Southwest," said Deane Mansfield-Kelley, a literature professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. "It's a very important niche.

"Texas is good for men and horses, but hell on women and dogs," Mansfield-Kelley said, quoting an old saying. "It's almost the same for literature. There's a lot about men and horses, but not much about women and dogs."

Although "Will's War" is told mostly through the female characters, the book is a bit of a departure for Windle in that the main character is a man.

In 1917, as the nation prepared to enter World War I, Windle's grandfather, William Adolph Bergfeld, was accused of conspiring to help the German empire and of threatening to kill President Woodrow Wilson.

At the time, Bergfeld was working with farmers who were battling a drought and paying high prices for basic goods. The lack of water was aggravated by at least one wealthy landowner who dammed a river and started charging to release water downstream to the struggling farmers.

Bergfeld, who had a relatively high-paying postal service job, helped organize a cooperative where farmers could trade goods directly, cutting out the middlemen. He bought some dynamite that he planned to give to the farmers so they could blast water wells.

He had learned some of his organizing skills from famed union activist Mother Jones, with whom he worked in Colorado during a 1914 mine strike that ended in the tragic Ludlow Massacre in which about 20 miners and their families were killed during an attack by the state militia.

As a result of his organizing activities and his German ancestry, Bergfeld's name was put on the "Alphabetical List of Subjects of the Teutonic Order." The list was compiled from the recommendations of local "councils of defense," whose members commonly included a town's prominent residents. People on the list were targeted for prosecution.

"The councils of defense were very self-satisfied," Windle said. "They politically cannibalized our own if they were of German descent."

Prosecutors tried to make the case that Bergfeld was going to use the dynamite in a plot to overthrow the U.S. government. And a key government witness swore she heard Bergfeld say that the president should be shot like a rattlesnake.

Windle says neither her grandfather nor her family talked much about the incident. However, after examining the records, she says the book is as close to an accurate portrayal of history as the available facts allow.

"I invent the dialogue and the inner dialogue of their thoughts - and re-create the scenes in a dramatic way," said Windle, who lives in El Paso with her husband, Wayne, a trial lawyer who helped her work out the courtroom scenes.

"He was adamant that I should not portray the judge as a villain or the prosecutor as a villain," she said. "He says if there's a movie, he wants to be the prosecutor."

She even read newspaper accounts of the time where she found descriptions of the street hawkers who sold miniature souvenir gallows to the crowds outside the federal courthouse in Abilene.

However, the book, which was written well before the Sept. 11 attacks, raises the issues of illegal arrests, profiling and vigilante violence - all reminders of the ugly side of patriotism.

"I had no way of knowing that history was going to repeat itself in some ways," Windle said. "I feel so sad that history is not a central course of American education so we do not repeat the same mistakes."

By Chris Roberts