Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

TOWNLEY, ARTHUR C. (1880-1959)

Arthur C. Townley, founder of the Nonpartisan League, was born near Browns Valley, Minnesota, on December 30, 1880. After failing three times to make a living by farming (in Cheyenne Wells, Colorado, and Beach and Golden Valley, North Dakota) and alienated by an economy that did not reward his efforts, Townley turned to the Socialist Party. His impressive organizational and oratorical skills quickly propelled him into the party's leadership. Unorthodox methods of recruiting, however, frustrated party leaders and led to his expulsion.

Townley then directed his energies to the farmers' cause, and in February 1915, along with A. E. Brown, he founded the Farmers Nonpartisan Political League of North Dakota, otherwise known as the Nonpartisan League (NPL). The NPL platform grew to include state ownership of terminal elevators, flour mills, cold storage plants, and packing plants, as well as a state-sponsored hail insurance program and state-owned banks. By 1918 the organization claimed 200,000 members and controlled the state of North Dakota. Accordingly, the NPL began to implement its platform. The party, however, came under attack for malfeasance, socialist inclinations, and fraud. The NPL fell from power in the autumn of 1921 when a recall election removed one of its leading representatives, Gov. Lynn Frazier, from office. Townley did not hold elected public office himself, preferring to remain behind the scenes as president of the NPL and its master organizer.

Following a ninety-day federal prison sentence in 1922 for discouraging enlistment during World War I, Townley resigned his position as head of the NPL in North Dakota, and the movement soon collapsed. Townley never again captured the limelight. He tried and failed to win political office in North Dakota and Minnesota on several occasions between 1930 and 1958, dabbled in oil promotion and itinerant medicine sales, and supported his stepdaughter's motion picture career. He also took a virulent anticommunist stance during the 1950s, targeting leaders of the Farmers Union. Townley died in a car accident near Makoti, North Dakota, on November 7, 1959.

Kimberly K. Porter University of North Dakota

Morlan, Robert L. Political Prairie Fire: The Nonpartisan League, 1915–1922. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1985.

Remele, Larry R. The Lost Years of A. C. Townley (After the Nonpartisan League). Bismarck: North Dakota Humanities Council, 1988.

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