"LEATHER BRITCHES" SMITH AND THE GRABOW RIOT
© By W. T. Block
(click here for W. T. Block web page)
years 1911-1912 witnessed much labor strife throughout the East Texas and
Western Louisiana sawmill industry as the Brotherhood of Timber Workers sought
to unionize the mill hands. In Aug. 1911 there were 30 East Texas sawmills on
strike, but in general the mill owners refused to negotiate, often bringing in
immigrant strike breakers.
north Calcasieu Parish, Arthur L. Emerson, president of the Timber Workers and
about 200 strikers were likewise having no success. On July 7, 1912, he and
others visited the Canon sawmill, near Singer, where non-union laborers beat on
lunch buckets and pails, drowning out Emerson's voice as he tried to speak.
strikers then visited the Galloway Lumber Co. mill at Grabow, La., located west
of DeRidder on the Jasper and Eastern Railroad. The Grabow mill had been on
strike for several weeks, and J. T. Galloway had hired several shotgun guards
to protect the strike breakers in his plant.
Emerson and 75 strikers arrived after lunch, non-union workers again pounded on
buckets as Emerson tried to speak. Although no one knew who fired the first
shot, a general melee of bullets were exchanged for about 10 minutes between
the strikers and mill hands; and when the smoke lifted, 30 men lay on the
ground, both dead and wounded.
Martin and Decatur Hall, both union strikers, died instantly, as did A. T.
Vincent and an unidentified immigrant, and a fifth man died later. Among the 25
wounded, Ed Brown and Bud Hickman were shot through the chest; J. 'rooky was
shot in the head, and the others had less serious wounds.
the fusillade, an eccentric desperado named Charles "Leather Britches"
Smith, who had accompanied Emerson, knelt as he fired dozens of bullets from
his Winchester into the sawmill. After the firing stopped, Leather Britches
ran hack into the forest, while Emerson's men fled in the direction of
Britches nickname resulted from his propensity to wear dirty, buckskin trousers
almost constantly. He was well-known in the Sabine River bottoms around Merryville,
where he always wore two pistols strapped to his waist, and he often engaged in
rifle demonstrations there. Smith's surname was most likely an alias, and it
was widely alleged that he was a fugitive from several murder warrants in West
Texas. Leather Britches was widely feared throughout Southwest Louisiana, and
having once been a logger, his sympathies were with the mill hands, who worked
a 60-hour week for $1.50 daily. It was reported too that Leather Britches swore
he would never he taken alive.
Galloway wired the governor, and Co. K, Louisiana National Guard, was quickly dispatched
to Grabow. Sheriff Reid and Deputies Del Charlan, Ike Meadows, Paul McMillan,
and James Broxton also arrived, and immediately they began arresting the union
strikers, until within two weeks, 65 of them were locked up and charged with
murder and conspiracy.
deputies doggedly pursued Smith in the jungles around Merryville, and eventually
they learned he was hiding out in an abandoned sawmill. On the morning of Sept.
25, soon after Leather Britches had awakened from his sleep beneath a log car,
the deputies ordered him to surrender. Instead as he reached for a gun, Smith
fell, riddled with bullets. His body was soon carried into Merryville, where it
was wired in a standing position with his guns, and a photographer took
numerous pictures of him, together with the deputies and general populace
beside the corpse.
On Oct. 7, 1912, Emerson and 8
others went on trial for murder, but a jury quickly acquitted them. Realizing
that public sympathies were with the striking union men, the district attorney
dropped all charges against the remainder.
Whoever Smith or "Leather Britches actually was,
he was talked about around the Merryville camp fires for many decades