It was a story of masked identities, vows of silence, violence and a love of the land. With smoke from barns curing tobacco in the air, efforts are under way in to remember the night riders of the early 1900s.
"These farmers banded together in a group to create the greatest example of civil uprising between the Civil War and the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s," said Christian County historian William T. Turner. "The cardinal virtue of the night rider was to keep his or her mouth shut."
In Adams, rehearsals are under way for a performance of Smoke: The Ballad of the Night Riders by David Alford.
"If you push a man long enough and hard enough, he's going to fight back," said Smoke actor Patrick Waller. "I think that's what happened with these guys. It's just a fascinating piece of history not many people think about or even remember to tell you the truth."
Smoke tells a true story set along the Tennessee/Kentucky line more than 100 years ago.
"The night riders were dark tobacco farmers in what we call the black patch," said Turner. "To the dark tobacco producers of the black patch, the enemy was the American Tobacco Trust headed by James Buchanan Buck Duke. Duke cornered the tobacco market in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, driving the cost down below the cost of production."
"The Dark Fire Tobacco Association that formed among farmers, they wanted 100 percent participation of farmers, so they could get a fair price for their tobacco when they went to market," continued Alissa Keller of the Pennyroyal Area Museum in Hopkinsville.
From this, the night riders emerged, forcing other farmers to join the association through scraping their fields, whipping them and burning their barns. The ultimate intimidation act came Saturday, Dec. 7, 1907, during the dead of the night in Hopkinsville.
"Roughly some 500 strong, they held the policemen and firemen at bay," said Keller. "They wouldn't let them out. They cut the telephone lines."
"The object being to burn the houses that had tobacco of farmers who would not affiliate with the association," added Turner.
It was a raid of the city and burning of three tobacco warehouses that resulted in at least one murder. The event was re-enacted in Hopkinsville for the 30th year Friday. For the first time, the display is now part of a three-day remembrance of the night riders which also included a re-enactment of the jury trial where no one was convicted of the violence in Hopkinsville.
"The event is an observance, not a celebration, of a time when people were desperate, where they were pushed against a wall economically and socially," said Turner.
Between the re-enactments, the performances and a permanent display at the Pennyroyal Area Museum, these people said they feel tasked with keeping the memory of the night riders alive.
"Tobacco farmers alike have a great, great sense of pride for what they do and for their heritage and for carrying on that tradition," said Martha Wilkinson, director of Smoke. "Knowing that's part of so many's family heritage, there's no way to forget it."
Smoke plays at the Open Air Pavilion at the Old Bell School in Adams starting Thursday.
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