The Populist movement was the product of farmers joining together for economic improvement. One of the various groups formed for such purposes was the Farmers’ Mutual Benefit Association (FMBA) of Illinois. The FMBA is less well known than many of the other groups that formed the Populist coalition, but, in some important ways, it was more successful than some of its better-known peers.
The FMBA was formed in the fall of 1883 by five farmers from Vienna, Illinois (in Johnson County). These men began to suspect, correctly, that their immediate buyer, the man who would purchase their crops for resale in the St. Louis market, was cheating them. By arranging for transportation to and sale in St. Louis themselves not only could the farmers get a better price for their crops prior to shipping but they were able to make more money by cutting out the middle man. Word about the five farmers’ achievement spread, and the arrangement, formalized as the Farmers’ Mutual Benefit Association, spread rapidly. By winter of 1883, just a few months after its original founding, the FMBA developed a formal structure, membership badges, and highly formal initiation rituals, as its members believed the organization had to remain a secret. The reasons why are not specified by commentators but can be imagined, including the similarity of this organization to Grange cooperatives.
The FMBA's structure was highly centralized. Farmers wanting to establish new locals had to petition a central governing body, usually referred to by historians as the general assembly (whether or not that was the body's actual name, however, is not specified). The FMBA grew steadily and remained true to its central, formative mission. Recruitment was mostly by word of mouth, and by 1886 it had about 2,000 members.
However, from the spring to fall of 1887, the FMBA appears to have decided that it needed to expand more rapidly. It hired Frank G. Blood as a professional recruiter, wrote a new constitution, and devised a new structure that incorporated three levels of administration (local, county, and central). The general assembly, which was appointed by the county-level organizations, retained all decision-making power for the organization. Three officers (president, vice president, and treasurer) and a five-member board of trustees were elected by the general assembly at its meetings, which were held once per year.
The FMBA also realized that it needed a reliable, formalized funding stream. The general assembly began to collect annual charter fees from the county and local chapters. Individual members paid dues to the general assembly and to the county and local chapters and also paid initiation fees upon their induction into the FMBA.
With an appropriate administrative structure, impressive results, and Frank Blood on its side, the FMBA grew. By October 1887 it had 389 locals and about 15,000 members (this was the last year reliable membership numbers are available). By November 1888, it had 942 locals and had spread beyond Illinois.
The FMBA had an official journal, known as The Binder. Frank Blood and an early member named A. M. Palmer fought over who ran the organization. Frank Blood opposed the 1887 reorganization of the FMBA, even though the same impulse that led to that reorganization also led to his being hired, and he used his control over The Binder to voice his opposition.
The reorganization brought trustee John P. Stelle to the forefront. He had been crippled by a childhood disease and had no formal education until the age of 13. However, he took to reading and writing extremely well. Stelle became secretary of the FMBA. In April 1888, at the request of the board of trustees, he started a new FMBA journal titled Progressive Farmer. It was wildly successful from the outset and absorbed The Binder by the fall of 1888.
The middle to late 1880s were particularly hard for farmers, following a contrastingly good economic year in 1883. Historians unambiguously agree that the FMBA and similar organizations benefited mightily from hard times. By November 1889, the FMBA had 2,181 locals, and 4,947 locals by November 1890. Indiana was now rivaling Illinois in terms of numbers of locals and importance to the organization. Indiana's increasing importance to the FMBA was reflected in the 1890 election of an Indianan, William J. Stillwell, as its president. Also that year, the FMBA members added another level of organization (state) to prevent the general assembly from becoming too large. The structure now included local, county, and state chapters as well as the general assembly.
The FMBA was invited into the Farmers’ Alliance (referring to the Southern Alliance) as early as 1888. In 1889 the FMBA decided it was better off on its own. Frank Blood was sent to a conference in St. Louis to represent the FMBA and tell the Alliance its overtures were being rejected. The FMBA's membership in what was envisioned as a nationwide alliance of farmers was highly sought, presumably because of its great success. The delegates to the conference were doubtless disappointed by the FMBA's decision. However, while they could not lure the FMBA, they could lure Frank Blood. Blood betrayed the FMBA and agreed to lead the Southern Alliance in Illinois (Scott). Blood, who was hired by the FMBA for his skills at organizing and recruiting members, did rather well for the Alliance.
However, the FMBA's undoing ultimately proved not to be competition, even from Frank Blood and the Southern Alliance. In 1890 it formally joined the People's Party and failed at getting the majority of its membership to go along. Thus began its decline.
The FMBA's political platform had much in common with other, similar farmers’ groups of its day. Farmers, the argument went, were central to American life and to American prosperity. Yet they were stereotyped and oppressed by the broader culture and the broader political system and did not fully benefit from the prosperity to which they contributed so much. The concentration of wealth was, as the argument went, a major source of the farmers’ distress. The rich elite owned the politicians and also charged farmers excessively for materials while devaluing their crops. Thus the only way to counteract these monied elites was to organize for political, social, or economic support.
Historians have documented that the FMBA members benefited from mixing the techniques of a labor organization with those of a business organization. They engaged in cooperative buying and selling similar to a business organization (just as Grangers had tried to do before them), but they also, like labor unions, conducted educational programs and emphasized the power of unity and collective action. The FMBA was, however, considerably less of a social organization than unions or the Grange. Among other things the FMBA purposefully excluded women, central to social life on farms, from its membership, which was consistent with gendered ideas about business and economics in the period.
Participation in partisan politics muddled the social and economic purposes of groups such as the Grange and the Alliances, which often led to their decline. The FMBA had been formed originally to do solely what its name implied, to bring economic benefits to the farmers within its membership, and initially had no political ambitions. It was perhaps unsurprising that the organization dwindled, and eventually died, when it strayed from its economic focus. Attempting to hitch its wagon to a particular political party, almost by definition, proved fatal to the FMBA's very reason for existence. There was, ultimately, no party label on the price of grain.
Steven D. Koczak
See also: Gold Standard/Free Silver ; Granger Movement ; People's Party ; Progressive Farmer ; Rochdale Plan ; Farmers’ Alliances ; South, Populism in the Subtreasury Plan
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