Up In Smoke: The Forgotten Battles of Kentucky’s Tobacco War

A family scrapbook records the little-remembered history of tobacco country’s fraught past.

Jim Rumford knows the story by heart. He’s been hearing it since he was a boy—the one about the time his great grandpa, George Washington Kinney—Mr. Kinney, as Rumford calls him today—was awakened in the middle of the night by angry voices outside his log home on the Bracken County, Kentucky, farm, where he grew tobacco. As the story goes, while Mr. Kinney’s wife, Eliza Jane, and children slept, he opened the front door. There he saw dozens of men in black masks armed with torches, guns, and whips calling his name—Night Riders. Mr. Kinney would later learn that somewhere in that crowd was a man with a very similar name: George Washington Jett.

illustration by Evangeline Gallagher

He couldn’t see their faces, but Mr. Kinney knew what the men wanted. For years, he’d watched and read in newspapers about what happened to independent farmers and tobacco buyers who refused to join a collective bargaining organization called the PPA and instead sold tobacco directly to Buck Duke’s American Tobacco company. Since the previous summer, military men (likely members of the state militia) had successfully guarded Mr. Kinney’s 80-acre property, less than an hour southeast of Cincinnati, from an intrusion. But on that very day, in the summer of 1906, the militia had left. The Night Riders made their move. Mr. Kinney knew he was outnumbered; his only option was to step outside.

By night’s end, the Night Riders would tie him to a tree trunk in his own yard and he’d be lashed, bloodied, and beaten nearly to death. Afterwards, they’d set fire to his tobacco barn, filled with thousands of pounds of tobacco he’d bought from other independent farmers and had been planning to sell. His only source of income, burned to the ground.

Mr. Kinney survived the attack but was never the same again, says Rumford. Years later, in an act that likely defied logic to both families, Mr. Kinney’s son, Tom, married that other George Washington’s daughter, Alma, “a true love story,” says Rumford.

The tale of Mr. Kinney’s lashing and the Night Riders lived on through family stories and a giant scrapbook full of newspaper clippings Mr. Kinney had compiled that Tom and Alma later kept beneath a couch in their living room. Often, when Rumford visited his grandparents’ home, he and his cousin Wilma would slide out that scrapbook—a giant, cloth-covered clothing catalog from a local general store—to read it. Now, decades later, Rumford knows quite a bit of it by heart.

photography by Chris von Holle

The scrapbook has no written commentary—merely hundreds of articles meticulously cut from turn-of-the-20th-century newspapers and pasted to its pages by Mr. Kinney. They tell the tale of the Tobacco Wars—a years-long battle fought largely in Kentucky and Tennessee that few Americans today have ever even heard of. Wars that leveled entire towns and touched the lives of thousands of Americans. Wars that pitted neighbor against neighbor and tens of thousands of farmers against one of this nation’s most ruthless monopolies. Wars that have been described by many, says historian Rick Gregory in a video recounting of the event, as “the largest time of mass violence in American history from the Civil War until the Civil Rights movement.”

After hearing Mr. Kinney’s story, it’s easy to assume he was in the right and Jett was wrong. But “this isn’t a story about good people and bad people,” offers Gregory in that same video. “This is a story about people who found themselves in an incredibly bad economic situation. And each individual family had to decide how they were gonna respond.”

In fact, to understand this story, it’s important to first understand how crucial tobacco—a backbreaking crop to cultivate, grow, and harvest—has been to this nation’s economy. It was a major cash crop for the colonists, who grew it, then exported it overseas. A century later, tobacco—largely produced through the labor of enslaved people and, later, sharecroppers—continued to help fuel the nation’s economy during and after the Civil War, which placed states like Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and the Carolinas (plus others with similar temperate climates) at the epicenter of the global tobacco trade. Roughly 50 miles southeast of Cincinnati, in fact, in Bracken County, Kentucky (home to Brooksville, Augusta, and half of Germantown), the rolling countryside was littered with White Burley tobacco patches and farmers fetched prices anywhere from 10 to 30 cents per pound at auction, says Rumford, who has spent decades researching the Tobacco Wars and American history.

Enter North Carolina’s Washington Duke, a farmer who fought in the Civil War before beginning a tobacco processing company. In the late 1800s, his sons, James Buchanan (“Buck”) and Benjamin Newton, took over the family business; Benjamin eventually branched off into textiles, but Buck set his sights on expanding the tobacco business, renaming it the American Tobacco Company and becoming likely the first in the nation, and probably the world, to mechanize cigarette production: In 1885 he obtained exclusive rights to the use of a cigarette rolling machine which produced tens of thousands more cigarettes per day than companies that hand-rolled them.

“This isn’t a story about good people and bad people. It’s a Story About an INcredibly Bad Economic Situation”

Buck Duke’s ultimate goal, says Gregory, 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 about the Wars, called “Terror in the Night.” “It controlled nearly 93 percent of the country’s ready-made cigarettes, 80 percent of the snuff, 62 percent of plug, or chewing tobacco, and 60 percent 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.” Duke also, notes Rumford in a book he wrote called Tobacco, Trusts, and Trump, had warehouses full of a massive surplus of tobacco, “going back to the 1890s.”

As leader of the Tobacco Trust, it was in Duke’s best interest to keep profits up by keeping costs down, so “Duke used his control of the industry to slash the per-pound selling price of tobacco,” notes Soodalter. The problem with that plan, he adds, was that “by the late 1890s, through the elimination of the competitive bidding process whereby growers sold their crops for reasonable prices, [Duke] brought the growers—many of whom operated on a subsistence level in the best of times—close to ruin. Farmers lost their farms or went heavily into debt just to put in their crop for the coming year.”

In other words, when Duke’s buyers stopped paying tobacco farmers the higher rates they were used to getting and instead began offering them 1, 2, or 3 cents per pound, tobacco farmers in Bracken County and elsewhere couldn’t make enough money to feed their families and stay solvent (it cost roughly 6 or 7 cents per pound to raise tobacco back then, per Gregory). Making matters worse, the federal government imposed a national tax on tobacco right around the same time. So, although Kentucky’s 38 tobacco factories “led the nation in tobacco production” in the early 1890s, says Soodalter, tobacco farmers still found themselves under water.

Backed into a corner, many tobacco growers in Kentucky and Tennessee felt their only choice was to organize into a group of their own to try to force Duke to pay more per pound for tobacco. In September 1904, led by a wealthy Kentucky landowner named Felix Grundy Ewing, 5,000 tobacco growers from Kentucky and Tennessee met at a fairgrounds in Guthrie, Kentucky—a roughly 300-person town back then, on the border of the two states—and officially formed the Dark Tobacco District Planters’ Protective Association of Kentucky and Tennessee, known as the PPA. “All counties that raised dark fire tobacco joined it,” Gregory notes (similar groups formed among the White Burley tobacco growers in places like Bracken County, says Rumford). “The idea was that all of them would hold crops off the market and force Duke to raise the price of tobacco,” Gregory continues. “The problem for the association would be those farmers who chose not to join—hillbillies in the eyes of the association members, independents in the eyes of themselves.”

In the beginning, independents like Mr. Kinney were both tolerated and expected. Initially, in fact, the PPA—which had a stated goal, says Soodalter, of getting Duke to pay 8 cents per pound for PPA members’ tobacco—strove for attaining 70 percent of farmers in each county as members. But by September 1905, notes the History of Bracken County by a group called the Bracken County Extension Homemakers, “it became evident that not all growers were going to join the Planters Association and that the Trust would continue to oppose and try to break the association’s back.”

Frustrated and broke, a smaller group of PPA members, led by a doctor named David Amoss, formed a separate group, called the Possum Hunters, with the goal of persuading independent farmers, via letters and in-person visits, to join the PPA. Within weeks, the Possum Hunters turned to more violent means of coercion. “By December of 1905,” the History of Bracken County notes, “tobacco factories and warehouses of non-association members were beginning to be burned and destroyed.”

By 1906, the Possum Hunters were known to most as Night Riders instead—masked men who took blood oaths not to give up one another’s names and who rode through the countryside under cover of darkness wreaking havoc on non-association members who grew any kind of tobacco. “The Night Riders were a spontaneous growth,” noted author Ruth Moore Craig in a 1954 Courier Journal Magazine piece on display at Maysville’s Kentucky Gateway Museum Center. “But as always happens to a group operating outside the law, the Night Riders got out of hand.”

The group’s leaders began training in intimidation tactics with the Ku Klux Klan. Soon, farmers were being beaten and left to die. Many who didn’t join the PPA abandoned their land and moved out of state. Those who stayed watched farms, entire towns, and even some of the Duke Tobacco Trust’s major storage barns, in Princeton and Hopkinsville, burn to the ground. (The latter “made the nation’s papers,” notes Soodalter, “including The New York Times and Harper’s Weekly.”)

Some citizens successfully fought back. Clarksville, Tennessee, had a private militia headed up by a former sheriff. An article in Mr. Kinney’s scrapbook notes Kentucky citizens from both Woodford County and Hopkinsville formed their own “law and order league” to counteract the Night Riders’ damage, which they alleged was intended not just to “intimidate and coerce, but also to inaugurate a reign of terror.” For the most part, though, the farmers the Night Riders targeted were, like Mr. Kinney, alone and largely powerless to fight back.

Though Mr. Kinney never gave in, the Night Riders’ scare tactics worked on others. Soon, PPA membership grew to an estimated 10,000. “Officially,” the History of Bracken County notes, the PPA “disowned and discounted any connection with the Night Riding activities; however, many high Night Rider officials were also prominent members of the Planters’ Association.”

Finally, in 1907, reports Soodalter, the Night Riders and PPA accomplished their goal. “The destruction of Trust storage warehouses, combined with the Association members withholding tobacco from the buyers, gave rise to a short crop in the winter of 1907–1908.” The Tobacco Trust finally agreed to pay the PPA its original target price: 8 cents per pound of tobacco.

At that moment, Soodalter notes, “the Planters’ Protective Association simply could have declared a victory and folded its tents.” Instead, the Night Riders dug in their heels and the raids grew more destructive and deadly than before.

In early 1908, state and federal officials finally got involved when newly-elected Kentucky Governor Augustus Wilson declared martial law and sent state militia (and possibly even National Guard) members to several counties to protect farmers, just as they’d tried to protect Mr. Kinney. Suddenly, citizens who had been silently horrified but afraid of retaliation began outing their neighbors and—judging from Mr. Kinney’s scrapbook—newspapers began publishing their names.

Though fear of retaliation and personal connections to either Night Riders or the PPA stopped many judges and juries from convicting most Night Riders for their actions, legal threats and public attention likely led many men to turn away from the organization. By 1910, membership in the PPA fell “drastically,” reports Soodalter, “with more members leaving all the time.” Shortly thereafter, Possum Hunters founder Dr. David Amoss and other suspected Night Riders were arrested and put on trial but “found not guilty on a technicality.”

On May 15, 1911, “the U.S. government ruled Buck Duke’s Tobacco Trust violated the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act and ordered it disbanded,” Rumford writes in Tobacco, Trusts, and Trump (ditto, he notes, for John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company). Roughly four years later, the PPA officially disbanded as well, after the start of World War I.

Buck Duke, it should be noted, went on to found the precursor to Duke Energy and made generous financial contributions to various nonprofit, religious, and educational organizations, including his namesake university in North Carolina—formerly Trinity College; now Duke University. In a book about him by Duke history professor emeritus Robert F. Durden, Buck Duke is quoted as saying, “There ain’t a thrill in the world to compare with building a business and watching it grow before your eyes.”

photography by Chris von Holle

Scrapbook and decades of research aside, Rumford learned a lot of what he knows about tobacco and the wars from time spent with family and working as a kid with his Grandpa Rumford to grow a small tobacco patch of his own—a tough but appropriate first job for someone with deep roots in Bracken County. Still, when an eager young Rumford reported all he’d learned about the Tobacco Wars to his Cincinnati grade-school teachers in the late 1940s, they essentially told him he was crazy. No such thing, they said, had ever happened. But Rumford knew better. His great grandfather had made sure of it.

Thanks to Mr. Kinney’s newspaper clippings, Rumford learned about 300 masked men who invaded the town of Eddyville, took 10 men from their homes and horse-whipped them all. He learned Night Rider activity happened as far north as Ripley, Ohio, and that people like Carson Bohrofe, an undercover Secret Service agent, were assigned to infiltrate the Night Riders and learn their secrets before the government troops swept in to protect the farmers. And he learned about how one Night Rider’s errant bullet—described as a “death pellet” by a paper called the Times Star—“came near ending the life” of an independent farmer’s baby.

Rumford learned about people like H.L. Staton, an independent tobacco buyer from Brooksville (near the Kinneys) who dealt directly with the Tobacco Trust. When a group of roughly 75 Night Riders visited him, newspapers reported, they tied Staton to a wagon and dragged him to the center of town; there, they forced him to open the doors of his own tobacco barn and burned all 50,000 pounds of tobacco leaf inside. They also took over the local telegraph office so no one could reach out for help, then beat Staton with a black snake whip on streets in the center of town, in front of the homes of county officers and a judge. No one stood up for him or spoke out.

photography by Chris von Holle

After reading a full-page piece Mr. Kinney cut out from the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, Rumford learned the story of Nicholas County farmer Hiram Hedges, who was murdered in Carlisle, Kentucky. “We were awakened after midnight by someone throwing rocks against our home,” Hedges’s 21-year-old son named Sam is quoted as saying. When Hedges opened the front door to confront the men, one of the Night Riders shot him. Sam picked up his father’s lifeless body, dragged it back to his room, then somehow forced the mob to leave.

Rumford learned about Mary Lou Hollowell, who was indicted in the Caldwell Circuit Court on charges of being an accessory to the Night Riders’ cause by “the scraping of plant beds” (i.e., killing tobacco plants). He learned about Newton Hazlett, an “alleged Night Rider” found murdered but armed with a half empty pistol and a pair of wire clippers on the farm of a man named Walker Duncan. He had received letters threatening to burn his barn and crops; when he heard horse-riding trespassers on his property one night, Duncan dodged two shots and, in turn, emptied both barrels of his own shotgun into the alleged shooter, who turned out to be Hazlett.

And Rumford learned from the scrapbook about a raid in Dayton, Kentucky, where a group of Night Riders was accused of destroying $15,000 worth of property, including 12.5 tons of tobacco, three homes, a tobacco shed that “had been saturated with oil,” and a large barn. The same article notes that other nearby tobacco farmers had received letters in their mailboxes written in red ink, saying: “Warning this means you. You sell your tobacco for less than 15 cents per pound, you will see what you will get. Try it and See.”

In 1939, Robert Penn Warren, who would become the nation’s first poet laureate, published his inaugural novel, Night Rider. Penn Warren was born in Guthrie, Kentucky, in 1905—the near-epicenter of the Tobacco Wars—so his first novel set out to recreate “not only the men and the motives that drive them but the whole flavor of this world”—the world of tobacco growers and buyers, the PPA, Night Riders, and Buck Duke.

What Penn Warren ends up describing, notes George Core in the introduction to the book’s 1992 edition, is how “…the Association of Growers of Dark Fired Tobacco reels out of control, moving from a democratic to a revolutionary organization, and finally standing for much the same values as those its makers originally bridled against.”

No one knows if Mr. Kinney saw the same cycle at play. But his scrapbook ends up telling the very same story Penn Warren told, about human behavior and the degeneration of the PPA’s good intentions into chaos, unrestrained violence, and near anarchy.

The story of the Tobacco Wars doesn’t really end with Buck Duke’s monopoly breaking up, or even with the dissolution of the PPA and other organizations like it. The story of the Tobacco Wars ends with the stories of the people who lived through them.

photography by Chris von Holle

H.L. Staton wound up suing four of the Night Riders (three tobacco farmers and a Brooksville Marshall) for $50,000 in damages; he was awarded $2,200.

The newspaper reporter who wrote about Hiram Hedges appealed to readers to donate money to support the family, noting that “decent citizens live in constant danger of assault or assassinations and honorable men who have wronged no man live under the menace of the lash and torch.”

Dr. David Amoss died in New York City following surgery to remove a throat tumor; his son Harold L. Amoss became the first chair of the department of medicine at Duke University.

Mary Lou Hollowell was ultimately pardoned for her “plant scraping” work on behalf of the Night Riders.

And George Washington Kinney was both scarred and haunted by the Night Riders’ horse-whipping until the day he died. Legend has it, says Rumford, he once waved a glass cane that he’d purchased at the World’s Fair at his own son, threatening: You Night Rider! You’re not gonna hurt me again.

Even so, the Kinneys and Jetts became forever entwined after the marriage of Tom and Alma. In fact, Tom, Alma, and many of their descendants, including Rumford’s mom, are buried at the Brooksville cemetery—a small plot of land on a hilltop nestled between the outlying farms and downtown Brooksville, with its gold-domed courthouse, “mansion house” (a stately 1919 brick home in the center of town), post office, two churches, and a handful of small businesses.

Every chance he gets, Rumford goes back to visit his old Kentucky home, crossing the Ohio River on the Augusta Ferry or driving via the Highway 68 bridge, then up from Maysville into Bracken County. The hills in Brooksville are mostly grass now, or other crops. Brick ranch homes on tidy cul-de-sacs sit today where farmland once sprawled for hundreds of acres, and cars and pickup trucks buzz by on Highway 10, the old National Highway, where Night Riders once traveled on horseback to Mr. Kinney’s log home. But the memory of what happened in that place some 120 years ago lives on, thanks to George Washington Kinney and his great-grandson, the current keeper of the scrapbook.

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