In the early years of the twentieth century, Kentucky was torn with bitter strife; a war was brewing over the state’s most important agricultural commodity, dark leaf tobacco. The “Tobacco War” as it would come to be called, was divisive, and nearly split Trigg County and much of Kentucky apart. The battle lines were drawn when farmers organized, and began to “hold back” their crop in an effort to increase the market price of dark tobacco, which had been falling steadily since the 1890s as a result of the formation of the American Tobacco Trust. The “Trust”, a consolidation of tobacco companies, later ruled a monopoly, was controlled by James B. Duke of North Carolina. Under the operating plan of the Trust, each district had only one tobacco buyer, and farmers had only two alternatives; sell to the buyer at his price or do not to sell at all.
In 1898, the price of a pound of dark leaf tobacco had been twelve cents, but by 1903, the price was down to four cents; two cents below production cost. In 1904, farmers formed the Tobacco Growers Association to pool their crops and hold them for higher prices. Immediately, three-quarters of Kentucky [farmers] pledged to the “Association”, some growers refused to join, complaining the Association’s pricing was inferior and its warehouse charges too high. The Association kept records of those who did not join, and in time contemptuously referred to them as “Hillbillies”. The disagreement between the Association farmers and the Hillbillies began to escalate when it became apparent that the Trust was paying the Hillbillies a premium rate for their tobacco. Quarrels and squabbles between the two groups soon transformed into groups of mounted Association members carrying out attacks on non-members during the night, and thus the “Night Riders” were born.
The Night Riders were a radical contingent of the Tobacco Growers Association who came to believe that the only way to convince non-members to join their effort to break the Trust’s hold on the tobacco market was to force them into membership in the Tobacco Growers Association. These men were organized in strict military fashion, [so much so that their tactics are studied by U.S. military officers today as one of the best examples of guerilla warfare in American history]. The Night Riders are believed to have been led by Dr. Alfred Amoss, a respected physician from nearby Cobb, Kentucky, who served as General, and Amoss’ friend and neighbor, Guy Dunning, as his Lieutenant. Beyond his training at the Ferrell Military Academy in Hopkinsville as a young man, Dr. Amoss is not known to have had any military training.
The only requirements to become a Night Rider were Association membership and the following oath:
“I, in the presence of Almighty God and the witnesses, do hereby and heron solemnly swear that I will forever conceal and never reveal the secrets, signs, passwords, neither by voice nor hand; that I promise to communicate only with fellows after due trial and those justly entitled to same; I swear that I will obey all orders and summons coming from my lodge, either by day or night, unless prevented by sickness of myself or some member of my family. I promise and swear that I will not use the cloak of this secret order to vent my revenge on enemy or neighbor, but will at all times conduct my actions in conformity with the well-being of the whole. To all this I swear upon the penalty of death, my body cast to the fishes in the sea or burnt to ashes and ashes cast to the four winds, so help me God.”
[No member of the Night Riders was ever known to violate his oath, not even when put to trial or called as a witness. The secrecy and allegiance held by members of the Night Riders was such that even when the Pennyroyal Area Museum in Hopkinsville sought to obtain artifacts relating to the organization about 1985, a Night Rider’s descendants anonymously left a mask worn by him during the raids on Hopkinsville in a nondescript bag on the museum’s steps at an appointed time, and the identity of the mask’s owner remained secret.]
The actions of the Night Riders were intended to scare tobacco growers into joining the Tobacco Growers Association, and became so violent and frequent that people grew afraid to go out at night. More about the Tobacco Wars will be shared in the next edition of “Remember When”.
It has been a long while since I have submitted a column for publication; such are the constraints of family and life. I hope to more faithfully share with the readers of the Cadiz Record in the coming months, and welcome your input at email@example.com In upcoming columns it is my intent to share adaptations of articles from the Echoes series of books written by Honors English Students at Trigg County High School under the instruction of Nancy Perkins between 1979 and 1984. I think you will find that those students, many of whom have made Trigg County their home and have children of their own, did excellent research, and their work remains a valuable contribution to the historical record of our beloved Cadiz and Trigg County. In the words of English writer Rudyard Kipling, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Share your story, make history memorable!