The Black Patch Tobacco War of western Kentucky
“The good Lord never got any thousand or so men together for any purpose without a liberal assortment of sons of bitches thrown in.”— The Night Riders, Robert Penn Warren
November 30, 1906
In the evening chill, more than 200 masked and hooded men rode silently, in a column of twos, down the main street of Princeton, Kentucky. Minutes before, several six-man squads had occupied the police station and disarmed the officers, seized the telegraph and telephone offices, and captured the fire station, shutting off the city water supply. It was all done with admirable precision. With shouts of “Stay inside!” and bursts of gunfire that shattered windows and splintered sashes and door frames, the raiders encouraged curious citizens to remain indoors and turn off their lights. The mounted men rode directly to the American Tobacco Company’s two large warehouses, where they placed sticks of dynamite under the stored tobacco within and doused the buildings with kerosene. They then threw torches into the structures and watched as 400,000 pounds of tobacco, worth upwards of $100,000, smoldered and burned. Then, three long whistle blasts drew the men together, and—singing “The fires shine bright on my old Kentucky home”—they slowly rode out of town.
The New World’s Bounty
There is no crop—indeed, no marketable commodity—more indigenously American than tobacco. As early as the mid-1500s, enterprising traders were shipping leaves back to Europe and Britain, where “drinking” tobacco had become an instant craze. By the early 17th century, with the support of the king of England, colonies were establishing footholds in Virginia and North Carolina, primarily for the commercial cultivation of tobacco. By the 1660s, some 24 million pounds were being exported annually.
Within a short time, settlements began cropping up along the Kentucky and Tennessee frontier, where tobacco quickly became the main crop. One unique and highly recognizable strain is still grown in a specific region of western Kentucky and western Tennessee, and sports a leaf that is a near-black, dark olive color. Its cultivation is extremely labor-intensive and, upon harvesting, it requires smoke curing over a slow-burning hickory fire. Used mainly for chewing and snuff, it came to be known as dark-fired tobacco, and the section where it grows as the Black Patch.
Immediately after the Civil War, Kentucky was producing a combination of burley and dark tobacco that marked it as one of the nation’s foremost growers. In 1870, the state produced more than $2 million worth of snuff, chewing tobacco, and the increasingly popular machine-made cigarettes. By the early 1890s, with 38 factories working full-time throughout the state, Kentucky led the nation in tobacco production. Selling prices were high enough, and the demand sufficiently great, that everyone associated with the process—growers, buyers, middlemen and manufacturers—was enjoying the financial benefits.
Inevitably, however, the Darwinian law of survival of the fittest came into play as smaller businesses increasingly fell victim to larger, stronger companies. As the century ended, so, too, did the day of the small tobacco operation. With fewer buyers purchasing tobacco, the growers faced an increasingly harsh market of lower prices and fewer options. The day of the monopoly was at hand.
No one better represented the monolithic approach to the tobacco business than James Buchanan Duke. Born into a North Carolina farm family, “Buck” Duke early on saw the profit potential in buying and selling tobacco rather than growing it himself. Gifted with uncanny business acumen coupled with insatiable ambition, Duke set about buying up the competition, and by the turn of the century, his American Tobacco Company was the acknowledged ruler of the nation’s tobacco industry. It controlled nearly 93 percent of the country’s ready-made cigarettes, 80 percent of the snuff, 62 percent of plug, or chewing tobacco, and 60 percent of all smoking tobacco. Duke continued to gobble up his competitors and instituted mergers with foreign firms. The “Duke Trust,” as the American Tobacco Company was then being called, dominated both the domestic and foreign tobacco markets.
Duke used his control of the industry to slash the per-pound selling price of tobacco. By the late 1890s, through the elimination of the competitive bidding process whereby growers sold their crops for reasonable prices, he brought the growers—many of whom operated on a subsistence level in the best of times—close to ruin. Farmers lost their farms or went heavily into debt just to put in their crop for the coming year. The Duke monopoly, coupled with a new, usurious federal tax on all tobacco products, put the growers in an untenable position. Conditions remained dismal for the nation’s tobacco farmers into the new century. By 1904, the Trust was using some 400 million pounds of tobacco and buying it at rock-bottom prices. And no region was harder hit than the Black Patch. Wrote the Hopkinsville Kentuckian, “[T]he trust has about starved out the farm labor of this section.”
… And Reaction
At this point, a wealthy landowner and tobacco grower named Felix Grundy Ewing, whose 3,000-acre Tennessee plantation, Glenraven, sat close to the western Kentucky line, devised an ambitious plan for the region’s growers to take back control of the sale of their tobacco and raise the prices in the bargain. During the summer of 1904, he sent word of his idea throughout the Black Patch, and on Sept. 24, he hosted a meeting of some 5,000 growers and professional men in the tiny Kentucky town of Guthrie.
Ewing’s plan was straightforward. All the tobacco growers in the region were to join in a common association, the purpose of which was to withhold their tobacco from the Trust until Duke’s buyers raised the purchase prices sufficiently high to justify selling. The reasoning seemed sound: If enough farmers denied the Trust their tobacco, inevitably its value would rise.
Ewing’s motives were not altogether altruistic. As a member of the elite planter class, he was concerned over the defection of his tenant farmers, who, unable to survive in the current tobacco field, were leaving to find better-paying situations in the cotton industry. Just months before Ewing’s Guthrie meeting, under the headline, “Negro Exodus,” the Hopkinsville Kentuckian lamented that black workers were leaving in droves “on account of not getting anything for the tobacco they produce.” This was the plight of many landlord farmers, who, in the face of growing social change, were desperate for a return to the traditional socio-economic structure in which landed growers produced their crops entirely through the efforts of dependent laborers, mostly black tenant farmers and sharecroppers.
Whatever Ewing’s motives, the assemblage was overwhelmingly in favor of his plan. The new organization was officially named the Dark Tobacco District Planters’ Protective Association of Kentucky and Tennessee—more simply referred to as the PPA. Officers were appointed, and a charter drawn up and approved. In it was an article that subtly laid the groundwork, and provided the justification, for the years of mayhem and violence that were to follow. It exhorted “each member to use his influence and strong endeavor with those tobacco planters who are not members of the Association to become members.”
The PPA gained instant popularity throughout the Black Patch, not only among tobacco farmers but among professional men as well. And for those who lacked sympathy for the Association, a boycott of their businesses was generally enough to induce them to join. Many newspaper editors throughout the region were in sympathy with the PPA, as were most public officials—judges, prosecutors, officers of the law—many of whom became dues-paying members.
The number of members soared as farmers anticipated an immediate resolution to their problem. In some districts, as many as 95 percent of the growers signed on. Some farmers, however, refused to join, and when the Trust fought back by offering inordinately high prices for tobacco sold by non-members of the Association, that number increased. For a farmer watching his family starve while he sold his tobacco for 3 cents per pound, the offer of 11 or 12 cents was often too tempting to refuse. For reasons that remain obscure, these hold-outs were labeled “hillbillies.”
By establishing clearly defined sides in the struggle, Ewing had unwittingly managed to sow the seeds for the dissolution of the traditional Kentucky rural community. Neighbors who had shared toil and tribulation in the past now were viewed as enemies. And it would only get worse as PPA members turned to violence to “convince” former friends to join.
Conditions for the growers did not improve by 1905, causing consternation among the many PPA members who had anticipated—albeit unrealistically—an immediate turnaround. Felix Ewing grew ill of what was diagnosed as a “nervouse disease” and became less of a regular presence. Meanwhile, a country doctor from Cobb, Kentucky, rapidly assumed a leadership position. Dr. David Amoss, a short, stocky, self-assured, middle-aged man, rose to prominence in the Association just at the point when the members’ frustration was turning to action. In October, a group of PPA members met secretly at a small Black Patch schoolhouse and formalized a secret society of “not less than five members nor more than two thousand,” whose specific function it would be to show hillbillies and other foes of the Association the error of their ways. They read what amounted to a manifesto, and they gave themselves a name: Possum Hunters.
The idea caught on quickly as Possum Hunter clubs sprang up throughout the Black Patch. At first, they simply paid visits to hillbillies and delivered stern lectures on the advisability of joining the PPA. Gradually, however, their activities grew more invasive. Amoss, who was clearly the force behind the Possum Hunters, possessed a military bent, apparently derived from the four years he had spent at a military academy as a young man. He immediately visited the Ku Klux Klan in Nashville and consulted with its leaders as to the best way to organize his loosely structured force. Soon, his men were conducting nocturnal mounted raids, festooned in masks, hoods and robes, and riding in well-organized columns of twos. No longer content with mere lectures, they began administering beatings and whippings to noncompliant hillbillies, officials and Trust employees. They burned hillbillies’ barns and destroyed their tobacco fields by “scraping”—hoeing out the crop—salting, or choking the young plants with grass seed. Their evening forays soon earned them the name Night Riders.
Through Amoss’ influence, the Night Riders developed their own protocols, passwords and secret signs. Membership included not only farmers but also public officials, bankers, attorneys and other businessmen. The list included judges and sheriffs in a number of counties. Amoss was very specific regarding their mandate: “To burn or otherwise destroy the property of growers and to whip them and other persons who refuse to cooperate with you in your fight against the Trust … ” When on a mission, they muffled their horses’ and mules’ hooves, and rode silently, carrying torches and lanterns. They referred to themselves as the Silent Brigade, and by 1906, they numbered at least 10,000.
Meanwhile, Amoss devised a second, more vital function for the Night Riders. While it was perfectly fine to intimidate the recalcitrant growers, the impact would be greater still if the Night Riders destroyed the warehouses in which the Trust stored the tobacco it had purchased. To this end, Amoss planned and executed a raid on Princeton on the night of Nov. 30, 1906.The Night Riders followed this raid with a similar operation in the 8,000-person town of Hopkinsville. This time, although they put the torch to two Trust warehouses, they wounded two citizens, inadvertently burned down their own storage barn, and—pursued by a handful of bold volunteers—lost one man to gunshot, while two others were wounded, including David Amoss. This time, the raid made the nation’s papers, including The New York Times and Harper’s Weekly. The press was generally unfavorable, but Amoss was undeterred. The raids continued.
The destruction of Trust storage warehouses, combined with the Association members withholding tobacco from the buyers, gave rise to a short crop in the winter of 1907-1908. Although this in part resulted in a rise in the selling price of tobacco to the 8-cents-per-pound target originally set by the PPA, the price hike was in fact a national phenomenon. The Planters’ Protective Association simply could have declared a victory and folded its tents. By now, political and popular opinion was beginning to turn against the violence engendered by the Night Riders, and now that everyone was selling tobacco, and there was no need to shorten or withhold crops, it would have been the perfect time to suspend operations.
Nonetheless, the Night Riders continued their raids throughout 1908, and the nature of the violence grew even more sinister. They ruined crops, burned barns and private homes, stepped up the beatings, used their operations to satisfy personal grievances, and—with the blessing of David Amoss—they killed people who they felt had betrayed, or would betray, the Association: tenant farmer Leonard Holloway, hired hand Axiom Cooper, Night Riders Herbert Hall and Julian Robinson, PPA member Rufus Hunter, and others whose names are not recorded. Sadly, more than the structural aspects of the Ku Klux Klan were put into practice as some of the Night Riders—and men posing as Night Riders—specifically targeted blacks, despite the fact that there were more black members of the PPA than white.
Newly elected Gov. Augustus Willson deployed both the state militia and federal troops to protect citizens from the Silent Brigade and posted significant rewards for the arrest of Night Riders who were connected with the Hopkinsville raid. Even the Black Patch Journal, organ of the Association, had had enough of the Night Riders. Condemning them as an “engine of destruction,” the newspaper advised, “Rider, turn the rope reins of your mule[,] head homeward[,] and there dwell in peace.” Inevitably, many Black Patch community members, no longer feeling the need for a protective presence, came to resent the Association itself.
Judges and juries, who had heretofore released Night Riders and Association members on charges of which they were clearly guilty, were now handing down judgments in favor of the complainants. A husband and wife, both victims of a raid in which he was mercilessly flogged and she was beaten and shot, sued the Night Riders who had perpetrated the attack. The court awarded them $15,000, payable by the perpetrators. It was one of a number of civil suits in which the victims were awarded damages as a result of Night Rider assaults.
The tide had shifted, and both the PPA and its militant arm had gone from being the saviors of the Black Patch to anachronisms. With tobacco prices rising, many members no longer saw the need to remain within the organization. Those who did still attend meetings as often as not discussed how to raise money for the members who had lost judgments in court. The Association began to come apart from within as the movement’s leaders fell to fighting among themselves. By 1910, membership had fallen drastically, with more members leaving all the time.
In March of that year, David Amoss—the “Little General”—was arrested along with five associates for their part in the Hopkinsville raid. The charges carried possible penalties of one to five years in prison as well as a fine of several thousand dollars. Although they were found not guilty on a technicality (and not through Night Rider intimidation), the trial heralded the end of the Night Rider raids and the Black Patch War. As tobacco prices continued to rise to unprecedented levels, the Planters’ Protective Association finally faded into Kentucky history. The Cadiz Record wrote a brief, if hyperbolic, epitaph:
“It made the fight and won. It humbled the greatest trust in America … It weathered the storms of eleven years, four of which in bitterness and meanness can never be equaled.”
In 1911, the United States Supreme Court ruled that James Buchanan Duke’s American Tobacco Company was attempting to monopolize the tobacco market in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The company was ordered to dissolve and was reorganized into four separate entities: R.J. Reynolds, Liggett & Myers, American Tobacco Company and Lorillard.
Heritage Celebrated, History Relived
More than a century has passed since the eyes of the nation focused on the Black Patch region and the strife that, according to The New York Times, left residents “in a condition of terror.” Today, the Commonwealth’s farmers continue to cultivate dark-fired tobacco—according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 30 million pounds of it were produced in 2013—and western Kentucky communities commemorate the area’s tobacco-growing and -warring heritage.Each autumn, the towns of Princeton and Hopkinsville hold Black Patch Festivals, the latter of which includes Night Rider raid re-enactments; a bus tour of significant tobacco war sites; and, in the Christian County courtroom where it was originally held, a dramatic re-creation of the 1911 trial of Dr. David Amoss. Year-round, the history of the Silent Brigade’s reign can be experienced at the Pennyroyal Area Museum’s exhibition, which includes period photos and a mask worn by a Night Rider. For more information, visit tobaccowarpilgrimage.com.