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Always for the Underdog

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Louisiana's Neutral Strip, an area of pine forests, squats between the Calcasieu and Sabine Rivers on the border of East Texas. Originally a lawless buffer zone between Spain and the United States, its hardy residents formed tight-knit communities for protection and developed a reliance on self, kin, and neighbor. In the early 1900s, the timber boom sliced through the forests and disrupted 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. That moment continues to shape the place's cultural consciousness, and people today 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, Always for the Underdog 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.

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Chapter 1: The Sabine River Bottom Swamp

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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.1

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.

 

Chapter 2: Meanness, Just across the River

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Chapter Two

Meanness, Just Across the River

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few days later, Melanie and I found ourselves with plans for another trip scheduled for the days between Christmas and New Year’s. Grand decided taking a trip to Newton, Texas, to see the Christmas lights was in order. During any typical Christmas season, some people in Merryville will decide to cross the Louisiana-Texas border, “the River” as they say, to see the town lights of Newton, the county seat of Newton

County, Texas. This trip exists as somewhat of a local Christmas tradition and seemed to be my initiation rite. My acceptance of chili as a holiday meal no doubt won her favor. Hearing of my interest in Leather

Britches Smith, Grand also decided I should talk to a few people in town versed in “all about the history of Merryville” and bound to know some of the details surrounding the outlaw. We drove for a while, and then we came to the border. We crossed the Sabine to head over to

Newton. Even at night, we could feel ourselves crossing and could see the thickets of growth teeming off its banks.

 

Chapter 3: No Man’s Land

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Chapter Three

No Man’s Land

In front of me, the area’s culture stands as dense, thick, and impen-

etrable as the underbrush sweeping up and out of the Sabine River bottom. Perhaps I should expect nothing less from a culture of clash, a culture built on isolation, independence, freedom, and confrontation.

People migrated to No Man’s Land, for a time a border teeming with new enterprise, in search of all of these qualities. Though it may seem odd that people flocked to a dangerous region for freedom, No Man’s

Land stood as a promised land in the minds of some, as a land of few laws and great freedom. It stood as a place for striking out for a new life, starting new jobs, and settling new land. Plenty of people, though, also came in search of something a bit more ordinary—money. Travelers and residents alike searched for routes to New World treasures: lost

Spanish silver, prized furs, Lafitte’s gold, tracts of virgin timber, and even a waterway to the Gulf. Others came in search of the treasure of talk, and many came specifically for the legend of Leather Britches

 

Chapter 4: Shot a Chicken’s Head Clean Off

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Chapter Four

Shot a Chicken’s Head Clean Off

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hen my wife and I heard the news, we talked softly about the good times we had with her and what we remembered most. My wife knew her far better than I did, but we both had plenty to smile and laugh about. Still, when we heard that Ocelean Fuller had died, we mostly talked about our amazement. By all accounts, Ocelean Fuller walked the Earth a remarkable woman. She slapped down dominos with the best of them. She fished up a storm. She was a better shot than a great many folks and could keep up with her brother whose reputation as a hunter spread a good ways. She paddled out at midnight to trap and kill alligators. She tended a little garden. She worked many a full-time job. She raised her boy alone after her husband died. She lived in a little house on the bank of the Sabine River nearly her whole married life, and she knew nearly every way to get along in those waters. She was tough and sweet, quiet but not timid.

The Sabine River must miss Ocelean the same way my wife and

 

Chapter 5: Always for the Underdog

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Chapter Five

Always for the Underdog

You see, Leather Britches always was for the underdog. Anywhere in

the world he was, he was for the underdog,” Mrs. Terry told me that day in her home. Then, she offered one of the many narratives describing Smith’s mysterious past. Before he arrived in Merryville, the outlaw picked up work here and there as he made his way south from

Shreveport. He came upon “a little town that had a lumber company.”

Smith landed a job, but witnessed “a boss that was mean to the men and ugly to the men.” Leather Britches “worked all right two days,” but eventually, the boss’s actions crossed the line. The outlaw’s tolerance reached its limit, so “at the end of the second day he decided he’d just whip the boss, which he did. He whipped the boss and had to leave that place in a hurry.” Her account depicts Smith as a feared man driven by a code. Only Leather Britches could make a living outside the mill and had the skill to stay alive outside civilization. He hid in the woods and could match any union buster or detective sent in to muster up trouble. As one might expect, Leather Britches stood in opposition to the economic system established by the mills and their supporting towns.

 

Chapter 6: The Grabow War

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Chapter Six

The Grabow War

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hen my wife, Grand, and I drove up to Mrs. Townsley’s home, her dogs sniffed my car’s tires and hounded my shoes and the legs of my pants. Mrs. Townsley raised up a little off her swing that sat on her front porch, a cement slab running along the front of her house. “Quit,” she said. The dogs moved on. A wire fence enclosed a yard that once could have held flowers or shrubs, but some time ago those flowers and shrubs and even certain patches of grass decided that something greener and better waited somewhere else. But Gussie Townsley hadn’t left. Eighty-one at the time, Mrs. Townsley began painting at sixty-one after her daughter gave her a Christmas gift of paints. “I never had a lesson in my life,” Mrs. Townsley once said, “and it just come on me and wouldn’t let go.”

Her determination to capture the images in her head on the canvas parallels her family’s determination to settle No Man’s Land. She grew up as the twelfth of Annie Hickman and Soloman Loftin’s fourteen children. She and her siblings remained from the line of Aaron Cherry, who received a land grant in Louisiana’s Neutral Strip. One day a visiting California art dealer saw one of her paintings in her son’s law firm.

 

Chapter 7: They Didn’t Give the Man a Chance

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Chapter Seven

They Didn’t Give the Man a Chance

I suppose some might call the situation ironic. It was December 1997,

a few days after Christmas, and I was planning my first real interview about Leather Britches Smith. Up to that point, I had heard only a few brief conversations and some talk around the dinner table, but I hadn’t discussed Smith with a person outside my wife’s family. My thoughts turned to the conversation planned for the next day. I was slated for interviewing Mrs. Catherine Stark, Granny Cat. Granny Cat had a reputation for knowing a good bit of historical information, and

I envisioned hearing details about the outlaw’s real name, his exploits, and other facts about his life. I wondered if she would describe Smith roaming through the woods and his connection to the union. I wondered if she knew about the Grabow War and about Smith’s role in the fight. I speculated what she might say about how this river, these trees, the landscape itself exists as integral parts of the story. Despite all my speculations about how her story would reveal the juiciest and rarest tidbits about the outlaw’s infamous life, Granny Cat’s story centered, ironically, on the outlaw’s death.

 

Chapter 8: The Outlaw Applied

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Chapter Eight

The Outlaw Applied

Weeks, months, years, and even decades following the Grabow trial,

the story still makes the papers. Months after the trial, rumors of a potential strike in a Merryville mill circulated. Tensions rose, but the fears proved to be unfounded. A year later, Charles Cline, a man arrested during the Grabow Trial, found himself arrested again. This time Cline turned out to be the leader of a band of arms smugglers whose band dealt guns and ammunition across the Mexican border.

After his capture, Cline led officers to the smugglers’ current camp, and another great gunfight ensued. Cline also produced several documents proving IWW’s interests in Zapata’s Mexico.1

From around 1930, every ten or twenty years, the Lake Charles

American Press, the Beaumont Enterprise, the DeRidder Daily News, or some other local paper runs a story about Smith and Grabow. Usually, a news reporter, such as Ralph Ramos, or even a folklorist, adds a few fresh details or a scrap of news. Sometimes the work, like the work of

 

Appendix A

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Appendix A

The information for this manuscript comes from a variety of sources.

In addition to the many articles and books cited throughout the work, the manuscript builds on interviews, field notes, and archival material.

The work also draws from the many local sources that collect various people’s accounts of the Smith legend and the Grabow War.

Long before the official work for this book began, I had heard various stories and details about life in No Man’s Land and several accounts of Leather Britches Smith’s life and deeds. Some of the more general observations about the region’s culture draw from these experiences. In

1999, I focused my efforts on the Smith legend and its connection to the Grabow War. I interviewed many people, often relying on taking notes rather than recording the conversations.

No attempt was made to select consultants based on gender, age, or status in the community. Instead, through the course of the conversations and informal meetings, I realized that for the Leather Britches legend many people turned to a few key persons in the area. The nature of this research dictated a focus on those persons known to possess the deepest knowledge of the time. Moreover, hesitancy by many to slander a family’s name on tape or to have their conversations about such events recorded on tape necessitated an approach focused on key members of the community. These people had garnered enough community status

 

Appendix B

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176 | appendix B

law actively promises a hopeful future to us all, the American entitlement of a better tomorrow.

In the outlaw legend, class-consciousness and issues of ethnicity, only two of many potential issues hidden in the legend, lurk beneath the surface details of the story. If the outlaw uses his guns to rob only certain folk, this detail also could indicate the outlaw arms himself with a political agenda. Geography and regional history, as another example, may direct the superficial events of plot. Living in a frontier region engendering a rough and dangerous life, people may create or emphasize outlaws—the ultimate border-crossers—in order to deal with the isolation and frustrations this way of life brings. Since boundaries and borders seem inexorably tied to America’s past and settlement patterns, the outlaw figure litters the pages of American history and literature.3

In the past, newspapers, dime novels, and even more sophisticated literary works titillated the public with tales of outlaws who crossed some line someone told them they couldn’t cross. Popular national legends—like those of Jesse James, Billy the Kid, or Pretty Boy Floyd— not only entertained Americans, but also spoke to people who felt angry and betrayed by an oppressive system neglecting the lower classes but who also felt the American system offered a hint of hope.

 

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