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Kentucky in the early 20th century


United Mine Workers of America
United Mine Workers of America

Popular political movements directed against monopolies gained much support in the 1890s and the first decade of the 20th century. Roads that charged tolls for those using them were the first targets. Destruction of the tollgates eventually impelled many owners to sell the roads for free public use. From about 1903 to 1908, the Black Patch War, in western Kentucky in particular, focused attention on a monopoly of companies that manufactured tobacco products. The monopoly was able to keep prices for tobacco crops low, causing farmers to go into debt or poverty. A farmers’ cooperative had some success by holding tobacco off the market, but those who did not join the cooperative’s effort became the target of violent actions by the so-called Night Riders. Federal responses and higher prices ended the “war,” but the basic pricing problem would continue until federal New Deal programs to assist agriculture were enacted in the 1930s.

Kentucky recovered from the Civil War better than many Southern states, and some metropolitan areas, such as Louisville, benefited from a growing Southern trade. Hemp production declined, and tobacco became even more important than it had been, but as a result agricultural prosperity tended to depend on the price for that one crop. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, industry began to grow slowly, particularly liquor production. In the same period, the timber industry grew rapidly, as did coal production, especially in the eastern part of the state. Construction of railroads made that expansion possible and opened up other areas of the state as well.

With the industrial growth came increasing calls that workers’ rights be recognized, and labor unions began to make progress.

The most serious confrontation between labor and management took place in Harlan County and surrounding counties in the 1930s, when the coal operators refused to accept unionization. The result was the so-called “coal wars.” Armed company police and deputy sheriffs confronted strikers of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in repeated clashes. There were dynamitings, murders, and pitched battles in Harlan and its neighboring county, Perry. Labor unrest continued in the mining areas for several more decades. "Kentucky" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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