The first organization for farmers that appeared in the United States was the Grange, also known as the Patrons of Husbandry. The Grange was founded in 1867 by seven men, although O. H. Kelley most often gets the credit for the organization's beginnings. For the next 10 years, the Grange served farmers through social networks and educational programs. It reached its peak in the mid-1870s, when it began to involve itself in state and national politics. It brought attention to the unfair practices of railroads and granaries and caused the passage of a series of laws known collectively as Granger laws in an attempt to curb their abuses. The Grange entered a period of decline around 1876 and soon faded from the scene. It left in its wake a number of legacies, including the knowledge that farmers could be a potent political force if they asserted their collective power. In this sense, the Grange paved the way for later similar movements, including the Farmers’ Alliance and the Populist Party.
William M. Ireland, William Saunders, Francis M. McDowell, John R. Thompson, John Trimble, and Aaron B. Grosh were all involved it the Grange's origins, but it is Oliver Hudson Kelley who is most often cited as its founder. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, Kelley toured the devastated South. As a member of the Department of Agriculture, he was mostly interested in the region's farming conditions. He was appalled to observe that most southern farmers were abusing their lands with outdated and backward farming practices. The remedy, he felt, was to bring farmers together so that they could discuss their agricultural problems and discover solutions among themselves. This effort resulted in the founding of the Grange in 1867.
The Grange quickly grew in popularity. It gained most of its support in the Midwest and Northwest, especially in Minnesota, Kelley's home state. At the time of the financial panic of 1873, the Grange was established in all but four states. In the wake of the panic, national membership in the organization surged to more than 800,000 members. By this time, the Grange envisioned unified farmers allied against merchants, railroads, and granaries.
Before long, the Grange delved into politics. The issues that provoked their political involvement were depressed farmer incomes, indebtedness, and the unfair practices of railroads and grain warehouses. Grangers supported the free coinage of silver, and, partly because of their influence, the federal government passed the Bland-Allison Act in 1878, establishing the Morgan silver dollar as a common form of U.S. currency. Granger activity in the Northwest focused on the railroads and grain warehouses, which charged high prices to ship and store agricultural crops. Because they relied so heavily on these businesses, farmers had few options other than to pay the exorbitant fees. These abuses led many Grange organizations to push for reform in their respective state legislatures. The result was a series of Granger laws that attempted to curb the oppressive power of railroads and granaries. Generally, Granger laws set or established fair rates for customers. Many states created commissioners to ensure that these regulatory laws were observed. The Supreme Court apparently agreed with the Grangers. In 1876 it ruled, in Munn v. Illinois, that a business of a public nature (grain warehouses in this case, but the ruling also applied to railroads) could, in fact, be regulated by the state. The ruling was a huge victory for the Grange because it affirmed the constitutional validity of the Granger laws. The Grange eventually formed an alliance among its members, pledging to support only those political candidates who espoused their cause. Failing that, the organization threatened to form an independent party.
At the time the Granger movement seemed to be most potent, it began to decline. Its demise was associated with poor fiscal management and organizational difficulties arising from its rapid growth in membership. A decade after Munn v. Illinois, a subsequent Supreme Court ruling in Wabash, St. Louis & Pacific Railroad Company v. Illinois (1886) reversed the decision, denying states the power to regulate interstate rates for railroads. By that time, however, the Granger movement was superseded by another organization called the Farmers’ Alliance.
The Grange never completely disappeared from the American scene, and it has survived through time. In 2005, it boasted 300,000 members in 3,600 communities in 37 states. Its headquarters is presently in Washington, DC.
See also: Bland, Richard P. (1835–1899) ; Department Stores and Mail-Order Catalogs, Depression of 1873 ; Farmers’ Mutual Benefit Association (FMBA) ; Kelley, Oliver Hudson (1826–1913) ; Gold Standard/Free Silver ; Greenback Party ; People's Party ; Public Education ; Railroad Regulation ; Rochdale Plan
Nordin, D. Sven. Rich Harvest: A History of the Grange, 1867–1900. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 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.