Children’s Story – Tales of a Tennessee Chain Gang, Part IV

What is Happening: Although their sentences had been suspended, several Sabbathkeepers are serving time on a chain gang for refusing to pay court fines, because they believed the State had taken them from their homes and work for no just cause.

Shortly before nine o’clock in the morning on July 16, 1895, two heavy wagons lumbered out of Dayton loaded with picks, shovels, 18 prisoners, and an equal number of balls and chains.

Guarding Sabbathkeepers and common criminals alike, Deputy Sheriff Jim Howard cradled a double-barreled shotgun in his arms, as he rocked back and forth on the high seat of the wagon.

The wagons lurched for 18 miles over the dusty road that ran north from Dayton and stopped at an empty house near Spring City, Tennessee. The afternoon was spent filling straw ticks, making crude tables, and attaching old wagon wheels to the upstairs windows, to keep in the prisoners.

A convict, assigned to kitchen duty, prepared cabbage, onion bread, and sugar for supper, and Bill Burchard settled down for 50 days “on the hard rock ground.” After cold biscuits and molasses for breakfast, the Rhea County chain gang set to work breaking up rock for the approaches to a nearby bridge.

The first full day of work was a Friday, so when the Sabbathkeepers went to bed that night, they doubtless had special prayer about the events of the next day. They probably were waiting nervously when Deputy Howard clomped into their room the next morning.

“ ‘Spose this is the day ya’ll won’t do no work,” he said.

“That’s right, sir,” Pastor Colcord replied—as politely as he knew how.

“Well, don’t make no difference—I just won’t count your Saturdays against your sentence, and it wouldn’t do to have ya work tomorrow either.”

The deputy’s arbitrary decision was obviously illegal, but it was better to keep quiet than create a confrontation over working on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Sentinel kept up weekly reports on every phase of the prisoners’ plight, and newspapers around the country kept up their barrage against the bigotry of Tennessee.

Once the Spring City job was done, the chain gang was moved to a two-story, log house about a mile and a half from Graysville. Burchard noted that this was really his first time behind bars, since all the windows were equipped with them. The weather was hot, though, so the guard left the front door open at night and stood on the porch.

When the last of the cases came to trial, the Sabbathkeepers enjoyed the free legal assistance of a former congressman from Tennessee and the attorney for the Cincinnati Southern Railroad of Chattanooga. The combination of their skill and the jury’s weariness over the whole affair won acquittals in the remaining cases.

In Bill Burchard’s last report, he said: “We are all well, healthy, and happy. The sun has been extremely hot today. One big fellow got so hot this afternoon he had to stop, but none of us has done that yet.

“They furnish us plenty to eat now, and as Brother Morgan is cook, it is well prepared. My time should be out in a week from today. I must close as it is dark, and the workhouse is out of lamp oil.”

What a privilege it is to be a citizen of these United States today. How thankful we can be for the freedom we each have to worship God, according to our individual beliefs. It is actually a rare privilege seen in the history of this earth. How carefully we need to guard this freedom.