Smith spoke first as Price Hollowell, a Princeton boy who was 14 at the time his mother testified against the Night Riders in 1907. Chautauqua speakers have been speaking around the United States since before the 20th century, but have been sponsored in the state by the nonprofit Kentucky Humanities Council since 1992. Chautauqua speakers play historical figures and tell the audience all about their experiences.
Smith spoke to the eager audience as if he were Hollowell whispering conspiratorially on someone’s back porch. He told the story of the Night Riders, starting with how they were organized in 1904 in Guthrie. At the time, the price of tobacco was very low and a man named Felix Smith had an idea to band all the tobacco farmers together and set their own price. They would become known as the Planter’s Protection Association.
“The problem was, his plan only worked if every farmer joined,” Smith said.
There were several reasons some of the farmers resisted. Some were uncertain about the plan, while others were too proud. Many of them didn’t join, though, because they couldn’t afford any more debt. They were already having a hard enough time scraping by until harvest without giving up their crop to the Association. Still, many farmers were eventually forced to join because of Ewing’s dubious methods of persuasion and influence. He did everything he could to isolate independent farmers, also called “hillbillies,” such as discouraging bankers from loaning to them. Some preachers in the area even outcast independent farmers from their congregations.
The Association did everything it could to force independent farmers to join, including violent means. This is how the Night Riders were formed. Association members would ride into the night terrorizing farmers and scraping plant beds. A family of seven was murdered in Trigg County, Smith said.
Dr. David Amoss, “Doc Amoss” to most, was well-liked but had a dark side. He became the general for the Night Riders, also known as the Silent Brigade. Anyone joining his crew had to swear to be loyal under penalty of death, Smith said. They had a secret code to identify each other. If a Night Rider asked another, “Have you been there?” the person had to respond, “Yes. I’ve been there on bended knees.”
The Hollowell family was unlike many tobacco-growing families in that they were not sharecroppers and instead owned their farm. Price’s mother, Mary Lou, had a reputation for being “uncommonly independent,” and not just in the ways of farming.
“She’s never been afraid to speak her mind, and probably never will be,” Smith said as Hollowell.
Mary Lou thought it was ridiculous that everyone was afraid to speak out against the Night Riders and named some of them in front of a Caldwell County grand jury. Unfortunately, the grand jury was full of Association members, so nothing came of it at first. The Night Riders attacked the Hollowell farm, leaving Price’s father, Robert, “cut to pieces” by his own brother, Johnny. It seemed that no one in southwest Kentucky could do anything to break the Association’s crippling hold on the area’s tobacco trade.
For the rest of this story, read this week's Cadiz Record.