The Cherry Mountain Fiasco
“In their isolated environments, they can raise little but corn, and being remote from railroads or commercial centers, the bread and butter problem requires that they make all they can of this cereal.”
The Cherry Mountain Fiasco by Karen Day McCall
There are two sides to every story. This version of the story is presented courtesy of The Shotwell Papers, a three volume issue published in 1931 by the NC Historical Commission.
Six years after the civil war, in the midst of reconstruction, Southern folks had enough. The war had been lost, but the Yankees didn’t go home. The North kept it’s large thumb on the South and was mashing her flat. Our fallen leaders were in disgrace, not respected or trusted by the Union; every government post was filled by a loyal Union leader, regardless of competency. The “carpetbaggers” had arrived and were in positions of leadership. Many of them were common crooks. Times were tough. The Freeman’s bureau and the Union League supported the Republican leaders and they were impossible to beat in local elections. Oddly, it was a Republican, H.H. Helper, who wrote in 1870, “One of the greatest evils affecting society in North Carolina may justly be set down to the incompetent and worthless State and Federal Officers now in power.”
There was no need to seek justice in Judge Logan’s court at Rutherfordton. There were so many false arrests and trials it made a mockery of the judicial system. It was common practice to arrest people at harvest time. People had crops in the field and were easy to coerce into making false statements. It was not unusual to be freed simply by agreeing to vote Republican. In fact, some twelve hundred cases were resolved in that manner. Man hunters, protected by the court, carried pockets full of blank warrants and filled them out at will. Since “sheriffs” were paid five dollars for each arrest, a lot of arrests were made. Some folks were arrested repeatedly. Conditions at the county jail were deplorable and overcrowding made it miserable, but at five dollars a head the sheriffs kept bringing in prisoners. The jailers were making some money too. As government employees they were given funds to operate the jail based on how many prisoners they had in it.
A large organization, the Ku Klux Klan, had risen up in the south as an avenger. It was a grass roots political weapon intended to restore power to the people, the white people. Yankees go home. In our area, owing to great distances and poor roads, National KKK delegates were rarely able to visit council meetings. The Klan riders in our area more closely resembled the Clans of the Highlands – all for one and one for all. The local boys were primed (with corn liquor) for trouble when a chance visit by Randolph Abbot Shotwell, on behalf of the Order, set them off. Shotwell, a Rutherfordton business man, had been asked by the Klan to take over this area. The local boys were making unauthorized night rides and had to be stopped. In retrospect, Shotwell, who did not agree to take over this area, regretted very much the ease with which he had agreed to come to Cherry Mountain.
For several weeks in June of each year there were gatherings at Cherry Mountain. This was due to Amos Owens, a distiller of some reputation, having plenty of Cherry Bounce on hand. Cherry Bounce was an alcoholic beverage…. Sometimes as many as 300 people gathered, usually on Thursdays and Saturdays during the cherry season. Many stories have been written about this including Joey Wessier’s Cherry Bounce and Tony Earley’s Jim the Boy. A one-hundred mile driving tour, “Cherry Bounce Trail” winds you around Rutherford County. Why, there are even recipes online, but I digress.
Now, you should bear in mind Randolph Shotwell didn’t personally know the boys from this area and it’s doubtful they knew him: he’d only been here three years and one of those three was spent in Asheville. Although he was a stranger, he arranged to come out to the gathering and meet with certain folks about the questionable night riding at the Saturday gathering on June tenth. Having done his duty, and consumed some of the famous beverage, he returned to town in merry spirits satisfied the matter was settled.
Meanwhile, back at the Cherry Bounce Festival, the idea got ’round that it was high time to ride on Rutherfordton and teach those uppity folks a thing or two. The first and for most target would be the unscrupulous Judge Logan, a worthy target surely. Among the others on the list for a visit was Judge Logan’s son Bob. See, Bob was the only attorney who won cases regularly at Judge Logan’s court. A defense attorney, Bob had never read law nor had he passed the bar. His qualifications were simple, he had a father on the bench. He had taken out a license to practice and it was common knowledge that if you hired Bob, and paid him well, you’d win your case. Not only did son Bob practice law, he was the editor of the Star, our local paper. It’s offices were downstairs in the back of the courthouse. It was in close proximity to the Judges offices and the Judge controlled the paper as surely as if he’d written every word. Another target was Jeff Downey (Thomas Jefferson Downey) a fellow Klansman who lived near town. The brothers of the Order had a little bone to pick with him. Jeff’s reputation was such that when he joined a number of fellow members threatened to quit rather than have any association with him. He had been seen hanging around the courthouse and the prosecutor Jim Justice, during Klan trials, and was suspected of being a turncoat. The boys had a little business to see to with Old “Puky” Biggerstaff too. He’d been spreading rumors about Klan activities. It was rather popular in those days to be unpopular with the Klan, and Biggerstaff had invented several stories about how he had been visited and persecuted. His vainly imagined and much talked about visitations were about to become a reality. Which brings us to James Justice. James or Jim Justice was the paid prosecutor for the county. Of late, he had been trying some Klan cases and advanced his Republican political career at every opportunity. He was often quoted in the paper and had recently, in a public speech at Burnt Chimneys (Forest City), said that “three fourths of the people in North Carolina ought to be in hell and the balance made slaves for life.” When he was warned that this sort of talk might provoke certain folks, he lit into a tirade against the KKK, calling them “cowardly skunks” and said they wouldn’t “dare come after him.”
It appeared that there might be some business that needed tending and a Cherry Bounce Festival where a city slicker had ventured to share information and enlighten the ignorant populace created fertile ground. Some 54 men, twenty or so from Cherry Mountain and the Logan’s Store communities, assembled at Burnt Chimneys at nearly eleven o’clock on Sunday, June 11, 1871 and rode on Rutherfordton. It was a wild night, a terrible storm blew in and drenched the group, never the less they were set on their course and they would not be turned back.
Sounds of the storm masked the noise of their arrival. A group was dispatched to Jim Justice’s apartments to roust him, and roust him they did. He awakened to the sound of his door being broken down. His first thought was to flee, but there was no time. Telling his wife to lay still, he proceeded to go behind the bed, he testified that he was thinking of jumping from the second floor window. That’s his story. Klansmen testified they drug him out from under the bed…. At any rate, they had him. The men who were sent after Biggerstaff missed him. He heard them coming and lit a shuck. Bob Logan fled, too, and his father was not in town at the time. Jeff Downey was visited by another party. The men argued over his punishment starting with 300 lashes. They reduced the whipping until it amounted to a few strokes of a pine branch, which absolutely infuriated Downey. He was invited to quit the Order and turn in his gear. Which he did. Thereafter, he became a star witness for the prosecution testifying at every opportunity.
Intimidation was the Klan’s chief weapon and if Jim Justice described their disguises accurately from the witness stand, they were an imposing group of men…. After they entered his bedchamber they lit a candle. Jim could see their disguises plainly, he testified: …disguised men looking more like one would imagine the devil to look than you could ever suppose [a] human being could fix themselves up to look. Some had disguises and strange fixings on their bodies. The greatest number had only a broad mask over their faces. These were of red with eyes bound with white and the nose white, and horns that stood up ten inches. Some had long white beards. Some had horns which were erect; others had horns which lopped over like mule’s ears; and their caps ran up to a point with tassels. One had a red suit out and out: there were a number of stripes on each arm made of something bright, like silver lace. There was something round, of a circular form, on the breast of one of them, who stood right in front of me.
Justice was dragged outdoors in his nightshirt. Once out he began yelling for help and one of the men hit him in the head with a pistol. He lost consciousness and didn’t remember the trip downstairs. The rain revived him and he was forced to accompany the men on foot to meet the larger party gathered on the outskirts of town. After being questioned and threatened with hanging he was told he must change his ways; they made him promise that he would. They told him to stop persecuting the Klan, that he should drop out of politics and behave himself. They asked him to meet with them later to tell where they might find Biggerstaff and Logan, and to swear he would forget about this night and keep the whole matter secret. He swore he would and they let him go.
Since they’d missed Bob, a strike against his office had been ordered. The men dumped boxes of type on the floor, broke a handle off the press and burned file copies of past issues. They actually made torches out of them so they could see what they were doing. (all in all, about ten dollars worth of damages were done.)
Within days national headlines screamed of this outrage. A strike against a Federal Prosecutor? A raid on a Newspaper? National notoriety came to Rutherdfordton portraying her as a hot bed of KKK enthusiasts. Dragging a Federal Prosecutor out of bed was outrageous and newsworthy. The demolition of a newspaper (although they didn’t miss a single issue) was headline producing and swept the nation, becoming a KKK attack on a Republican Paper. The Republican Party used the fiasco to attract national attention and remain in power…. Justice altered his testimony several times in order to make the attack seem more politically motivated then it was. In his initial testimony, they said, “Come out you damned rascal…” By the time he testified at Raleigh he’d remembered they actually said, “Come out you damned Radical…” (slang for Republican). Funny how things are remembered isn’t it? It made for good press. Consequently, a strike by locals against the crooks in power was misconstrued in the media and in court until it had little if any resemblance to what it had been in the first place…. The Ku Klux Klan Act passed in 1871 declared secret societies illegal and allowed for Federal intervention. Federal troops were dispatched and some of the Klansmen were rounded up, even some who were not; including the pastor of First Broad Church, Rev. Berry Rollins, who was released without being charged.
A partial list of people who were arrested during the time Shotwell was in jail: Moses W. Simmons, Esq., Lafayette Eaves, Issac Padgett, N. Thorne, Esq., Henry Jenkins, Rev. Thos. J. Campbell, Capt. J. Crowell Camp, Wm. Edgerton, Jas. H. Sweezy, Bruce Morgan, Johnathan Whitesides, (one legged soldier), John Cooley, Daniel Martin, Thomas Liles, Wm. McEntyre, Mich McGroney, Gaither Philbeck, Erwin Philbeck, Wiley Walker, Esq., (70 years old), John Porter, Henry Green, Kinley Green, David Cochran, Wm. Teal, John Moore, Thos. Withrow, Julious Fortune, Doc. B. Fortune, Spencer R. Moore, John Doggett, Rufus Doggett, Saml. Whitesides, R.N. Robinson, Geo. H. Holland, Benj. Wall, W.H. Green, Esq., Capt. Jno. Nicholson, Alvin Johnson, David Scruggs, Wiley Spurlin, Thos. Harris, Calvin Teal, Jesse Gidney, James Green, J.E. Saunders, J.J. McDaniel, Ben Fortune, Ben Spurlin, Wm. McSwain, Wm. Hames, Cleveland Wood, Geo. B. Pruitt, A.W. Biggerstaff, Richd. Hardin, Wm. Ledbetter, J.M. Spurlin, John Hamrick, John Harris, J.C. Mode, Wm. Wilson, J.M. McDaniel, Tom Wood, F.C. James, Jas. Green, N.T. Thorn. Parties under bond: Dr. Romeo Hicks, D. Green, Alex. Bridgers, L. Hamrick, J.W. Hamrick, Geo. Hamrick, John Hamrick, W.T. Hill, Thos. Harris, S.B. Padgett, W.W. Bridges, A.P. Tisdale, W.S. Tisdale, W.S. Haynes, Wm. Haynes, J.O. Haynes, D.D. London, David Hoyle, Silvester Weaver, Thos. Edgerton, Jacob Surratt, W.C. Goforth, Posey Smart, Richard Smith, A. Gettys, Lawson Brooks, Richd. Hardin, Willis Owens, R.R. Biggerstaff, Joseph Fortune, Anderson Williams, Capt. W.D. Jones, Wellington N. Hicks, Jas. Goode, John Witherow, Jas. Hunt, John Hunt, L. Beam, Thos. Elliott, Wm. Burnett, Olin Carson, Thomas Toms, Scott Toms, M. Tucker, Ben Biggerstaff, Saml. Biggerstaff, W. DePriest, D.H. McCown, Jason Witherow, Stanley Haynes, Michael Grigg, Walter Grigg, Sam. Goforth, W.C. DePriest, Taylor Carson, Leander Toms, Amos Owens, Daniel Fortune, Barton Biggerstaff, Alfred Biggerstaff, Adolphus DePriest, Thos. Fortune.
“A Federal Grand Jury at Raleigh indicted 981 persons for alleged Ku Klux depredations; 37 were convicted including Randolph A. Shotwell, a democratic editor, who was sentenced to serve six years in a federal prison.” Rutherfordton’s “Grand Chief”, Shotwell used his time in prison to write extensively. After serving two years he was pardoned by the governor.
Hugh Talmage Leftler and Albert Ray Newsome. The History of a Southern State NORTH CAROLINA. University of Chapel Hill Press: 1979. 497.
Randolph Abbot Shotwell. The Shotwell Papers. Volume ll. The NC Historical Commission: 1931. Pp. 528 529 – Ibid., Pp. 395 396. – Ibid., Pp. 406 407 – Ibid., 409. – Ibid., Pp. 416 417. – Ibid., Pp. 422. – Ibid., Pp. 563. – Ibid., Pp. 551 552. – Lefler and Newsome., North Carolina. 497 499.
More on the History of Amos Owens is presented here: https://archive.org/stream/historyoflifeofa00whit/historyoflifeofa00whit_djvu.txt
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And a Favorite, must read local webpage and blog: Remember Cliffside
This story was first published at GoldenValleyNC.blogspot.com written by KD McCAll