Great changes came for farmers thanks to men and women of our past

The 1880s is a prime example of long-ago events that impact our lives to this day. Author Mychal Wilmes details the movement that swept across the country.

Farming 1895.jpg
A group loads hay near Plymouth, Minnesota, in 1895.
Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

History doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but it can tell us a great deal about the events that shaped our shared agricultural history.

The 1880s is a prime example of long-ago events that impact our lives to this day. Farmers were fed up with the status quo and started a movement that swept across the country.

There was ample reason for them to be angry. Punishing tariffs forced them to pay high prices on imported items, and because no tariffs existed on food, cheap imports drove prices down. Farmers had little cash at a time when standards of living among the general population increased.

Farm women — who saw the modern conveniences displayed in popular magazines and newspapers — wanted better lives for themselves and their children. Many also wanted the right to vote, which was denied because many elected male office holders shared the opinion that women were far too emotional to make intelligent voting decisions.

The Grange, among the first national organizations to push the formation of cooperatives so that farmers could pool production and purchases to earn better rail shipping rates and higher commodity prices, grew rapidly.


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The 71st assembly of the National Grange group in 1937 at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Farmers pushed the nation to move away from the gold standard and pump more silver and paper money into the economy. The introduction of more cash would cause inflation, which they thought would raise commodity prices and give them more money to pay their bills.

Monied interests and the monopolies that dominated Washington, D.C., policy making viciously fought putting more greenbacks in circulation.

Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan gave voice to the movement away from the gold standard cause in an 1896 speech during which he said, “You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold.’’

To read more of Mychal Wilmes' Farm Boy Memories, click here.

As the Grange movement matured, a new national group took up the farmers’ cause. The Farmers’ Alliance, consisting of Midwest farmers, black farmers, and a remarkable number of women increased its influence. Kansas agrarian Mary Lease caused a stir when she told farmers to “raise less corn and more hell.’’ It was bold and scandalous words for the time.

The alliance made a concrete proposal to help farmers pay their bills. It pushed for a federal law that would allow storage of grain in federal facilities and in return the government would loan 80 percent of the crop’s value to farmers. If commodity prices increased during the loan’s duration farmers could sell the grain, pay off the loan, and keep the profit.

The proposal didn’t pass Congress but was eventually enacted by Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression and remained a key part of government farm policy decades later.


I would be remiss not to mention the rural activism of North Dakota’s Nonpartisan League, which rose to prominence in the early decades of the 20th century. League members — fed up because Minneapolis-based grain processors and railroad companies dominated the state legislature while farmers’ concerns were ignored — consisted of both Republicans and Democrats. They would support any politician who supported rural interests without regard to party affiliation.

The Nonpartisan League gained extensive control of the Legislature and created state-run banks and elevators across the northern Plains. The league’s success caught the Minneapolis interests off guard, but eventually they regained their balance and fought hard against the Nonpartisan League.

The farm movements of the 1880s and early 1900s had a huge impact on rural life. Women played a large role in making life better in the fields and homes. With more fairness in the marketplace and more money to spend, the modern conveniences depicted in the popular magazines were made available to thousands more people.

Imagine, an entire home in disassembled form could be purchased from Sears or Montgomery Ward. Electricity, indoor plumbing, and other conveniences were no longer a pipe dream. Farmers, too, spent disposable income on steam engines, tractors and more. The increase in productivity was desperately needed to feed the world during the first world war.


Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.

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