Keagan LeJeune. Always For the Underdog: Leather Britches Smith and the Grabow War. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2010. Pp. xvi+220, 22 b&w illustrations, index. $29.95 cloth.
In this book, LeJeune writes about the complicated—and often contested—history of a legendary figure in Merryville, Louisiana: Leather Britches Smith. The area around Merryville was part of a contested zone known as “the Neutral Strip” that was left unprotected after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. LeJeune reports that this area has a history of being a liminal space, existing as a wild place in between areas of civilization. Though not a native of the area, Smith has come to embody the wilderness spirit of the Neutral Strip because his history is equally ambiguous and notorious. LeJeune explains that Smith is an “outlaw-hero” figure who at the same time represents the ideals and possibilities of the area, and also the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of the zone. Smith’s involvement in the 1912 Grabow War at the Galloway Mill in Grabow, Louisiana would ultimately both secure his place in local lore and lead to his demise.
Throughout the text, LeJeune emphasizes the importance of his local informants and their willingness to share the version of events as it has been passed down in their own families. In this way, the book not only chronicles the history of the legend and its variants, but also accompanies LeJeune on his own research journey and exciting discoveries about Smith. The Introduction of the book shows how LeJeune first became interested in the Smith legend, and then provides information about the importance of the Sabine River and other topographical features to those who live in the area. The book goes on to explain the unique origins of the Netural Strip and how that lineage continues to impact residents to this day.
Today, many people in the area of the former Neutral Strip have their own version of the events of Smith’s role in the union disputes at Galloway Mill. Around the turn of the twentieth century, sawmilling became an important industry in the region. As with many industries of the time, there arose disputes between the worker union members and the company owners. In Chapter 3, LeJeune explains how, even within single families, there are discrepancies and disagreements about the true nature of Smith. Later on, the book explains how Smith was involved in the Grabow War but that his involvement was never clearly understood. As a result of his involvement in this incident, however, Smith was ambushed and killed by sheriff deputies less than two months after the dispute. LeJeune argues how, in this way, Smith became an infamous character because he rebelled against the powers that be in the name of the common man, but he was ultimately put back into control by the swift hand of the law.
Most people today ultimately believe that Smith was “for the underdog” as the book’s title implies, but his status as outlaw/outsider meant that local residents have remained somewhat ambivalent about him. LeJeune summarizes the main theme of his work nicely: “For the sake of the community, the independent outlaw-hero acts outside the laws instituted by some outside oppressive system; for the sake of the community, townfolk put him down” (138). Smith was apparently instrumental in the Grabow War in standing up for the working man, but because he was not of the local community, he was not afforded the same protection as others were. Nonethless, in the final chapter of the book, LeJeune shows how the Smith legend has continued to be an important presence in community heritage events and local histories. Because of their own history as a middle zone, the wild character of Leather Britches Smith remains viable for residents of what was the Neutral Strip, as a figure to look to for community identity.
This book would be of interest to scholars interested in the American South, American history, local legends and their circulation, or labor and union history. LeJeune takes the reader along with him in his discovery of this legend and Smith, which makes for an interesting read. However, the information is hard to follow at some points, though this may be due to the nature of the complicated and often mysterious legend and its history that is here presented.