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Pitchfork Smith

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

When 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 went broke.

From North Texas 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 man.

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 epithets."

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 him ink.

Arguably 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.

Pitchfork 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.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" January 30, 2020 column

Mike Cox's "Texas Tales" :

  • The Great Greyhound Hijacking on Route 66 in 1931 1-17-20
  • The Zentners 1-9-20
  • Chicken Peddler 12-24-19
  • Cornbread 12-18-19
  • Snakebitten Family 12-12-19

    See more »

  • More:


    Mike Cox's "Texas Tales" :

  • The Great Greyhound Hijacking on Route 66 in 1931 1-17-20
  • The Zentners 1-9-20
  • Chicken Peddler 12-24-19
  • Cornbread 12-18-19
  • Snakebitten Family 12-12-19

    See more »

















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