By Steve Rossignol
During the Seventies and Eighties in Austin and the Hill Country, our socialist meetings and encampments would sometimes be punctuated by the singing of those old socialist songs, especially the Internationale. Invariably at the conclusion of that venerable hymn of the proletariat, Travis would shout out, “Play ball!”, the playful gest of the comment implying that the Internationale would be the new national anthem played at baseball games.
Quite possibly the closest time that ever happened in history was in Desdemona, Texas, in the Nineteen-Teens.
The Socialists in Texas were quite vocal and pronounced during those years; in 1912 Socialist candidate Eugene Debs received more votes for President in the state than the Republican Party candidate. Dozens of Socialist candidates were elected to local offices statewide. Socialist encampments were held throughout the state—up to 25 or 30 a year–, especially in the “Red Belt” counties of the Texas Big Country—Eastland, Comanche, Stonewall, Erath, Stephens, Haskell, and others.[i]
In Eastland County, Ellison Springs became one the major socialist encampment draws in the area. Settled by James Madison Ellison and his family in the 1850’s, the religious camp meetings there of an earlier era evolved into the Populist camp meetings of the 1890’s and thence into a yearly socialist event in the Nineteen-Teens featuring major socialist speakers, carnival-like events, and baseball games. James “Uncle Jimmie” Ellison hosted the socialist event; Socialist Party of Texas organizer Thomas Aloysius Hickey was always a principal speaker.
Soon the informal socialist baseball games of the Ellison Spring encampment had grown into an established baseball team, playing from the nearest community of Desdemona, 6 miles east-northeast of Ellison Springs. The Desdemona Socialists[ii] were soon playing other informal sand-lot teams from Gorman, De Leon, Comanche, and Stephenville.
The Desdemona Socialists staked out a home-made baseball diamond on a vacant field owned by Desdemona patriarch Dr. Samuel E. Snodgrass. Snodgrass, who moved to Eastland County in 1885, was a longtime resident of Old Hogtown, the name of Desdemona before it became Desdemona, and in addition to being a medical doctor was quite the local entrepreneur, establishing a dry goods store, selling real estate, selling chickens, banking, operating a cotton mill, and working in the cattle business. Snodgrass was also a hard-core Democrat.
The Desdemona Socialists maintained a very healthy batting average; Tom Hickey reported on their glowing success: “our local baseball team [which] has cleaned up its rivals wherever it has played”. [iii] (Tom Hickey goes on to report in this article the appearance of a “peculiar visitor” who reportedly was an undercover United States Marshall[iv]; the implications of this encounter would become all too evident in the years to come.)
One of the rivals cleaned up by the socialist baseball team was their local adversaries, the Desdemona Democrats.
The Socialist team was a composite group of the Desdemona citizenry, a town reported to be almost exclusively socialist.[v], made up of socialists and the sons of socialists. L. L. Steele, the one-armed school-teacher, was on the team, as was fellow school teacher John Robert Parmer. Parmer’s two brothers, Zack Wesley and Terrence P., also made up the nine. Blacksmith and “strong socialist”[vi] James W. Munday and local farmer William Richard Carruth played ball, along with Oliver Payne and John Hawkins. Uncle Jimmie Ellison is listed as having played on the team; in his seventies at the time it would have been quite a feat. [vii]
Dr. Snodgrass, the hard-core Democrat that he was, apparently was a little disturbed by the fact that his favored political baseball team was continuously being trounced by the upstart Reds. The baseball lot in Desdemona apparently sat adjacent to the Snodgrass homestead; Snodgrass’s daughter Inez would later report how she would trouble viewing the Saturday games with “all those men in the way”.[viii]
Snodgrass decided that he had had enough of the Desdemona Socialists playing on his land. He told the team that they could no longer play baseball on his property.
Undaunted, the local socialists offered to buy the land where the baseball field was located. Equally adamant, and being the entrepreneurial businessman that he was, Snodgrass demanded the then exorbitant price of $50 for an acre-and-a-half of land.
The socialists of Desdemona began putting their principles of collective ownership into action. They undertook to raise the money by selling individual $1 subscriptions to the property and soon had the funds needed to purchase the Snodgrass sand-lot. A high picket fence was erected between the baseball field and the Snodgrass home. Inez Heeter would begin watching the baseball games from the roof of the Snodgrass house; she would also report that the new owners didn’t like the Snodgrasses and that her father “should have taken the land back”.[ix]
The cooperative buying of the baseball field was one of several attempts at collective ownership the socialists in Texas would undertake in the Nineteen-Teens. Among other examples, socialists in Paris, Texas, would build a collective slaughterhouse; Tom Hickey would sell socialist shares to finance The Rebel[x], and Desdemona barber John Walter “Shorty” Carruth (who may have been distantly related to Desdemona socialist William Richard Carruth) would solicit shares from the other socialist citizens of Desdemona for his new Hog Creek Oil Company.
But in the midst of the enthusiastic Desdemona baseball games, dark clouds were approaching. War fever was growing from the World War I conflict in Europe. Texas socialists were adamantly anti-war and did not hesitate to advocate against American entry into the conflict. The pages of The Rebel continued to rail against the war effort, and the Farmers’ and Laborers’ Protective Association, the cooperative association loosely affiliated with the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World, began speaking out against a probable military conscription.
On June 12, 1917, a grand jury in Dallas indicted 55 members of the FLPA and charged them with seditious conspiracy under the provisions of the Espionage Act, which made it a crime to speak out against the military draft. Among the allegations were that the members of the FLPA conspired to use force to oppose military conscription; that some had threatened to kill President Woodrow Wilson; and that they had conspired to destroy railroad tracks, bridges, and communication lines.[xi] Other arrests occurred throughout that state.[xii]
Ernest R. Fulcher, a FLPA member from the borders of Palo Pinto and Hood counties, while being sought by a posse from those counties on a “wife beating charge”, was gunned down with 23 bullet wounds on June 4th, 1917 after a stand-off with a shotgun that “missed-fire”. The large size of the posse was supposedly predetermined by Fulcher’s “threats” against conscription.[xiii]
Some of the FLPA arrests had actually taken place earlier. FLPA Secretary Samuel J. Powell was arrested on the 26th of May. [xiv] Interestingly, the Espionage Act was not passed until June 15, 1917; all of the FLPA related arrests and indictments under the provisions of the Act were hence made even before the law was enacted.
“Strong socialist” James Munday, the baseball-playing, Desdemona socialist blacksmith, was among those arrested in the FLPA raids[xv]. Munday, whose wife had died previously, apparently lost his land and moved with his four daughters to a “camp” along the banks of Hog Creek.[xvi]
Tom Hickey, who had no direct affiliation with the FLPA, was arrested without a warrant on May 17th at his wife’s farm in Stonewall County, apparently in an attempt to connect him with the FLPA.[xvii] He was held incommunicado for two days before his wife Clara could find him. Even his attorneys could not make sense of the frivolous charges against him.[xviii]
Tom Hickey’s apprehension of the “peculiar visitor” at one of the baseball games appears to have been well-founded. There is considerable documentation to indicate that the socialists in Texas were under surveillance and infiltration well before the FLPA arrests; there is also evidence noting that the charges against the FLPA were largely in part due to the information provided by an undercover operative jointly employed by the government Bureau of Investigation and the James McCane Detective Agency.[xix]
The June 2, 1917 number of The Rebel was the last issue of the paper to be mailed. On June 7th, US Postmaster General A. S. Burleson denied the second-class mailing permit of The Rebel under the provisions of the same Espionage Act.[xx] Again, the suppression of the paper on June 7th was before the official enactment of the Espionage Act on June 15th and even before the Postmaster General’s own directive. The Rebel was the first newspaper in the United States shut down by the government for its anti-war activities.
The Socialist Party in Texas had been dealt a crippling blow.
Back in Desdemona, the Desdemona Socialists continued playing baseball.
The team probably never went professional, although some of the players may have gone on to play in the Texas Oil Belt League. There is a Desdemona team listed there in 1919[xxi], which played other local teams in that league from Thurber, Eastland, Ranger, Cisco, Breckinridge and Abilene—all areas with a considerable socialist presence at that time. They may have also been morphed into the Eastland Judges team (there was a second-baseman Dillard Payne on the Judges team, who may have been related to the Desdemona Socialist Oliver Payne[xxii]), which played in the West Texas League in 1920. Breckinridge took over the Eastland club franchise in 1921, further diluting any possible Desdemona club membership.[xxiii] In 1924 a later incarnation of the Desdemona team replaced Ranger in the Oil Belt League, which forfeited its participation in the West Texas League.[xxiv]
The fate of Desdemona would change overnight on September 2, 1918.
Oil had previously been discovered and explored in the neighboring communities of Ranger and Thurber; Desdemona barber Shorty Carruth had entertained the notion that there might be oil in and about Desdemona as well. As early as February 2, 1914 he had established the Hog Creek Oil Company and sold shares to his neighbors in Hogtown[xxv] at $100 a whack; but early drilling efforts had not proven conclusive, investors dropped out, and Shorty pretty much became a local laughingstock.[xxvi]
But on September 2, “Shorty’s Hunch”[xxvii] paid off. Working on an oil lease on socialist hard-scrabble farmer Joe Duke’s land in cooperation with Tom Dees, an exploratory drilling hit a gusher and the Desdemona Oil Boom was on.[xxviii] The 109 remaining investors from Shorty Carruth’s Hog Creek Oil Company were called in to ratify the deal and received their first dividend check of $150,000—a 250% return on their investment.[xxix]
Dick Carruth, Shorty’s possible relative, struck oil and natural gas on his land and began receiving $1000 a day in royalties while still advocating for the Non-Partisan League[xxx]. Oliver Payne also hit oil and gas on his property. Uncle Jimmie Ellison struck it big also, and continued his Non-Partisan League membership.[xxxi] Dr. Snodgrass got into the act. And the baseball diamond purchased from Dr. Snodgrass by the 50 socialists who wanted a place to play ball became a field of oil derricks and producing wells. The three Parmer brothers were now worth well over a million dollars each.[xxxii] The Desdemona Socialists had become socialist millionaires.[xxxiii] James Munday was among those who became rich, presumably he was able to move away from his camp on Hog Creek.[xxxiv] Old Joe Duke, on whose property the boom started, continued to haul hay and repair his own fences.[xxxv] There was now the problem of trying to locate all the 50 co-owners of that baseball field to distribute their dividends[xxxvi]; many had gone off to war or gone on towards greener pastures before that pasture actually did turn green.
Dr. Snodgrass was unfazed. He still believed he had made a good deal on the sale of that acre and a half.[xxxvii]
Uncle Jimmie Ellison was plagued with his new found success. He found himself besieged by speculators who kept increasing their bids for prospective oil leases on his “flea-bitten sandy” farm in Ellison Springs.[xxxviii] Suspicious, Ellison approached his old comrade Tom Hickey for advice on how to proceed.
Hickey had eventually been released from his unwarranted detention by state and federal authorities in relation to the government detention of the FLPA, even while three FLPA officials—George T. Bryant, Samuel L. Powell, and Zeph L. Risely—had been sentenced to several years imprisonment at Leavenworth. Hickey had made a few attempts to get The Rebel back up and running after its forcible governmental shutdown, but the efforts did not bear fruit. The Socialist Party of Texas was in disarray, still suffering from its war-time persecutions and new internal divisions over the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Hickey turned his political attention to organizing for the Texas Non-Partisan League.
Hickey offered to become the general manager of Uncle Jimmie Ellison’s farm, directed the sale of leases on the Ellison property, and almost by default found himself in a new profession. “I carefully aligned myself with the most honest outfit I could find, and thus became vice president of a million dollar oil corporation,” Hickey reported.[xxxix]
That “most honest outfit” that Hickey could find was the National Workers Drilling and Production Company, which Hickey organized with other socialists in October of 1919: L.L Steele, the one-armed Desdemona socialist school teacher, became President of the new company; W. H. Flowers, an early socialist from Smith County, was named First Vice-President; Hickey became Second Vice-President; and H. W. “Harry” Elliott, the editor of the Desdemona Oil News and elected as the socialist mayor of Desdemona (Tom Hickey was his campaign manager),[xl] would become Secretary-Treasurer.
In additional to managing the leases of the other new socialist oil operators in the Desdemona area, especially those involved in the collective ownership of the baseball field, the NWDP soon found itself actually becoming a bona fide oil production company. To their credit, they maintained the spirit of collective ownership embraced by their socialist principles and continued to build cooperative stock-holder ownership; Hickey declared this intent with a solicitation to the Non-Partisan League.[xlii]
The success of the Hickey’s oil company lasted about as long as the Desdemona oil boom. Operating problems emerged as a result of bad management on the part of Elliott and Flowers[xliii] and Hickey resigned in disgust from his position at the company in June of 1920.[xliv]. The company paid off its investors and was sold to the Texas Petroleum Company in September of 1922.[xlv]
And the Desdemona Socialist baseball team faded away as well. A field full of derricks and pumps did not make it conducive to the pursuit of home runs.
The oil bust was not kind to Shorty Carruth. In June of 1923 he was sentenced to a year in federal prison for selling fraudulent oil leases, using a Ponzi scheme to pay dividends from the sales of unproven leases. He returned to the oil business after he was released and died in Fort Worth in 1931. W.H Flowers also stayed in the oil business, returning to his home in Smith County, where he died in 1925.
L. L. Steele was another socialist who stayed in the oil business after the NWDP job. He did not go back into teaching, but rather went to law school. Later in life he was named to the Texas Tech University Board of Regents and then to the Texas Highway Commission by progressive governor James Allred. He died in Mexia in 1969.
Hickey continued in the newspaper business, writing for over 14 different newspapers until his death from throat cancer in 1925.
Today Desdemona, like Texas socialism, is a lot quieter than its boom years.
Rossignol is a retired member of IBEW LU 520, Austin, Texas, and Archivist for
the Socialist Party USA.)
[i] For details on the number of encampments and the number of elected officials, see the collected issues of The Rebel 1911-1917 and the Biennial Reports of the Texas Secretary of State.
[ii] The team name appears in “Texas Trails: The past of Desdemona”, Country Worlds on-Line, November 28, 2011; and in “Desdemona”, Clay Coppedge, January 27, 2012, http://www.texasescapes.com/ClayCoppedge/Desdemona.htm
[iii] The Rebel, July 5, 1913
[v] Boyce House, Were You In Ranger?, Ranger Historical Preservation Society, 1999, p. 61
[vi] Oral History Interview by Richard Mason with Inez Heeter, October 30, 1981, SWCAV0671 and SWCAV0672, Southwest Collection, Texas Tech University
[vii] West Texas Socialists Now Millionaires Oil Well Owners”, Silliman Evans, Fort Worth Star Telegram, August 11, 1919
[viii] Heeter Interview
[x] The Rebel, May 23, 1914, p.2
[xi] Seminole Sentinel, June 14, 1917, p.6
[xii] See for example the letter of Carl Rosson to Tom Hickey, June 5, 1917, in the Tom Hickey Papers, Southwest Collection, Texas Tech University.
[xiii]“Texas Anti-Conscriptionist…Shot to Death”, Ft Worth Star Telegram, June 5, 1917
[xiv] Abilene Semi-Weekly Reporter, May 29, 1917, p. 5
[xv] The Farmers’ and Laborers’ Protective Association of America, Robert Wilson, Master’s Thesis, Baylor University, August 1973, p. 88
[xvi] Heeter Interview
[xvii] The Rebel, May 26th, 1917
[xviii] Clarence Nugent to Clara Hickey, July 25, 1917, in the Tom Hickey Papers
[xix] Jeanette Keith, Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight, University of North Carolina Press, 2004, p. 91, p.220
[xx] Order of the Postmaster General, Order Number 431, June 16, 1917
[xxiii] The Dublin Progress and Telephone, December 24, 1920
[xxiv] Corsicana Daily Sun, August 12, 1924, p. 9
[xxv] “Glimpses of the Desdemona Oil Boom”, John D. Palmer, West Texas Historical Association Year Book, Vol. 15, October 1939, p.48. The author of this article was a member of the Desdemona Socialists baseball team.
[xxvi] El Campo Citizen, August 19, 1919, p.6
[xxviii] Dublin Progress and Telephone, April 18. 1919, p.6, House, Were You in Ranger? p.79
[xxix] House, Ibid. p.70.
[xxx] Tom Hickey to the Non-Partisan League, n.d., in the Tom Hickey papers.
[xxxii] House, p. 70.
[xxxiii]”Silliman Evans, “West Texas Socialists Now Millionaires Oil Well Owners,” Fort Worth Star Telegram, August 11, 1919
[xxxv] House, p 77.
[xxxvi] House, p.79
[xxxviii] Frank H. Bartholomew, “Big Fortune Made”, Altoona Mirror (Pennsylvania), November 18, 1922
[xl] Tom Hickey to Clara Hickey, March 15, 1920, in the Tom Hickey papers.
[xli] The activities of the Steele family are documented in the various pages of The Rebel.
[xlii] Tom Hickey to the Members of the Non-Partisan League, n.d., in the Tom Hickey papers.
[xliii] “Statement of Facts in the Case of T A Hickey v. the National Workers Drilling and Production Company”, n.d., in the Tom Hickey Papers, Southwest Collection, Texas Tech University
[xliv] Tom Hickey to W.H. Flowers and H.W. Elliott, June 15, 1920, in the Tom Hickey Papers
[xlv] Letter to Stockholders of the National Workers Drilling and Production Company, September 26, 1922, in the Tom Hickey papers.