The Night Riders
The Night Riders was the name given by the press to the militant faction of tobacco farmers during a popular resistance to the monopolistic practices of the American Tobacco Company of James B. Duke. On September 24, 1904, the tobacco planters of western Kentucky and the neighboring counties of western Tennessee formed the Dark Fired Tobacco District or Black Patch District Planters' Protective Association of Kentucky and Tennessee (called the Association or PPA). It urged farmers to boycott the American Tobacco Company and refuse to sell at the ruinously low prices it offered in a quasi monopoly market. A more militant faction of farmers, led by David A. Amoss of Caldwell County, Kentucky, resorted to physical intimidation or burning the crops of those who ignored the boycott, targeting the tobacco warehouses of the ATC itself, culminating in large scale raids of cities in the area - most prominently Hopkinsville, Kentucky in 1907.
The Black Patch Tobacco War (or the Great Tobacco strike) in southwestern Kentucky and northern Tennessee extended from 1904 to 1909. It was the longest and most violent conflict between the end of the Civil War and the civil rights struggles of the mid 1960s. Originally known as the Silent Brigade, The Night Riders were a vigilante force opposed to the American Tobacco Company because it priced tobacco so low that farmers could not make any profit from their work.
The head of the Night Riders was David Amoss, a medical doctor and farmer. The Amoss House in Caldwell County, Kentucky is dedicated to the history of Dr. Amoss and the Night Riders. The building is currently in danger of being sold. Other area museums house numerous artifacts and personal histories regarding the era of the Night Riders.
The major cause of the Black Patch Wars was the drastic reduction in price that the American Tobacco Company offered tobacco farmers for their crops. In the last decade of the Nineteenth Century, farmers had earned a profit of from eight to twelve cents a pound, more than enough for a comfortable lifestyle. That changed with the turn of the twentieth century, due to the development of a virtual monopoly by the American Tobacco Company. After eliminating competition, ATC paid an average of four cents a pound from 1901 to 1903. This was two cents per pound less than the cost of producing tobacco. Farmers were losing money just by planting their crops. In some areas the price fell as low as three, two or even one cent a pound.
The farmers formed the Planters' Protective Association to oppose the monopoly. Under leader Frederick Ewing's plan, they would grow tobacco, but store it in Ewing's warehouses until the market price increased. Ewing stressed that his plan would require the cooperation of all tobacco growers. Breaking the boycott was not allowed.
Planter's Protective Association and its conflicts
The association was created in 1904 so farmers could sell their crop for a set price (originally set at eight cents per pound and two cents per pound over the cost of production). The Association would keep the tobacco in their own warehouses and pay the farmers when they sold its holdings. At the beginning of their work, between 70% to 95% of farmers in the county were signing contracts to deliver their crop only to the association (percentages varied in some regions). However, in the first year of the Association, many non member producers and even Association members ignored their pledges; they undermined the attempt to meet the Tobacco Trust (Monopoly) on an economic basis. They chose to seek personal profit, as the Trust then paid ten to twelve cents per pound in an attempt to destroy the Association. For example, in 1906 non-members were selling to the Trust at ten to twelve cents a pound while Association members were receiving seven and one-eighth cents.
A similar failure took place in the 1920s when the Burley [Bright Leaf] Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association tried to compete with a monopoly. They also had a deep decline in the price of Bright Leaf Tobacco like the Dark Patch growers. Also similarly, they had a large number of voluntary membership expressed by a pledge by the growers saying that they would only sell to the Burley Association. The Burley Association would then keep the crop and sell it at an acceptable Price then use the money to pay the producers. This gave successful results, but it was followed by a decline in prices received by the Association and its members.
In order to solve this problem a meeting was held at Stainback School House. At this meeting it was decided that some of the farmers belonging to the Association would become "Possum Hunters". The Possum Hunters were told to visit non-members to show them their way in groups (not less than five but not more than 2000). These nightly meetings eventually led to the violence of the Masked Silent Brigade (or the Night Riders).
American Tobacco Company (ATC)
The American Tobacco Company, also known as the Tobacco Trust, was one of the most sophisticated and highly financed industrial monopolies in the late 1890s. When the burley crop of 1906 and 1907 was boycotted by the ATC, farmers resorted to desperate measures. In the year 1908 more than 35,000 farmers in over thirty counties did not plant tobacco. An entire year's worth of crop was lost. As a result, the ATC agreed to the farmers demands in November 1908.
The Night Riders would attack individual farms and their crop if the farmers did not support the Association. They eventually occupied whole towns and would destroy the Trust warehouses and machinery in the towns. Not only did they destroy the warehouses, they also attacked individuals who supported the Trust. The Night Riders were known to be the most efficient association. In 1908 the association exerted the most control, having gained nearly complete control of the Dark Lead tobacco crop. The Night Riders achieved their success through violence and illegal, vigilante actions. In order to protect themselves from the government, the Night Riders took membership into the governmental elite of the affected Dark Patch regions. By gaining office they took control of the courts and officers of the counties and judicial districts. Attorneys for some victims began to move plaintiffs out of Kentucky to establish residency and qualify for suit in the federal courts. This broke the power of the Night Riders in local courts and brought them under the judicial process.
The vigilante actions of the Night Riders have been compared to the Ku Klux Klan and later paramilitary activity during Reconstruction; others disagree. However, neither the timing, nor motivations of the events have any correlation. At most the activities of the Silent Brigade were possibly influenced by the forms of action and style of racially motivated groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.
- Cunningham, Bill (1983). "On Bended Knees: The True Story of the Night Rider Tobacco War in Kentucky and Tennessee". Kuttawa, KY: McClanahan.
- Saloutos, Theodore (1939). "The American Society of Equity in Kentucky: A Recent Attempt in Agrarian Reform". The Journal of Southern History. 5 (3).
- Waldrep, Christopher (1986). "Planters in the Planters' Protective Association in Kentucky and Tennessee". The Journal of Southern History. 52 (4).
- McCulloch-Williams, Martha (1908). "The Tobacco War in Kentucky". The American Review. 37.
- Nall, James (1991). "The Tobacco Night Riders of Kentucky and Tennessee": 1905–1909.
- Millar, John G. (1936). "The Black Patch War". Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Newman, Christopher. "The Kentucky Dark Patch Knight Riders' Rebellion". Elgin College.
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