‘The Awful M&NA Strike’
By HALLIE C. ORMOND
The Missouri and North Arkansas Railway meant meat and bread to man, woman and child as I vividly recall. I remember when we moved to Rumley, Arkansas, near Mile Port 187 in May 1911. This was only four or five years after the Railway was actually constructed throughout this area, on its way to Helena, Arkansas, on the Mississippi River. I was coming six years old that fall.
I was born 9-1-1905, and I remember those beautiful people that inhabited the area. They had love in their hearts, with the Lord as their rule and guide. And, while their academic education was very limited, they were highly educated in the ways of life and living in such a county. They had little or no medical assistance. The average life span there and then was only about 42 years. Most of the babies were born on the floor of their homes, a lot of births were carried out by their mothers – doing it alone or with the help of a small child. If families could afford a cow, they were getting along real good. We had good solid food, such as hog meat, most all kinds of vegetables, fruits and the wilds of the land and rivers. It was no problem to have real good fish, the year around. We ate squirrels, rabbits, coons and a variety of other good food. Most all of the great American people, male and female alike, were raised and came up under this kind of a living. Academic learning had a place, but usually came after the obligations of something to eat and a place to sleep.
I shall always remember the hardships the railroad union caused up and down the railway. After World War I everything as to price went down and then down more and more. During 1918 common labor went up to $40 and more per day. Then after the war, labor and everything else went down and went down more and more. The union would not accept a reduction in wages and struck in July 1921. The railroad did not turn a wheel until May 1922. The union would not work, neither would they let non-union workers work. They would burn bridges and destroy property. The way of life up and down the railway was in a deplorable condition. My brother and I guarded three bridges north of Elba for nearly a year and we went to work as strike breakers in May 1922. The railway paid Arthur $37.50 per month as agent at Elba. They didn’t pay me anything until 1924 when I finally received 39 cents per hour as a telegraph operator. I was 19 years old then. This was a fine job, which I was more than proud to possess…
The engines that pulled the trains up and down the Little Red River for some 40 years shall always be dear to my heart. I can hear their whistles blowing and I remember those fine train and engine men who were so dependable. On the local freight south of Leslie to Kensett, there was the Great Atterberry, who was Conductor; Fred Melvin, Happy Lad and George Baldwin were the Brakemen, Bryant was the Engineer, but I can’t remember the name of the Fireman.
As a conclusion of the awful strike, finally the citizens up and down the railroad organized themselves under the Ku Klux Klan and took it on themselves to literally run the union and their sympathizers out of the country. In so doing they used the "Strap" on a number of them, telling them to never let the sun go down on them in this area. One man was hung to the railroad bridge across Crooked Creek below Harrison. Pete Veneable, who had been a conductor and who was a strong union man, was called on; after the "Strap," he was told to never return, which he obeyed. There was no in-between ground. You were either a strike breaker or a union man. The strike breakers finally won, and in a short period of time things became fairly normal, except for the bitterness that prevailed for years to come.
The Great Atterberry stood about 6’6", weighed about 250 pounds. He used the "Strap" and encouraged the union people to leave. He was a leader and was instrumental in helping us go about getting our country back together after the strike. Atterberry’s given name was Marion. He was 10 years older than I, so he was born about 1895. He first married A.L. Barnett’s daughter at Leslie about 1918; they had twin boys and they both died within about a week of each other’s death. After their deaths, Atterberry and his wife divorced to never live together again – why, I don’t know.
I want to go back to that awful winter we had in 1917 and 1918. During January 1918 it snowed every day except January 31. The snow attained a depth of more than 30 inches on the level. Arthur and I hauled hay on a sleigh through January and a part of February to keep an old black cow from starving to death…
The money Arthur earned working for the Railway was used for something to eat and to pay the interest on what Papa owed. This debt situation hung over our heads until the fall of 1932. Mr. H.B. Agnew was General Traffic Manager of the Railway and I worked for him. Mr. Agnew was the reason that I made such a great success. He helped me in many ways. I worked for the Railway 116 months. I worked the last five years as Traffic Representative under Mr. Agnew and we were together most of the time.
When Mr. Agnew left the M&NA he went to Hammond, Louisiana, where he worked for a small railroad. He wanted me to go with him but … I decided to stay here. I have often wondered what the outcome would have been had I gone with Mr. Agnew… Under our way of life we choose our own destiny …