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Old Time Kentucky: Now rare as a May blizzard, Socialist Party once a big draw in Graves County

By Berry Craig
KyForward columnist

Kentucky is one of the redder Republican Red states.

But some real Reds used to live in rural north Graves County, about as far west as the Bluegrass State goes.

In 1911, tiny Viola hosted the “Second Annual Summer Meeting of Graves County, Ky., Socialists” according to The Christian Socialist newspaper.

Today, Socialists are about as rare in Kentucky as May blizzards.

Even so, the Viola conclave, which lasted from July 30 to Aug. 6, a Sunday to a Sunday, attracted a big crowd. Eight hundred showed up for the closing session alone, the Chicago-based paper said.

Local Socialist leaders included Charles L. Horney, Robert Boswell and Lafe and Etta May Cartwright Nance and Lafe’s parents, Phoebe and Ed Nance. They all hailed from the Pottsville neighborhood (Photo Provided)

Local Socialist leaders included Charles L. Horney, Robert Boswell and Lafe and Etta May Cartwright Nance and Lafe’s parents, Phoebe and Ed Nance. They all hailed from the Pottsville neighborhood (Photo Provided)

Mayfield Messenger correspondent J.E. Gream, who evidently attended the meeting, put the throng “conservatively” at between 500 and 600.

The faithful heard addresses from the Rev. Paul H. Castle of Montana and Christian Socialist Editor Edward Ellis Carr, who was also a minister of the gospel. Carr evidently wrote the story about the meeting.

Part of a significant Socialist movement nationwide, Christian Socialists believed the teachings of Jesus Christ, notably the Golden Rule, were essentially socialist. “The Golden Rule against the Rule of Gold” was the motto of Carr’s weekly paper.

While Carr hurled “dynamite,” Castle spoke in a “style…quiet and didactic.” Their “most happy combination of lectures” differed “radically in style,” but blended “perfectly in substance,” the paper said.

Gream, whose bare bones story made page one in the county seat paper on Aug. 1, said Castle’s address “well entertained” the assemblage while Carr “delivered a ringing address upon the failure of capitalism.”

Rain reportedly failed to dampen Socialist ardor on the morning of July 30. “Four hundred people attended the first meeting and more in the afternoon,” according to The Christian Socialist. “From two to four hundred attended every week afternoon and over four hundred were on hand at night.”

The heavens again poured early on Aug. 6. Though the weather was “very threatening,” 600 souls came for the morning gathering and 200 more for the afternoon wrap up.

On both Sundays, everybody enjoyed “A Communist Meal.” Attendees “brought dinner baskets and invited all who were unprovided to eat with them.” The feast, which included chicken, beef and mutton, was spread on tablecloths on the ground “in a fine woodland near the railroad station.”

The site “afforded ample opportunity for teams and wagons to shelter in the shade and gave large space for the people to wander at length among the trees.”

The mostly oak woods survive. The station is long gone, but freight trains rumble along the shiny tracks that connect Paducah and Mayfield.

Folks came daily “from miles around,” heard “the message of scientific Socialism from many different viewpoints” and sang Socialist songs. “The people were very deeply impressed and many were convinced.”

Participants chipped in $150 to fund the gathering, which was held in north Graves because Viola and the nearby communities of Pottsville, Boaz and Hickory Grove were “blest with some of the noblest and most earnest comrades, both men and women, it was ever the writer’s privilege to meet,” the story said.

Local Socialist leaders included Charles L. Horney, Robert Boswell and Lafe and Etta May Cartwright Nance and Lafe’s parents, Phoebe and Ed Nance. They all hailed from the Pottsville neighborhood.

In 1910, Horney ran for Congress on the Socialist ticket and polled 1,400 votes in the First District, according to The Christian Socialist. At Lafe’s behest, Eugene V. Debs, the labor leader and five-time Socialist candidate for president, spoke at nearby Paducah.

In 1910, too, Lafe coaxed Carr to come to a county Socialist convention at the Nance family tobacco barn. (That may have been the first county meeting.) Delegates elected Lafe county chairman and nominated a slate of “red card Socialists” for county offices, the paper said.

Nance recalled that Thomas Scopes of Paducah converted him to Socialism in the 1890s. His son, John T. Scopes, grabbed headlines worldwide in 1925 as the defendant in the sensational Dayton, Tenn., “Monkey Trial.” Scopes was convicted of breaking a state law that forbade the teaching of evolution.

At Viola, the Socialists congregated at an old-fashioned, country-religious-revival-style brush arbor. The makeshift structure consisted of “stout posts,” “rafters of rustic poles” and a roof “of fresh-cut leafy boughs.” The crowd sat on planks “and a large platform afforded room for the organ, choir, speakers and a score of the older comrades.”

At night, the throng adjourned to a local interdenominational church, a change of scenery that sparked some opposition.

“The more bigoted church members objected to the church being desecrated by Socialist meetings, but the broader-minded people were too many for them, therefore the Socialists held unmolested sway for seven nights,” the paper said.

Carr put the rally on the front page of the Sept. 14, 1911, Christian Socialist “not only to honor in just measure the noble comrades who have worked so long and faithfully for Socialism in Graves County, Ky., but to spread the news of their successful efforts in order that other comrades elsewhere may be inspired to emulate their excellent work.”

The Christian Socialist also published a letter Nance wrote to Carr in which he urged “comrades everywhere” to organize similar Christian Socialist rallies. “If you have never heard the Gospel preached from a workingman’s viewpoint you don’t know what Christ was on earth for.”

Nance and his comrades were doubtless disappointed at then devoutly Democratic Graves County’s vote in the 1912 presidential election. Democrat Woodrow Wilson carried the county and won the White House.

Debs managed 71 votes, according to the Nov. 6, 1912, Messenger. All but 15 came from the Pottsville and Houseman precincts; the latter included Viola. Debs finished a close second in Pottsville, collecting 35 ballots to Wilson’s 43. Arthur E. Reimer, candidate of the Socialist Labor Party, garnered three votes in the precinct.

Apparently, the only traces of Pottsville’s Red roots are chiseled on Phoebe and Edmund’s weather beaten tombstones in the Pottsville Church of Christ cemetery.

Phoebe died in 1910 and Ed in 1917. “Christian Socialist” is her epitaph; “A Christian Socialist” is his.


Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history from West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and the author of six books on Kentucky history, including True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase, and, with Dieter Ullrich, Unconditional Unionist: The Hazardous Life of Lucian Anderson, Kentucky Congressman. Reach him at bcraig8960@gmail.com

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