your last name's Smith-no matter your looks or accomplishments-attaining
widespread recognition is challenging. But a common surname can
be overcome with a colorful personality and striking nickname.
It certainly worked for Pitchfork Smith.
Born in Delta County
in 1884, Wilford B. Smith grew up on his parent's farm. As soon
as he could tote a pail and handle a hoe, he joined the family labor
force. Like many a 19th or early 20th century Texas youngster, having
to milk cantankerous cows before daybreak on a cold morning or chop
cotton on a hot afternoon inspired him to greater things.
Cotton doesn't grow very tall, but Smith did. By the time he left
home for an entry-level job on a weekly newspaper in Garland,
Smith stood 6 feet 4 inches. Broad at the shoulder and square jawed,
he had a way with words.
After graduating from barber's college in 1898, he worked in a general
store in Needmore,
selling staples and cutting hair. Then he taught school for a while.
He saved enough money to start his own newspaper, but it promptly
Smith traveled to Houston,
where he worked in a bookstore. Leaving the Bayou City for Kansas
City he read the law and gained admission to the Missouri bar. Back
in Texas, he began a practice in Dallas
with an office in the Adolphus Hotel conveniently located above
a saloon. Legal work made him just enough money to start another
newspaper, this one an iconoclastic journal of opinion-his opinion.
He called it The Pitchfork, he explained, because "the pitchfork
is the poor man's implement-you can fight with it or work with it."
In Smith's case, he worked at fighting for Democracy and the common
Soon Wilford Smith became Pitchfork Smith. His editorials and oratory,
as another journalist later wrote, "were sometimes barbed and bitter,
sometimes sonorous and eloquent." Indeed, the newsman continued,
"Words behaved for Pitchfork like dogs jumping through a hoop. Elephantine,
six-syllable words moved at his command as gracefully as four-letter
For a man schooled in tonsorial techniques, Pitchfork didn't bother
with cutting his own hair. "He wore his hair in a flowing mane,
capped winter and summer with a big, broad-brimmed black hat," one
writer later recalled. His standard attire included "a Byronic white
collar and a big black cascade of a Windsor tie."
Pitchfork looked and acted the eccentric. Whether for the publicity,
out of over fondness of distilled spirits or just because it was
his nature, Pitchfork was a genuine Big D character with a national
following. Once, for example, he sued the Dallas Journal to recover
the two cents he spent on an edition he asserted was totally bereft
of what he had paid for-news. The suit went nowhere, but it got
Pitchfork's grandest moment came one day back when buggies and wagons
were more common in downtown Dallas than automobiles and trucks.
As Pitchfork and an acquaintance walked along the sidewalk in front
of the old Southland Hotel, he saw something that stopped him short:
An immigrant organ grinder with an American bald eagle tethered
by a chain. Outraged, the publisher assailed the European. The talloned
symbol of freedom should not be constrained, Pitchfork declared
with growing indignation.
The street musician was not moved by Pitchfork's patriotism, but
when the lawyer offered him money in exchange for the fettered bird
of prey, the noble raptor belonged to Pitchfork. However, the editor
had no intention of keeping it.
Climbing on the bed of a wagon at Commerce and Murphy streets, Pitchfork
began an impromptu, patriotic oratory. He soon had a large crowd
cheering for the good old U.S.A. Finally, he tossed the baffled
bird into the air.
"Fly on, oh bird of freedom," he yelled, "fly on and on."
Alas, the prime icon of American liberty and might did not fly on
and on. With a muted feathery thud, it dropped to the street and
staggered to a place of perceived safety beneath a streetcar. One
of the spectators crawled under the trolley and took the eagle away,
its fate unknown.
Some years later, tried for disrupting a religious gathering in
Fort Worth, Pitchfork
defended himself in justice of the peace court. The alleged offense,
a misdemeanor, had occurred when Pitchfork stood to loudly denounce
the Rev. J. Frank Norris as a felon. Indeed, the highly popular
Baptist preacher had been charged with murder. Three minutes after
Pitchfork's closing argument, the jury acquitted him.
continued to publish the Pitchfork until shortly before his death
at 55 on July 10, 1939. His passing occasioned a eulogistic obituary
published by the Paris, Texas News (the nearest daily to his native
Delta County) with
an opening paragraph worthy of its subject:
"Wilford B. (Pitchfork) Smith, picturesque six-footer whose barbed
and magniloquent pen scorched his personality on the minds of thousands,
died Monday night…and the argument he lost with Death was about
the first he ever lost."
They read the Bill of Rights at his funeral.