Kelley, Oliver Hudson (1826–1913)

O. H. Kelley was a founding member of the Patrons of Husbandry, the farmer's organization better known by the name he borrowed from a popular nineteenth-century novel, “the Grange.” Due to his central role in spreading the “Gospel of the Grange,” he is remembered as “Father Kelley” by many Grangers.

Oliver Hudson Kelley was born the fifth son of a Boston tailor in 1826. As a young man, he held several white-collar jobs, including newspaper reporter, telegrapher, and as support staff for the legislature of the Minnesota territory. Thwarted dreams of becoming rich from land speculation resulted in Kelley occupying a claim and taking up farming despite a lack of agricultural experience. In 1852, at Itasca, Minnesota, Kelley founded the Benton County Agricultural Society, which sought to bring commercial farming to the frontier under more favorable conditions for the farmer. He also tried to develop a town site but suffered severe financial losses in the panic of 1857.

With this background, Kelley became the visionary behind the Grange. After struggling to develop rituals and a constitution for an agricultural organization, he recruited the other six founding members. Kelley's correspondence with these men from 1867 suggested a secret society where people would be admitted to degrees within a framework of Grange ritualism. In contrast to the Masons, the Grange was a family organization open to both sexes. Passage through the degrees was related to practical and moral lessons, invoking the symbolism of the common tools of rural life.

This basic structure was accepted by the founders, and the first Grange was established at Washington, DC, in January 1868. That spring, Kelly undertook a journey from the capital back to his homestead in Minnesota to organize Granges. The trip was something of a failure. He was only successful in establishing one permanent Grange at Fredonia, New York. Kelley even had to borrow his train fare home from the Masons Lodge in Madison, Wisconsin. It is unclear whether the Grange would have continued had it not been for Temperance Lane Kelley giving her husband's cause a $500 cash injection from a secret inheritance.

While the group in the District of Columbia had been more concerned with individualistic self-improvement, his wife's support allowed Kelley to refocus the Grange as organization for uniting farmers in the face of mutual challenges. His experience with the agricultural society in Benton County proved to be valuable in changing the organization's focus. Kelley also shifted his campaigning strategy, promoting the Grange through newspaper articles and holding large promotional events, including a free “Strawberry Pic-Nic” at his own farm. Soon newspapers began endorsing Kelley's populist vision for the Grange, which sought to both insulate farmers against exploitive business interests and provide a forum for education and socialization among rural people. This strategy produced a strong base in Minnesota from which the movement was able to expand rapidly. By December 1873, there were about 9,000 Granges established in the United States and eastern Canada with a total estimated membership of 700,000. As a result, Kelley was in a strong position to push for legislative change, and he also began establishing alternative structures, including cooperatives, for both the purchasing of supplies and the selling of agricultural production, challenging the hold that big business had on North American farmers.

However, by the mid-1870s some of these initiatives failed and Grange membership began to decline. Kelley's reputation was also tarnished when his brother-in-law, the master of the New York City Grange, was found to have been dishonest in business dealings with other Granges. The charter of that Grange was revoked in 1875 amid public uproar. Following this incident and a failed attempt to organize an order for more radical members within the organization, Kelley's enthusiasm for the Grange waned. He resigned from his position as secretary in 1878, and although he occasionally spoke at Grange events, he never held another national office within the organization.

Many Grangers who shared his activist agenda left the movement around the same time. Often, their energies were transferred to the Greenback Party and the Farmers’ Alliance. The latter's success in endorsing candidates for Congress, state legislatures, and governorships in the 1890 elections was a major influence on the founding of the People's Party. The 1892 Populist platform was written by one of Kelley's early Grange organizers from Minnesota. As such, it is not surprising that the People's Party platform showed preferences for Kelley's Populist policies, which had helped to drive the Grange's early success.

During his later life, Kelley focused much of his time developing the town of Carrabelle, Florida, which he founded in 1877. He died in Washington, DC, in 1913. His northwestern legacy is represented by the Kelley Farm National Historical Landmark, originally purchased by the National Grange in 1935, now run as a living museum by the Minnesota Historical Society. Kelley was inducted into the National Agricultural Center's Hall of Fame in October 2006.

Christopher William Hrynkow

See also: Granger Movement , Greenback Party , People's Party


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Gilman, Rhoda R., and Patricia Smith. “Oliver Hudson Kelley: Minnesota Pioneer, 1849–1868.” Minnesota History 40 (7): 330–338.

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New York Times Archives

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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.