Milford Wriarson Howard Milford Wriarson Howard (1862-1937) was born into poverty but become an attorney in Fort Payne, DeKalb County, and served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives for Alabama’s Seventh Congressional District as a Populist. Initially a Democrat, he lost considerable amounts of money in various ventures trying to make himself rich and then became a Populist who supported income equality and political and economic reforms that would help farmers. He later ran for president as a Populist and for the Independence Party. He also was a writer and filmmaker and in the 1930s built the noted Sallie Howard Memorial Chapel near Mentone in memory of his first wife.
Howard was born on December 18, 1862, near Rome, Floyd County, Georgia, to Stephen Oliver and Martha Maddry Howard; he was the eldest of six children. At the age of five, his family moved to Randolph County, Arkansas, where they lived in abject poverty, with Stephen Howard shoeing horses for wagon trains. At the age of 11, Milford Howard began producing crops with his nine-year-old brother; at 12, he began working in a cotton gin. The family returned to Georgia in 1876 and later bought a farm on credit. Growing up, Howard received little formal education, as he needed to help support his family. By age 17, he had only attended school for three terms, but he was an avid reader.
Despite his lack of schooling, at age 18 Howard pursued the study of law under Joseph A. Blanche, an attorney in Cedartown, Georgia. The next year, Howard was admitted to the Georgia bar, receiving the common honorary title “Colonel” for southern lawyers, though he never served in the military. He moved to Fort Payne in 1880 to establish a profitable law practice and was admitted to the Alabama State Bar in 1881. Soon after his move, Howard met Sarah “Sallie” Lankford. They were married two years later, on December 2, 1883, and together had three sons. Later, Gov. Thomas Seay (1886-90) appointed him as the first county solicitor and he thrived further still from this legal work.
Howard began his political career as chairman of the DeKalb County Democratic Executive Committee in 1888 and he organized the county’s first Democratic primary. During this time, Howard again prospered by speculating in real estate in Fort Payne that was then booming. When the local coal and iron industry slowed and the local economy collapsed several years later, he lost much money and property, including his home. In 1892, he served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that nominated former president Grover Cleveland for president and Adlai E. Stevenson for vice president. There, he began to support a “free silver” platform, a policy pushed by Populists and some Democrats to inject more money into the economy. He became a popular orator and was praised by Vice Pres. Stevenson as a strong and eloquent speaker and began giving lectures in 1893 to supplement his income.
The 1890s were a volatile period in Alabama politics that saw rampant electoral fraud. But economically, white farmers, particularly in northern Alabama, were frustrated by their economic hardships and farmers throughout the state were worried by falling farm prices and high railroad freight rates and the failure of the Democratic Party to adequately address their problems. As a result, these men broke from the party, causing turmoil in many places.
Aiming to push a Progressive agenda, Howard ran for Congress in 1894 as a Populist after a split in Alabama’s Democratic Party. In this race, supporters of his Democratic opponent, Civil War veteran William Henry Denson, made death threats against his family. Howard defeated Denson by more than 3,000 votes in a very heated contest. He represented the Seventh District of Alabama, which included Cherokee, Cullman, DeKalb, Etowah, Franklin, Marshall, St. Clair, and Winston Counties, and won a second term in 1896. During these years, he began writing that mirrored that of reformers and other southern Populists who attacked capitalism and government corruption. In 1894, he published If Christ Came to Congress, an exposé of corruption in Washington, D.C. The next year, he wrote The American Plutocracy, a critique of the class system in the United States.
While in Congress, Howard served on the Committee on Election of President, Vice-President, and Representatives in Congress during both terms. During his second term, he also served on the Committee on Post Office Expenditures. Howard also continued advocating for reform, such as more equitably distributing wealth. In 1896, he attempted to impeach Pres. Grover Cleveland on allegations of corruption and violations of antitrust laws, but his efforts were thwarted. Howard continually advocated for the poor and railed against income inequality at the time. He was a member of the Alabama delegation to the 1896 Populist presidential convention in St. Louis where he and state chairman Reuben F. Kolb clashed over Kolb’s support for eventual nominee William Jennings Bryan. Bryan, however, was also nominated by the Democrats for president and had a running mate for each party, but lost the election to Republican William McKinley. Howard returned to Alabama where he campaigned for fellow Populist Albert Taylor Goodwin, who ultimately lost that gubernatorial race to Joseph F. Johnston.
Howard chose to retire from Congress after his second term; John L. Burnett, a Democrat from Cedar Bluff, Cherokee County, won the open seat. Howard then moved his family to Birmingham, Jefferson County, and returned to practicing law, though he remained involved in politics. In 1900, he was nominated for president, as a Populist, and again in 1908 as a member of the Independence Party. He lost both races. He had relocated back to DeKalb County at some point and in 1910 was nominated by the local Republican committee in a bid for a third Congressional term. He lost again to Burnett, in a close race. The following year, he returned to Birmingham, forming a law partnership with Oscar R. Hundley, a former federal judge and member of the Alabama House and Senate and husband of noted suffragist Julia “Bossie” O’Brien Hundley. Howard continued to invest in business ventures, including an Alaska salmon cannery and a Louisiana oil field and, in each instance, he lost large amounts of money.
In 1918, Milford and Sallie Howard moved to Los Angeles, California, where he began writing fiction. There, he published Peggy Ware, a novel set in Buck’s Pocket, now a state park in northeast Alabama. He wrote a second novel, The Bishop of the Ozarks, and in 1923 it was made into a silent film. Howard played the lead roles of a minister and an escaped convict who switch lives.
In addition to creative projects, Howard invested in the improvement of his community. When he returned to Fort Payne in 1923, Howard hoped to establish a school system for underprivileged children on Lookout Mountain known as the “Master Schools.” The first school opened in the fall of 1923 with two dormitories and a dining hall. He did not have enough money to continue the project; in 1925, the school closed. In the 1930s, the school became a camp for children, and Howard used the land to promote the construction of the Lookout Mountain Parkway, a scenic highway that that aimed to run atop the mountain from Gadsden, Etowah County, through northwest Georgia to Chattanooga, Tennessee. It is now an Alabama Scenic Byway.
Sallie Howard died of cancer in 1925, and he married on November 9, 1926, to Stella Vivian Harper. The pair then travelled through Europe, and Howard chronicled their travels in his Birmingham News column, “Vagabond Sketches.” While in Italy, Howard interviewed Benito Mussolini and became so enamored of the dictator and Fascism that he wrote Fascism: A Challenge to Democracy, published in 1928. Howard later constructed the Sallie Howard Memorial Chapel in her memory. Built into the side of a granite boulder near Mentone on Lookout Mountain, Howard modeled the church after the Annie Laurie Church in Scotland. With the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the church was completed in 1937.
Howard’s later years were marked by ill health and financial problems, worsened because of the Great Depression. He died of pneumonia in Los Angeles on December 28, 1937. His ashes were interred in a boulder at the Sallie Howard Memorial Chapel in a ceremony in 1938. The chapel is open to the public.
- Harris, D. Alan. “Campaigning in the Bloody Seventh: The Election of 1894 in the Seventh Congressional District.” Alabama Review 27 (April 1974): 127-38.
- ———. “The Political Career of Milford W. Howard, Populist Congressman from Alabama.” Master’s thesis, Auburn University, 1957.
- Howard, Elizabeth S. The Vagabond Dreamer. Huntsville, Ala.: Strode Publishers, 1976.
- Rodabaugh, Karl.The Farmers’ Revolt in Alabama, 1890-1896. Greenville, N.C.: East Carolina University Press, 1977.
- Rogers, William Warren. The One-Gallused Rebellion: Agrarianism in Alabama, 1865-1896. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1970.