Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Order of Patrons of Husbandry, or the Grange, was the first important large organization of farmers in the United States. Founded in 1867, principally by Oliver H. Kelley, a Minnesota farmer and clerk in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Grange opened its membership to men and women as a fraternal organization of rural people and worked to facilitate better social life for farm families, to share useful information, and to reduce the hostility of sectionalism after the Civil War.

The first growth of the organization occurred in Minnesota, with chapters outside Minnesota emerging in the early 1870s when farmers suffered economically. The Depression of 1873 especially increased membership. Grangers, as members were called, believed themselves the victims of railroads, which charged oppressive transportation rates and purchased their produce at low prices because of their monopoly powers, and also of various middlemen with whom farmers had to do business. Moreover, farmers in the Great Plains faced additional problems of bad weather and insects, especially grasshoppers. In fact, in 1874 Grangers throughout the nation sent money and supplies to fellow members in the Great Plains suffering grasshopper infestation.

By 1876, while Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa led the way with total number of local chapters, or granges, Nebraska, Kansas, and Montana had the largest number of members per 1,000 population. Most Grangers eventually became interested in Grange-owned marketing cooperatives and farm equipment factories. Additionally, in an effort to accommodate the needs of Grangers, the private mail-order firm of Montgomery Ward and Company was established. And in the Middle West particularly, promoting state regulation of railroad shipping rates became a major concern of Grangers. However, in Kansas and Nebraska, railroad regulation generated little interest, for farmers in still-developing parts of the Great Plains desired increased trackage, not expansion-hindering public oversight.

Grangers throughout the nation did agree on other reform topics, in particular financial and monetary policy, as well as political reforms. While the official position of the National Grange was nonpartisan, advocating issues but not parties, many Grangers joined and even assumed leadership roles in emerging political third parties, such as the statelevel Antimonopoly, Reform, and Greenback Parties, and also exerted influence in the major parties. The greatest success of their political activism was the enactment of state railroad regulation, commonly known as the Granger Laws.

By 1880 the Granger movement began to lose its impetus. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court in Munn v. Illinois (1877)–and in subsequent Granger cases–upheld the constitutionality of state railroad laws, many states repealed their railroad laws in the face of diminished rail service. The Grangers' marketing and manufacturing efforts failed, as they were undersold by competitors. In all, the number of members of the Grange nationally had shrunk to about 124,000 from a high of 860,000.

But the Grange did not pass away. During the decade of the 1870s, farmers in the West and South had dominated the organization. Thereafter, northeasterners played a leading role in reviving the Grange, which nationally had more than 300,000 members in the 1990s.

Many issues and government programs promoted by the Grange have been successful. Over the years Grangers called for women's suffrage, direct election of U.S. senators, direct primaries, graduated income tax, rural free delivery, parcel post system, better country roads, rural electrification, improved education for farm children and college students (especially at land grant institutions), extension service, federal farm credit programs, and parity price supports. Today, the National Grange continues to lobby for farm policies from its headquarters in Washington DC.

Thomas Burnell Colbert Marhsalltown Community College

Buck, Solon J. The Granger Movement. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1913.

Nordin, D. Sven. Rich Harvest: A History of the Grange, 1867–1900. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1974.

Woods, Thomas A. Knights of the Plow: Oliver H. Kelley and the Origins of the Grange in Republican Ideology. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1991.

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