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"LEATHER BRITCHES" SMITH AND THE GRABOW RIOT

©  By W. T. Block      (click here for W. T. Block web page)

The 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.

In 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.

The 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.

When 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.

Zach 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.

During 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 DeRidder.

Leather 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.

Sawmiller 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.

The 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 thereafter.

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