Post-Civil War Agrarian Discontent and the Granger Movement
Macomb Junior High School, Macomb
With their male family members off to war, women sometimes took up farm chores. Following the Civil War farmers suffered through other hardships that included drastically reduced prices caused by an overabundance of crops. Farmers who had borrowed money during the prosperous war years had difficulty paying their debts during the post-war depression.
After the long and costly Civil War, farmers in Illinois found themselves facing many problems, both social and economic. The seller's grain market that existed during the war had vanished, leaving farmers in debt and disarray. Rural life at the time was also very dreary. "Illinois farmers, like their counterparts in the upper Mississippi Valley, responded to the difficult times of the postwar (Civil War) depression by organizing into clubs," claimed historian Robert Sulton. Of the socio-economic clubs formed, the Grange was one of the main ones. The Granger movement, as it was known, spurred farmers to fight to ensure their prosperity.
Numerous problems contributed to the difficult times experienced by farmers during the post-Civil War period. The economic law of supply and demand dictated the grain market. The fertility of Illinois land, along with improved farm machinery and implements, enabled Illinois farmers to produce corn and wheat in abundance. At this time a wave of immigrants had settled in the west and had also begun to grow corn and wheat, further increasing the supply. Coincidentally the European demand for corn and wheat had declined during this time. As a result of this large supply and low demand, the prices for crops dropped. Illinois farmers, expecting the prosperity of the Civil War years to last, had borrowed great sums of money to expand their farming operations. However, with the fall of the market, farmers were unable to repay their debt. Farmers also experienced social difficulties. Often neighbors lived very far apart, and social gatherings were unheard of, with the exception of weekly church services. Amenities at home
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were rare, almost non-existent. Rural life at this time is often described as dreary.
As if these problems were not enough, a national depression set in during 1873, heightening farmers' problems further. A sense of weariness and dreariness had already developed and by the time of this depression, it was ubiquitous. Farmers, weary of their continual problems, established socio-economic organizations. One of them was the Grange. Oliver Kelley in Minnesota established the Grange—officially known as the Patrons of Husbandry—in 1867. In 1868 the Grange movement spread to Illinois. Although the Grange's constitution prohibited political action, individual participation in third-party movements was not restrained. The Grange acted as a socio-economic group for farmers and their families, trying to help them in all possible ways. Grange meetings, often held in township halls, were a chance for men and women to get together and socialize. In the Grange, farmers were able to organize against their main adversary, the railroads. Major railroads in Illinois were the root of farmers' problems, despite the fact that farmers had funded the major railroads in the 1850s. The railroads often did not reveal critical information necessary to farmers, such as the amount of grain in storage. "Speculation was rampant, and attempts to corner the grain market were another source of rural discontent," according to historian Robert Howard. Speculative trading was the result. Since the major railroads controlled the fourteen grain elevators in Chicago, they thought that such information could be kept secret. Railroads also cheated in weighing crops. During the depression, railroads cut back services, angering all. In addition to this, railroads often charged more per ton for short trips than for long ones. They also commonly favored important political officers, and allowed them to travel across the nation for little or almost nothing. It was the purpose of the many Granges in Illinois to rectify this predicament through legislation.
The Grange is revered as a railroad reformer, and it indeed deserved such a title. Probably one of the earliest victories in the Grange influence on the railroads occurred in 1870 when the Grange won a constitutional amendment that allowed state control over railroads. In 1871 the state legislature fixed a constant rate for freight and passenger trains. The Grange also encouraged passage of the Granger Laws, a code of rules by which railroads had to abide. Granger Laws regulated the charge for grain elevators and created the Illinois Railroad Commission. Angered by the Grange's active role in their affairs, major railroads sued the Grange in court, fighting them all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The high court ruled in favor of the Grange in that case and several others. Though these victories in railroad regulation were landmark victories for the Grange, effective legislation of the railroads did not come until the early twentieth century. After the 1870s the political influence of the Grange diminished, and it became a social club. Succeeding this decade, many Granges in Illinois collapsed due to bad management. Other farmer organizations formed in place of it, such as the National Farmers' Alliance.
Obviously the Grange in Illinois had brought considerable change to the way Illinois farmers lived and worked. Without this organization's role and help in regulating railroads and aiding farmers, it is hard to fathom how the farming community could have survived the difficult times of the post-Civil War era. Even today, the National Grange helps the rural community in many ways, such as taking active roles in legislation and promoting non-partisan political participation.—[From Robert P. Howard, Illinois; National Grange, "History of the National Grange," http://www.nationalgrange.org/history.htm; National Grange, "View from the Hill: Grange Submits Views on Tax Reform Legislation," http://www.nationalgrange.org/vth/index.htm; National Grange, "What is the National Grange," http://www.nationalgrange.org/whatis.htm; Fred Shannon, The Farmer's Last Frontier 1860-1867; Robert Sutlon, The Prairie State: Civil War to the Present; Robert Sutton, Robert Shadwick, and George Shadwick, Grasslands and, Grangers.]
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