Founded by Oliver Kelly in 1867, the Grange began as a fraternal farming organization. Kelly, a Minnesota farmer working in US Bureau of Agriculture, was directed by president Andrew Johnson to survey Southern farmlands devastated by the Civil War. The goal was to modernize agricultural practices and heal the cultural animosity between Northern and Southern farmers.
To that end, Kelly leveled his connections as a Mason to gain the trust of agricultural leaders in the South. His vision of a united, modernized farming industry culminated in the birth of the Grange—formally known as The Order of The Patrons of Husbandry. Its members called themselves “Grangers” and gathered in Grange Halls, often in secret. There, they broke the tedium and isolation of the agrarian lifestyle by holding Mason-style rituals and airing mutual concerns.
It soon became apparent that many rural families shared similar complaints. Before the Civil War, most had made a living from subsistence farming, growing enough to feed themselves, plus a small surplus to exchange for any goods they could not produce on their own. The rapid industrialization of post-war America saw thousands abandon their farms to take up residence in cities. Those who remained had to adapt in kind, often taking on massive debt to purchase the mechanized tools that allowed for increased crop output.
These new machines greatly increased crop volume, so much so that the market was flooded with a surplus of goods. Food prices dropped rapidly, and much of the harvest went unsold. To complicate matters, farmers were forced to rely upon railroads to transport their goods to a larger market: railroads owned by a small contingent of extremely wealthy and powerful companies. Already burdened by exorbitant interest rates on the loans taken to upgrade their machinery, farmers now had to shoulder whatever freight charges the railway corporations deemed fit.
Under such financial weight, farms were collapsing en masse. Foreclosures abounded, while many more sold their land and moved away. Over 11,000 farms in Kansas were closed over a four-year span. Then came the Panic of 1873, a financial crisis that triggered global economic stagnation. Farmers could bear no more. Seeking political relief, they turned to their local Granges for representation. Nationwide membership swelled like never before, growing from 200,000 in 1873 to 858,000 only two years later.
The Grangers blamed their economic downturn not on a surplus of crops, but the stifling power of corporate monopolies. They advocated for governmental regulation of major industries–particularly railroads–and greater bargaining power for labor unions. In state and federal Congress, Grangers lobbied for reforms such as antitrust laws and regulation of freight rates. Many also supported unemployment payments and similar social programs, most of which were considered radical at the time.
Their efforts resulted in five states’ passage of the “Granger Laws,” a legislative package intended to set railroad rates that were favorable to farmers. The Laws’ effectiveness varied between states, however they set a crucial precedent that contributed to the first instance of federal regulation of private industry in American history—the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887. The act mandated that railway companies report their rates to the government, and forced railroads to charge a uniform rate for short and long hauls.
The Grange’s political sway slowly waned after 1875, as its leaders left Washington and returned to their fields. Its legacy, however, persisted for decades to come, kept alive by politicians who advocated for control over big business. Today, the Grange embraces its social roots, serving as a hub for many farming communities. The organization boasts a membership of 160,000, with Grange Halls in 2,100 communities across the nation.