[Audio] Tobacco War Pilgrimage Remembers Decade-Long Battle Between Farmers and a Monopoly

Sep 14, 2015

Tobacco War Pilgrimage event graphic
Credit Pennyroyal Area Museum, Facebook

At the turn of the 20th century, farmers from 35 counties in western Kentucky and Tennessee known as the "black patch" were involved in a war against the American Tobacco Company monopoly, known as the Black Patch Tobacco Wars. On Sounds Good, Tracy Ross speaks with Alissa Keller, Executive Director of the Museums of Historic Hopkinsville-Christian County about the 4th Annual Tobacco War Pilgrimage on September 25 and 26, with reenactments, a book panel, an expert conversation and the Trial of the Night Riders.

Understanding the Black Patch Tobacco Wars

A 35-county area in western Kentucky and Tennessee grew tobacco that was so dark it was known as 'the black patch.' The American Tobacco Company bought up smaller companies and established a monopoly over the purchase of tobacco crop, driving the price down to the point where it cost the farmers more to grow tobacco than they could sell it for.

Farmers came together and formed the Dark Tobacco District Planters' Protective Association of Kentucky and Tennessee, colloquially called "The Association" to create a holding agency. Instead of farmers selling directly to tobacco companies, they'd put their tobacco in The Association's hands who would then sell it in mass to the Company to negotiate a better price. In order for this to work, they needed all of the farmers on board, because if the farmers started selling directly to the Company and the Company offered higher prices, the Association was going to fail.

Around this time is when the Night Riders movement started, a vigilante band that grew out of the boycott. They provided an intimidation factor, where masked men would ride horses at night through fields of baby tobacco plants, burning barns in Princeton, Russellville and Hopkinsville. This was to intimidate and convince farmers to join the Association and break the American Tobacco Trust, which happened successfully in 1911 after a decade-long battle.

Tobacco War Pilgrimage Event September 25 - 26

For the Pilgrimage event, Friday includes a Kentucky Chautauqua demonstration of the story of Price Hollowell, the son of an opponent of the Association. He was 12 when his family experienced the negative side of the Association. His family was brutally beaten and run out of Caldwell County. This presentation will be held at three elementary schools, before a public event along with an old time street fair from 6 to 9 pm. From 7 to 9 will be a Night Rider raid re-enactment in a hayride through downtown. Night Riders visit and re-enact the burning of Hopkinsville. William Turner and Chris Gilkey narrate. Keller says this event is interesting, entertaining and spooky.

Saturday begins with the Books of the Black Patch, a conversation with authors Bobbie Smith Bryant on tobacco farming in Calloway County, Lynn Bartlett of Trigg County about tobacco barns in the region and Justice Bill Cunningham of Lyon County on his research into the Tobacco War. Later, a conversation about the Night Riders with Cunningham, Turner and Rick Gregory of Robertson County, Tennessee. Keller says these men are leading historians on the Tobacco War era and share generations of farming history in their family along with years of research.

Saturday night concludes the festivities with a re-enactment of the trial of Dr. David Amos, the alleged leader of the Night Riders, at the Christian County Courthouse - the same room in which the original 1911 trial was held. With the exception of a narrator, everything else is straight from court documentation.

Tickets available at the Tobacco War Pilgrimage website