Monday, September 5, 2016

The Night Riders & Tobacco Wars

Around this time of year, farmers are cutting their tobacco crops and hanging them in barns to cure, eventually selling their crop product at warehouse auctions.  It is hard work, and relatively uneventful these days, but around the turn of the Twentieth Century, tobacco farming was a dangerous job for area farmers.  

The American Tobacco Company had acquired a sizeable trust and had monopolized the tobacco industry, becoming the third largest trust in the United States by 1908; third only to the Unites States Steel Corporation and American Oil.  Their dominance over the market eliminated any smaller competition.  Farmers were forced to sell their crops for barely the cost of producing the tobacco, while the American Tobacco Company's income grew.  At the end of 1907, American Tobacco's gross surplus was approximately 32 million dollars.  After stock dividends were paid out, the company showed a 117 percent income profit, while the farmers were barely getting by.  A growing discerning among farmers spawned the creation of the Burley Tobacco Society and Planter's Protection Agency as a way to make a stand against the American Tobacco Company and to secure fair prices for farmers' crops at market.  Waller Sharp from Sharpsburg was among several who led the charge locally with the Burley Tobacco Society.  The movement was statewide, and soon other states were joining the fight against American Tobacco.  Farmers were urged to deliver their crops to the Burley Tobacco Society's warehouses and barns for storage until their tobacco could be negotiated and sold at a fair price.  In 1907, the farmers agreeing to pool their crops resulted in over 10 million dollars worth of product, with an additional reserve of 6 million in the previous year's being held.  It was proposed to cut the 1908 crop to avoid increased surplus and to create a demand for the unsold tobacco, but some farmers declined to cut their crops as requested. Like a workers' strike, the fight against the burley giant American Tobacco would send a message to both the big corporation and to those who shared the ideas of the cause, but refused to stop production.  As a result, a group called the Night Riders came to be. 

The Night Riders were a posse of armed, masked men who used intimidation tactics, and in many cases, violence to try and force farmers to abide by the stand against American Tobacco.  These groups of marauders were more prominent in Western Kentucky, with the most violence occurring in Caldwell and Christian Counties. The men called themselves the Black Patch Society in that area of the state and part of Western Tennessee.  They found where crops were being raised and destroyed tobacco beds and standing fields.  Barns and warehouses were set afire by the Night Riders, lighting up the skies in the darkened cover of night.  Farmers began arming themselves to protect their homes and farms, on some occasions intense gunfights erupted, with the bloodiest of the fighting taking place December 7, 1907 in Hopkinsville.  Approximately 200-300 armed riders rode into the city of Hopkinsville that night and set two large warehouses on fire near the L&N Railroad yards. Gunfire erupted and a railway worker was fatally wounded.   According the the newspaper The Country Gentleman's March 12, 1908 edition, a man was forced from his home and beaten nearly to death in the streets that night by the Night Riders.  Entire cities feared for their safety, and the rural farmers were especially vulnerable.
Typical Night Rider attire
Bath County farmers were not spared the intimidation or acts of violence, although nothing to the extent of the ordeals in Hopkinsville.  Local farmers in went to the county court to express their concerns about the threats made against them, with many of the farmers vowing to continue to raise their crops regardless of the Night Riders.  A group of around twenty masked riders rode into Bethel and Bald Eagle in late November, 1907, posting notices on the barns belonging to Oscar Chandler, Thornton Snelling, Claude Whaley, Richard Donaldson and others, warning the owners against selling their crops at market.  The actions of these marauders prompted Governor Augustus Wilson to mobilize a detachment of twelve mounted cavalrymen to Bath County in an attempt to thwart any violence.  The presence of the armed militia prompted Judge James Lane to inquire what their purpose was, but the commanding officer only stated they were under orders by the Governor.  Judge Lane then ordered the cavalry away, telling them that if he felt the need for armed troops, he would appeal to the Governor himself.

Twenty Night Riders approached Bethel one night early in 1908 and cut the telephone lines into the town.  They stopped at a warehouse belonging to A.S. Robertson, which housed 35,000 pounds of tobacco purchased on the open market.  Beside the warehouse was a dry goods store belonging to the Peters Brothers, with one of the brothers present upstairs.  One rider voiced his concern that the Peters man would fire upon them, prompting a remark that "if he sticks his head out, shoot it off his shoulders".   The riders poured coal oil into the warehouse and set it alight.  The fire quickly consumed the warehouse and spread to the Peters' store.  The lone occupant of the store escaped the flames and began to try and salvage goods from the store, but was unsuccessful.  The warehouse and store burned to the ground, but thankfully no one was injured. The riders left the blazing inferno, heading down Little Flat Road into Sherburne and set fire to the barn of Thomas Daugherty before disappearing into the night.  Although these men weren't masked, no one could identify who they were, even after Governor Wilson issued a $500 reward for the capture and conviction of any member of the Night Riders.
 A couple of nights after the incident at Bethel, the farm of Hiram Hedges at the Bath and Nicholas County line was targeted by the Night Riders.  Hedges was awakened by rocks being thrown against his house late that night.  Armed with a gun, Hedges went to investigate the sound and was met by a group of men.  After lowering his weapon, Hiram agreed to destroy his tobacco bed he had sown and not produce a crop in compliance with the riders' demands.  It is unclear what exactly happened, but a shot rang out and bullet struck Hedges in the stomach.  Hedges fell back into the house as his son ran out to try to help.  Convinced they hadn't shot Hedges, the riders' leader entered the house, and found the man's lifeless body inside the home. The riders quickly rode away, and their true identities were never known. 
Another incident along Prickly Ash nearly ended fatal near the same time, when a group of residents were guarding Nunley Everman's wagon loads of tobacco that were set to be sold in Mount Sterling.  A previous warning was issued not to sell this crop, but Everman ignored it.  Around 10 p.m. on the evening of the incident, horsemen were heard coming down Prickly Ash.  Twelve to fifteen men dismounted and walked to the barn, coming within sight of the guards.  The guards ordered the riders' leader to halt, but the order was ignored as the marauder continued forward with a bottle of coal oil.  A warning shot was fired, which quickly became an all out firefight between the barn's guards and the Night Riders.  One of the guards was inured in the hand by a bullet and the fight intensified.  The riders began to retreat with the guards pursuing them to the junction of the Wyoming Turnpike as the guards continued to fire upon them.  After the Night Riders retreated, several items, including a bottle of coal oil, were located along the road.  The sheriff was summoned to the scene, and more guards dispatched to the barn, but no more incidents occurred and the tobacco was safely delivered to the market in Mount Sterling the following day.

Faced with a short supply of tobacco during the 1908 growing season,  American Tobacco was forced to negotiate with the coalition of tobacco farmers.   The actions of the burley corporation and the Night Riders gained national attention.  The American Tobacco Company was charged with violating the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 by the Department of Justice in 1908.  A judgement was entered  May 29, 1911, splitting the American Tobacco Company's assets into four competitive markets; R.J Reynolds, Liggett and Myers, Lorillard and a reduced version of the American Tobacco Company.  The ruling in United States v. American Tobacco Co. stated that the combination of the tobacco companies “in and of itself, as well as each and all of the elements composing it whether corporate or individual, whether considered collectively or separately [was] in restraint of trade and an attempt to monopolize, and a monopolization within the first and second sections of the Anti-Trust Act.”  The farmers had won their battle to gain fair market value of the crops that provided them with much needed income to survive; with much bloodshed and fear during their fight.  

Today, the tobacco industry is in a steady decline.  Some Bath County farmers who once had sprawling fields of burley have resorted to alternate crops to sustain their way of living.  The Tobacco Wars and the Night Riders passed after just a short amount of time, but the violent legacy left will always be etched into the annals of our local history.

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