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Kansas Wheat

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The first phase of the agrarian crusade, which centered around and took its distinctive name from the Grange, reached its highwater mark in 1874. Early in the next year the tide began to ebb. The number of Granges decreased rapidly during the remainder of the decade, and of over twenty thousand in 1874 only about four thousand were alive in 1880.

Several causes contributed to this sudden decline. Any organization which grows so rapidly is prone to decay with equal rapidity; the slower growths are better rooted and are more likely to reach fruition. So with the Grange. Many farmers had joined the order, attracted by its novelty and vogue; others joined the organization in the hope that it would prove a panacea for all the ills that agriculture is heir to and then left it in disgust when they found its success neither immediate nor universal.

Its methods of organization, too, while admirably adapted to arousing enthusiasm and to securing new chapters quickly, did not make for stability and permanence. The Grange deputy, as the organizer was termed, did not do enough of what the salesman calls "follow-up work." He went into a town, persuaded an influential farmer to go about with him in a house-to-house canvass, talked to the other farmers of the vicinity, stirred them up to interest and excitement, organized a Grange, and then left the town. If he happened to choose the right material, the chapter became an active and flourishing organization; if he did not choose wisely, it might drag along in a perfunctory existence or even lapse entirely. Then, too, the deputy's ignorance of local conditions sometimes led him to open the door to the farmers' enemies. There can be little doubt that insidious harm was worked through the admission into the Grange of men who were farmers only incidentally and whose "interest in agriculture" was limited to making profits from the farmer rather than from the farm. As D. Wyatt Aiken, deputy for the Grange in the Southern States and later member of the executive committee of the National Grange, shrewdly commented, "Everybody wanted to join the Grange then; lawyers, to get clients; doctors, to get customers; Shylocks, to get their pound of flesh; and sharpers, to catch the babes in the woods."

Not only the members who managed thus to insinuate themselves into the order but also the legitimate members proved hard to control. With that hostility to concentrated authority which so often and so lamentably manifests itself in a democratic body, the rank and file looked with suspicion upon the few men who constituted the National Grange. The average farmer was interested mainly in local issues, conditions, and problems, and looked upon the National Grange not as a means of helping him in local affairs, but as a combination of monopolists who had taken out a patent on the local grange and forced him to pay a royalty in order to enjoy its privileges. The demand for reduction in the power of the National Grange led to frequent attempts to revise the constitution in the direction of decentralization; and the revisions were such as merely to impair the power of the National Grange without satisfying the discontented members.

Of all the causes of the rapid collapse of the Granger movement, the unfortunate experience which the farmers had in their attempts at business cooperation was probably chief. Their hatred of the middleman and of the manufacturer was almost as intense as their hostility to the railroad magnate; quite naturally, therefore, the farmers attempted to use their new organizations as a means of eliminating the one and controlling the other. As in the parallel case of the railroads, the farmers' animosity, though it was probably greater than the provocation warranted, was not without grounds.

The middlemen--the commission merchants to whom the farmer sold his produce and the retail dealers from whom he bought his supplies--did undoubtedly make use of their opportunities to drive hard bargains. The commission merchant had such facilities for storage and such knowledge of market conditions that he frequently could take advantage of market fluctuations to increase his profits. The farmer who sold his produce at a low price and then saw it disposed of as a much higher figure was naturally enraged, but he could devise no adequate remedy. Attempts to regulate market conditions by creating an artificial shortage seldom met with success. The slogan "Hold your hogs" was more effective as a catchword than as an economic weapon. The retail dealers, no less than the commission men, seemed to the farmer to be unjust in their dealings with him. In the small agricultural communities there was practically no competition. Even where there were several merchants in one town these could, and frequently did, combine to fix prices which the farmer had no alternative but to pay. What irked the farmer most in connection with these "extortions" was that the middleman seemed to be a nonproducer, a parasite who lived by chaining the agricultural classes of the wealth which they produced. Even those farmers who recognized the middleman as a necessity had little conception of the intricacy and value of his service.

Against the manufacturer, too, the farmer had his grievances. He felt that the system of patent rights for farm machinery resulted in unfair prices--for was not this same machinery shipped to Europe and there sold for less than the retail price in the United States? Any one could see that the manufacturer must have been making more than reasonable profit on domestic sales. Moreover, there were at this time many abuses of patent rights. Patents about to expire were often extended through political influence or renewed by means of slight changes which were claimed to be improvements. A more serious defect in the patent system was that new patents were not thoroughly investigated, so that occasionally one was issued on an article which had long been in common use. That a man should take out a patent for the manufacture of a sliding gate which farmers had for years crudely constructed for themselves and should then collect royalty from those who were using the gates they had made, naturally enough aroused the wrath of his victims.

It was but natural, then, that the Granges should be drawn into all sorts of schemes to divert into the pockets of their members the streams of wealth which had previously flowed to the greedy middlemen. The members of the National Grange, thinking that these early schemes for cooperation were premature, did not at first take them up and standardize them but left them entirely in the hands of local, county, and state Granges. These thereupon proceeded to "gang their ain gait" through the unfamiliar paths of business operations and too frequently brought up in a quagmire. "This purchasing business," said Kelley in 1867, "commenced with buying jackasses; the prospects are that many will be SOLD." But the Grangers went on with their plans for business cooperation with ardor undampened by such forebodings. Sometimes a local Grange would make a bargain with a certain dealer of the vicinity, whereby members were allowed special rates if they bought with cash and traded only with that dealer. More often the local grange would establish an agency, with either a paid or a voluntary agent who would forward the orders of the members in large lots to the manufacturers or wholesalers and would thus be able to purchase supplies for cash at terms considerably lower than the retail prices. Frequently, realizing that they could get still more advantageous terms for larger orders, the Granges established a county agency which took over the work of several local agents. Sometimes the Patrons even embarked upon the more ambitious enterprise of cooperative stores.

The most common type of cooperative store was that in which the capital was provided by a stock company of Grange members and which sold goods to Patrons at very low prices. The profits, when there were any, were divided among the stockholders in proportion to the amount of stock they held, just as in any stock company. This type of store was rarely successful for any length of time. The low prices at which it sold goods were likely to involve it in competition with other merchants. Frequently these men would combine to lower their prices and, by a process familiar in the history of business competition, "freeze out" the cooperative store, after which they might restore their prices to the old levels. The farmers seldom had sufficient spirit to buy at the grange store if they found better bargains elsewhere; so the store was assured of its clientele only so long as it sold at the lowest possible prices. Farmers' agencies for the disposal of produce met with greater success. Cooperative creameries and elevators in several States are said to have saved Grange members thousands of dollars. Sometimes the state Grange, instead of setting up in the business of selling produce, chose certain firms as Grange agents and advised Patrons to sell through these firms. Where the choice was wisely made, this system seems to have saved the farmers about as much money without involving them in the risks of business.

By 1876 the members of the National Grange had begun to study the problem of cooperation in retailing goods and had come to the conclusion that the so-called "Rochdale plan," a system worked out by an English association, was the most practicable for the cooperative store. The National Grange therefore recommended this type of organization. The stock of these stores was sold only to Patrons, at five dollars a share and in limited amounts; thus the stores were owned by a large number of stockholders, all of whom had equal voice in the management of the company. The stores sold goods at ordinary rates, and then at the end of the year, after paying a small dividend on the stock, divided their profits among the purchasers, according to the amounts purchased. This plan eliminated the violent competition which occurred when a store attempted to sell goods at cost, and at the same time saved the purchaser quite as much. Unfortunately the Rochdale plan found little favor among farmers in the Middle West because of their unfortunate experience with other cooperative ventures. In the East and South, however, it was adopted more generally and met with sufficient success to testify to the wisdom of the National Grange in recommending it.

In its attitude toward manufacturing, the National Grange was less sane. Not content with the elimination of the middlemen, the farmers were determined to control the manufacture of their implements. With the small manufacturer they managed to deal fairly well, for they could usually find some one who would supply the Grange with implements at less than the retail price. In Iowa, where the state Grange early established an agency for cooperative buying, the agent managed to persuade a manufacturer of plows to give a discount to Grangers. As a result, this manufacturer's plows are reported to have left the factory with the paint scarcely dry, while his competitors, who had refused to make special terms, had difficulty in disposing of their stock. But the manufacturers of harvesters persistently refused to sell at wholesale rates. The Iowa Grange thereupon determined to do its own manufacturing and succeeded in buying a patent for a harvester which it could make and sell for about half what other harvesters cost. In 1874 some 250 of these machines were manufactured, and the prospects looked bright.

Deceived by the apparent success of grange manufacturing in Iowa, officers of the order at once planned to embark in manufacturing on a large scale. The National Grange was rich in funds at this time; it had within a year received well over $250,000 in dispensation fees from seventeen thousand new Granges. Angered at what was felt to be the tyranny of monopoly, the officers of the National Grange decided to use this capital in manufacturing agricultural implements which were to be sold to Patrons at very low prices. They went about the country buying patents for all sorts of farm implements, but not always making sure of the worth of the machinery or the validity of the patents. In Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky, they planned factories to make harvesters, plows, wagons, sewing-machines, threshing-machines, and all sorts of farm implements. Then came the crash. The Iowa harvester factory failed in 1875 and bankrupted the state Grange. Other failures followed; suits for patent infringements were brought against some of the factories; local Granges disbanded for fear they might be held responsible for the debts incurred; and in the Northwest, where the activity had been the greatest, the order almost disappeared.

Although the Grange had a mushroom growth, it nevertheless exerted a real and enduring influence upon farmers both as individuals and as members of a class. Even the experiments in cooperation, disastrous though they were in the end, were not without useful results. While they lasted they undoubtedly effected a considerable saving for the farmers. As Grange agents or as stockholders in cooperative stores or Grange factories, many farmers gained valuable business experience which helped to prevent them from being victimized thereafter. The farmers learned, moreover, the wisdom of working through the accepted channels of business. Those who had scoffed at the Rochdale plan of cooperation, in the homely belief that any scheme made in America must necessarily be better than an English importation, came to see that self-confidence and independence must be tempered by willingness to learn from the experience of others. Most important of all, these experiments in business taught the farmers that the middlemen and manufacturers performed services essential to the agriculturalist and that the production and distribution of manufactured articles and the distribution of crops are far more complex affairs than the farmers had imagined and perhaps worthy of more compensation than they had been accustomed to think just. On their side, the manufacturers and dealers learned that the farmers were not entirely helpless and that to gain their goodwill by fair prices was on the whole wiser than to force them into competition. Thus these ventures resulted in the development of a new tolerance and a new respect between the two traditionally antagonistic classes.

The social and intellectual stimulus which the farmers received from the movement was probably even more important than any direct political or economic results. It is difficult for the present generation to form any conception of the dreariness and dullness of farm life half a century ago. Especially in the West, where farms were large, opportunities for social intercourse were few, and weeks might pass without the farmer seeing any but his nearest neighbors. For his wife existence was even more drear. She went to the market town less often than he and the routine of her life on the farm kept her close to the farmhouse and prevented visits even to her neighbors' dwellings. The difficulty of getting domestic servants made the work of the farmer's wife extremely laborious; and at that time there were none of the modern conveniences which lighten work such as power churns, cream separators, and washing-machines. Even more than the husband, the wife was likely to degenerate into a drudge without the hope--and eventually without the desire--of anything better. The church formed, to be sure, a means of social intercourse; but according to prevailing religious notions the churchyard was not the place nor the Sabbath the time for that healthy but unrestrained hilarity which is essential to the well-being of man.

Into lives thus circumscribed the Grange came as a liberalizing and uplifting influence. Its admission of women into the order on the same terms as men made it a real community servant and gave both women and men a new sense of the dignity of woman. More important perhaps than any change in theories concerning womankind, it afforded an opportunity for men and women to work and play together, apparently much to the satisfaction and enjoyment of both sexes. Not only in Grange meetings, which came at least once a month and often more frequently, but also in Grange picnics and festivals the farmers and their wives and children came together for joyous human intercourse. Such frequent meetings were bound to work a change of heart. Much of man's self-respect arises from the esteem of others, and the desire to keep that esteem is certainly a powerful agent in social welfare. It was reported that in many communities the advent of the Grange created a marked improvement in the dress and manners of the members. Crabbed men came out of their shells and grew genial; disheartened women became cheerful; repressed children delighted in the chance to play with other boys and girls of their own age.

The ritual of the Grange, inculcating lessons of orderliness, industry, thrift, and temperance, expressed the members' ideals in more dignified and pleasing language than they themselves could have invented. The songs of the Grange gave an opportunity for the exercise of the musical sense of people not too critical of literary quality, when with "spontaneous trills on every tongue," as one of the songs has it, the members varied the ritual with music.

One of the virtues especially enjoined on Grange members was charity. Ceres, Pomona, and Flora, offices of the Grange to be filled only by women, were made to represent Faith, Hope, and Charity, respectively; and in the ceremony of dedicating the Grange hall these three stood always beside the altar while the chaplain read the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians. Not only in theory but in practice did the order proclaim its devotion to charitable work. It was not uncommon for members of a local Grange to foregather and harvest the crops for a sick brother or help rebuild a house destroyed by fire or tornado. In times of drought or plague both state and national Granges were generous in donations for the sufferers; in 1874, when the Mississippi River overflowed its banks in its lower reaches, money and supplies were sent to the farmers of Louisiana and Alabama; again in the same year relief was sent to those Patrons who suffered from the grasshopper plague west of the Mississippi; and in 1876 money was sent to South Carolina to aid sufferers from a prolonged drought in that State. These charitable deeds, endearing giver and receiver to each other, resulted in a better understanding and a greater tolerance between people of different parts of the country.

The meetings of the local Granges were forums in which the members trained themselves in public speaking and parliamentary practice. Programs were arranged, sometimes with the help of suggestions from officers of the state Grange; and the discussion of a wide variety of topics, mostly economic and usually concerned especially with the interests of the farmer, could not help being stimulating, even if conclusions were sometimes reached which were at variance with orthodox political economy. The Grange was responsible, too, for a great increase in the number and circulation of agricultural journals. Many of these papers were recognized as official organs of the order and, by publishing news of the Granges and discussing the political and economic phases of the farmers' movement, they built up an extensive circulation. Rural postmasters everywhere reported a great increase in their mails after the establishment of a Grange in the vicinity. One said that after the advent of the order there were thirty newspapers taken at his office where previously there had been but one. Papers for which members or local Granges subscribed were read, passed from hand to hand, and thoroughly discussed. This is good evidence that farmers were forming the habit of reading. All the Granger laws might have been repealed; all the schemes for cooperation might have come to naught; all the moral and religious teachings of the Grange might have been left to the church; but if the Granger movement had created nothing else than this desire to read, it would have been worth while. For after the farmer began to read, he was no longer like deadwood floating in the backwaters of the current; he became more like a propelled vessel in midstream--sometimes, to be sure, driven into turbulent waters, sometimes tossed about by conflicting currents, but at least making progress.