OPINION COLUMNS

All the Wiser: No snake eyes for the county seat

By Joy Burgess-Carrico | Published Saturday, February 9, 2019
Tags: ,

Share this page...
No Dice

NO DICE – In 1949, the Decatur City Council decided to use the expression “Eighter from Decatur, County Seat of Wise” to its advantage, over the objections of some who thought it glorified gambling. Photo from The Decatur Square

Chris Thacker of Rhome asked: “What is ‘Eighter from Decatur’ in reference to?”

After he posted the question on the Messenger’s Facebook page, another follower, Rena Morey, replied: “Because it rhymes, lol.”

She’s not wrong about that, and it may have been that simple.

But finding the “truth” about this expression isn’t.

Joy Burgess-Carrico

First of all, the overwhelming majority of sources say that “Eighter from Decatur” was originally an expression said while shooting craps. “Eighter from Decatur, County Seat of Wise” or just “Eighter from Decatur” or “Ada from Decatur…” would be chanted when a shooter wanted an eight.

There are multiple theories about how this expression came about.

“Eighter from Decatur, County Seat of Wise” cannot be any other Decatur in the U.S. While there are Decaturs in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin, there are only two counties named Wise – Wise County, Virginia and our own Wise County, Texas.

County Seat of Wise, Virginia? Wise. Thus, there is only one Decatur, county seat of Wise.

ORIGIN

There’s no way to know the true account of how this phrase was born, but we can narrow it down..

Many sources said it was created and popularized during World War I, but I don’t think so.

There is an article in the Saint Paul Globe from Saint Paul, Minn. about a man’s trip down the Mississippi on a steamboat. He describes the “roustabouts” on the boat and their habits when not working. In particular, he describes a game of dice they play. “Each point on the dice has a certain name, which is known to every Southern [derogatory term]. Two, three and 12 are known as ‘craps’ … eight is ‘Eighter from Decatur,’ or ‘eighty days’….” This was published Aug. 28, 1898.

Another article from 1916 talks about soldiers spending all their pay on dice in Mexico. It also references Eighter from Decatur as a phrase used when trying to roll an eight.

The expression may have gained in popularity during WWI, but it was already in existence before the beginning of the War to End All Wars, and well outside the bounds of Wise County.

EIGHTER OR ADA?

People feel strongly about this question. Those who say it started out as “Ada from Decatur” are sure they’re right. Those who say it has always been “Eighter from Decatur” are sure they’re right. The Eighter camp rests on the singsong rhyme of the words as their justification. But the Ada camp doesn’t have it so easy. If it was “Ada from Decatur,” who was Ada and why would people evoke her name when throwing dice?

ADA VERSION 1

Will Cooper was a laborer and general handyman in Decatur. He loved two things: dice; and a servant girl named Ada. He apparently would say “Ada from Decatur, County Seat of Wise” for luck when rolling dice. It spread when a group of soldiers traveled by train in 1900 to participate in a reenactment of a Civil War battle. Cooper went with them as their cook and they threw dice to entertain themselves during the train ride and this is how the expression became universally used.

Although this version has the benefit of seeming true because it’s full of so many facts, it is contradicted by the timing. Whether or not Will Cooper coined the phrase, it was in use by African-American steamboat workers and on the Mississippi two years prior to 1900.

ADA VERSION 2

Another Ada version says that a hand at the Waggoner Ranch named Solomon coined the phrase. In this version, Ada was an African-American servant who caught Solomon’s eye. Solomon could not read and associated her name, Ada, with the word for eight, and so he used it when rolling dice and looking to roll an eight. Sometimes it’s not Solomon who confuses the two words, but others who misinterpret his words and changed it to Eighter.

Another Waggoner Ranch version of the story has Ada admired by all the ranch hands and they collectively started chanting Ada from Decatur. There is no accounting for how the phrase spread from the Waggoner Ranch to all corners of the nation.

OTHER VERSIONS

I also read a version that claimed the phrase originated from the pioneer days when an eight-page newspaper, a rarity, was first published in Wise County. This eight-pager, or eighter, had “Eighter from Decatur, etc.” across it’s top. I found no corroborating proof of this version, but it sounds good, although no explanation was provided as to how the phrase went from being on the cover of a newspaper to being a lucky gambling chant.

It has been suggested that it referenced a wagon with eight wheels that would stock up provisions in Decatur and head west. These wagons were referred to as “Eighters from Decatur” when spotted by the West Texans looking on the horizon for provisions. Again, no explanation of how it became a gambling chant.

After the 1898 reference to the phrase, I didn’t find it again in the newspapers until the 1910s, when it became more and more prevalent. The first reference I found to “Ada from Decatur” was in 1919, in a story about some women about town who played dice.

I found two different stories from the early ’20s about two different criminal defendants in different parts of the country (both African-American) who were ordered by the judge to literally roll the dice to determine their sentence. If they rolled an eight, they were set free, if not, they went to jail. One defendant failed to roll an eight, or, as the paper put it, “Eighter from Decatur was not at home.” Another got the eight but swore off dice after that, undoubtedly quitting while he was ahead.

Decatur’s embrace

In the 1940s, there was an old sign on the outskirts of town that used this expression, and people would often stop and get their picture taken with it, pretending to shoot craps.

This was objectionable to many, especially Decatur Baptist College, who believed it promoted gambling and associated Decatur with the evils of craps. Others loved it because it brought people in and was therefore good for business.

In 1949, the city council met to decide what to do. The news story about this meeting did the 1949 equivalent of going viral. Never has a Decatur city council meeting been so widely reported. I saw the same news release about their upcoming decision in papers across the U.S. and into Canada.

It was a pretty big controversy, or maybe a slow news week. Either way, the nation turned its eyes on the Decatur City Council to see if they would bend to the will of the Baptists or the will of the capitalists.

The council decided to use the phrase, but added some additional language. “Welcome to – Eighter from Decatur, County Seat of Wise, a Hospital and Dairy Center Home of Decatur Baptist College.”

No dice to be seen. I’m guessing it was a compromise.

By the way, DBC never stopped complaining about Decatur’s use of the phrase until they left in 1965, but I have no reason to think that is why they left.

Today. Decatur has fully embraced the phrase as its own. Dairy centers and Baptist colleges are gone, and the dice have returned.

Decatur Eighters don’t seem too concerned with their association with gambling anymore. Anyone who doubts this can take a look at the giant bronze dice sculpture by the Hayhurst brothers just behind the east end of the Decatur Square.

Joy Burgess-Carrico is a Messenger graphic artist. Email her at jcarrico@wcmessenger.com with your questions.

One Response to “All the Wiser: No snake eyes for the county seat”

  1. says:

    The more we know…enjoyed the article, lots of interesting history. Look forward to more like this from Joy.

    Walt Partin
    Chico

Trackbacks/Pingbacks


Leave a Reply. Note: As of March 24, 2011, all posted comments will include the users full name.

WCMessenger.com News and Blog Comment Guidelines

You must be logged in to post a comment.