GREENWICH, N.Y. — The Grange has been an agricultural institution for over 150 years in the United States. The group performed various roles in its history, but has remained true to its roots of advocacy and education for the American farmer.
The Grange was the brainchild of a man named Oliver Hudson Kelley. Kelley was raised in Boston, but as a young man he moved to the Midwest and eventually landed in Minnesota. Kelley did not have any farming experience, but he immersed himself in the industry learning the latest farming techniques and was a proponent of newer technologies in agriculture. He became a prominent advocate for Minnesota agriculture helping form the Minnesota Territorial Agricultural Society and founding the first county ag society in Benton County, MN. In 1864, at the recommendation of Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey, Kelley was offered a clerkship by the U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture Isaac Newton which moved him and his family to Washington, D.C.1
In 1866 Kelley was sent on a tour of the South to view the land after the Civil War, and aid in irrigation and agricultural reconstruction in the area. The tour opened Kelley’s eyes to not just the damaged caused by the war but also the life of farmers. Kelley was disheartened to see farmers using outdated methods, and living lives of isolation and limited education. While industry and other facets of American life prospered, farmers seemed stuck in a past century. Southerners were often skeptical or outright hostile to Northern efforts of Reconstruction, however Kelley was treated with respect because of his membership in the Free Masons. The experience led Kelley to imagine a similar kind of brotherhood, but for the nation’s farmers.2
After developing and promoting the idea, Kelley, six other colleagues from the Bureau of Agriculture, and Kelley’s niece Caroline Hall founded the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, known better as The Grange in December 1867. The group was designed to be a source of education and advocacy for farmers, and enable them to socialize with one another. Kelley hoped the group would enrich the lives of farmers and bring them up to date as he wrote in a letter to a friend, “Encourage them [farmers] to read and think; to plant fruits and flowers,—beautify their homes; elevate them; make them progressive…I long to see the great army of producers in our country, turn their eyes up from their work; stir up those brains, now mere machines…set them to think,—let them feel that they are human beings, and the strength of the nation, their labor honorable, and farming the highest calling on earth.”3
Being based on the Masons the Grange included secret meetings and rituals at the start. Members met in meeting houses called granges and members were referred to as grangers. Reflecting the wide range of people involved in agriculture, Grange membership was open to all different kinds of people. Women were allowed to join and were welcomed. In fact, a requirement for the group was that four of the sixteen elected positions in the group were required to be women. Teenagers as young as fourteen could be members too. The thinking was that if someone was old enough to work a plow, they were old enough for membership.4 Also, people more indirectly involved in agriculture could be permitted to join allowing townspeople to be in the Grange.
Grangers met in recognizable, white buildings that look similar to old schoolhouses. The Grange offered educational events such as guest speakers and demonstrations on good farming practices to inform farmers. Some farmers even learned basic educational skills like reading and writing through the grange. The Grange organized social events such as fairs and gatherings which helped break up the tedium of farm life.5 Indeed, the community aspect was a big draw of the Grange. Granges became centers for business, social, and cultural life in rural communities. The first Grange Hall opened in Fredonia, NY in 1867 and from then granges slowly spread across the country. By the mid-1870s the Grange had around 800,000 members nationwide.6
While the Grange was founded to be a social and educational organization, in the 1870s the group became increasingly political. Farmers, particularly those in the Midwest and West, were facing financial difficulties. Overproduction of commodities was causing lower prices, which led to farmers having difficulty supporting themselves and their farms. In order to purchase equipment or land farmers often took out loans from banks with overly high interest rates. The biggest issue farmers had were with the railroads. The monopolistic practices of the railroads at this time led them to charge exorbitant fees to ship their commodities. Railroads also often owned grain elevators that farmers used, charging high prices to store grain in them. The financial Panic of 1873 exacerbated these problems further for farmers.7
Granges became places where farmers voiced their concerns and organized ways to combat them. While the Grange as an organization remained non-partisan, the group advocated for particular policies that regulated railroads and banks, and candidates that supported those policies. Grange halls became stumping sites for politicians wanting to win the grangers’ support. Grangers also began opening cooperative elevators and stores, and some began pooling savings into an early form of a credit union as a way to circumvent railroads and banks.8
The political pressure that the Grangers put on state legislatures, referred to as the Granger Movement, produced some favorable results in states like Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota where laws that fixed maximum rates that railroads and grain storage facilities could charge were enacted. These so-called “Granger laws” were affirmed by the Supreme Court in the 1877 case Munn vs. Illinois. However, by the end of the decade the railroads had fought back and most of these laws were repealed or diminished in some form.9
Into the 1880s the Grange saw a decline in membership for a few reasons. Similar to their other cooperative ventures, the Grange attempted to form cooperative equipment manufacturing facilities. However, this project never got off the ground and drained much of the group’s resources. Poor organization led to issues within the group too.
Also, by this time many farmers had joined newly formed farmer-focused political parties and organizations like the Greenback Party and the Farmers Alliance which limited membership. With these other groups focusing on the political goals of farmers, the Grange returned to its original focus of improving the educational and social lives of farmers and serving as an advocate for farmers.10 The Grange saw a rebound in membership in the 20th century and remained an important institution in many rural communities.
The Grange still exists today and remains a voice for famers and a center of gathering for rural communities. Today the Grange has around 150,000 members and 1,500 local chapters across the country. The Grange is still non-partisan acting as a grassroots organization that advocates only for policies at the state and national levels. The Grange offers services to members and is highly involved in charitable activities in their local communities. The group also continues to offer many educational programs to farmers, and focuses on the next generation of farmers through its Junior Grange program. While not all are in use, many Grange meeting houses across the country are still standing and provide a reminder of what the Grangers did and still do today.
1“Oliver Kelley,” Minnesota Historical Society online, July 13, 2022, https://www.mnhs.org/kelleyfarm/learn/oliver-kelley.
4 The Daily Bellringer, “The Granger Movement,” YouTube, December 2021, video, 1:38, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhYx_aPZ66U&t=129s.
5 Jake Corso, “Change in the Countryside: The Granger Movement and the Rural Community,” Stony Brook Undergraduate History Journal, Stony Brook University, April 19, 2021, https://you.stonybrook.edu/undergraduatehistoryjournal/2021/04/19/change-in-the-countryside-the-granger-movement-and-the-rural-community/.
6 “Granger Movement,” Britannica online, Britannica, July 13, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/event/Granger-movement.
8 “The Granger Movement: Patrons of Husbandry,” U-S History.com, July 13, 2022, https://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h854.html.
9 “Granger Movement,” Britannica online, Britannica, July 13, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/event/Granger-movement.
10 “The Granger Movement: Patrons of Husbandry,” U-S History.com, July 13, 2022, https://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h854.html.