The Origins of the Grange Movement
The Grange is actually officially called the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry. But The Grange is so much easier to say, right? It was founded right after the Civil War, in 1867, when Southern farms were still decimated from the fighting. President Andrew Johnson sent some advisers on a tour through the South to see what farming was like and was actually totally blown away with how terrible farming practices were. Soon enough, the fraternal organization was created, whose members were going to be called Grangers, under the idea that Northern and Southern farmers needed to work together in order to get farming back on track and be productive for the whole country.
It should also be noted, that although The Grange was a fraternal organization, women were seen as essential members, even holding elected positions in the organization over the years.
The Grange Becomes a Force
The first decade or so of membership was slow moving. But then the Panic of 1873 happened, and Grange membership skyrocketed. Farmers, in particular, were hit hard by the financial crisis, especially since low prices for agriculture spread throughout the country, farmers found themselves in increasing debt to banks, and railroads raised the prices to ship agricultural goods through the nation. So, farmers became Grangers in order to find a solution.
With growing membership and support, The Grange began to spread their influence all across the country. They believed that the farm held the country together and that every American relies on the farmer, so they wanted to make sure that the farmer was heard in all things political, social, and economic. With increased membership fees, Grangers began petitioning politicians for measures that would be beneficial to farmer. They even supported a number of other reformist movements in the country, including women’s’ suffragists, the Populists, and the Greenback Party.
What Did the Grange Want?
Here are a few examples of what Grangers wanted from Local and State governments to help them with:
- The ability for farmers to cooperatively purchase farm equipment and other supplies needed to run their farms.
- The ability to legally pool together the savings of each farmer into one spot.
- The ability for farmers to create cooperative grain elevators that allowed farmers to hold onto grain and other goods for a better time to sell.
- The ability to build and manufacture their own farm equipment.
What Did the Grange Get?
Grangers weren’t always successful in their appeals for social, political, and economic reform but they were able to make some important contributions. In particular, many local organizations created consumer cooperatives, putting the business side in the hands of farmers and consumers. They were also able to successfully get the local governments to begin regulating railroad and grain warehouses.
At their peak, they successfully argued to the Supreme Court that grain warehouses were a “private utility in the public interest,” meaning that the public could regulate them and not the private railroad companies.
But things soon took a turn downhill. That Supreme Court decision, originally ruled in 1877, was overturned in 7896. Membership grew rapidly and funds were often mismanaged, including efforts to get into the manufacturing industry, which did not end up so well.
Among the most remarkable secret societies to emerge from the golden age of American fraternalism in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Patrons of Husbandry was launched in 1867 by Oliver H. Kelley, an employee of the federal Bureau of Agriculture, and six other men, mostly government clerks, who were concerned with the plight of small farmers after the American Civil War. Kelley was a Freemason, and the other founders were all either Masons or Odd Fellows; they felt that a fraternal secret society designed for farmers would provide them with a framework for cooperative action and mutual aid.
The Grange, as the organization has been called from the first, copied many of the standard features of other fraternal secret societies of the time. Local lodges, called Granges, confer four degrees of initiation, based on the four seasons of the agricultural year. Three higher degrees named after Greek and Roman goddesses of agriculture and plant growth are conferred by higher levels of the organization:
- The Degree of Pomona by county Granges
- The Degree of Flora by state Granges
- The Degree of Demeter by the National Grange
- The Degree of Demeter, a reconstruction of the ancient Eleusinian mysteries, was supposedly purchased by Kelley from an Italian nobleman who claimed to have access to the original rites of Eleusis; it is sufficiently pagan that nowadays many Christian members refuse to receive it.
Certain features of the Grange set it apart from most other fraternal orders of its time, however. At the urging of Kelley’s niece, Caroline Hall, the order admitted men and women on an equal basis, allowing women to hold every office while setting aside four positions in each local Grange that men are not allowed to hold. In addition, whereas nearly all fraternal secret societies were strictly non-political, the Grange made political activism one of its central activities, and also took on the job of organizing economic cooperatives among its members.
Recruitment was slow at first, but during the 1870s and 1880s Granges spread rapidly through America’s farm belt. During these years the Patrons of Husbandry became famous for their stand against the abusive policies of American railroads, which made it almost impossible for farmers to earn a living. Railroads were among the richest corporations in the country, with a huge degree of influence in the corrupt politics of that time, but Grange lawsuits, lobbying, and electoral organization forced through a series of laws – the “Granger Acts” – that reined in the railroad corporations and helped make possible the vast expansion of agriculture in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America.
Through much of the twentieth century, the local Grange Hall was the center of community life in most of America’s farm country, featuring a busy calendar of social events and political rallies as well as regular Grange meetings. As the percentage of farmers in the American population dwindled in the course of the century, the Grange lost ground, but it still counts some 300,000 members and 2600 local Granges and has a significant voice in political debates over American agricultural policy.