Knights of the Plow / Oliver H. Kelley and the Origins of the Grange in Republican Ideology by Thomas A. Woods


Review By Krist Novoselic

January 21, 2010


Knights of the Plow is an academic tome by Thomas Woods about Oliver Hudson Kelley and the founding of the Grange – Patrons of Husbandry. The book is about the first chapter of Grange history, from KelleyÕs formative years, to the genesis of the Grange, to its meteoric rise and precipitous decline in the mid 1870s.


The Kelley story is well known among Grangers; especially his travels on behalf of President Andrew Johnson to survey the condition of farmers and rural life in the post civil-war South. While thatÕs briefly recounted, WoodsÕ study is more about the uneasy relationship between the republican virtues as expressed by the founders of the United States and liberal capitalist ideas that emerged in the period of Andrew JacksonÕs presidency. These principles eventually clashed as a result of monopoly capitalism creating inequities. Woods also tells of how the same tension manifested in the Grange among leadership in disputes over the direction of the organization.


Kelley was a writer, bureaucrat and farmer. I put farmer last because according to the book, Kelley never succeeded in the field. Frustrated by drought, pestilence and profits being spent on middlemen or shipping fees, in 1864 Kelley left his Minnesota farm for more secure employment with the US Department of Agriculture


In the national capitol, he met six others who were interested in forming an organization dedicated to raising the stature and character of the farmer and rural dweller. In 1867 the Patrons of Husbandry were born.


Kelley set out to start Grange groups. He returned to tend his farm in Minnesota while also using his writing skills to contribute to sympathetic newspapers. Kelley was fascinated with the rapid advances in farming technology and shared this with readers. He also fanned the flames of agrarian discontent with columns lamenting exorbitant shipping fees on rails and river. He denounced conglomerate market domination; all while promoting the new farmers group as a recourse.


In print, Kelley initially exaggerated the size and impact of the Grange. It was a slow beginning but he persevered with his organizing and pro-farmer rhetoric and Granges started to form.  As anti-monopoly / anti-corporate sentiment grew, awareness caught on and the Grange experienced sensational growth. Prominent people joined and by 1874 the Grange had over 640,000 members in 24 states – 45 halls in Oregon alone!


The Grange caught fire as a radical agrarian organization. This did not sit well with the conservative founders back east. Some fell away but others became alarmed enough to respond. Founder William Saunders had been elected Chairman of the national Grange executive committee and was determined to use his position to reel Kelley in. They both had their own relationships with various newspapers and wrote editorials that opposed each others policy proposals.


But this conflict was inherent in the structure of the Grange itself. The Grange advocates for farmers in the context of non-partisanship. Considering the incendiary climate of the era, politics couldnÕt stay out of Grange halls – a venue that seeks to temper political passions. Many couldnÕt reconcile and grew frustrated.


Grange members benefited from cooperative buying and selling. Grange agents were able to procure farming implements and other goods for members at discount – up to 50 percent in some cases! (The Montgomery Ward catalog grew out of these efforts.) The cooperative ventures were decentralized and experimental with as many business arrangements as there were entities. Without experience, most co-ops eventually collapsed; but some did well.


Kelley and others tried bringing a uniform structure to these failing Grange-centered businesses by implementing the Rochdale Principles but by 1875 it was all too late. The non-partisan Grange couldnÕt speak to farmersÕ boiling political passions. There was also the loss of pecuniary benefits of membership. This combination caused Grange membership to plummet.


Kelley was worn down by the feud with Saunders and left the Grange. He tried to start another group – The Golden Sheaf. Steeped in ritual that resembled the Grange 6th and 7th Degree, the Sheaf was to be a political secret society where members didnÕt even have to reveal any association at all. It went nowhere. Kelley went on to develop land in Florida.


Knights of the Plow doesnÕt get into the Grange movementÕs legislative impact and the resulting Granger Laws. It mentions the Farmers Alliance, along with other efforts, that took on the fight against monopoly capitalism. Saunders succeeded in keeping the Grange focus on elevating the character and stature of the farmer within an ideal of civic virtue and individual opportunity. At the same time, cooperative efforts were accepted as long as they didnÕt centralize or become antagonistic to business. By avoiding controversial policies, the Grange survived the turbulent and divisive farm protests of the late 19th Century.