It was a night the town wanted to forget.
The end to a year of tension in the small city — a place that dreamed of growing into an industrial magnet — that boiled over into violence.
In less than 10 minutes, five men lay dead in the street; another would die later from his wounds. Twenty-six children became fatherless. In a parked car 150 feet away, a little boy cowered in the cold as an exchange of shotgun blasts at close quarters shattered a window and blew away the car’s radiator cap.
It was Christmas night 1927 in South Pittsburg, Tenn., and the violence was all but inevitable.
This deadly clash, fueled by politics and a fight over attempts to unionize the town’s largest employer, will be commemorated today on the site of the shootout with a historic marker memorializing those killed and recognizing an event that for decades was spoken of in hushed tones or, most of the time, not at all.
In the mid-1920s, company owner Henry Wetter wanted to operate his stove factory on Cedar Avenue as a nonunion shop, but many of the company’s employees and four local unions wanted it to remain unionized, according to a 2004 Tennessee Historical Quarterly article written by Dr. Barbara S. Haskew and Dr. Robert B. Jones III., both formerly of Middle Tennessee State University.
Rather than give in, Wetter closed the factory’s doors to union workers at the end of 1926 and surrounded the plant with barbed wire.
Inside, a skeleton crew of nonunion workers labored under the angry eyes of strikers outside on Cedar Avenue.
In the year that followed, Wetter’s decision caused the local economy to suffer. Residents faced increasing fear, anger and picket lines. Many chose sides. Republican Marion County Sheriff Washington Coppinger led one group of union sympathizers. Ben Parker, the town’s night marshal, led the other faction.
In the fall of 1927, the Wetter company posted a man with field glasses on the roof to identify union workers who passed by the shop in violation of an injunction issued that summer prohibiting union supporters from “picketing and patrolling” near the plant.
South Pittsburg Mayor Alan Kelly, representing Wetter, prosecuted some 70 union men for defying provisions of the injunction, convicting 11 of them.
The injunction was dissolved at the end of November, but workers still were locked out when Christmas came, with only strike benefits to provide for their families.
The split was visible in the two community Christmas trees — one erected by the city and the other raised by union supporters. Union and nonunion men armed themselves and nonunion workers were escorted to Wetter by armed company guards.
On Christmas morning, a group of more than a dozen angry men accosted Kelly on the street, demanding that the guards and strikebreakers be disarmed and threatening to do it themselves.
Emotions ran high through the day, and a deputy saw city Marshal Ewing Smith push a union member and draw a gun on him. When the deputy tried to intervene, Smith and other city officers, including Ben Parker, aimed their weapons at him.
The deputy notified Coppinger of the incident.
Around 9 p.m., Coppinger and three other deputies arrived and encountered the “city gang” at the intersection of Cedar Avenue and Third Street. A group of men with shotguns jumped out of a car and joined the city officers, among them some Wetter guards.
Coppinger told the group he wanted no trouble but said he would have to arrest the officers who had drawn their guns on his deputy.
In moments, shotguns fired and history was made.
Onlookers reported that there was an initial hail of gunfire, a lull, then an endless exchange of fire as the city and county forces blasted away at each other, separated by a bare 30 feet. More than 100 shells were found at the scene, and gunshots pocked the brick of nearby buildings and shattered store windows.
The governor called the National Guard to restore order.
And the city buried its dead. The shootout claimed the lives of Coppinger, his deputy Lorenza A. Hennessey, Parker, Smith, Wetter guard Oran H. LaRowe, and South Pittsburg Police Chief and county deputy James Connor.
Twenty or more men were believed to be involved in the shootout and at least four were injured but survived. Those receiving slight wounds were, John Holden, Lafayette Nelson, and Charles Tidman. As a guard against other trouble that might arise between citizens as a result of Sunday night’s street battle, the city authorities were soon in touch with Governor Horton who rushed to the scene troops of the Tennessee National Guard, under Lieut. Col. Bushhotlz who at once took up their work of patrolling the streets of the city.