Robertson County Connection

Steve Haley: The Kentucky and Tennessee Tobacco Wars

My family settled on farmland around the state line that separates Kentucky and Tennessee, working the soil of the border counties of Todd, Logan and Christian in Kentucky and Robertson and Montgomery in Tennessee.  

For many years, corn, soybeans, wheat, and livestock were sideline commodities to the main money maker in our area, tobacco. At one time every family of my acquaintances had members that used tobacco in some way either by growing tobacco for profit  or consuming the finished product and sometimes both.

Steve Haley

We all were acutely aware of the great pangs and  pains involved in bringing this labor-intensive crop from small plant to harvest.  Winter wheat was threshed after the tobacco had been planted. Summer corn was shelled right before or after the tobacco was cut, and soybeans were picked while the tobacco was curing in the barn. 

My hometown of Guthrie was named for the former U. S. Representative and Kentucky native James Guthrie, president of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad at its founding in 1867. The town was formally incorporated by the Kentucky Assembly in 1876. Guthrie is also the birthplace of the first United States Poet Laureate, Robert Penn Warren. 

Guthrie has always been a small town with 322 citizens when it was incorporated.  It reached a height of over 1,500 in the 1990s.

The ground in the Pennyrile/northern Middle Tennessee area is very fertile and conducive to raising tobacco.  The three types of tobacco grown locally are burley, dark fire-cured, and dark air-cured, or one sucker. At one time, Robertson County, Tennessee, boasted of being home to “The World’s Finest Dark Fired Tobacco.” (This type of tobacco is used primarily for snuff or chewing.) A lighted metal arch, over the south entrance to the city on Highway 41N through the county seat of Springfield,  announced this proud proclamation. 

Also, one of our well-earned nicknames for the area was “The Black Patch.” Long-time residents here tell stories of visitors who call emergency services to report barns on fire when they drive by and see the smoke from tobacco being cured.  

The soil changes as you move away from this area as does the type of tobacco grown.  Burley supersedes dark-fired as the chosen variety. Burley is lighter and air-cured,  used primarily for cigarette production.  In the United States, approximately 70% of burley is produced in Kentucky. In the 1980s,  I was a groomsman at a childhood friend’s wedding to his college sweetheart  in Lexington, Ky.  On the day of the wedding, a brunch was held for us at a restored stagecoach stop. The grounds and tables were tastefully decorated with beautiful pink and white blooms from the top of burley tobacco plants.  

The lifeblood commodity of tobacco came into conflict at the turn of the 20th century.  In the late 1800s,  James Buchanan “Buck” Duke took over his family’s tobacco business.  Buck set his sights on expansion, renaming it the American Tobacco Company, and becoming likely the first in the nation, and probably the world, to mechanize cigarette production.  In 1885, Duke obtained exclusive rights to the use of a cigarette rolling machine that produced tens of thousands more per day than companies that hand-rolled them.  Buck Duke’s ultimate goal, says Robertson County historian Dr. Rick Gregory in The Cincinnati Magazine article “Up in Smoke,” was “to control both the raw material and the product going out to the consumers.” 

Sure enough, by the turn of the 20th century, the American Tobacco Company “was the acknowledged ruler of the nation’s tobacco industry,” according to Ron Soodalter’s 2014 Kentucky Monthly article “Terror in the Night.” Duke controlled nearly 93% of the country’s ready-made cigarettes, 80% of the snuff, 62% of plug, or chewing tobacco, and 60% of all smoking tobacco.” 

Pair that with the fact that “Duke continued to gobble up his competitors and instituted mergers with foreign firms,” adds Soodalter, and “‘The Duke Trust,’ as the American Tobacco Company was then being called, dominated both the domestic and foreign tobacco markets.” Also Duke, notes Jim Rumford in his book, Tobacco, Trusts, and Trump, had warehouses full of a massive surplus of tobacco, “going back to the 1890s.”

As any good businessman would do, Duke sought to maximize profits by reducing costs. In years past, tobacco had been sold for between 10 to 30 cents per pound, depending on the different grades from lugs (lowest grade) to leaf (highest grade).   Duke drove those prices down. The normal offer price became one to three cents per pound through his monopoly. The areas of Northern Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky were teetering on economic collapse.

Confronted by the specter of prices below the cost of production from the monopolistic American Tobacco Company, growers in the Black Patch region, led by attorney John Foster, and wealthy Adams, Tennessee, tobacco growers Felix Ewing and brothers Joel and Charles Fort gathered to discuss their options. On Sept. 24, 1904, 5,000 locals arrived in the small town of Guthrie, with its population of 800.  Guthrie was chosen as the meeting site because of its favorable railroad head. The four rail lines that intersect in Guthrie made it a desirable location.  Also, the beautiful horse track at the fairgrounds, located just outside the city proper, was a welcome diversion when speeches weren’t being made.  Pits were hand dug at the   fairgrounds so whole hogs could be roasted to feed the hungry attendees.

Local farmers were organized into the Dark Tobacco District Planters’ Protective Association of Kentucky and Tennessee, referred to as the PPA by Ewing and the Fort brothers.  The PPA was a loose cooperative where the farmers pledged to band together and only sell to PPA-friendly manufacturers or in bulk quantities to The Duke Trust. The PPA was successful in enlisting nearly one-third of the area growers in their cooperative, but the Duke Trust responded by offering higher prices to those who refused to join. 

Frustrated and desperate, PPA loyal farmers took matters into their own hands and began a vigilante campaign against the company and those growers who refused to join the PPA. From 1905 to 1915, armed bands of so-called “night riders” plagued the region, burning tobacco barns and warehouses and shooting into the homes of non-compliant farmers in an attempt to scare them away, a tactic known as whitecapping. Company buyers and warehousemen were also targets to persuade them to purchase from the cooperative. Lives and livelihoods were destroyed in the process.

The tale of the Tobacco Wars is the story of a 10-year battle fought largely in Kentucky and Tennessee that few Americans today have ever even heard of – wars that leveled  towns and touched the lives of thousands of Americans.  It was a domestic conflict  that pitted neighbor against neighbor, and at times family against family. Tens of thousands of farmers banded against one of this nation’s most ruthless monopolies. 

These tobacco wars have been described by many, as “the largest time of mass violence in American history from the Civil War until the Civil Rights movement.”

I have listened to area historians speak about this time period during the Heritage Days celebration in my hometown. Speakers like Christian Countian William Turner, who brings a unique focus on the role that railroads played in the conflict. Robertson County historians Gregory and Tim Henson bring the cast of characters to life as they recount the events. Former Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham has written one of the most definitive books capturing these events titled, On Bended Knee. Robertson County native actor and playwright David Alford has written a musical titled, “Smoke: A Ballad of the Night Riders.”  Alford’s play grips you as you experience the struggles of brother against brother in the fictional Hartley family. 

On Feb. 14, 2006, my lifelong friend Scott Marshall was the mayor of Guthrie. He petitioned our General Assembly to recognize Guthrie as the birthplace of the Planters Protection Association. Next year will be the 120th anniversary of this life-changing and history-making event.           

Steve Haley spent his childhood in Guthrie, KY during the 1960s and 1970s. He loves to recount the stories of his extraordinary ordinary upbringing in a small Southern town with his many friends. If you have any comments or suggestions, you can email him at Setsof4Haley@ATT.Net or call/text him at 615.483.2573