The world from here

Arkansans fought back when outsiders interfered

Posted: October 29, 2017 at 1 a.m.

A common belief holds that our rural ancestors, especially in the upland regions such as the Ozarks, lived happily in primitive little worlds independent of the larger society. And, while there is a grain of truth in this generalization, settlers on the Arkansas frontier found themselves inextricably bound to the larger national and regional economy, government and culture. How Ozarkers reacted and reluctantly adjusted to being part of the national scene is the subject of Hillbilly Hellraisers, a fine new book by an up-and-coming young Arkansas historian, assistant professor Blake Perkins of Williams Baptist College in Walnut Ridge.

Many, if not most, modern Ozarkers have little in common with people who lived in the Ozarks prior to World War II. In the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, many Ozarkers turned to political populism as they fought the growing economic inequalities of the time. They believed that moneyed elites were to blame for many of the challenges facing working people. Defiance of the Federal government was a central tenet of this "Populist Ethic."

An impressive example of the populist impulse in the Ozarks -- as well as the entire state and region, too -- was the Brothers of Freedom movement. Founded in 1882, the Brothers established lodges across the western and northern parts of Arkansas. The main organizer was Isaac McCracken of Ozone in Johnson County, a Canadian by birth who moved to Arkansas by way of Massachusetts and Wisconsin. This group later affiliated with the larger national agrarian movement known as the Farmers' Alliance. An estimated 100,000 Arkansans belonged to the Farmers' Alliance by 1890.

While the populist movements of the late 1800s involved massive numbers of people, they did little to improve the condition of "the wool hat boys," as populist Gov. Jeff Davis described his avid agrarian supporters. Indeed, though the governor was full of reformist bombast and won substantial election victories, Davis "effected practically no substantive change for working people during his long political career," Perkins concludes.

One of the best known means by which Ozarkers defied the government was by flouting the laws on making and selling whiskey. Corn, which was one of the main cash crops of the Ozarks, brought farmers only a few cents profit per bushel, but that same bushel could produce more than a gallon of "moonshine." Illegal distilling was a federal offense, and confrontations between U.S. officers and local moonshiners sometimes resulted in tragic results -- such as the August 1897 Searcy County shootout in which two deputy U.S. marshals were killed.

A ballad resulting from the shootout lionized the bootlegger Harve Bruce and contained these lines: "Old Harve Bruce he done well/ Killed Ben Taylor dead as hell/ Old Harve Bruce [was] never tried/ Shot Clay Renfro through the side."

Many poor Ozarkers viewed World War I as another example of the government sacrificing poor people in a fight with no benefit for the people doing the fighting. "It is a rich man's war, but a poor man's fight" was a common refrain heard whenever Ozarkers discussed the conflict. Hillbilly Hellraisers has a chapter titled "'Silk-Hatted Fellers' and Their War" which recounts an ongoing effort by Ozarkers to avoid the draft.

Actually, the first violence over the draft occurred not in the Ozarks, but in the nearby Ouachita Mountains in Polk County near the border with Oklahoma. On May 25, 1918, the Polk County Sheriff and a posse of 36 men attacked the draft-resisters in their hideout in the mountains south of Mena. Two resisters were killed and three wounded -- and numerous prisoners taken. One of the resisters was sentenced to death: Ben Caughron, a socialist and vocal opponent of this "rich man's war." Gov. Charles H. Brough refused a pardon, preferring "that an example should be made in this case."

In less than a month after the violence in Polk County -- referred to by some as "the battle of Hatten Gap" after the village near where it occurred -- a violent clash near Oxley in Searcy County resulted in the death of an army deserter and the arrest of several other resisters.

Interestingly, the resisters at Oxley tended to be members of small independent Baptist churches -- "churches of the disinherited" as Perkins described denominations which today most likely do not harbor too many socialists among their membership -- Churches of Christ, for example. The newly emerged Holiness and Pentecostal movements also tended to oppose the conflict in Europe.

Certainly religion played the central role in the "Cleburne County Draft War" of July 1918, a conflict which pitted County Sheriff Jasper Duke against the Tom Atkinson family of Rosebud. The extended Atkinson family members were "Russellite Christians," today known as Jehovah's Witnesses. Then, as today, Jehovah's Witnesses were opposed to military service. An initial attempt to arrest Atkinson resulted in the death of a posse member. A second attack later on the same day resulted in a 45-minute shootout, but the draft resisters escaped. The governor sent a militia company to help with the pursuit, and the resisters were eventually captured.

Another source of conflict between Ozarkers and governmental authority was a program intended to eliminate Texas fever among cattle herds. Due to the prevalence of the tick-borne disease among southern cattle, the U.S. Department of Agriculture established a quarantine in 1891 which greatly curtailed the cattle industry in Arkansas and the south.

An initial effort to deal with the problem through a volunteer cattle dipping program did not work, and eventually a mandatory dipping fee of 5 cents per head was assessed on all cattle. Small scale cattlemen were furious with the twice-weekly dipping requirement, which was not only costly but also required rounding up the herd and driving them to a central concrete dipping vat set into the ground.

Once again, it was in the uplands where the dipping program ran into trouble. Vats were blown up in Izard and other counties. In March 1922, a federal cattle tick inspector from Jamestown in Independence County was shot from ambush and killed.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book recounts how the Ozarks changed dramatically after World War II. Nothing has brought more change to Arkansas in the past 50 years than the influx of non-natives, especially retirees from the Midwest. The impact has been felt culturally, economically and especially politically. As Perkins notes, in-migration is a demographic change which continues "largely unabated into the second decade of the 21st century."

Hillbilly Hellraisers is published by the University of Illinois Press, contains 296 pages and sells for $24.95 in soft cover.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

NAN Profiles on 10/29/2017