One Hundred Years Ago - Railroad Strike in Howell County
Wed, 09/21/2022 - 4:33pm admin
The possibility of a national railroad strike has been in recent news. A similar strike at the same time of year occurred one hundred years ago and profoundly influenced our local economy in Howell County. It delivered the coup de grace to a struggling peach industry when train carloads of peaches could not be delivered to market. As in the rest of the nation, local violence was part of the unrest.
The Great Railroad Strike of 1922 was also known as the Railway Shopmen's Strike and launched on July 1, 1922. The shopmen were primarily employed in repair and maintenance shops where engine trains were serviced or fixed in "roundhouses" or other railroad facilities like depots. The roundhouse in this area was located in Willow Springs, with one in Oregon County at Thayer.
The strike was prompted by a railroad cut in wages paid to these maintenance workers, vital to keeping the trains running. When these workers went on strike, the railroad responded by bringing in new maintenance workers, and in many places across the nation, violence erupted, including Howell County.
The West Plains Journal detailed the upcoming problems in an article dated May 15, 1922. They reported, "Mere talk of the possibility of a strike by railroad workers is disconcerting at this time. A strike would set back the return of normalcy for which everyone in the country is either praying or hoping, just in the hour when general conditions are favorable to the early realization of the universal desire. One of the most obvious facts connected with the situation is that matters as a whole, from an industrial point of view, cannot become normal until the common carriers get into that condition. The inflation of war times (First World War) raised both wages and charges for service to abnormal proportions."
Now, the railroads, which had been charging inflated prices during the war, lowered them, and when they also attempted to cut these particular workers' wages, the strike was called. On July 1, some four hundred thousand workers walked off the job nationwide. The effect was not immediate as other workers were not cut, and the trains ran for a while. In a week, as trains were forced to halt in some areas of Missouri and the threat of violence and vandalism began to become a reality, the state government responded. The West Plains Gazette reported on July 13, 1922, "Company D, 140th Infantry, the West Plains Machine Gun Company of the Missouri National Guard, was called to duty Sunday morning and assembled at the armory in response to orders when Governor A.M. Hyde called out the entire guards of the state to await orders in the railroad strike situation."
"Wednesday morning, the Company received orders from Colonel Mabrey commanding the division to pack the entire equipment of the company and be ready to leave the city on a moment's notice. There was an unusual scene of activity at the armory after this order was received. All the camp equipment was brought out, the four big machine guns oiled and cleaned, and seven automatic rifles inspected and put in first-class condition and an extra feed given the four big grey mules used in transporting the machine guns."
At the same time, the West Plains Journal Gazette reported, "Guards employed by the railroad companies have a rough and rugged road to travel if they all have the experiences related by Captain Felix Halstead of West Plains. Captain Halstead, who is in command of Company D of the Missouri National Guard of this city, went to Thayer a week or more ago to take charge of a squad of men engaged in guarding the Frisco Railroad Company property at that place. Owing to the fact that guards were charged exorbitant prices for meals and could find no accommodations because the people at Thayer, almost all railroad men, are in sympathy with the strikers, the guards were fed in a dining car and slept in a Pullman. After several days' stay at Thayer, Captain Halstead, Carl Galloway, and George Bolin, all of West Plains, and two strangers, were transferred from Thayer to Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Upon them reaching Springfield, the five men were surrounded at the Frisco depot by strikers and sympathizers, who took them in an automobile to the striker's headquarters, where one of the strike leaders made a speech. The guards were urged to go back to their homes and were told that it would be unhealthy for them if they went on, that they might get hurt. Halstead, Galloway, and Bolin continued on their journey to Hugo, but the two strangers got "cold feet" and refused to go any further."
With the local guard away, problems brewed around the roundhouse in Willow Springs, the roundhouse was where the old MFA Farmer's Exchange store is now located. Problems also occurred around the Willow Springs railroad depot station. It came to a head in late summer. On September 9, 1922, the West Plains Gazette reported, "Six well-known Willow Springs citizens, one of them a former resident of West Plains, were arrested Saturday by the Deputy United States Marshal Perry H. Smith, of Springfield, and taken to Kansas City. The men arrested are G. A. Earl, a baker and former owner of the West Plains Bakery; his son, Fred Earl; Paul Bounds, a barber; Walter Payne, a farmer and formerly a fireman on the Frisco Railroad; Jack Fair and Donald York. They are charged with violating the Federal injunction issued July 22 to prevent interference with the operation of Frisco trains."
"Thursday afternoon, the local passenger train on the Current River Railroad brought in eight young men from Hutton Valley on their way to Springfield to take the place of striking shopmen in the Frisco terminals. In the party were Alpha Morse, World War veteran and former member of Company D of West Plains; Hiram Godsey, Gordon Napier, John Napier, and four other young men. There are a number of shopmen employed in the Current River roundhouse at Willow Springs who are on strike. They have numerous sympathizers in that city, and they soon learned of the Hutton Valley youths who were on their way to take the places of strikers in Springfield."
"A large crowd gathered at the depot in Willow Springs when Frisco train No. 104, westbound, reached the town late in the afternoon Thursday. Some of the men who sympathized with the strikers did their utmost to persuade the young men from Hutton Valley to return home. When the train stopped, the strikebreakers rushed for the first open door. Then the trouble started,"
"The Hutton Valley youths were followed into the coach by a number of strike sympathizers. Gordon Napier was hit on the head with a pop bottle which a strike sympathizer is said to have taken from the newsboy on the train. Knives were drawn, and one of the strikebreakers had a pistol but did not use it. There were continuous cries of 'scabs,' 'hang 'em,' and other similar expressions from the crowd on the depot platform. As the fight progressed, peaceful passengers poured out of the coaches believing that their lives were in danger. Then someone among the spectators in the crowd threw a big steel nut from a bolt which went crashing through a car window, hitting John Napier, a strikebreaker in the stomach."
"Finally, the coaches were cleared of the fighters. Several of the strikebreakers evidently got enough as they decided to return home. The others went on to Springfield to take up work in the Frisco shops. Saturday, four deputy United States marshals under the direction of the Department of Justice arrived in Willow Springs with warrants for G.A. Earl, Donald York, Paul Bounds, Fred Earl, Walter Payne, and Jack Fair for violating the Federal laws. The men under arrest were taken to Kansas City Saturday night. There was not a union man in the bunch. Some of them had worked on the railroad in the past, and their sympathies are with the striking shopmen. The men were arraigned before United States Commissioner Ben. H. Thompson and released on bond. They will be tried at the October term of Federal Court in Springfield.
Justice in 1922 was swift. A group of men intimidating strike breakers in Thayer was arrested for assault for their activities in August and sentenced to six months in Federal prison in September 1922. The Willow Springs intimidators received similar sentences in October.
The strike impacted Howell County's economy, which was primarily agriculture based. The local peach harvest coincided with the strike, as the West Plains Journal reported on August 10, 1922. "The Elberta peach harvest of the Koshkonong-Brandsville district closed Monday with a total of 201 carloads shipped. The shippers were greatly handicapped this year on account of the railroad strike but succeeded in getting the peaches scattered over quite a wide territory, from points in South Dakota down to Tampa, Florida, and east as far as Boston. On account of the strike conditions, the railroad would not accept the cars except at the owner's risk if delayed on account of the strike trouble. This, of course, kept the buyers away. Ordinarily, there are twenty to thirty peach buyers on the ground, but only two put in an appearance this year, and they bought very few cars and only at the shipper's risk of safe delivery at destination. A large percent of the crop moved on consignment. None of the cars went through on scheduled time. Cars shipped on August 1 did not get out of St. Louis until the night of August 4."
"The growers cannot possibly make as much money as they are entitled to on the peach crop, and through no fault of theirs, as they worked hard all through the spring and summer season to produce quality, but on account of the strike could not get their fruit to market in proper condition. Many of the cars were unfit to load. It looked at one time as there would be a car shortage, and every car that could be used was loaded. Some of them did not refrigerate well. Quite a number of express refrigerators were used to relieve the car situation, and also because it was thought they would go quicker than freight."
"The peaches in the express cars that have been heard from sold well on the eastern markets, but the charges were so high that the returns on those cars will not be satisfactory. But the peaches have all been moved, and the men wanting work in the territory have benefited. The railroad and express companies will receive their full freight charges, the basket company will receive full pay for their baskets, and the fruit growers will continue to live in anticipation of the next crop, hoping that better conditions will prevail and that he might be able to participate in the money received for the peaches. It is estimated that the peaches would have brought twice the amount of money had it not been for the strike."
The strike was hard on all farmers in the region. The rails were used to pick up raw cream from individual farms collected at local depots and used to ship to destinations as far as Memphis. The West Plains Milk Condensary, a large milk buyer, was forced to shut down during the strike. Local buyers stopped buying chickens and eggs, moving the price down locally. All livestock shipping ceased, driving local prices lower.
On September 1, 1922, after months of unsuccessful negotiation between the railroads and unions, a federal judge issued a sweeping injunction against striking, assembling and picketing, and other union activities. It violated the constitutional guarantees of free speech and assembly but effectively broke the strike. There was some resistance to the injunction, but gradually some deals were made on the local level, including here - bringing the men back to work, but tensions between the shopmen and railroad continued for years.