Agricultural Newspapers and Farmer Unrest

Without electronic communication to reach residents in the rural United States, champions of the People's Party movement used agricultural newspapers to spread their messages. It was common to find political rhetoric in weekly farm publications alongside articles about crop prices, community events, births, and obituaries. In addition to newspapers attributed directly to the reform press, articles presenting Populist politics were disseminated through syndicated outlets, agricultural trade journals, and women's periodicals associated with suffrage issues.

Some rural towns had their own local papers, produced by a single editor and a shop assistant. These papers offered farming residents who were distanced by acres of corn and wheat with a sense of community, and isolated farm wives looked forward to hearing news of their neighbors as well as getting homemaking advice. With American Farmer, Skinner introduced a tradition of publications specifically for the agricultural community that would gradually transition in content from educational and informative to authoritative and influential, setting the stage for the infusion of political rhetoric during the coming decades.

In February 1839, the Union Agricultural Society incorporated in Chicago, and a year later it introduced its newspaper, the Union Agriculturalist and Western Prairie Farmer, later shortening the name to Prairie Farmer. In 1849 the publication began urging its readers to join agricultural associations and cooperatives. With its motto, “In Union is Strength,” the monthly eight-page publication eventually became the publication of the Illinois State Agricultural Society, a group of farmer-delegates representing Illinois Farmers’ Clubs.

In 1873, the Prairie Farmer began devoting a page per issue to Grange news and supported the Grange over competing Alliance organizations. A number of small, local newspapers also featured Grange news when the Grange began syndicating boilerplate templates with preprinted inside pages that smaller publishers could then imprint with their own mastheads and local content on the outside pages.

Larger in circulation and more politically motivated than the Prairie Farmer was the Western Rural and Family Farm Paper (later known as Western Rural). In 1880, when Milton George took over the Western Rural, his intent was to rouse farmers from their apathy, using the paper to promote the Farmers’ Alliance that he organized in Chicago that year. George believed that other farm journals were missing an opportunity for influencing collective thought by featuring only agricultural topics and neglecting calls for reform.

Through his editorial columns he built interest in Alliance causes while continuing to provide mainstream agricultural content. He quickly built support for more than 200 Alliance charters throughout the Midwest, and readers responded with letters to the editor discussing their hardships and praising the Alliance. A shrewd marketer, George then tasked his newspaper agents to serve simultaneously as Alliance lecturers, sending them on speaking engagements in neighboring states. In 1886, George used his subscriber list to mail out a statement of Alliance principles. Farmers who responded with support were made honorary members, reviving enough interest to prompt an Alliance convention that fall.

Another successful paper was the Progressive Farmer, published in North Carolina and founded in 1886 by Leonidas Polk. Initially Polk used the paper to promote agricultural reform, and he urged readers to organize into Farmers’ Clubs. His message was successful. Within a short time there were 400 clubs that eventually became the North Carolina Farmers’ Association. In 1887 Polk organized the state's Alliance, one of the largest in the South.

In March 1889, Charles Macune of the Southern Alliance founded what would become the primary newspaper of the Populist Movement. The National Economist, published in Washington, DC, reached a circulation of more than 100,000. Macune also distributed political literature across the country through his Alliance publishing company. In 1891 Macune and 1,000 Alliance newspapers formed the National Reform Press Association (NRPA). Similar to the Grange, the NRPA produced and distributed templates to member papers, which then published their own versions, adding local news to the preprinted party rhetoric. In addition to the National Economist, the Alliance also published an official journal, The Advocate. It was distributed out of Kansas and had a circulation of 8,000.

As the Populist agenda sought to expand its constituency, it looked to women as potential political supporters and aligned itself with the woman suffrage movement. While the editors of the suffrage press typically targeted urban readers, to reach rural women Populist publishers partnered with women's farm newspapers and magazines. One such successful partnership evolved into the Farmer's Wife. The newspaper was the collective product of Kansas residents Ira and Emma Pack. Ira was a supporter of the Farmers’ Alliance. Emma was a college-educated farm wife who was active in the Grange in Iowa and then the Farmers’ Alliance in Kansas.

Before developing the Farmer's Wife, Ira was the publisher of a real estate paper, the City and Farm Record, and Emma edited Villa Range: Ladies’ Home Journal, featuring fiction and homemaking articles. In 1891 they abandoned their separate publications to found the Farmer's Wife with the intention of disseminating rhetoric on suffrage, prohibition, and the Alliance. The monthly newspaper encouraged readers to become involved in politics through the National Woman's Alliance, founded in part by Emma. While supporting both suffrage and Populist concerns, the paper served to empower to effect social change.

By 1893, circulation of the Farmer's Wife was declining, and the publication was printed sporadically as Emma was away much of the time on a suffrage lecture circuit. The last issue was published in October 1894.

Carla W Garner

See also: American Non-Conformist ; Granger Movement ; National Reform Press Association (NRPA) ; Pack, Emma (1850–1908) ; People's Party ; Plains and Midwest, Populism in the ; Polk, Leonidas L. (1937–1892) ; Progressive Farmer ; Western Rural


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