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A Storyteller From a Distant Age
Tri-State Assignment
By Joe Aaron, The Evansville Courier

Frances, Ky. -- Only the old-timers hereabouts will remember it, but once there was a war in Western Kentucky -- the Dark Tobacco War.

Many men were killed in that war, which began and ended in the first decade of this century.

Barns filled with curing tobacco were burned to the ground, and crops were destroyed in the open fields.

Night Riders, many of them vicious thugs, proclaimed themselves as the saviors of the tobacco farmers, and they rode armed and deadly under the cover of darkness to force the farmers’ "appreciation" of their efforts to raise tobacco prices, which were then abysmally low.

Allie Whitt, 81 years old now, was just a boy when the two-year war erupted, but he still remembers the tension that was in the air -- and he remembers that his father, a farmer who wanted nothing to do with the Night Riders and their scare tactics, always kept a loaded gun nearby for his protection against them.

And Whitt tells, with the perfection of much telling -- for he is an accomplished spinner of tales -- of the New York "drummer" whose sales territory was in the "war zone."

But he steadfastly refused to venture into the area, out of fear for his own safety, until his bosses, far away and out of danger, handed down an ultimatum -- either he got himself down there in a hurry and made some sales or he could look elsewhere for employment.

So he caught a train to Hopkinsville, arriving at midnight. He grabbed a late bite to eat and checked into the hotel room at one o’clock.

At two his sleep was considerably disrupted when a fusillade of Night Riders’ bullets shattered the windows of his room.

Without a great deal of preambulatory hesitation, he telegraphed his company headquarters:

"Arrived Hopkinsville midnight stop Checked into hotel at one stop Night Riders filled room with bullets at two stop I quit stop."

Whitt studied me slyly for my reaction, then leaned back into his chair and busted out laughing.

Stories? My friend, he has got a million.

Meaning to ask him one more question than he could answer -- though I should have known better, realizing his love of local history -- I asked how the nearby town of Frances was named.

In retrospect, I sort of suspected that he somehow set me up to ask the question, for he launched into the answer with gusto and considerable verbosity.

In the beginning, he said, Frances was called Crossroads, in recognition of the crossroads tavern that stood there, many and many a year ago.

But then its citizens, perhaps in a subtle application for outside help, changed the name to Needmore.

Then it was found out that there was another Needmore in Kentucky, and mail intended for one was always being missent to the other.

So postal authorities flipped a coin and the Crittenden County Needmore lost; it had to find a new name.

Well, President Grover Cleveland had recently taken a bride, a winsome lass by the name of Frances Folsom, and the town was named in her honor.

And the devil of it is, a few years back the $10,000 question on one of those televised quiz shows revolved around the maiden name of Cleveland’s wife -- and Whitt just about had a fit because he wasn’t the contestant, because he knew the answer.

Confound it, nobody ever asks you a question when you know the answer. Chances are you’ve noticed that too.

Then Whitt told of this old boy down around Fredonia, Ky., who was riding horseback to his home from the tavern one night, dead drunk and feeling no pain.

Paying no attention to his whereabouts, he carelessly road the railroad tracks several miles out of town and a slow-moving freight struck and killed the horse.

But the drunk, still sitting in the saddle, was thrown onto the locomotive’s cowcatcher, out of site of the crewmen.

The train stopped for water in Fredonia, and the crewmen found their "passenger" and tried to remove him.

But he put up an awful struggle, full of righteous indignation.

"This is MY horse," he bellowed, presumably unaware of the incident back along the tracks that, if he had been cold sober and on his way home from a prayer meeting, probably would have killed him.

Well, it seems to me, after talking to him for most of an afternoon, that Whitt is a survivor from a distant age, and that when he passes on, and those few like him, this land will have lost some of its strength and its individualism.

Whitt makes cider, cold and tangy for winter use, and how many people do you know who make cider anymore?

He can butcher a beef, on a hoist in his back yard, and smoke a ham, Kentucky style.

He can build a table, or a rocking chair, or an entire house from the ground up.

And his wife, of the same breed as he, still bakes homemade biscuits, as she has done practically every morning for half a century.

She still makes quilts, lovely pieces of art, on a frame in the spare bedroom.

But who will do these things in years to come? Who will know how?

Thanks to Doyle G Polk, Jr., for supplying this article.