The Patrons of Husbandry, or Grange, was the first general farm organization in the United States. Established by the Minnesota agricultural reformer Oliver H. Kelly in December 1867, it briefly flourished in Tennessee during the 1870s, providing Tennessee’s small farmers with opportunities for economic, political, and social expression.
The Grange movement addressed the needs of Tennessee’s small farmers in the turbulent decade immediately following the Civil War. While the state’s aristocratic class felt some economic discomfort, its common folk suffered more. Mostly subsistence farmers prior to the war, they had cherished their social and economic independence, but in 1865 many returned to find their farms in tatters. Desperate to rebuild their shattered lives, Tennessee’s small farmers suffered the indignity of dependence upon the wealthy planters’ mercantile establishments for credit and for the opportunity to purchase seed, farm stock, and agricultural implements at inflated prices. Their plight was further exasperated by profit-hungry railroads whose high freight rates threatened the small farmers with ruin.
Tennessee’s first local grange was established at Stockton in 1870, and as late as 1872 there were only four chapters. On July 2, 1873, representatives from forty local granges convened to form a state organization, electing William Maxwell of Dyer County as Worthy Master of the State Grange. Thereafter it grew at a phenomenal rate. By October the number of granges had increased to eighty-six and continued to multiply: by November 1873, there were 215 granges; by January 1874, 350; and by May 1874, 823. The movement peaked during the spring of 1875 with 1,050 granges and 37,500 adherents. Tennessee ranked third behind Kentucky and Texas in total membership. Two of Tennessee’s more important agricultural papers–The Rural Sun (Nashville) and The Southern Farmer (Memphis)–promoted the Patrons of Husbandry, and the movement spawned its own journals: The Southern Husbandman (Nashville), The Southern Granger (Memphis), The Patrons of Husbandry (Memphis), The American Farmers’ Advocate (Jackson), The Grange Journal (Humbolt), and The Grange Outlook (Knoxville).
Desperate to break the common farmers’ dependence upon local merchants, Tennessee’s state leaders negotiated with independent agents who offered grange members implements, seed, and machinery at discounts from 10 to 37 percent. This soon led to the establishment of grange-sponsored cooperative stores throughout the state and in 1876 to the formation of the Southwestern Co-operative Association underwritten by the state granges of Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
As a political movement, the Tennessee grange urged the general assembly to broaden educational opportunities. Tennessee’s aristocratic class had long retarded public education, preferring a private system in which only the wealthy secured sufficient knowledge to control the state’s weal. The Patrons of Husbandry demanded educational reform, the expansion and improvement of the public schools system, and the implementation of a curriculum that would embrace their needs as farmers. Although Mississippi and Texas grangers strongly influenced the establishment of their states’ agricultural and mechanical colleges, Tennessee grangers were less successful because the chief architect of the University of Tennessee’s agricultural college–Knoxville attorney Oliver Perry Temple–was a fervent opponent of their movement.
Tennessee’s Patrons of Husbandry also campaigned for railroad reform. Seeking a fair deal from the companies, the Tennessee grange had modest success negotiating with local railroads for reduced rates, but failed in its effort to secure from the Tennessee General Assembly legislation regulating the industry.
In Tennessee, as elsewhere, the Patrons of Husbandry promoted a better social environment for the farmer and his family. Rural life was lonely and monotonous, and social opportunities provided by local granges offered an escape from the routine, humdrum existence. Picnics, barbecues, and other activities gave hours of pleasure to a people locked in the eternal cycle of planting, cultivating, and harvesting.
Tennessee’s grange movement experienced only a brief period of success. Scandals associated with its commission agents and its cooperative stores as well as the lack of political sophistication possessed by the state’s small farmers undermined its popularity. Early in 1876 it underwent a sudden decline and by 1877 it had ceased to be an effective organization. Although a failure, it was nonetheless important. It constructed a pattern for such future agricultural associations as the Southern Farmers Alliance and the Populist Party movement, and it trained the young farm leaders who in the 1880s and the 1890s would challenge Tennessee and the South’s aristocratic establishment.