The Marion County Tribune

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This week in history: Remembering our local community

Posted on Friday, March 15, 2024 at 1:32 pm

LACIE SILVA – Editor

The night of Christmas gunshots rang through the town, six officers perished as tensions came to a head that December of 1927.

During a turbulent eight-year period leading up to that fateful night, South Pittsburg became the battleground for intense labor disputes between union supporters, members, and non-union advocates. Established in 1873 with aspirations of becoming a major industrial city, South Pittsburg attracted the Perry Stove Company from Albany, N.Y., in 1886, shaping the town’s destiny in the stove industry. By 1891, the town was heavily unionized due to a national trade agreement signed by the Perry Stove Company with the International Molders Union of North America.

In the 1920s, H. Wetter Manufacturing Company from Memphis, Tennessee, acquired the stove company, becoming the largest employer in South Pittsburg with around 750 of the 2,500 residents working there. The plant developed a strong reputation as a union shop, with Local 165 becoming the largest and oldest local of the Molders Union in the South. The ensuing labor strife led to litigation in state and federal courts, with attempts to eliminate unions in the region by various stove manufacturers. Law enforcement, led by pro-union Sheriff Washington Coppinger, played a significant role in the conflicts, which intensified after a bitter election in 1926. The involvement of soldiers patrolling South Pittsburg’s streets reflected the gravity of the situation.

In January of 1927, Wetter closed the company leading to significant unrest. The attempt to reopen with non-union labor resulted in picket lines, in turn causing economic strain on the local community. Tensions between four local unions and Wetter escalated, dividing not only employer and employees but also residents, politicians, and even law enforcement officials.

This tension, fueled by resentments and political rivalries, culminated in a tragic gunfight on December 25, 1927, at Third Street and Cedar Avenue. The shootout left five officers dead, including Sheriff G. Washington Coppinger, Deputy Loreza A. Hennessey, City Marshalls Benjamin Parker and Ewing Smith, and Wetter guard Oran H. LaRowe. Police Chief James Conner succumbed to his injuries the following day. The incident drew national attention to the city, prompting Governor Henry H. Horton to deploy the National Guard to prevent further violence.

On July 20, 2014, the South Pittsburg Historic Preservation Society, Inc., sponsored the dedication of a Tennessee Historic Commission marker commemorating the notorious Christmas Night Shootout in 1927. The ceremony took place in the Senior Center on Elm Avenue, with the marker strategically positioned near the intersection of Cedar Avenue and Third Street, close to the actual site of the historic shootout. This marker serves as a poignant reminder of the tragic events that unfolded on that Christmas night in 1927.

The Marion Tribune – December 21, 2023