Thursday, December 4, 2014

Founding the Grange—A Populist and Progressive Force

Grange Founder Oliver Hudson Kelley

Officially it was known by the grandiose name of The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, a fraternal organization with rites and oaths seemingly not much different than the dozens of other such organizations which were spreading like wildfire across mid-19th Century America.  But the Grange, as it was more simply and universally known, quickly became the most important voice for family farmers in the country, the spearhead of a growing anti-monopolist social movement, and an organization remarkably egalitarian and inclusive in its membership and philosophy.
It came together on December 4, 1867 thanks to the efforts of Oliver Hudson Kelley and seven other Founders including one woman, Kelley’s 29 year old niece Caroline A. Hall.  Grange #1 in Fredonia, New York became the first chartered unit.  From there the organization spread with astonishing speed and gathering momentum as a social force.
Kelley was born on January 7, 1826 in Boston. Despite these urban roots he moved to the virtual frontier in Minnesota in 1849.  He prospered moderately but like many pioneer farmers he was dislocated by the Great Sioux Uprising of 1862.  Two years later, in 1864 he got an appointment to a clerkship at the Bureau of Agriculture in Washington.  His intelligence, organizational skills, and deep knowledge of agricultural conditions brought him to the attention of President Andrew Johnson after the Civil War.
Disrupted by the war—and the abolition of slavery—the South’s agricultural economy had collapsed causing actual local famine.  The accidental President and former Tennessee Democrat, Johnson was more eager to reconcile the country than the Radical Republicans who controlled Congress and wanted a punitive policy for the former Rebels while providing modest land claims for the new Freedmen.  Johnson dispatched Kelley on a mission to survey conditions on Southern farms and to make recommendations to aid in their recovery.
On his first visits Kelley found himself stonewalled as a damned Yankee.  He discovered, however, that his status as a Mason could open doors and he was soon escorted everywhere he went by brother Masons.  He found the operational condition of most farms appallingly primitive, whether small family homesteads or the old plantations.  Reliance on cheap slave labor had prevented the introduction of more efficient agricultural innovations and machinery while the dedication of much of the land to cash crops like cotton, tobacco, or sugar cane—all of which wore out the soil after years of mono-production—left food production to small garden plots and with little access to markets more than a day’s walk away.
Appalled, Kelley submitted his report, which like most such reports simply gathered dust with no effective action taken.  He turned to discussions with other farmers and agricultural experts around the country to seek solutions that would not only aid Southern farmers and perhaps heal the wounds of the war, but advance the condition or agriculture generally.
Kelley recruited a strong nucleus for a new kind of organization which he envisioned.  Scottish born botanist, nurseryman, and horticulturalist William Saunders became the first Master of the Grange.  Francis M. McDowell was a former stockbroker turned Upstate New York vintner who provided many of the new groups organizational structures and became the first High Priest in the Assembly of Demeter.  The Reverend Aaron Burt Grosh was a Universalist minister had a major part in the design of the Grange ritual and was also responsible for the various songs used during various celebrations of the Grange who also played a similar role in another important fraternal organization, the Oddfellows.  John R. Thompson of New Hampshire was Kelley’s first confidant on the project and a high ranking Mason who collaborated with Grosh in creating ritual and establishing criteria for the seven degrees of membership.  William M. Ireland was Chief Clerk of the Post Office who brought organizational and accounting skills to the new organization.  The Rev. John Trimble was an Episcopal priest who had kept a school in Kentucky that was lost in the War and then had taken a clerkship in the Department of the Treasury.  He was the organization’s main connection to the South and served as its first Treasurer.  Kelly took the position of Secretary, which encompassed the day-to-day management of the Grange’s affairs with Caroline Hall became his chief assistant and managed much of the communications with affiliates.

A Grange poster from 1876

The Grange was organized a secret society loosely modeled on Freemasonry because such organizations were wildly popular.  But the secrecy also had benefits, as the Knights of Labor, an early labor union of the same vintage, also discovered.  It meant members were able to freely and openly discuss their problems—and to plan for action in pressing reforms.  This would be critical to its quickly growing influence.  The rituals and secrets were less daunting than the Masons.  They were non-sectarian, and in fact not even explicitly Christian.  It could appeal to members of all denominations, and was even open to freethinkers and agnostics.  That meant that Grange Halls rapidly became the social center of many rural communities, the only place where Methodists, Baptists, even Catholics and apostates could meet and mingle.
Similarly the Grange was strictly non-partisan when it came to elections.  Prominent members were Republicans, Democrats, and later Greenbacks and Populists.  The organization adopted and advanced many causes including the establishment of Rural Free Delivery by the Post Office, the construction of county and state farm-to-market roads, regulation of railroad freight rates, the direct election of U.S. Senators, and the adoption of Women’s Suffrage but did so without endorsing parties and candidates.  This approach made their advocacy often stunningly successful.
In the immediate post-war ere the Grange also was probably the only institution in many communities, especially in Border States and in the West which attracted emigrants from all sections, where Union and Confederate Veterans could safely join together for cooperation.
One of the most remarkable features of the Grange which set it apart from all of the other fraternal organizations of its day was the absolute equality of women in membership.  The grange recognized that farming was a family affair with all members needed to keep the homestead operating.  To insure representation at every level some elected positions were reserved for women, but they could hold any.  They helped steer the organization’s advocacy for suffrage, improved rural schools, and in many areas Temperance.  Likewise full membership was open to youths of both sexes “old enough to pull a plow,” at age 14.  Younger children were enlisted in active auxiliaries.  Young people were this groomed and introduced to leadership preventing the organization from stagnating.
In areas where it was safe to do so, local Granges were open to Blacks.  In the South were that would have been impossible, segregated Granges were established, but these had to cooperate at higher levels of the organization.  Likewise the Grange was open to immigrants and non-citizens.
Structurally the organization is hierarchical.  The basic unit is the local or subordinate Grange meant to include members from a single rural community, often hamlets too small to be incorporated.  All of the local Granges in a county, or sometimes a group of counties, belong to and are active in Pomona Granges which in turn belong to State Granges.  All of this is coordinated by the National Grange headquartered in Washington.  Granges at each level determine their own agendas and are active in their respective communities.  Thus Pomona Granges were especially active in pushing county governments to building and maintaining roads and consolidating tiny one room school houses while State Granges became powerful lobbying forces, as did the National Grange in Congress. 
Ideally in this arrangement authority passes upward from the local to the National while organizational services flow downward.  As in all organizations this ideal was not always fulfilled in practice, but was common.  Due to unusually effective organization, the National Grange was able to employ a number of agents who helped establish local Granges and organize participation at the various levels.  That led to the astonishingly rapid rise of the organization.
In the period of 1872-1875 the Grange grew from 200,000 to 850,000 members with local Granges in most states.  It was most successful in a broad swath from New England and New York State, through the Great Lakes region, the Midwest, Great Plains, and onto the Pacific Coast.  It was weakest in the Deep South, Inter-Mountain West, and Southwest.  Its backbone was the family farm and the local businesses supporting agriculture.

A typical Grange Hall, Chichester, New Hampshire.

Much of the growth in this period came from a program encouraging local Granges to establish buying cooperatives for seed, utensils, and other essential.  Local Granges were also encouraged to have members pool their money to buy otherwise prohibitively expensive farm equipment—modern reapers, planters, and even steam tractors.  This was assisted by State and National.  Aaron Montgomery Ward was one of the businessmen that supplied the equipment and stocked the cooperatives.  Local Granges were also encouraged to build halls, which were popular community centers and became a ubiquitous feature of small town life.  Most of these Halls were financed by mortgages.
The ripple effect of the Panic of 1873 eventually caused the collapse of most of the buying cooperatives and both communal equipment and Halls were seized and foreclosed on by banks.  Membership dropped significantly in the second half of the decade.  Kelley resigned as managing Secretary and the National Grange struggled.  Many thought it would die.
But re-focusing on farm issues rallied the remaining Granges and led to a slow recovery of membership which accelerated in the 1890’s with the rise of the Populist Movement which mirrored many Grange priorities.  The Grange could take credit for significant reforms including Rural Free Delivery, the establishment of the Cooperative Extension Service in the Department of Agriculture plus state extension services, and establishment of the Farm Credit System for reliable and affordable loans.  The peak of their political power was marked by their success in Munn v. Illinois in 1877, which held that the grain warehouses were a private utility in the public interest, and therefore could be regulated by public law. However this achievement was overturned later by the Supreme Court in Wabash v. Illinois in 1886.
The early 20th Century saw a resurgence of the Grange in both membership and influence.  It helped set the stage for the Progressive Era and for developments like the Farmer-Labor Party movement in the upper Midwest.
Other farm organizations arose to challenge the dominance of the Grange, and its progressive program, most notably the conservative Farm Bureau—eventually to become a virtual extension of the Republican Party—on one hand and the radical National Farmers Union, which conducted the widely publicized dumping of milk early in the Depression.  The Grange wove a path between but usually found allies in the New Deal.  Both Franklin Roosevelt and his successor Harry S Truman were members.
The Grange has long since abandoned secret meetings.  And it streamlined rituals are just a vestige of what they once were.  Many Grange halls have closed and been converted to other uses or razed.  In fact many of the small towns that once hosted them have vanished.  As the portion of the American population directly engaged in agriculture has shrunken to about 2% membership and affiliates have both declined.
But the Grange remains active with a membership of 160,000, with organizations in 2,100 communities in 36 states.  After years of sharp decline, the organization is reporting a modest resurgence mostly based in the far west and boasted that 7 new Granges were chartered in 2011.


  1. Mr. Murfin,

    If you don't mind me asking, are you, yourself, a Granger?

    1. No, I've never been a farmer but grew up out west in Wyoming and had kin in Missouri, Iowa, and South Dakota where the Grange was active and where some Grange Halls were still community centers in the '50's and '60's.

    2. Too bad. I am a Granger. My particular is actually Sunbeam Grange #2, which meets at the Oliver Kelley homestead here in Minnesota, and I'm always excited when I discover another UU who is also a Granger like me, because of the Aaron Grosh connection.