Mystery: Our non-military Colonel

If you’ve ever eaten fast-food fried chicken, you’ve probably heard of at least one case of a man who goes by the title “Colonel” despite not having served in a military branch that bestows that rank. (And we’re not talking about stolen valor, but a genuinely bestowed title—just not bestowed by the military.) Harland David Sanders was formally given the honorary title “Colonel Sanders” by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. His title is a legitimate example of the more than two century old tradition known as the Kentucky Colonel.

So when and why was Col. Joseph Askew given the title “Colonel?” I’ve never found evidence of Joseph ever having served in the military in either his native England or his adopted county of the United States. Of course, absence of evidence does not indicate conclusive evidence of absence, but it is still a strong indication that his title of “colonel” has a non-military explanation.

The closest we have to an explanation is a statement by the late respected Wadena historian, Bob Zosel. In 2010, Bob Zosel stated “It is interesting where he picked up the Colonel sobriquet which in Minnesota is a common salutation for auctioneers.” From his placement of that sentence in his article, he implies that Joseph may have picked up the title “Colonel” while in Menahga. Minnesota.

If we look at the historical evidence I’ve been able to find so far, in reverse chronology, we find that he was known as Col. Joseph Askew at the time of his death, and was referred to in this way since at least 1902 (when he was 61 years old).

In the September 22, 1911, edition of The Sebeka Review, Joseph Askew’s death notice included this title:

Colonel Askew Is Dead
Col. Joseph Askew died yesterday afternoon in a hospital at Fargo, N.N., of injuries received in a runaway last Saturday forenoon. Mr. Askew was driving home to his farm near Mapleton, N.D., when his team ran away and he was thrown from the rig, sustaining serious injuries. He was taken to the Fargo hospital where he died yesterday afternoon.
Col. Askew was one of Wadena county’s pioneers and was closely identified with the county’s early days. He conducted the hotel at Menahga from fifteen to twenty years ago and was also landlord of the Commercial Hotel at Wadena for several years, and was planning on buying back that hotel again when the unfortunate accident caused his death. His death will be deeply mourned by all of his old friends throughout the county. He was past 70 years of age.

In the August 8, 1908, edition of The Duluth Evening Herald, the following piece appears on page 3:

The September 29, 1905, edition of The Little Falls Herald contained the following short article on page 3 mentioning Joseph Askew and his son-in-law Jim Spencer and their quest for Colorado gold:

In the May 31, 1904, edition of The Bemidji Daily Pioneer, the following mention was made of Col. Askew in a story about hotel management changes:

The February 24, 1902, edition of The St. Paul Globe had the following brief mention of Joseph Askew in their “News of the Northwest” section on page 3:

This last mention is the first instance I’ve found of Joseph being referred to as Colonel. This certainly wasn’t because he wasn’t written about before this time. I’ve found dozens of mentions of Joseph Askew in newspapers in both the U.S. and England, as well as his 1902 biography (which appears to have been written in 1901) in the Compendium of History and Biography of Northern Minnesota, but none of these refer to Joseph as “Colonel.” So what happened presumably in 1901–1902 that resulted in Joseph being called Col. Joseph Askew?

Not only have I not been able to find a documented explanation of why Joseph began to be called Colonel, I haven’t been able to confirm Bob Zoser’s comment that auctioneers in Minnesota were once addressed as Colonel. Nearly every instance I’ve been able to find in a survey of 50 instances of the use of both “Colonel” and “auction” in Minnesota papers from 1900–1902 refers to a bonafide military colonel (or, in one case, to a race horse called “Colonel Roosevelt”).

Only one of these references unambiguously indicated that “Colonel” was being used as an honorific, in this case for a respected “newspaper man,” Watson W. Williams:

So it does seem that “Colonel” was used as a term of respect, but perhaps not just for auctioneers.

So, I ask you dear readers (especially dear Minnesotan readers), what can you add to this story? There’s got to be a story behind Bob’s Zoser’s comment that the term applied to auctioneers in Minnesota. Does anyone have evidence that Joseph was ever an auctioneer? Let me know what you think and/or know in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “Mystery: Our non-military Colonel

  1. I know of at least one auctioneer called Colonel. Jon Prideaux in Pittsburg KS. See http://prideauxauctionservice.com/about_us.html But, I’m not sure how he got the title either.

    I found an interesting story with a quick google search of “auctioneer colonel.” See https://www.google.com/amp/s/blackdiamondauctions.wordpress.com/2012/05/17/why-are-auctioneers-called-colonel/amp/
    Another web site states similar. See https://mikebrandlyauctioneer.wordpress.com/auction-publications/history-of-auctions/

    So I think it is plausible that the title could have referred to Mr. Askew as a n auctioneer. But I would think you would have come across something referring to an auction business of his.

    • Well, done! And I’m embarrassed to have missed that. I got so tied up in it having to be a Minnesota-specific thing, I suppose.

      I haven’t found mention of Joseph having been an auctioneer, but he was a business man who appears to have been skilled at making deals where and whenever he went, so I fully expect to find that he was indeed an auctioneer at some point.

      Thank you again!

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