Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/January 1888/The Outcome of the Granger Movement



THE founders of the Grange thought they were establishing an order whose aims were to be social and educational. But these were soon overshadowed by the co-operative, anti-middleman feature. This drew more into the order than all other considerations combined, at one time almost threatening to transform our farming population into a race of traders, and this was likewise the chief cause of Grange decay. Fighting middlemen, unlike fighting railroads, was a legitimate kind of activity, as it had nothing to do with politics or theology—the two subjects tabooed by Granger law. Unfortunately, the story of Grange co-operation is recorded nowhere and thoroughly known to nobody. Those who know most preserve a discreet silence, mindful of questionable transactions and failures, now generally forgotten.

No sooner had Kelley established a few Granges in Minnesota in 1869 than they set up a clamor for leasing flouring-mills and appointing agents in St. Paul and New York, in order to mill and ship their own grain. However farcical might be the position of the founders at Washington, they at least were conservative enough to disavow this action. But upon Minnesota's threat to secede they yielded, and an agent was appointed in St. Paul. His first commission chanced to be to buy a jackass for a Patron, whereupon one of the founders made comment: "This purchasing business commenced with buying asses; the prospects are that many will be sold." As soon as the National Grange fell into the hands of farmers, there was a movement to make it the head of a gigantic co-operative scheme. It was proposed to have three national purchasing-agents, stationed at New York, Chicago, and New Orleans, to buy for the Patrons of the whole country. But this was soon seen to be impracticable, owing to the diversity of interests in the order. The same was true with regard to the purchase of patent-rights. With the view of absorbing into the order the profits of manufacturing farming-implements, the National Grange had bought the right to manufacture a harvester, a mower and reaper, and various other machines. It had also tried to buy the copyright of Cushing's "Manual"—a book in great demand among the Grangers. Meanwhile, the Executive Committee was busy in another direction. Congressman Aiken of South Carolina, one of its members, says that they "visited the manufacturers who supplied the market with such implements as the farmers needed, from a scooter-plow to a parlor-organ, proposing to concentrate the purchases of the order where the greatest discounts were obtained for cash. In no instance did they fail to secure a reduction of twenty-five to fifty per cent." Mr. Aiken notes the astonishment of one cutlery-maker at a single order for ten thousand pruning-knives of a particular pattern. Such enormous reductions from regular prices were obtained only under a pledge of secrecy. But as information had to be distributed by thousands of printed sheets, the Patrons could not keep the secret. The contracts leaked out, causing the withdrawal of many firms from their agreements. What experiments the National Grange might have tried with the great sums in its treasury can only be conjectured, as its resources and influence over the subordinate lodges were crippled almost fatally in the Charleston meeting in 1875. It probably would have continued the crop reports, which, though costly, and often unreliable through the ignorance and carelessness of Granges about furnishing statistics, had proved valuable. Like the State Granges, which had full treasuries, it might have squandered its capital and come to grief on co-operative ventures. Such is the inference to be drawn from utterances like the following, from the Executive Committee: "To secure rights to manufacture leading implements. . . is pre-eminently a duty of the National Grange, and a measure of the greatest importance, directly, because the profits of manufacture will thus be controlled by the Order, as well as the profits of transfer or dealing; indirectly, by securing facilities that will favor the introduction of manufacturing establishments in districts at present far removed from them, and where their products are in demand." The plan of having the farmer's machinery manufactured at his door and under his supervision was much better as a statement of protectionist doctrine than as a guide to safe investment. The policy of the meeting of 1875 indicated that, before it was too late, the National Grange recognized that there was danger of going too fast, and that its province was rather to devise plans for the use of the order than to plunge into enterprises itself. It therefore sounded a note of caution, and first issuing a scheme for co-operative joint-stock stores based on something found in this country, proceeded to work out a more elaborate system on the model of the Rochdale Pioneers. Various English publications on co-operation were distributed among the order, and an envoy was sent to England to confer with English co-operators. The result was a new set of rules, closely following the Rochdale plan, and insisting on the feature of investing the profits of trade for the stockholders on the basis of purchases, as opposed to the simple joint-stock arrangement of the earlier scheme, which had been largely put in practice. After a prolonged stay, the commissioner to England made his report, bringing from English co-operators proposals for dealings on a grand scale. The Grange was to subscribe one hundred and twenty-live thousand dollars toward the necessary shipping-depots, and all trade was to be carried on directly with England through a company to be known as the “Anglo-American Co-operative Company.” The Englishmen followed the matter up by sending three men to the United States to confer with the Executive Committee. After looking over the ground, they proposed to erect their own warehouses at four seaboard cities, prepared to supply every article of clothing and every farm-implement needed by Patrons at a discount of ten per cent, and to receive in exchange every variety of farm-produce at the market price, provided that the Grange would concentrate its purchases upon them. But by this time the ardor of the Patrons had been cooled by reverses in local experiments, and the Executive Committee was unable to make the necessary guarantees. The National Grange's efforts now subsided into protests and warnings against the commission and joint-stock ventures so common in the order, and pleas for the Rochdale system. Many enterprises were undertaken upon this basis, proving, if not highly profitable, at least not disastrous. Some are still in existence, notably the “Texas Co-operative Association.” But, in general, the warning came too late. The Patrons had been too impatient to grasp the anticipated gains, and had burned their fingers.

The step from co-operation in the National, to co-operation in the State and District, Granges is one from theory tinged by practice, to practice pure and simple. The craze for co-operation was like that for gold in 1848. The first and simplest step was to appoint a profusion of buying and selling agents, usually on salaries from the State Granges. But a few losses by mismanagement and rascality were enough to deter the farmers from trusting their produce to selling-agents. The system of agencies for buying only was not open to the same risks, but its utility differed in different States. For Iowa, where every farmer raised grain and wanted plows and reapers, an agent could buy to great advantage. The Patrons there gave figures to show that they saved fifty thousand dollars in one year on plows and cultivators alone. In the same year they bought fifteen hundred sewing-machines, at a reduction of forty-five per cent from retail prices. Local dealers were driven out of business. In New York, on the other hand, where the farmers are dairymen, grain-growers, nurserymen, and hop-growers, a State buying-agency was found useless, and was abandoned, after some hard experience, for a system of district agencies. These have effected saving in some instances, in others proved unprofitable, partly owing to the outcroppings of mean human nature among those most clamorous for the benefits. The “State Women's Dress Agency,” in New York city, lasted longer, but, strangely enough, the Patronesses preferred to buy their own dresses, and it finally expired. The States did not stop with agencies. They too began to buy patent-rights. There was an idea that all the principal machinery used by the order should be manufactured within it. Flouring-mills, elevators, tobacco and grain warehouses, were established. Some ventures were unsuccessful from the start, and at once clamored for subsidies. Others boasted of the greatest prosperity, one making a dividend of fifty per cent the first year. In 1874 two thirds of the elevators in Iowa were in Grange hands. The experiment of shipping provisions directly to Southern Grange centers was undertaken. In 1876 the Patrons were said to own five steamboat or packet lines, thirty-two grain-elevators, and twenty-two warehouses. Some of these were local ventures, but the full treasuries of the State Granges furnished the capital for most of them. It is always easy to experiment with other men's money, and the State Grange officials found no difficulty in getting, with the Grange funds, into enterprises where disaster was inevitable. It came in every instance. The blow was so overwhelming in some States (Arkansas and Nebraska for example), that they dropped at once from the order. District Granges disbanded for fear of being held individually liable for State Grange debts, and the very name Granger became a reproach. In other States the Grange was greatly weakened, but survived. In Iowa a few hundred of the faithful have struggled on for years, the officers receiving no salaries, but devoting all receipts to the debt, left as a reminder of past glories. Professor R. T. Ely, in his recent book on "The Labor Movement in America," expatiates on the "grand results" achieved by the Patrons in co-operation, and credits the absurd statement that Grange savings in this way amounted to twelve million dollars in one year! Unfortunately, the greater number of enterprises were "grand" chiefly in failure, a fact of which Professor Ely seems never to have heard. About all that survived the wreck of the later seventies were mutual insurance companies, principally fire-insurance, and co-operative stores. At present, Grange insurance companies are reported from more than half the States and from Canada, and Grange co-operative stores are even more widespread. Successful buying-agencies still exist in five States, and the Delaware Patrons have a fruit-exchange. The most interesting state of things is found in Texas, where there are about one hundred and twenty-five Grange stores established on the modification of the Rochdale rules, and banded together in a State association. This holds annual meetings, contributes two thousand dollars to keep Grange lecturers in the field, and reports steady prosperity.

Much of the later history of the Grange has been anticipated in treating of railroad legislation and co-operation, but its decadence merits a little closer attention. Only those interested in agricultural pursuits were eligible for membership, but, in the unprecedented growth of the order under the labors of twelve hundred deputies, it was impossible to keep out men who were farmers only to the extent of a garden or back yard. In those days lawyers, doctors, merchants, discovered in themselves a marvelous interest in agricultural pursuits, and joined the Grange. As a Granger remarked, they were interested in agriculture as the hawk is interested in the sparrow. Two Granges were organized in New York city; one, the "Manhattan," on Broadway, with a membership of forty-five wholesale dealers, sewing-machine manufacturers, etc., representing a capital of as many millions; the other, the "Knickerbocker," one of whose first official acts was to present the National Grange with a handsome copy of the Scriptures—a gift causing some embarrassment. A similar one was organized in Boston, which made great trouble before it could be expelled; and one was found in Jersey City, with a general of the army as its master, a stone-mason as secretary, and the owner of a grain-elevator as chaplain. But discordant elements were not all from other professions. Thousands of farmers had been carried in by the enthusiasm of the movement, with no idea of the nature and aims of the order. Some expected to make a political party; others, to smash the railroads; almost all hoped to find in co-operation a panacea for poverty. There was great lack of discipline, but no discipline could have harmonized such a body. The first outbreak was in the direction of democracy. Lay members were eligible to but four of the seven degrees, and this was denounced as aristocratic, opposed to the spirit of democratic institutions. Along with this came the cry that the National Grange was growing too rich. In vain it made liberal donations of seeds and provisions to sufferers by grasshoppers and floods, and spent large sums in distributing crop-reports among the order. The clamor continued till the faint-hearted in the Charleston session in 1875 carried a measure to distribute $55,000 to the subordinate Granges—about $2.50 to each! Prominent Grangers have maintained that the causes of Grange decay are to be found in this and the other measures of the same session curtailing the power of the National Grange. The true cause has been seen to lie deeper, in the failure of business enterprises. These measures had some influence, however. They were the beginnings of endless tinkering with the constitution, and the cause of quarrels innumerable. Among other quarrels was one with the Grange of Canada, over the question of jurisdiction. Soon afterward came the first open break in the ranks. An Illinois Grange voted to disband, alleging pecuniary reasons and the autocratic rule of the National Grange. Many still had dreams that the order was to spread over the world, but the co-operative leaven had begun to work, and there was soon no mistaking the tendency to decay. At the annual meeting in 1876, four thousand Granges were reported delinquent. Salaries were at once reduced—the master's from $2,000 to $1,200, and the secretary's from $2,500 to $2,000. It was vainly attempted to stem the tide by issuing an official organ, the "Grange Record." In 1879 the master's salary was dropped entirely, and the secretary's reduced to $600. A bill for services from Herr Prenzel, who had been working for the order in Germany since 1875, was dismissed with little ceremony. The National Grange was not poor, having always kept about $50,000 to its credit invested in Government bonds, but it had given up the idea of converting the world. But the low-water mark had been reached. Cash receipts in 1880 increased two hundred per cent over those in 1879. More Granges had been organized than in any year since 1874. The growth was especially marked in New England. The State Grange of Connecticut was revived after a dormancy of six years, and Maine began to claim more Grangers in proportion to population than any other State. At the session of the National Grange for 1885, held in Boston, delegates were present from all the States and Territories but eight. It is not easy to explain this growth, as there seems to be no great principle underlying it. Some New England Patrons are agitating free trade, but that can not be called a Grange issue, as Pennsylvania Patrons want protection extended to farm-products. The harmless practice of holding great fairs is gaining ground. At a recent one in Pennsylvania, lasting a week, the local paper says: “Over fifty thousand people were present on one day, and the sale of machinery direct to the farmers ran up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Never were manufacturers and consumers brought into more direct and friendly relations.” This is, perhaps, the latest development of Grange anti-middleman ideas.

The most enthusiastic Grangers at present are the farmers' wives and daughters, who are attracted by the social opportunities. In fact, the order seems to be going back to the educational and social basis of the founders, and its boasts are no longer co-operative ventures so much as Grange buildings and libraries, and the Grange schools that exist in several States. In these directions, and in what it has done to heal sectional differences between North and South, the Grange can boast its best achievements.