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Always for the Underdog: Leather Britches Smith and the Grabow War

Overview

Louisiana’s Neutral Strip, an area of pine forests, squats between the Calcasieu and Sabine Rivers on the border of East Texas. Early in its history, the region developed a reputation as a harsh frontier where grit and tenacity became indispensable tools of survival. During the Louisiana Purchase, bureaucrats from both Spain and the United States squabbled over the exact boundary line between the two rival powers. Both governments removed militia from the contested land to avoid war. Intensifying its reputation, ...

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Overview

Louisiana’s Neutral Strip, an area of pine forests, squats between the Calcasieu and Sabine Rivers on the border of East Texas. Early in its history, the region developed a reputation as a harsh frontier where grit and tenacity became indispensable tools of survival. During the Louisiana Purchase, bureaucrats from both Spain and the United States squabbled over the exact boundary line between the two rival powers. Both governments removed militia from the contested land to avoid war. Intensifying its reputation, the region served as an official buffer zone. Without the security of a military presence, residents quickly realized they would need to protect and govern themselves. Soon, tight-knit communities formed, and residents developed a reliance on self, kin, and neighbor.

In the early 1900s, the timber boom sliced through the forests of East Texas and the former Neutral Strip, disrupting these dense communities. Mill towns sprang up, and the promise of money lured land speculators, timber workers, unionists, and a host of other characters, such as the outlaw Leather Britches Smith. The entrenched local residents soon confronted not only these new community members but also a dynamic cultural moment that struck a defining blow in the making of the region. That moment continues to shape the place’s cultural consciousness, and people fashion a lore connected to this time.

In a fascinating exploration of the region, Keagan LeJeune unveils the legend of Leather Britches, paralleling the stages of the outlaw’s life to the Neutral Strip’s formation. LeJeune retells each stage of Smith’s life: his notorious past, his audacious deeds of robbery and even generosity, his rumored connection to a local union strike—the Grabow War—significant in the annals of labor history, and his eventual death. As the outlaw’s life vividly unfolds, the book also reveals the area’s history and cultural landscape. Often using the particulars of one small town as a representative example, the book explores how the region remembers and reinterprets the past in order to navigate a world changing rapidly.

Drawing from newspapers, court records, and a decade of interviews and observation, LeJeune offers a penetrating examination of the interplay between legend and place, exploring Smith’s own life, this unique historical moment, and the place’s mysterious landscape. The book also considers how contemporary festivals and other forms of cultural heritage employ the legend as a cultural recourse. To stay vibrant and meaningful, culture constantly re-makes itself; here, the outlaw occupies a vital role in the re-creation.

Texas Folklore Society Extra Book Number 23

“LeJeune uses a very unusual approach blending historical records and accounts, oral histories, historiography, and folkloric methods to tell the story of the Sabine Strip between Louisiana and Texas, and the legend of an outlaw named ‘Leather Britches Smith.’ He displays a wealth of information about western central Louisiana and the historiography of the region.”—Gary D. Joiner, author of Through the Howling Wilderness: The 1864 Red River Campaign and Union Failure in the West

“This book reminds us that Louisiana west of the Mississippi was part of the western frontier. Few know that Pat Garrett grew up in Louisiana and that Jim Bowie was from there. Leather Britches Smith is destined to take a place in the pantheon of western characters. Always for the Underdog will be of interest to all those who are fascinated with the American outlaw-hero.”—Barry Ancelet, author of Cajun and Creole Folktales

“Based on my experience teaching introductory folklore college courses, I know that students have trouble understanding what a legend is. LeJeune’s book would make an excellent text because he takes the reader step by step through the evolution of the Leather Britches legend, in a clear and simple way that beginning students would easily grasp.”—Lee Winniford, author of Following Old Fencelines

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

  “LeJeune uses a very unusual approach blending historical records and accounts, oral histories, historiography, and folkloric methods to tell the story of the Sabine Strip between Louisiana and Texas, and the legend of an outlaw named ‘Leather Britches Smith.’ He displays a wealth of information about western central Louisiana and the historiography of the region.”—Gary D. Joiner, author of Through the Howling Wilderness: The 1864 Red River Campaign and Union Failure in the West

“This book reminds us that Louisiana west of the Mississippi was part of the western frontier. Few know that Pat Garrett grew up in Louisiana and that Jim Bowie was from there. Leather Britches Smith is destined to take a place in the pantheon of western characters. Always for the Underdog will be of interest to all those who are fascinated with the American outlaw-hero.”—Barry Ancelet, author of Cajun and Creole Folktales

 

“Based on my experience teaching introductory folklore college courses, I know that students have trouble understanding what a legend is. LeJeune’s book would make an excellent text because he takes the reader step by step through the evolution of the Leather Britches legend, in a clear and simple way that beginning students would easily grasp.”—Lee Winniford, author ofFollowing Old Fencelines

"Always for the Underdog is an intriguing look at the gnarled issues of community, memory, and the quest to understand the past on personal terms."—Southwestern Historical Quarterly

"LeJeune . . . takes as his compelling subject the East Texas fugitive Leather Britches Smith. In Smith, LeJeune has found a man who, although virtually anonymous because of the many questions surrounding him and the few answers available, effectively teaches much about the nature of the early-twentieth-century southern timber industry and the backcountry conflict that frequently followed it."—Journal of Southern History

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781574412888
  • Publisher: University of North Texas Press
  • Publication date: 12/28/2010
  • Series: Texas Folklore Society Extra Book
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

 KEAGAN LeJEUNE is Professor of English and Folklore at McNeese State University. Born in Louisiana, he has studied and traveled Louisiana’s Neutral Strip for more than a decade and has completed an annotated bibliography of research on the region. LeJeune has served as President of the Louisiana Folklore Society. He lives in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

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Table of Contents

Contents

List of Illustrations....................ix
Preface....................xi
Acknowledgments....................xvii
Texas Folklore Society Statement....................xix
Introduction....................1
Chapter 1: The Sabine River Bottom Swamp....................13
Chapter 2: Meanness, Just across the River....................25
Chapter 3: No Man's Land....................45
Chapter 4: Shot a Chicken's Head Clean Off....................59
Chapter 5: Always for the Underdog....................76
Chapter 6: The Grabow War....................94
Chapter 7: They Didn't Give the Man a Chance....................118
Chapter 8: The Outlaw Applied....................154
Appendix A....................173
Appendix B....................175
Notes....................179
Bibliography....................201
Index....................219
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First Chapter

ALWAYS FOR THE UNDERDOG

LEATHER BRITCHES SMITH AND THE GRABOW WAR
By KEAGAN LEJEUNE

UNIVERSITY OF NORTH TEXAS PRESS

Copyright © 2010 Keagan LeJeune
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57441-288-8


Chapter One

THE SABINE RIVER BOTTOM SWAMP

in 1803, when the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory, the American and Spanish governments contested the western boundary. Due to a treaty ratified after the Louisiana Purchase between Spain and the United States, this section of Louisiana experienced a brief period (about fifteen years) of military inoccupation. During this time, the area went by many names: Louisiana's No Man's Land, the Free State of the Sabine, the Devil's Play Ground, the Backdoor to the United States, the Neutral Zone, the Neutral Ground, and the Neutral Strip. This frontier region drew the attention of the adventurer, the rugged individualist, the opportunist, and the outlaw. The dynamic state of the area's frontier and the lack of order during the area's limbo created an intensity of family and clan and shaped its inhabitants' view of the world. Here, people praise the indispensable qualities of survivors (strength, size, and grit) and the tools of survival (a good dog, a good gun, and a good set of hands). Nowhere is the praise of the qualities higher than in an outlaw legend.

This topic arose one day while I watched a game of ragball-a softball with a nylon cover. My wife, Melanie, hails from Merryville, and when she still played, sometimes I sat in the bleachers and watched. We were dating then and didn't have any children, and she still made a few trips from Lake Charles back home to Merryville so she could play the game she loves. The sport was somewhat new to me, not being from Merryville or the Neutral Strip. Of course, I had watched softball games before, but I never held a ragball until I dated a girl from Merryville. That July weekend was one of my first experiences watching a ragball game. Darrell Hieronymus, a history teacher at Merryville K-12 and my wife's former supervising teacher during her requisite student teaching practicum, sat next to me. As we chatted, I described my interest in local history and folklore. He smiled as I talked; then, he said, "You must know about No Man's Land. This area holds a special place in history." I sat there entertained as he explained the area's captivating record of the past. Next, he asked a simple question, "Have you heard of Leather Britches Smith?"

"No," I said.

"You should have. He's a fascinating figure-Merryville's most famous outlaw." He explained that Leather Britches Smith, an outlaw from East Texas, arrived around 1910, which happened to be the same time Merryville experienced a timber boom. People flocked to the area; timber mills flourished. Soon, though, mills brought unions, and the unions brought strife. For some reason that I can't remember now, my conversation with him ended as abruptly as it began, and I didn't hear the rest of his version.

Considering the casual nature of the conversation and the story's clipped form, a person could easily dismiss the whole affair as trivial. Folklore deserves close consideration, and dismissing even seemingly inconsequential stories people tell-how a place earned its name, what their first day on a job was like, a personal encounter with a ghost-can be a mistake, especially for one interested in history, culture, or community. These small stories often provide insight into people's lives. They can link to the past and they can express complex psychological beliefs. Ask people what they believe, and usually meaningless, rehearsed stock answers come dribbling out. Ask people to tell a story about a day they never will forget that has changed the way they live, and their true beliefs come bubbling to the surface.

Folklore doesn't automatically mean old and untrue; in fact, it rarely does. Much of the knowledge disseminated through folklore has undergone rigorous tests. In a manner of thinking, every time people choose to pass on a bit of information, they weigh and judge its worth. For example, people pass down the use of the toothache tree because people have tried it, and it works, not because it doesn't. People spew proverbs in certain situations not only because they always have, but also because life has taught them such truisms are so. If we examined the routines of our daily lives, we would find folklore extending to nearly every aspect. When the daily activities link to the past, they become all the more important. Folklore, at its best, is traditional and incredibly current. Years later, I would come to realize that the talk with Darrell Hieronymus was both. That exchange in the stands served as my first brief introduction to Leather Britches. I would not think of that short conversation again until the following December.

The 1998 Christmas season in Louisiana came in as we all expected. The heat of the summer and early fall faded far enough into memory as a few cold spells swept in and stayed for a little while. Convinced of winter's hold, people kept their coats on coat racks stationed near front doors and stacked firewood on back porches. Since it felt enough like Christmas, people allowed the Christmas spirit to take hold of them. They shopped for presents, decorated their homes and yards, and threw parties. Expecting company, they also cooked, and they turned to those certain dishes reminding them of home and suitable for these holidays. That year, for the first time I spent Christmas Eve at my wife's family's celebration. Grand sat at the kitchen table, pleased that this year her family-even those daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren who lived out of town-came to her Merryville home to celebrate. A TV played in the living room; Christmas presents not from Santa Claus glowed under the tree. On the stove, a few large pots bubbled and filled the whole house with aromas this family associates with Christmas.

For me, as a child of a Cajun family, the thick scent of gumbo drifting through the house means cold weather and Christmas, but for my wife's family, a Louisiana family tried and true but a family in the western part of Louisiana and north of Cajun Country, chili comes with Christmas and the cold. I still remember this first Christmas Eve with her family, and I recall that moment as one of my first small experiences of culture shock. Years of marriage would mean many more: "Pluck" versus "thump," children being drug along to funeral homes versus being left at home, brown versus white chicken and dumplings, or, like tonight, gumbo versus chili for Christmas. I have to admit that their chili, hot and better than any chili my family has ever made, served as an admirable alternative to gumbo. I am smart enough never to complain about food a family member serves me, but I told my wife later how odd it was to be so shocked by what seems to be such a small part of the night. The following year, she would say the same about gumbo.

I ate two heaping servings right off the bat. Her family, like mine does with its Christmas Eve gumbo, left the pot on the stove over a tiny flame so the food stayed warm and ready. People had bowls when they first walked in the door, right after hellos. They had bowls much later in the evening after hours of talking and catching up, and they had another one at 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. when furious games of dominoes threw a hunger upon them. That was when I helped myself to my third serving. Each new bowl meant a new conversation, and I greedily took both. My father-in-law spent that morning hunting and planned to spend the next morning the same way, so part of the talk over chili concerned itself with how he fared.

A deer hunter with dogs, he ends plenty of hunts without a kill. If all goes right, the well-trained hounds grab a scent in the woods, track the deer, and run it through a trail a hunter has chosen to watch. More difficult than hunting on a stand, deer hunting with dogs yields even fewer results, but certain men in Merryville swear by it since the other methods deny them the opportunities to move around in the woods, show off their specialized dogs, and discuss all the best and worst parts at the end of the hunt. That day he didn't come home with a deer, but he still had a few stories to tell. Melanie asked about one of her favorite hounds, Bumper, an old red Walker hound with a legendary nose. Story after story followed: the deer killed that year, the times people called on Bumper to find a deer dead somewhere in the woods, someone's first hunt, someone's last, the best hunters who have roamed this area.

"This place was full of wolves and bears. Goob told Ralph Ramos [a local reporter] how he killed a ton of wolves, and Kit Carson talks about coming in here and killing a slew of bears," my wife's father said at one point in the string of tales. That night was the first time I heard the name Goob Newton, but it would become as familiar to me as the name of Leather Britches Smith.

Grown, Goob stood as an imposing figure, even though he was not a very big man. Instead, his wiry body that had seen its share of work and the gleam in his eyes struck people, impressing upon them a desire to give Goob his due respect. At seventy-four, his legs bowed from years spent on a horse, his walk slowed, his back stiffened, and his face ran with lines etched by time spent in the weather. Unfortunately, Goob died before I could ever meet him, but stories about him circulate to such an extent that I suspect many who have never met him still know him. People still describe Goob's skill as hunter and woodsmen. They tell that he was an expert wolf hunter, a person who knew the "old ways," and, perhaps most importantly, an individual versed in many of the events constructing the town's history. They remember Goob's skill at telling stories and know him as a gifted storyteller, one who could and would tell nearly everything his eyes had seen. People loved that about him, and if he strayed a bit from the truth or embellished and exaggerated a bit for effect, they forgave him for it. They would just smile at his genial nature and say he could lie like anyone. With his own kind of flair, Goob told hunting stories, related incidents from his childhood, recounted the town's most important events, and regaled folks with tales of Merryville's most notorious characters. Hunters, loggers, speculators, lawmen, outlaws-all sorts of people occupied his stories. In his string of tales, these people inhabited the woods, lumber towns, turpentine camps, frontier homes; they participated in wars, industry, politics, tragedies. Goob witnessed it all, even Leather Britches Smith, a legend Goob told most vividly and one that cemented his reputation as a talker and, for that matter, probably Smith's reputation as an outlaw.

"Goob would tell those stories, too," my wife's father said. "You know, Goob would tell me about Leather Britches and all that, all the outlaws in this area."

Goob Newton, as a boy, knew how to get along in the woods and in the streets of Merryville, which in the early 1900s stood as just about the most bustling city one could hope for in this part of the world. The huge fertile tracts of timber in East Texas and Central Louisiana, especially the cypress stands down in the Sabine River bottoms, drew various people to the area: from the North timber speculators in new suits; from Fort Smith and beyond families with new dreams, sharecroppers and tenant farmers in search of new jobs and opportunities, lawmen who carried new Colts and new laws, and various badmen and outlaws looking for a new life or new opportunities.

"Yeah, they had a lot of rough people here ... outlaws, gunfighters ... just some rough people," an uncle added.

Melanie's brother, Marshall, jumped in. "This place was called No Man's Land because it was such a rough place."

The folklore of the region, including the legend of Leather Britches and the cycles of stories Goob told, emerge from this reputation of the region. Many residents know this reputation, and some of their self-perceptions derive from this awareness. In the talk over holiday meals, after church services, or during other occasions when people have the time to visit, like a Christmas gathering, I hear bits and pieces of this rich folk tradition-a part of the region's identity. I hear the typical boasts and praises of rugged individualism and the narratives of hunting deer or wild hogs or even foxes. I listen to the spoken chunks of a family's saga and the narratives about memorable locals. I stand mesmerized as I hear the legends recounting how outlaws crossed the Sabine over and over again, back and forth from Texas to Louisiana, all the while moving to keep out of danger.

Not only have these outlaws crossed into the region for the prize of a good hiding place, but also folks have come for other equally valuable pursuits, such as land, timber, oil, and-perhaps its greatest and grandest store-its wealth of lore, including the Smith legend. That's what Ralph Ramos, a Texas reporter and local historian who crossed the border himself now and again and interviewed people from Louisiana, came in search of when he left Beaumont and East Texas and crossed the Sabine ... when he knocked on doors, set up his recorder, and collected the stories of the longtime residents of the Neutral Strip ... when he interviewed Dave Burges, Arch Slaydon, and Goob Newton-who all mention the dangers of the Neutral Strip and Leather Britches.

Born in Ashtabula, Ohio, Ramos did everything from wrestling to reporting before he ultimately ended up in Beaumont, Texas, around 1950. There, he settled in as a roaming reporter for the local paper, the Beaumont Enterprise. In this position, Ralph Ramos spent time traveling eastern Texas and western Louisiana collecting reports of hurricanes, heat waves, bear hunters, and "humble, suffering citizens," as he puts it. He used most of what he collected to fill his columns, and his columns filled the pages of the Beaumont Enterprise. His work immensely popular, Ramos eventually turned to writing books, the first being Rocking Texas' Cradle. The printed work (a 262-page book published in 1974 and organized in short chapters of narrated remembrances) documents the memories of "those survivors of early East Texas or their nearest descendants."

During the 1970s, Ramos produced about seven articles about Leather Britches, and even today when other local papers run a story about Smith every ten years or so, many reporters return to these early Beaumont Enterprise articles. In these, Ramos attempts to retrace Smith's past and determine his real identity. They also offer an answer to two local mysteries: the identity of the person who placed a headstone for the outlaw's grave in a local cemetery, and the identity of the person who places flowers on the tombstone each year. One article also includes a sketch of Leather Britches reproduced from a photograph preserved in the wallet of an old bounty hunter. At the culmination of his work on the outlaw, Ramos reports that Leather Britches was more than likely a man named Ben Myatt who killed his wife in Texas and fled to Louisiana for safety. In his final article on the subject, Ramos explains that descendants of the union men Smith protected marked and maintain the outlaw's grave.

The articles stuck in scrapbooks and the book placed on bookcases, Ramos's work endures in the minds of residents, and when I come to hear what they know about Leather Britches, people often pull his book from the shelf. When I went to the home of eighty-two-year-old Granny Cat, she like many others directed me first to Ralph Ramos: "I looked for it [a book written by Ramos] and I can't find it," she says. "I got a book that Ralph Ramos, and he's [Smith] mentioned in one of these articles. And it was written on him." Usually, however, they offer this book with reservation, typically insisting that Ramos failed to include some detail or simply made some mistakes.

One day I sat in my office at school with a college sophomore from the area. She told me her grandmother's reaction to the Leather Britches story Ramos wrote.

My great-grandmother loved him [Ramos]. She loved his stories. ... Whatever he said was the truth. [She pauses enough for my recognition and then she begins to speak right above a whisper.] Until he was talking about Leather Britches and he wrote the businessperson's side of it, which was a horrible person who terrorized families. She knew him and that was just [she stammers but can't do anything but put it plain] bullshit. And she never read anything he ever wrote again.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from ALWAYS FOR THE UNDERDOG by KEAGAN LEJEUNE Copyright © 2010 by Keagan LeJeune . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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