The Wreck in Texas, part 1

June 5th, 1917 was draft registration day across the United States. Men between the ages of 21 and 30 filled out registration cards in one of 4,648 locations nationwide. Nearly ten million men filled out draft cards on June 5th. Over 400,000 Texans registered on the first day. The event was marked with celebrations across the state. It was a citywide holiday in Amarillo, where Civil War veterans lead a parade. They were followed by new army recruits and men who had registered for the draft. Because this was still the segregated South, African-Americans who participated marched in the back of the parade.

The experience was similar across Northwest Texas and the Panhandle. In Denton, those who registered received a red, white and blue over army khaki ribbon to wear. Wichita Falls also declared a holiday on June 5th which included a patriotic rally and many speeches. The response to registration day in the region exceeded expectations and, in some cases, the supply of draft cards to be filled out.

Resistance to the Draft

There was still dissension over the draft in the region and for the most part it was sporadic and disorganized. For example, recruitment posters were torn down or defaced in Fort Worth. Anti-draft leaflets were brought into Dallas from out of state, and a few individuals still spoke out against the draft and President Wilson.

Dissension over the draft took a bizarrely dark turn in mid-May. In Snyder, located about halfway between Abilene and Lubbock, seven men were arrested for conspiring to forcibly resist the draft. News came from Dallas, where the men were held, that they were all members of the Farmers’ and Laborers’ Protective Association, the FLPA. The FLPA was founded in 1915 partly as a consumer cooperative for rural workers. By that time the majority of farm workers in the region were tenant farmers (who rented land), not landowners. The FLPA operated a feed and supply co-op run by its membership and was considered noncontroversial at the time. In fact, the FLPA was becoming less active by late 1916.

East Texas lumbermen in 1907.

 

Political action in rural America

One can trace organized labor in the rural South and West back to the 1870’s through organizations such as the Knights of Labor and the Farmers’ Alliance. They were part of the progressive movement, a broad effort to bring social, political and labor reforms in the wake of America’s rapid industrialization. The movement was well represented in the Republican and Democratic parties. Republican president Teddy Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson were also progressives.

Flag of the Farmers’ Alliance.

Socialism was also on the progressive spectrum and tenant farmers, miners and other rural laborers saw its appeal. As the U.S. economy weakened in the years before the European war, many workers across the country had become radicalized. Leading members of labor groups tended to be active in the Socialist Party or the International Workers of the World (I.W.W., or “the Wobblies”, if you remember them). Unsurprisingly, this was the case with the FLPA.

Interest in the FLPA increased in late 1916 as war with Germany seemed likely. By spring 1917 it had ten thousand members organized into 205 local organizations in Texas. Among their members were I.W.W. activist G. T. Bryant and Texas Socialist W. P. Webb. One hundred and eighty-five delegates met in Cisco, between Fort Worth and Abilene, at the FLPA convention on May 5th. Congress had declared war barely one month before, and emotions were running hot.  However multiple resolutions to resist the draft, by force if necessary, were defeated at the May 5th convention.

Word gets out

Word about the intemperate remarks at Cisco reached the authorities. Consequently a grand jury was convened in San Angelo on May 17th, which resulted in the arrests of six farm laborers and one railroad foreman in nearby Coke County on May 25th. Soon more grand juries convened in Abilene, Dallas and Tyler. As a result, seventy-three were arrested in Texas for conspiracy to commit treason. Fifty-three were members of the FLPA.

News of the arrests, and of a socialist plot to violently resist the draft, made headlines across the country. In September 1917 fifty of the indicted were tried in Federal court in Abilene. Even so, all were acquitted except three office holders in the FLPA, who spent up to six years in Federal prison (Read more about the FLPA here).

O.K. before the War

 

Otho Kenney Farrell was born on November 5th, 1896 in Weir, Kansas. His father, Thomas, worked in a coal mine. By 1898 the Farrells had moved to Joplin, Missouri and the family grew. In 1902, Thomas and Nancy Farrell moved with their now three small children to farm a plot of land near Tucumcari, New Mexico. It was a hard life. The soil was poor and within a year the family relocated to Raton, New Mexico where Thomas could find work in another coal mine.

Otho at age 6

Amarillo

Whether it was through the connection with coal or because of a family connection, Thomas got a job with the Santa Fe railroad in Raton. When Otho was twelve, the family moved to Amarillo, Texas. Amarillo had about 10,000 inhabitants, which was easily twice as large as Raton in 1908. It was also the regional headquarters for Santa Fe and Thomas and the Farrells began to have a stable life there. They lived on the 500 block of Johnson Street.

Otho (at center) at age 14.

In Amarillo Otho attended grammar school and surely considered himself a Texan. His family, especially Nancy, was active in the First Baptist Church on Polk Street. A serious-looking youth, he was photographed working the soda fountain at a local drug store.

Otho (right) at the soda fountain

Waynoka

In 1913 Thomas was transferred to another hub in the Santa Fe system, Waynoka, Oklahoma, where he was a car foreman. At this point Otho was nearing sixteen, and one can imagine his disaffection with the move. Along with school, he also began work at Santa Fe. Otho started his railroading career as a Call Boy, delivering messages in town.

Whatever his feelings of being uprooted from his Texas hometown, he did not fail to notice his little sister’s best friend from school, Gladys Loper. Once the two Gladyses (Otho’s sister was also named Gladys) came home late one evening as Otho was returning from work and he walked the young lady to her house.

Otho at 16

Setting out

Putting his social interests aside, Otho gathered up his savings and, on the eve of his eighteenth birthday, moved back to Amarillo. He didn’t ask his parents for money. As soon as he arrived, he worked for the railroad and went to business college where he learned stenography, bookkeeping and typing. Otho Farrell was focused and hardworking. Most of all, he was at liberty to make his future.

It was fall, 1914. All of Europe was going up in flames.

 

May 1917

Herbert Hammond Renshaw enlisted in the U.S. Navy on February 19, 1914. He was seventeen. By spring 1917 Seaman Renshaw was serving on the minesweeper U.S.S. Thornton. On May 22nd, when the Thornton was on war patrol off the coast of South Carolina, Seaman Renshaw was washed overboard and drowned in rough seas. His body was never recovered. Renshaw was one of the first U.S. servicemen to die in action in World War I.

One hundred years later, Seaman Renshaw was finally recognized as one of at least 4,423 American servicemen Missing in Action in the World War I era. (Read more of the effort to locate and remember them here.)