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Corn Belt

The Corn Belt Liberty League Takes a Stand Against Government

Michael Nave and
Lynnita Sommer

The export of America's farm produce soared when Europe's supply of food decreased during World War I. Farmers' costs, however, also soared because they had to take out loans in order to pay for better tractors and more specialized techniques that increased production. Europe's need for American produce sharply decreased after the war ended and as other nations began to sell and trade in the world market demand further declined. Overproduction and long-term debt became serious problems for American farmers. The 1930s brought another decade of depression to the agricultural industry; with drought conditions added to the export crisis, many farmers were faced with mortgage foreclosure as market prices continued to drop.

Immediately after winning the presidential campaign of 1932, Franklin Roosevelt called a group of advisors together to see what could be done to raise farm prices. The solution they devised was to give payments to farmers who agreed to take acreage out of production. By the time the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) was signed into law, the 1933 growing season was underway. Consequently, in order to raise farm prices, "surplus" production had to be eliminated. This was done by plowing "under millions of acres of crops and by slaughtering livestock. Many Americans trying to survive the hard depression years could not understand such waste when so many hungry people needed food.

The AAA was declared unconstitutional in 1936. During its short existence, the law was unpopular among many small farmers because some big landowners had so much land they could cultivate the more productive acres while at the same time receive set-aside payments for poorer acreage. With a few changes, nevertheless, the AAA was revived in 1938. A notable change was that if two-thirds of the nation's farmers consented, the law allowed for heavy penalty taxes on farmers who grew and sold more than their fair share or quota. Thousands of farmers across the nation thought that the penalties smacked of unwelcome government control over their private lives and interference in their freedom to farm as they wished.

The Prairie Farmer magazine, widely read by farm families, asked farmers to give the new law "a test run like a newly designed automobile or tractor and try to help the plan work." Angry farmers in McDonough County, however, chose another plan of action. They discussed the new agricultural program among themselves, and found that it contained features they did not like. Over the fence post and on street corners, farmers in the Macomb area talked about freedom from government control of agriculture. Small conversations turned into large meetings, with the first of the big ones held at the McDonough County courthouse in Macomb on April 18, 1938. The more than fifteen hundred farmers attending the meeting formed a protest organization called the Corn Belt Liberty League, and it became front page news in the Chicago Daily Tribune.

Although these events may seem remote today, people involved long remembered them. Manuscripts, newspaper articles, and a few issues of American Liberty Magazine, the organ of the Corn Belt Liberty League, still survive to help recall this resistance to government regulation. In 1990, Lynnita Sommer discovered a cache of more than one thousand pieces of correspondence to and from the Corn Belt Liberty League's founders in the home of Finley Foster, and she also interviewed him.


Eighty-nine-year-old Foster, who lived north of Macomb in 1990, insisted that he was not a rebel when he helped fellow farmers organize the Corn Belt Liberty League. Foster recalled making a trip to Peoria with a load of livestock and seeing sixteen railroad cars of corn from a foreign country waiting to be routed to Peoria's distilleries. Back in McDonough County, they were cutting down locally grown corn. Foster thought this was wrong. He was also strongly opposed to relief, as were many proud farmers across the nation who felt that "relief" meant government-subsidized welfare payments to the poor. Like Foster, there were league members who rejected all or some of the other relief programs of the New Deal. However, it appears that most league members did want some sort of financial assistance from the government, but declined to accept mandatory controls. They also believed that acreage allotments in both the 1933 and 1938 AAAs could be unfairly manipulated by big landowners and special interest groups.

Finley Foster attended dozens of organizational meetings for the Corn Belt Liberty League, including the first one in Macomb. He recalled crowds of farmers meeting in the big courthouse's courtroom and spilling over into the halls and outside. Loudspeakers carried the message of liberty from government intervention in farming to an audience sitting on makeshift wooden-plank seats on the courthouse lawn. When the first meetings proved too large for the courtroom, league organizers arranged to hold a mass meeting in the armory in Macomb. More makeshift seats were set up, and a public address system was installed for the convenience of the expected overflow crowd.

Delegates from Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and a number of Illinois counties were in Macomb that night to complain about the AAA. The meeting closed with a renewed determination to fight for the individual rights of farmers. Newspapers all over the nation printed the story of the huge farmers' rally, and league directors were swamped with mail. The papers tell a story of resentment over governmental interference in private farm ventures. Thousands of American farmers— certainly those in Illinois and the Midwest-took a vocal stand against the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938. Hundreds of those disgruntled farmers wrote to the Corn Belt Liberty League headquarters to applaud its stand against the AAA and to ask how they, too, could get actively involved in the fight to rid the nation of the hated new legislation.

Tilden Burg was a politically minded tenant farmer at the time, but not really a public speaker, and certainly not a rebel. Years later, his daughter said he was "just a dirt farmer" who believed he should have the freedom to farm as he pleased. He and the other league founders rented an office in the Illinois Theater Building in Macomb where they processed a flood of two-dollar membership fees from farmers who had read about the newly organized league in faraway newspapers. A whirlwind of meetings in other Illinois towns and neighboring states was scheduled.

While league founders planned organizational meetings, local, state, and national news reporters interviewed them for feature stories. Letters poured into the Macomb headquarters. Individual farmers joined the fight against the AAA in their own ways. In eastern Illinois, for example, a farmer was fined in court after striking the chairman of the county farm bureau of the AAA. The farmer was riled because his acreage allotment turned out to be only fifty-six acres of corn on his six-hundred-acre farm. His neighbor was allowed the same quota for one hundred and sixty acres. The Chicago Daily Tribune picked up the story about the punching incident, and someone sent the farmer a five-dollar bill with the note from its sender, "Take this five dollars for your trouble and go hit him again for me."

People who opposed the AAA could voice their opinions in the league's American Liberty Magazine. The magazine also helped Corn Belt Liberty League officials to keep in touch with its members and to keep them informed. Issues of the magazine provide insight into league activities, show opinions held by the general public on not only the AAA but on other contemporary agricultural controversies, and illustrate the league's stand on a number of issues facing farmers in 1938.

The Prairie Farmer magazine conducted a survey of farmers in heavy corn-producing counties in Illinois and Indiana to see if they supported the AAA. Roving reporters visited 219 farmers in 56 counties from May 10 to May 12, 1938. They found 92 farmers complying with the allotment, and 127 not complying. An Indiana farmer said honestly and bluntly, "I could comply, but [I'm] not a-going


Sugar Corn

to." From the avalanche of mail that poured into the Corn Belt Liberty League office each day, it was obvious that many farmers were "not a-going to" either. Farmers talked to scores of other farmers at weekly community sales and other meeting places. Tilden Burg was approached to appear on radio talk shows.

Men and women wrote to Burg requesting his advice on organizing league chapters in their own counties and states. Letters from correspondents of both sexes and all ages continued to swell Macomb post office mailbags for two years. The overwhelming majority of them voiced dissatisfaction with the New Deal farm policy. From Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, and Wisconsin, midwest farmers sought information about the Corn Belt Liberty League. By August 1938, twenty-one Illinois counties had established units of the league, and there were two thousand members across the Midwest. With the exceptions of Edgar, Vermilion, and Champaign counties in east-central Illinois, those counties were located in west-central Illinois near McDonough County, where the movement originated. The league received support letters from southern Illinois farmers too, but no chapters were formed there. Perhaps league officials could not devote the time and energy to organize farmers so far from home.

League chapters were most prevalent in areas surrounding McDonough County. Based on existing membership records, it appears that farmers in the league were a vocal minority in their communities. Since the league had support from nonmembers too, however, it is difficult to determine the true extent of grassroots support for league activities. Indiana received a state charter from the league headquarters in 1938. There was also a great deal of league activity in Iowa and Nebraska. Letters to the league headquarters in Illinois indicated that protest rallies were taking place in dozens of other counties throughout the Corn Belt states in 1938 and 1939. League records show that membership grew to at least 16,201.

League activities were subsidized by farmers at a grassroots level. The membership dues were a nominal two dollars. Additionally, contributions were collected in buckets passed through audiences at league meetings. The organization's founders generally paid from their own pockets all expenses incurred during the county-by-county and state-to-state drives to recruit new members. With increased membership came increased activities of the Corn Belt Liberty League. In a 1939 letter to league members, league officials noted that the farm revolt that they had started just a year before had attracted the support of nine counties in southwestern Ohio.

League activities also attracted the attention of several other protest organizations from around the nation. Their letters of support to the league announced that their members were also opposed to the AAA. Collectively, the letters show that dissatisfaction with the New Deal legislation was more widespread than politicians of the time, and historians of later years, realized.

League officials attended the National Agricultural Conference in Washington from January 30 to February 4, 1939. In addition, league directors urged members to contact their congressmen to protest the AAA. Blaming the Farm Bureau for pushing the AAA into existence, league officials also decided to put pressure on the Farm Bureau by threatening to cancel memberships in the bureau en masse. A league official explained that if several took a stand together it would have a greater impact.

The league adamantly believed that compulsory crop control laws were not the best solution to the farmers' or nation's woes. League organizers searched for the right answers by listening to the opinions of thousands of discontented farmers who rallied around them. The organization's educational activities included sending speakers to address groups of citizens at their request, responding to inquiries about individual concerns, and acting as representatives of labor.

League leaders championed their cause when they could at night, but it was difficult to sustain in the planting and harvesting seasons. They soon discovered that there were not enough hours in the day to both complete farm chores and travel to meetings miles away from McDonough County. Corn Belt Liberty League officials went back to farming after two grueling years of fighting bureaucrats, answering hundreds of inquiries, and making long trips to organize local chapters.

In 1941, however, farmers found that there was an even bigger foe to fight than the AAA. The advent of World War II was a factor when the league ceased its


aggressive campaign against government regulation of farm production.

Today, government-subsidized farm programs are generally accepted by farmers. Storage, set aside acreage, the price support program, farm loans, soil conservation, and rural electrification all have their roots in the New Deal farm policies established during Franklin Roosevelt's administration. When those "radical" programs surfaced for the first time during the depression years, however, the leaders and members of the Corn Belt Liberty League took a vocal stand against the AAA—a law that they believed could eventually lead to the curtailment of their freedom as independent farmers. As one Kankakee farmer explained, "What a real farmer wants is to be let alone to raise what he pleases, where he pleases, and to sell what he raises where he pleases, and when he pleases; and not to be taxed to death to pay for a lot of bunk legislation."

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