Hate in The Hills: How Benjamin Klassen and the Church of The Creator Influenced Modern Extremism (Pt. 2)
In 1982, the residents of rural Otto, North Carolina were greeted with strange and threatening new neighbors: Benjamin Klassen and the Church of The Creator (COTC). What did they do about it?
Purchasing a roughly 30 acre plot off Swiss Village Rd including several buildings and pasture for livestock, Klassen and his following quickly built a reputation for odd, disturbing behavior.
John, “Puddin” Grassley is the rancher whose family farm borders the Klassen land to the south. Now retired, he remembers strange happenings on the property at the time.
“They’d shoot off machine guns late at night” Grassley said. “All kinds of automatic fire and sometimes explosions. They’d do some kind of pagan shit — dancing around fires with masks and feathers.”
Though Grassley (who refused to be recorded) shared memories of these events with a slight smile, most of the neighbors surrounding the former Klassen compound declined when asked to share about what happened there in the 1980s.
One elderly Otto resident, who did not provide his name, reflected the general sentiment of those who still live in the vicinity of Klassen’s past compound.
“You mean them devil-worshippers?” the neighbor asked. “I remember them.”
Politely going back inside and refusing to be interviewed after this initial greeting, this gentleman reflected the general attitude of those with personal history and experience with Klassen and the Creators.
Known for violence and aggressive behavior, a visit from a current “Creator” or Klassen sympathizer over speaking to the press is a very real fear. Most nearby residents, including the current owner of what used to be the COTC compound, refused to comment. One neighbor who spoke with me, but wished to be kept anonymous due to fears of possible retribution, described a threatening presence from the group years ago.
“About a year after they moved on to the place,” the property’s owner said. “We started catching some of the younger ones sneaking around the house at night, coming up to the windows and peering in. From then on it only got worse till’ they left.”
Things did get worse. Throughout the 1980s, the Macon Co. Sheriff’s Department was called out to the property on numerous occasions for violent occurrences. Beyond commonly showing offensive, obnoxious behavior and displays towards their neighbors, numerous people were attacked and some even allegedly killed on the property by the so-called “Creators.” (See the timeline in part one for more details on these events)
After nearly a decade of these kinds of aggressions and tensions between Ottonians and the COTC, Klassen decided to leave Otto. Embroiled in a legal battle over a religious tax exemption and facing the loss of his assets in court to several lawsuits filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, he sold almost all of his property in North Carolina to fellow white supremacist and head of the National Socialist Alliance, William Pierce. In August of 1993, Klassen committed suicide by taking large amounts of sleeping pills. Though the COTC would unfortunately continue on under new leadership in Illinois after Klassen’s death, the group’s history in Otto largely came to an end.
Despite these crimes and allegations, how Klassen and the compound remained fairly unmolested by law enforcement or vigilantes for years on end remains a mystery. As is common with Appalachian history, local gossip and off-the-record recollections far outweigh police reports and investigative articles. Beyond threats of retribution from the COTC, why did locals not report more to the police?
Reverend Jonathan Stepp, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in nearby Franklin, N.C., explains how unique factors of Appalachian culture and history, such as an innate reverence of privacy and independence, may have inadvertently aided Klassen and the COTC.
“I think one of the prevalent cultural attitudes in the southern Appalachian mountains,” said Stepp, “is one of ‘I’ll mind my business if you mind your business — I’ll take care of me and mine and you take care of you and yours.’”
“Think back to the works of Horace Kephart— Our Southern Highlanders, written 100 years ago. He describes people living up in their holler — they don’t even know the people on the other side of the mountain from them. Instead, they’re just zeroed in on their family, their immediate relatives, the people in that space. I just see that as something that’s very much built into the culture here.”
The former COTC compound has long been repurposed as an outdoor rehabilitation center under unrelated ownership, but Klassen’s body remains buried in Otto within the small section of the original parcel owned by his family. Dozens of people associated with the current Creativity Movement, National Socialist Movement as well as unaffiliated white supremacists travel to Otto each year to pay homage to Klassen and stir up controversy. Occasional volunteers attempt upkeep on the gravesite and post about it proudly on extremist message boards, but it typically appears overgrown and abandoned.
The remaining neighbors seem to want to forget that the dark chapter of history involved here, but their insights could be incredibly valuable. Many small towns similar to Otto are facing an equally problematic situation with unwelcome newcomers and could take lessons from the history of this community. When they are ready to share, many could surely find value in their stories.
Watch the full interview of Rev. Stepp of All Saints for more information on the cultural history of the region and how the COTC impacted Macon County:
Resources and Citations
Thwarted Anti-Semitic Bomb Plot Inspired by COTC's Call for "Racial Holy War" ⋆ Institute for…
FBI agents arrested Richard Holzer, 27, on November 1 in connection to an alleged plot to blow up the Temple Emanuel in…
Confronting White Supremacy
Good afternoon, Chairman Raskin, Ranking Member Roy, and members of the subcommittee. Thank you for the opportunity to…
RAHOWA! A History of the World Church of the Creator
See for example, Jeffrey, Kaplan Radical Religion in America: Millenarian Movements from the Far Right to the Children…
Creator Crack-Up: With Its Leader Imprisoned, Its Name Illegal and Its Rank Thinned by Splits, the…
Matt Hale began his career as a professional racist at the age of 12. In 1990, he formed the American White Supremacist…
Theology of Hate: A History of the World Church of the Creator
Theology of Hate: A History of the World Church of the Creator [Michael, George] on Amazon.com. *FREE* shipping on…