For years, self-proclaimed white nationalist Craig Cobb has hopped from one tiny Midwestern town to another, quietly buying up cheap and abandoned properties.
His goal is to take over a location and transform it into an all-white oasis on the prairie — a project known in white supremacist circles as a “Pioneer Little Europe.”
So far, he has struck out. Cobb’s attempts to set up hamlets in Nebraska, Kansas and North Dakota have all failed following pressure from outraged residents and, in at least one case, intervention by police.
His most recent effort in Nome, N.D., a crossroads about 70 miles southwest of Fargo, appears to have been thwarted as well, though it’s unclear who, if anyone, is responsible.
On Wednesday, a mysterious fire engulfed Nome’s Zion Lutheran Church, a 108-year-old structure Cobb purchased in February, according to the Bismarck Tribune.
The dilapidated building had been empty for some time, local media reported, but concerned residents in the town of about 60 people spotted Cobb several weeks ago loading belongings inside. They later learned from a deed dated Feb. 21 that Cobb was the building’s new owner.
By late afternoon Wednesday, all that was left standing of the old church was its chimney and foundation, surrounded by a pile of smoldering debris. Per the Tribune:
The fire was reported about 3:30 p.m., according to officials. Randy Langland, a firefighter with the Nome Volunteer Fire Department who was working in Lisbon, said he arrived at the scene about 4:25 p.m. and by that time the fire had pretty much destroyed the church.
“It had been going for quite a while,” Langland said.
He said officials have no idea how the fire started. The state fire marshal is expected to be in Nome on Thursday, March 23.
The 60-something Cobb told KVRR Local News on Thursday that he had bought the church with plans to give it to the Creativity Movement, a nontheistic religion that preaches anti-Semitism and white superiority, of which Cobb is an adherent.
His one condition, he said, was that it be named the “President Donald J. Trump Creativity Church of Rome.”
“Not Nome. Rome,” Cobb said, adding, without explanation, “a little play on history there, you see.”
President Trump is not affiliated with the Creativity Movement.
Officials haven’t identified the cause of the fire. Cobb, however, told ABC 6 he believed it was “100 percent arson.” Gas and electric utilities were off, he said, adding that he considered the blaze a direct threat on his life. He is reportedly offering a $2,000 reward to anyone who can bring him information about how the church burned down.
Locals have suspicions, too.
Jerome Jankowski, who lives next door, said he watched from his kitchen window as flames roared through the church Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s kind of sad that it goes, because it’s kind of a landmark in this town,” Jankowski told the Tribune.
After Cobb bought the structure, rumors circulated around town that some people wanted to torch it before he could move in, Jankowski said.
“Everyone has some form of prejudice,” he said, “but this guy is way off the edge and he fell off.”
A lifelong white supremacist, Cobb has been a known commodity on the reactionary right since the 1970s, active in the Creativity Movement and neo-Nazi groups throughout North America and Europe, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
It wasn’t until 2012 that Cobb set out to create his first Pioneer Little Europe. Originally proposed in the early 2000s by fellow white supremacist H. Michael Barrett, the concept “envisions consolidating white people in racially homogeneous communities to push out other ethnic groups,” as the Southern Poverty Law Center has written.
Cobb tried to do just that in Leith, N.D., a prairie town of two-dozen people situated about an hour’s drive from Bismarck. He bought up 12 properties, some of them for less than $1,000, intending to sell them to “nice, young white people” and rename the town Cobbsville. Some of the plots were purchased in the names of other white supremacist leaders. Cobb flew Nazi flags on the land, to the horror of locals.
The plan fell apart in a matter of months, when police arrested Cobb for patrolling the town with a gun. After spending several months in jail, he pleaded guilty to felony and misdemeanor counts of menacing the town’s residents. Clashes between Cobb and the town were the subject of the 2015 documentary “Welcome to Leith.”
In 2014, Cobb told the Associated Press that he had “retired” from white nationalism, saying “the people of North Dakota had decided I can’t have a quiet, peaceful existence.”
But over the following year, he showed up in Red Cloud, Neb., and at least two towns in Kansas looking to buy properties. Locals rallied against him, holding protests and pooling money to purchase some buildings themselves, and ultimately preventing Cobb from setting up shop, as the Grand Forks Herald reported earlier this year.
In an October 2015 interview with the Kansas City Star, Cobb showed no signs that he was giving up on his dream of creating a racist utopia. If anything, he predicted at the time, more people would come along to help.
“For this type of work, you have to be a zealot,” Cobb told the Star. “I’m a zealot, and not so many are. But the system will create more and more over the coming decade.”
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