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The towers are falling
If Alice Tripp's surprise showing that September in her race for governor against Rudy Perpich was the faint rumble of thunder in the countryside, lightning had struck just a few weeks earlier.

In early August 1978, someone loosened the bolts of a 150-foot-tall steel transmission line tower and sent it crashing to the ground. In the next few weeks, three more towers were toppled.

Undated — Gov. Perpich requested FBI assistance in investigating the attacks. Minnesota Public Radio reporter Greg Barron visited west central Minnesota that fall and described what he called a "guerilla war." A helicopter crew patrolled 170 miles of powerline, and squad cars roamed the countryside.

Workers, including lineman Bill Russell, feared for their safety. "I've been up towers and heard shots; you just don't know what's going to happen next. Just keep on working, that's all we know."

"I've seen guard poles cut half in two, almost all the way just sitting there waiting to fall. I've seen bolts cut three-quarters of the way in two and then put back in the tower, waiting for somebody to step on and break. I've seen people shooting," he said.

Barron asked another worker, lineman Don Hargrove, how much real danger he faced. "We had a tower go down that we'd got off, you know. As far as safety-wise out here, in my opinion it's very unsafe, because we was at a tower and had to take step bolts that has been sawed two-thirds of the way and then put back in the nuts, see, and put back on the tower. So if you climb a tower and grab one of them, or step on it would be the worst thing, unknowing, you're coming off of there."

At a cafe in Wilmer, Minn., co-op manager Axel Johnson expressed his frustration to members of the Kandiyohi Cooperative Electric Power Association.

"In Pope County there have been 72 arrests. Six of these were felonies. Two were convicted. Sentences to these two are alternative community service. In other words, a big fat goose egg. Nothing," he said.

The charges against powerline opponents included serious crimes. Earlier that year, someone had fired a bullet through the windshield of a pickup truck, injuring a power company security guard.

Matt Woida, husband of the outspoken Gloria, was arrested along with five other farmers. No one would testify against them. Only one went to trial. His conviction was later thrown out by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Virgil Fuchs had yet to go to trial on charges of ramming the surveyors' pickup truck. Eventually, the charges were wiped from Fuchs' record. To co-op manager Axel Johnson, it seemed that powerline opponents were breaking the law... and getting away with it.

But others seemed unfazed by the civil disorder.

MPR reporter Barron talked to dairy farmer Tony Bartos in his barn at milking time. "Do you go along with these towers coming down?" Barron asked.

"Yeah, I go along with it. I wish a few more would come down, and I think they will, as time goes on. They shouldn't have did this to us in the first place. We've did everything we could lawfully. We went to Minneapolis, got lawyers, went through the courts. But either the judges are paid off, or they just don't realize what's going on out here," said Bartos.

"I think there's a lot of different laws and ways you can look at it. There's moral laws, too. I don't know, I don't figure it's wrong what we're doing out here. Sure people think you gotta stay with the law, but what is the law? Who makes it? We should have more of a say with what goes on in this state too, you know. They can't just run over us like a bunch of dogs."

"I think it will go on until they stop building this line. Well, look at the Vietnam War, that got stopped and I think protesting did that. And if you figure it out, there wasn't even one percent of the country that was protesting against the Vietnam war," Bartos said.

George Crocker, the young, bandana- wearing Vietnam War resister from the Twin Cities, shared Bartos' belief that protesting could stop the line

"The efforts of the United States military in Vietnam were not successful. The efforts of the utilities and their agents through west central Minnesota will also be unsuccessful, and it doesn't matter how many millions and billions of dollars they pour into this thing, they ain't going to get it," Crocker said.

Over the next two years, powerline opponents calling themselves "bolt weevils" toppled 10 more towers. They shot out thousands of insulators, but in the end, the utilities got their line.

It began official operation in August 1979.

No one ever claimed responsibility for the vandalism. No one was ever charged. In later years, the farmers' health fears, both for themselves and for their livestock, were not born out by scientific studies.

Farmers whose land was taken for the powerline got higher payments than they would have if the fight had never started, although years later, it was said that some still refused to take the money.

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