Drama ‘To Catch the Allens’ opens tonight

By David Broyles

August 15, 2014

ARARAT, Va. — The Cherry Orchard Theater’s “To Catch the Allens,” is not only a story with connections to many in Carroll County, Virginia, but Mount Airy as well. The drama, set to debut tonight on stage at 7 p.m., concerns the manhunt following the famous shootout at the Carroll County Courthouse, covered in the theater’s 2013 production, “Thunder in the Hills”

According to playwright Frank Levering, shows are also scheduled for Aug. 16 and 17 at 7 p.m. and on Aug. 22 through Aug. 24 at 7 p.m. with an admission fee of $10 per person. The Orchard Gap Road venue does not require tickets because of the almost unlimited outdoor seating. Audience members are encouraged to bring lawn chairs and their own refreshments and food.

He said the story draws from many different points of view, such as Allen’s memoir, but has at its core local people backing two local guys up against a corrupt system, in the form of more than 50 Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency detectives.

Levering said the entire cast made gathering materials for the play their own “history project” and he subsequently discovered Sidna Allen’s 1929 memoirs, subtitled “A true narrative of what really happened at Hillsville,” was ghost written by a Mount Airy minister identified as Rev. Plank.

Other subjects touched on in the drama include Thomas Felts , who played a prominent role in bringing the Norfolk-Southern Railroad to Galax, Virginia. Felts and William Baldwin were the founders of the detective agency, which was later to gain notoriety for killings in Matewan, West Virginia and become infamous for violent suppression of coal miner’s strikes.

Levering said in the day, Felt’s mansion, Cliff Side, and Allen’s home were the two finest homes in the area, symbolic of the two powerful men. The manhunt, which lasted from March 14, 1912 to mid April, also extended to Iowa when Allen and his nephew, Wesley Edwards, fled to Des Moines where Allen worked as a carpenter and Edwards helped pave streets.

Edwards later gave his girlfriend, Maude Iroler, $50 to leave her family and join him in Iowa. Interestingly, Iroler later lived in Mount Airy and asserted up to the end in a 1970 interview she did not tell on Edwards. Allen asserts in his book she wanted the $500 in reward money for Edwards and the $1,000 dead or alive bounty on him.

“What we do know is that detectives William Baldwin and Willie Lucas went with Maude on a train to Des Moines,” Levering said. “They arrested Allen and Edwards both at their boarding house.”

The cast includes Stu Shenk as Sidna Allen, Kay Cox as Betty Allen, Joey Haynes as Thomas Felts, Greg Goad as William Baldwin, Matt Utt as Wesley Edwards, Su Olchak as Elizabeth Felts, Dick Olchak as Detective Edwin Payne and Reverend Plank, Victor Allen as Huey Lucas, Landon Haynes as Friel Allen and Detective Elmo Brim, Misty Hagwood as Alverta Edwards, Shelby Inscore-Puckett as Maude Iroler and Terri Bowman as a Cana woman who helped to hide Sidna Allen.

Les Puckett will serve as a balladeer for the production and will perform an original ballad about Sidna Allen and Thomas Felts.

“To some degree Carroll County and Surry County have this oral tradition told by those who knew the Allens or knew someone who knew the Allens,” said Levering. “Thunder in the Hills was concerned with events leading to the shootout. We start this show out with the shootout.” He said he is still amazed at the incident, which drew national attention and continues to hold the interest of many today.

David Broyles may be reached at 336-415-4739 or on Twitter@MtAiryNewsDave.