The Agricultural Wheel was a farmers’ cooperative alliance founded by William Walker Tedford, William A. Suit, and W. Taylor McBee in Des Arc, Arkansas, in 1882 to improve farming conditions and that existed until 1889 when it merged with the National Farmers’ Alliance to form the Farmers’ and Laborers’ Union of America. It was the precursor to the Populist uprisings of the 1890s that eventually led to the creation of the People's Party.
After the Civil War, the rural South lay in ruins, particularly its banking and credit systems. While the planter class maintained control of a majority of the land, they were unable to afford wage laborers to do the work of cotton agriculture for them. Instead, planters devised a new system, dividing their farms and former plantations into smaller units of 20 to 50 acres on which they allowed former slaves and their families or poor whites to live as either tenants or sharecroppers. In return, the tenants would pay the landlord a fixed rate or a portion of the crops that they harvested.
This cycle allowed the landlord to dictate which crops were planted. The former planters preferred staple crops, particularly cotton, for which there was always a market. This led to overproduction and low prices. With a majority of the land in the South put into cotton production, prices dropped dramatically throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, to the point that the cost of production was often more than the price farmers received at market, thus trapping small-scale farmers, tenants, and sharecroppers into a never-ending cycle of poverty.
Forty percent of the farmers in Prairie County in eastern Arkansas were tenants. Even if a farmer owned his own land, state laws and statutes meant to protect landowners made credit difficult to obtain or allowed creditors to maintain a stranglehold on farmers. The new state constitution, passed in 1874, forbade bankers or creditors from foreclosing on a homestead to satisfy a debt. Five years later, another law declared that if a piece of land was seized it must be sold for at least two-thirds its appraised value within one year of the transaction. Thus, the lending of credit to small-scale farmers was seen as a gamble.
The flat terrain of Prairie County, Arkansas, had suffered a severe drought in 1881, ruining almost all of the cotton planted that year. The opening months of the next year were greeted by drenching rains that causes the White River to flood, covering the low lands with water and causing many of farmers and tenants to be unable to get into their fields at the optimal time. With several families mired in debt, the situation reached a crisis point when several local medical doctors met in Lonoke and decided not to provide care and assistance to families that were too indebted to pay them. Unless farmers could provide these doctors with cash or other assets, they would have to turn elsewhere for medical services.
After discussing the plight of their neighbors and their own struggles, W. Taylor McBee and William Suit decided to take matters into their own hands. Inviting friends and neighbors to the McBees’ log cabin school house, eight miles southwest of Des Arc, on Saturday, February 12, 1882, the two farmers talked to the nine people who showed up, a group that consisted of seven Prairie County farmers and two from nearby Lonoke County. They explained that local farmers needed to organize and attempt some kind of collective action. There was, as author W. Scott Morgan stated in 1889, no “hope of relief except through united and independent action on the part of the people” (Morgan 237 ). Twenty-one-year-old William Walker Tedford was elected president, and 30-year-old McBee assumed the role of secretary. W. Taylor's brother, John W. McBee, was asked to join the two gentlemen in drafting the new organization's constitution, by-laws, and secret rituals.
Hoping to attract others like themselves, they decided that a name change was in order following their fourth meeting. After narrowing it down to either the Agricultural Wheel or the Poor Man's Friend, they chose the Wheel for its allusions to the prophet Ezekiel and because “no machinery can be run without a great drive wheel, and as that wheel moves and governs the entire machinery, however complex, so agriculture is the great wheel of power that controls the entire machinery of the world's industries.” This was a common theme among farmers in the period, as shown in the Granger's song, “The Farmer Feeds Us All” (Elkins).
By early 1883 the group had grown to more than 500 members, and E. R. McPherson was elected Grand President of the State Wheel. Emphasizing progressive farming methods, a move away from cotton, a shift to cooperative buying, and the adoption of new laws to eliminate anaconda mortgages, local Wheels addressed the concerns of their members. Pointing out the lack of availability of credit, declining markets, and the poor harvest of 1881, their first overtly political act was to request Governor Thomas Churchill to call a special session of the state legislature where lawmakers would postpone tax collection on farmers and enact laws that would make money available to them, but Churchill was unwilling to do this.
With the economy in the doldrums, the Wheel found rich soil of discontent in which to grow. On January 9, 1884, at its meeting in Stony Point, Arkansas, the Wheel's ranks had swelled to 114 chapters, representing nearly 5,000 members. By the harvest of 1885, its ranks had grown to 462 local chapters, or subordinates, across the states of Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas, and Arkansas.
Pointing to the railroad, banking, other monopolies, and crony rings that these farmers felt had an unfair advantage over them, as well as to the corruption and malpractice by local and state officials, county Wheel organizations decided to run their own candidates for political office, breaking the one-party system that refused to address their needs. Even though it was difficult to get white farmers to leave the Democratic Party, the Wheel achieved some victories in White and Prairie counties.
At the end of July 1886, McCracken sought to create a national organization at a meeting in Litchfield, Arkansas. In a controversial move, the word “white” was dropped from membership requirements, recognizing that blacks shared the same economic problems as whites. Local Wheels could decide whether they wanted African Americans in their ranks, and blacks could form their own subordinates. Soon after, a previously established black farmers’ union, the Sons of the Agricultural Star, based in Monroe County, was admitted into the Wheel. In that same year the official newspaper, the National Agricultural Wheel, in Litchfield, emerged.
One-half million farmers were members of the Wheel as it expanded into Kentucky, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Among the issues that the growing organization supported were free public education, abolition of national banks, cessation of futures trading, a repeal of any law that favored corporate interests over farmers and the common man, a graduated income tax, national ownership of all communication and transportation venues, a luxury tax, free trade, direct election of all national politicians, and full payment of the national debt. The Wheel also had a strong xenophobic element to it, urging laws that prevented foreign ownership of land and a prohibition of alien labor.
In 1888, at a meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, Wheel members agreed to merge with the National Farmers’ Alliance and Cooperative Union of America. Evan Jones became its new leader, with McCracken assuming the vice presidency. While the Agricultural Wheel ceased to exist as an independent organization, the major casualty of this merger was African Americans, who were refused membership in this new Alliance.
Trevor Jason Soderstrum
See also: African Americans and Populism ; Colored Farmers’ Alliance (CFA) ; Democratic Party ; Farmers’ and Laborers’ Union of America (FLUA) ; Farmers’ Clubs ; Northern Alliance ; Peonage ; People's Party ; South, Populism in the ; Tenant Farming
Blackmar, Frank W., ed. Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History, Embracing Events, Institutions, Industries, Counties, Cities, Towns, Prominent Persons, etc. . . . with a Supplementary Volume Devoted to Selected Personal History and Reminiscence. Chicago: Standard Publishing Co., 1912. KSGenWeb. http://www.skyways.org/genweb/archives/1912/a/agricultural_wheel.html . Accessed January 2, 2013.
Elkins, F. Clark. “Arkansas Farmers Organize for Action: 1882–1884.” http://www.argenweb.net/prairie/History/agwheel.htm . Accessed January 2, 2013.
Morgan, W. Scott. History of the Wheel and Alliance and the Impending Revolution. Vol. 3. n.p., 1889.