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Guarding Washington County's loyalty during World War I with "the jaws of a lion and the eyes of an eagle," a diligent Lake Elmo resident began his relentless hunt for German spies.

"Colonel Bob" Wilkinson called the first meeting of the Washington County Patriotic League, also known as the Protective League, on May 5, 1917.

"He was everywhere over Washington county, stirring up patriots, directing war workers and watching sluggards so that he might start them out in the right direction," concluded a history book published in St. Paul in 1919.

The national Espionage Act of 1917 and its scarier successor, the Sedition Act of 1918, stifled civil liberties all over the country as influential citizens were given authority to turn against neighbors perceived as traitors. President Woodrow Wilson, describing such perceived traitors as "infinitely malignant," implored Congress to enact laws against them.

And so, from sea to shining sea, vigilantes scoured the land for everyone who looked different, talked differently and failed to contribute money to the war effort. In Washington County, they "questioned the loyalty of German-Americans, trade unions and socialists," Bob Goodman wrote in his book "A History of Washington County: Gateway to Minnesota History," published in 2008.

Wilkinson and his entourage of volunteers "had some ill-defined authority and badges," Goodman wrote, and in addition to their quest to find spies they also vigorously enforced mandatory purchases of Liberty Bonds to finance the war.

In a related effort, Stillwater Mayor Jacob Kolliner proposed forming a Home Guard to protect residents against "lawless people" who might descend on them. Some 300 to 500 men should be enough to ensure public safety, he said.

Forever committed to suppressing sedition, Wilkinson offered himself as a public speaker to all takers.

"He attended every meeting held in the county from the beginning of the war until the Germans gave up the ghost a year and a half later," the St. Paul history book related.

History showed that the Protective League's mission, however frantic, proved an exercise in futility.

"In Washington County no spies were found," Goodman wrote.

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037