A bell’s gong sounded across Hopkinsville on Friday night to signal the arrival of the Night Riders during the annual Tobacco War Pilgrimage.

More than 150 people took part in the hayride organized by the Museums of Historic Hopkinsville-Christian County. During the ride, they learned about the history of the Night Riders’ tobacco raid that happened 105 years ago.

“This community has been agrarian for as long as people can remember,” said Chris Gilkey, associate Christian County historian. “It was a way for folks to provide for their families. When the cost of dark-fired tobacco slipped from 12 cents a pound to 3 cents a pound and the government wasn’t listening … folks took the law into their own hands. One, to make a statement. And two, to provide food for their families.”

Friday night’s hayride took people through downtown Hopkinsville, as Gilkey and county historian William T. Turner told the tale of the Night Riders. This group of several hundred masked men acted as a force against large tobacco companies that kept the price of tobacco low. The Night Riders took over Hopkinsville, overrunning the police and fire stations, burning down warehouses and targeting citizens who stood against them.

“In the last few years, it has come up a lot — why we would commemorate an act of violence?” Gilkey said. “It’s part of our history. Some of our ancestors were Night Riders so it’s important for us to remember the good, the bad and the ugly. We need to remember.”

The hayride stopped at locations in the city where significant events took place, including the police station the Night Riders took over and played a game of poker in and the fire station where firefighters were prevented from putting out other fires at warehouses. One brave firefighter climbed about 80 feet to ring a bell to warn the town of the Night Riders’ arrival. The tour also took people by the telephone switchboard where two women were prevented from spreading news of the event.

Gilkey said, although the night was violent, he believes people shouldn’t make judgments against those who acted out without first trying to understand their situation.

“We should learn from mistakes people make, but also we want to show people what others will do in a time of need,” he said. “Unless you’ve been there, don’t say what you won’t do.”

Friday was the 30th re-enactment of that night, Dec. 7, 1907. Several of those in attendance were repeat visitors, but the majority were first-timers.

“I had heard of the Night Riders, but I didn’t know all of the details,” said Freddie Johnson, who has lived in Hopkinsville his entire life. “I knew William Turner was going to be here and he would give details and background. It brought it all to life, all the small details.”

As Gilkey and Turner shared the story and facts, actors portraying the Night Riders on horses and on foot moved around the crowd performing the story as it was being told.

“We’ve been (organizing the event) for so long, it’s easy to do,” Gilkey said. “It takes a lot of volunteers and sponsors to put it together and make it work.”

The pilgrimage continues today with a tour of homes from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., the trail of the Night Riders at 4 p.m. and again at 7:30 p.m., and a 1907 historic buffet at Ms. Ann’s Restaurant and Tea House. For more information about the Tobacco Wars Pilgrimage, call 270-887-4270.

REACH MONICA K. SMITH at 270-887-3243 or msmith@kentuckynewera.com.

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