Former Minnesota farmer Oliver Hudson Kelley founds the Grange, which became a powerful political force among western farmers.
Though he grew up in Boston, Kelley decided in his early twenties that he wanted to become a farmer. In 1849, he booked passage on a steamboat for St. Paul, Minnesota. Though the Minnesota area was dominated more by the Indian trade than farming, Kelley shrewdly saw that the future of the region lay in agriculture, and he proved to be a skilled and progressive farmer. Kelley gained local fame for boldly experimenting with new crops, installing an elaborate irrigation system, and buying one of the first mechanical reapers in the state. His attempts at scientific farming and a series of columns he wrote for national newspapers brought him national recognition—in 1864, he won a prestigious clerking position under the federal commissioner of agriculture in Washington, D.C.
While on a tour of southern farms in 1866, Kelley was struck by the warm reception he received from his fellow Masons in the South, despite the otherwise pervasive dislike of northerners left over from the Civil War. Determined to develop a national organization to unify farmers, he returned to Washington and gathered a group of like-minded friends. In 1867, these men became the founders of the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry, better known as the Grange.
Although the Grange, like the Masons, began primarily as a social organization designed to provide educational and recreational opportunities for farmers, it evolved into a major political force. Farmers who gathered at local Grange Halls often voiced similar complaints about the high rates charged by warehouses and railroads to handle their grain, and they began to organize for state and federal controls over these pivotal economic issues. The Grange smartly recognized the importance of including women, who often proved to be the organization’s most dedicated members.
The Grange’s political activism resulted in a flurry of legislation that became known as the “Granger Laws,” which were not very effective in solving the farmers’ problems with the railroads and warehouses but did provide a crucial precedent for state and federal regulation of private enterprise for the “public interest.” The Laws were passed in five midwestern states. In decades to come, politicians took a cue from the Granger Laws and created controls over many big business industries, from meatpacking to drug making, on the grounds that governmental regulations were essential to protect the interests of all the people, not just farmers. The Grange also played a key role in creating the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, which called for the first federal regulation of railroads to control unfair shipping rates.