Old photo of a slim, gray-haired man in a three-piece suit

Harold Bowlan

INVESTIGATOR'S NOTE: The following biographical information is taken from the 1978 Mississippi University Press publication, "Post Industrial Robber Barons of the South."

Harold Bowlan was born on a Yoknapatawpha County farm on January 11, 1898, the third son of Martha and Thaddeus Bowlan's seven children. His mother was a housewife. His father operated a small farm and worked as a farrier, shoeing horses and mules for others nearby.

Thaddeus also quietly ran one of the best moonshine stills in the county. Many sober men rode up to get their mounts shod, then wandered off with sturdy new horseshoes and a happier-if-blurrier view of the world.

Harold and his siblings grew up dirt-scratch poor, wearing clothes made from flour sacks and never getting "store-bought" Christmas presents when they got presents at all.

His father made enough money to support the family but never seemed to have any to spare for the "extras" in life. Old Thaddeus was one to save for a rainy day, but he never seemed to think it was raining.

Harold swore when he grew up, he was going to be the richest man in the world—or at least in Yoknapatawpha County.

He struggled in school, repeating the third grade and finally quitting school in the seventh grade to work at his uncle's cotton gin from 1911 to 1922.

During those eleven years, he sacrificed his personal life to saved a downpayment on some private and commercial property of his own. He grew into a terse, unsmiling man who always looked for the bottom line in both personal and business dealings.

He'd been such a nose-to-the-grindstone worker for his uncle that his uncle gladly co-signed a bank loan for Harold when the young man decided to open his own business, making leather and cloth work gloves.

The business thrived in the farm community, surviving a shaky few years when the stock market crashed and then some long, lean years during the Depression, but it kept going when so many others failed.

Bowlan gloves later became a regional and then a national product. For a few years, they were the national standard for quality.

Bowlan didn't make friends in his highly religious North Mississippi community because he refused to go to any of the area churches, and he shut himself off from many of his "lower-class" friends as he moved up economically and socially.

He also was too crass and money-grubbing for some of the county's elite, who recalled him as "the snot-nosed son of ol' Thad, the moonshiner."

Harold came to be respected, however, for his business sense and clout even though he was not a popular man. He eventually married Pearl Hatterly in the spring of 1928, and the couple had four children: three girls and a boy, Noah.

As his family grew, the business also grew for decades. Unfortunately for Harold, others started wanting a piece of the pie as he became wealthier. He grumbled about his high tax burden and tried every honest means—and some say not so honest—to pay less.

He also fumed about the kickbacks, back-scratching, and bribes he had to dole out to do business in Yoknapatawpha County. He frequently clashed with a corrupt county board of supervisors. He accused one of the former Bowlan accountants of providing inside information about the factory to the board after Bowlan refused to pay the accountant's fee.

The business increasingly faced stiff competition from cheaper Honduran and Mexican‑imported gloves, and the Bowlan Glove Factory began its long decline.

By the 1950s, the business still looked solid to outsiders, but Bowlan was terrified he was going to lose everything unless he could pay off some large loans. He started looking at ways to trim his overhead, including firing some of his oldest and highest‑paid employees.

His workers grew alarmed as they noticed other ways Bowlan was cutting corners. The factory workroom's cooling fans weren't turned on until late July despite the oven-like Mississippi summers. Paychecks were sometimes delayed for a week or two. When Harold started using lower-quality materials, business declined even more as the customers realized that Bowlan gloves weren't what they used to be.

As the employees grew more dissatisfied, Bowlan pressed his workers harder to make more and to make it faster.

By 1958, workers' rumbles had turned into a roar for unionization at the factory. The vote probably would have passed easily if not for Harold Bowlan's grim person‑by‑person campaign. He took each employee aside and quietly explained that he would be laying off some people soon—had to do it—and he'd certainly remember who had stood by him and who had not.

The union vote barely failed on Thursday, April 10, 1958. At 11 a.m. the next day, Bowlan Glove Factory announced layoffs of 153 of its nearly 470‑person workforce. Most of those laid off were known to be union sympathizers.

Fearing reprisals, Bowlan didn't announce the layoffs himself. He passed that burden along to his horrified factory foreman, Richard Izard. According to reports, Izard begged and argued with Bowlan for an hour that morning, then finally agreed when Bowlan flatly told him to do it or get out for good himself.

"Don't complain and don't explain, boy," Bowlan later recalled telling Izard. "Just be a man and do what I tell you to do."

By 10 a.m., Bowlan and his family were on their way to Memphis for a long weekend while the furor over the layoffs erupted in their absence.

At 11 a.m., Izard delivered the news to a loud and surly crowd of Bowlan employees, many of whom blamed Izard himself. Another 20 employees quit in protest over the layoffs, and the remaining workforce was sullen.

Izard left the plant at noon, reportedly angry and shaken over the reaction of his friends and co-workers to his role in the layoffs.

Bowlan was at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis Friday night when he got the call that Richard and Lisa Izard had been murdered at their home hours after the layoffs.

The sheriff's deputy who placed the call said Bowlan at first refused to believe the call was anything other than a hoax. When convinced, Bowlan reportedly showed no concern other than anger and irritation that he was going to have to turn around and return to Oxford immediately. He reportedly protested that he didn't have anything to do with it since he was on his way to Memphis at the time.

Bowlan later argued unsuccessfully that the Sheriff's Department should have paid for his one‑day hotel stay and his gasoline for the return trip since he and his family never got to enjoy their vacation.

In the wake of the layoffs, the Izard murders, and his own callousness about both, Bowlan became a pariah in the community. His employees, convinced that he would betray them too one day, drifted away.

The lack of community support, coupled with financial reversals, finally killed the factory. It closed its doors for the last time on December 2, 1958. The closure almost killed Bowlan too.

Harold devoted the next ten years of his life to creating what he termed the Bowlan Collection—a compilation of histories, factory records, bookkeeping records, and production records that he later donated to the University of Mississippi library.

Harold Bowlan died of a heart attack in 1967. He was buried in a corner of his own property because his will explicitly prohibited paying for an expensive burial plot in town.

Bowlan's wife passed away in 1975 from complications after a severe case of pneumonia.

The land passed to their son, Noah, who kept the Bowlan property intact, renting it to local farmers and using a portion of the income to help support Noah's sisters.

The Bowlan children now live in Massachusetts.

 

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