Leather Britches Smith
The labor rebel and mythic outlaw of Beauregard Parish
Rumored to be a fugitive from East Texas, Leather Britches arrived in Merryville, Louisiana, in 1910. The region at that time was booming. Newly laid railroad lines slicing through Texas and Louisiana finally made the dense patches of pine forests accessible to large timber operations eager to make a profit. Cut trees wouldn’t need to be floated down creeks and streams and rivers. From where they fell, the logs could be towed to a railroad spur jutting out into the woods, loaded on a timber car, lugged to a mill, and then sawed, planed, weighed, sold, and loaded back on the railroad to be shipped. Saw mills shot out of the ground. New timber company towns formed. Huge mills needing sawyers and scalers and mill workers and wood crews attracted a flood of newcomers. One was Charles Smith, a name everyone assumed was an alias.
Separating fact from legend has always been the pastime of people talking about Charles “Leather Britches” Smith. People say he was a deadly shot. With his two Colt pistols, he could shoot purple martins in flight and a fox squirrel on the run. With his Krag-Jørgensen rifle, he could bring hawks out of the sky. Neither townspeople nor the law dared challenge him. He would sit in the local theater with his two Colts out of their holsters, their barrels crossed as they rested on his lap. He would come upon a local family’s home and, in his way, ask for supper. Pulling one of his Colts from its bed on his hip, he would shoot the head off a chicken feeding in the yard and toss the bloody body to the woman standing on her porch, dazed at the commotion. He could disappear into a thicket at a moment’s notice. He needed no home, no dwelling. He was an expert woodsman, sleeping in the woods, sometimes camped by a river, sometimes by an old pump house that fed water to one of the trains chugging into Merryville.
What no one challenges for truth is that when Leather Britches arrived in Merryville, many mill towns were in the middle of a fierce battle—a struggle between labor and ownership known as the Louisiana–Texas Lumber War of 1911–1912. The gun battle known as the Grabow (or Graybow) Shootout marked the violent culmination of the growing animosity between the two sides: the Brotherhood of Timber Workers (BTW) union, officially forming in Alexandria in June 1911, and the Southern Lumber Operators’ Association (SLOA), formed in 1906 and spearheaded by Texan John Henry Kirby, at that time the largest lumber manufacturer in the southern United States.
To quell the region’s growing unionism and stave off strikes, walkouts, protests, marches, and what ownership labeled as general sedition, the SLOA consolidated efforts to disseminate anti-union information to the public, instituted employment applications that tracked workers’ history and involvement with unions, and increased the power of owners to shut down “infected” mills. The BTW countered, redoubling their efforts. Soon, each side enlisted writers, singers, and speechmakers to convince townspeople and sway workers. Each had a string of their own newspapers. Each scheduled large rallies either at a mill or in the middle of a town.
Grabow was a small community outside of DeRidder housing a local mill. On a July day in 1912, union men had planned to protest at a mill in Carson, Louisiana, but when the reception there was too harsh, they marched to Grabow, where they found the mill manned and fortified for a standoff. As both sides shouted back and forth, a person somewhere fired a shot, which set the place off like a powder keg. For ten minutes, gunfire engulfed Galloway Mill. The newspapers printed that at least forty men were wounded and four people died, but some say that the number probably was much higher than what newspapers reported.
News of the gun battle spread throughout the South, and the trial that followed made the headlines in papers from Louisiana to New York, from Oregon to Florida. Mill workers claimed that union protestors arrived drunk, armed, and prepared to take the mill by force. The union men claimed the mill guards were hired Pinkertons who fired the first shot and saw it as their mission to put down the peaceful demonstration.
Judge Winston Overton issued true bills of indictment for sixty-three union men after the shootout, their names in the courthouse records. Sixty-two ended up in jail. One eluded arrest—Leather Britches Smith.
In September 1912 a local posse led by Deputy Sheriff Del Charlan caught a break. Early one morning, the posse found the outlaw sleeping by a shed at Pump House Branch Road. Some say he was simply tired of running. Others say a friend betrayed Leather Britches Smith, or the law would have never found him. Either way, most regret it ended that way—in an ambush. People say the bullets in the man’s back are proof that he never had a chance to arm himself. The posse put the body in a box and loaded it on the next train to Merryville, where it was packed in ice. Then the men leaned the box up against the outside wall of the Merryville Jail, so residents mobbing the scene could see with their own eyes that Leather Britches was dead.
Texas deputies came to view the body, expecting to find the corpse of the wanted Texas fugitive Ben Myatt. But the dead man was not, they said, Ben Myatt. Now the townspeople faced the dilemma of the outlaw’s remains. Some wanted Leather Britches buried in the Merryville Cemetery, and some didn’t. The people compromised by burying Leather Britches right on the cemetery’s fence line. The townspeople marked the spot with a cedar board, which rotted away.
Years later, local citizens erected a stone marker in another location so that the legend of Leather Britches would always be remembered. Then, another local, who heard the stories from his uncle, a friend to Leather Britches, found what he believed to be the original site where his body was buried and erected his handmade marker—a cypress board with words burned into the wood. A few years later, the stone marker disappeared.
Keagan LeJeune teaches English and folklore at McNeese State University. He is the former President of the Louisiana Folklore Society and the former editor of that society’s journal, Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. Always for the Underdog: Leather Britches Smith and the Grabow War was published by the University of North Texas Press in conjunction with the Texas Folklore Society. Legendary Louisiana Outlaws, which won the 2016 Brian McConnell Book Award and the 2017 Louisiana Literary Award, was published by Louisiana State University Press.