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Always for the Underdog

Leather Britches Smith and the Grabow War

Keagan LeJeune

Publication Year: 2010

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.

Published by: University of North Texas Press

Contents

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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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Preface

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pp. xi-xvi

Does America possess enough unity and shared history for large cultural values and myths to pervade all levels of society? Does the country possess enough similarity for a few key concepts to make a noticeable impact on the minds of the American population? If so, what concepts and values are broad enough to reach all Americans, yet powerful ...

Acknowledgments

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pp. vxii-xvii

Texas Folklore Society Statement

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pp. xix-

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Introduction

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pp. 1-12

It’s early December 1998. My wife, Melanie, and I approach Merry-ville, Louisiana, from the south. We move north on Highway 27 past the turnoffs to small towns and then northwest on 110 through expanding pine flatwoods squared off in rows like the pristine cemeteries of soldiers. A few small creeks, more like large ditches, cut under ...

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Chapter 1: The Sabine River Bottom Swamp

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pp. 13-24

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 in occupation. During this time, the ...

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Chapter 2: Meanness, Just across the River

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pp. 25-44

A 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 ...

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Chapter 3: No Man’s Land

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pp. 45-58

In front of me, the area’s culture stands as dense, thick, and impenetrable 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 ...

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Chapter 4: Shot a Chicken’s Head Clean Off

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pp. 59-75

When 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 ...

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Chapter 5: Always for the Underdog

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pp. 76-93

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 ...

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Chapter 6: The Grabow War

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pp. 94-117

When 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 ...

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

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pp. 118-153

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 ...

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Chapter 8: The Outlaw Applied

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pp. 154-172

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 ...

Appendix A

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pp. 173-174

Appendix B

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pp. 175-178

Notes

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pp. 179-200

Bibliography

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pp. 201-218

Index

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pp. 219-220


E-ISBN-13: 9781574413465
Print-ISBN-13: 9781574412888

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 22 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Texas Folklore Society Extra Book

Research Areas

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Subject Headings

  • Smith, Leather Britches, d. 1912.
  • Outlaws -- Louisiana -- Biography.
  • Outlaws in popular culture -- Louisiana.
  • Grabow Riot, Grabow, La., 1912.
  • Grabow (La.) -- History.
  • Brotherhood of Timber Workers -- History -- 20th century.
  • Labor disputes -- Louisiana -- History -- 20th century.
  • Lumber trade -- Louisiana -- History -- 20th century.
  • Neutral Ground (La.) -- Social life and customs.
  • Folklore and history -- Louisiana.
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