As I research and learn about the history of the mountains, my sheltered eyes are often opened to nuances I had no idea existed among my people. Feuds are something I thought Hollywood stereotyped mountain-folk with. However, a chapter in Raine’s book The Land of Saddle-Bags made me think about some of the old stories in a little different light.
Daddy always says that “Mountain folk are clannish,” and I have found it to be true. Now, I’ve never seen that characteristic result in gun fights but we’ve discussed here many aspects of the clans. Traditionally, the family unit has been the center of American life and certainly mountain life. We get together every chance we have, attend decorations at every cemetery we can reach and often approach a funeral as a social event.
James Watt Raine presents two separate stories of Kentucky feuds that lasted decades and took many lives. [If you’d like to read one or both of those accounts, please leave a comment and I will share it in next week’s blog.] Reading that, I couldn’t help but ask myself if this has ever happened, or could ever happen on the Cumberland Plateau. I believe the answer must be Yes. I suspect some of you may have more information than me on some of these stories and I certainly hope you’ll share them with me.
While I can’t name any specific families I’ve known to be feuding each other, the twentieth century history of Fentress County certainly is peppered with violent events that could pit one faction against another. (Note here that I’ve specified the twentieth century for we know all too well the fracture The Civil War caused throughout our region in the nineteenth century as men and families chose their allegiance and watched to see which side their neighbors supported. The stories of Tinker Dave Beaty alone reflect the consequences of forcing a man into a conflict he had no interest in.)
Perhaps our most famous outlaw, Billy Dean Anderson, was included on the FBI’s most wanted list while he hid from authorities in the rugged Pall Mall country-side. A member of his family, Kay Wood Conatser, wrote a book about him a couple of years ago in which she details how his family supported him during his life on the lam. Moreover, the book indicates that Anderson shot or shot at a number of people, including a group of state troopers and at least one Fentress County deputy.
This violence against officers of the law seems to be a common theme in Fentress county’s history. During the 1940’s and 1950’s there were numerous, violent confrontations with law enforcement and locals. Sheriff Clay Stephens was caught by a group of men who rubbed mustard on his head (does anyone know the significance of that act?) after which he resigned. He was replaced by Sheriff Clayton Upchurch who was shot while in the line of duty. A second attempt was made on him, but his wife was shot instead as she drove the family car and was mistaken for the sheriff.
These were tough men and law enforcement in general was a different world than it is today.
Sheriff Upchurch killed a man during a gunfight. On the witness stand he was asked who he was aiming at as he fired and he responded that he was just shooting, “My eyes were full of blood,” so he couldn’t see his target. A group of ruffians sent word to Sheriff Upchurch that they were going to take his gun away from him and rub mustard in his hair. He returned a warning that they should be sure and wear gloves because the gun would be hot when they got it.
Both Sheriff Upchurch and his successor, Irvin Jones, were known for their prowess with the black jack. There was a notorious gangster in Ohio during the fifties, sixties and seventies. Bill Stepp was actually born in Peebles, Ohio but his father was from Highland County, Virginia. I don’t find any documented connection to Fentress County, but I've heard a story that he was arrested by a Fentress County man working up north; he roughed the gangster up a bit with his black jack. Stepp asked the officer, “Did you learn that from Pont Upchurch?”
Of course these are legends, but they serve to give example of the culture of that era.
Coal mining was a boom on the plateau in the twentieth century, and it had its share of violence. I don’t know if it would be proper to include these outbursts in a feuding discussion as there were so many people neither native to the area nor long-term residents. The mining towns swelled with workers and managers coming from all over the place. Some of the violence erupted due to the treatment of the workers while other instances were conflicts between individuals.
In Zenith, there was a 1937 uprising that saw several men killed then in 1940 Sheriff Horace Taylor and Deputy Casper Wood were killed while trying to arrest a miner. That miner then engaged in a gunfight with the foreman who killed him after being was mortally wounded. An interesting note is that Taylor and Wood are the only two Fentress County officers listed on the Officer Down Memorial Page (www.odm.org). I don’t know how complete that record might be.
The 1930’s saw a huge strike in Wilder with much violence. In fact, the National Guard was brought in at least twice to try to maintain the peace. At least one man was killed in April 1933 when a union leader was shot.
Raine notes in his discussion of feuds that political offices were often used to fuel feuds. I’m very interested to hear from you readers if you know of that happening on the plateau. Certainly with everyone related to someone it would be a great temptation for an official to actin the best interest of his own family.
These are sensitive subjects, I know. If you have comments, please know that you can enter just your first name or initials in leaving comments here.
Be sure to let me know in the comments if you want to hear Mr. Raine’s feud stories.