For Southerners the period immediately after the Civil War, or Reconstruction, lasted from 1865 until 1876 (see blogs Part I and Part II). For the rest of the country, the end of the War brought a significant amount of change and innovation up until the Great Depression. This is the period in our history where the following occurred: 1) the first transcontinental railroad, 2) the QWERTY typewriter, 3) the telephone, 4) the phonograph, 5) electricity production and the light bulb, 6) the electric trolley, and 7) the Model T Ford. In addition, business magnates founded major corporations that vied to carve up the American business landscape and make massive profits in oil production, steel manufacturing, railroad expansion and auto production. A well-made for TV series on these titans of industry is The Men Who Built America. If you haven’t seen it, check it out. It is worth the time to get a better idea about the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th.
As I pointed out in my first sentence, the South spent the first eleven years of this massive movement into our 20th century history struggling with Reconstruction. Then the backlash under the resurgent Democrats after the troops left kept us struggling to benefit from the national changes or even to decide that we would participate or how we would participate. Farming had been deeply impacted by the loss of life, the freeing of enslaved persons, the mass migration of potential farm laborers out of the area and the Panics of 1873 and 1893. Since the South was predicated on our role as food producers, this rapid change brought about major economic and social upheavals to an already traumatized area. Since many of our ancestors in the Florida panhandle during this period were farmers, let’s do some exploring of this subject in this blog and my last blog of the year will introduce some recently uncovered materials on one of the local, panhandle farmer alliances, The Bethel Sub-Alliance, that drew members from around the Laurel Hill area of Walton and what was then Santa Rosa County (now Okaloosa).
To understand how we arrived at a populist push among farmers across the nation, but especially in the South, we need to see the movement through the lens of the economy in the Nation and the South. Recessions, Panics and Depressions were not only an ever present factor in 20th century economic history, they were also a prime factor in the 19th century (see blogs Part I and Part II). The Panic of 1857 likely had some input into the War for Southern Independence and the Panics of 1873 and 1893 played their part in the up-swell of populism at the end of the Gilded Age and the decades leading to the Roaring Twenties and then the crash of the Depression. In a nutshell, the Panic of 1873 saw the stock market crash and close for ten days and 18,000 businesses fail. The Panic of 1893 saw 15,000 businesses fail and the unemployment rate staying over 10% for five years. Farmers across the nation were squeezed between banks, the produce markets and the sources for farm inputs and if a tenant farmer, the person who owned the land they farmed. In addition, the national economy was rapidly moving from local entities in each of these areas to national corporations who did not necessarily care about the local communities they impacted with their decisions. These factors all contributed to the squeeze on farmers’ livelihoods and set the stage for the early farmer alliances to try and level the playing field.
According to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website, The Patrons of Husbandry, more commonly known as the Grange, was founded in 1867 to promote methods of farming, as well as promote the social and economic needs of farmers. They saw a significant increase in membership after the Panic of 1873 devastated farmers’ livelihoods. However, the Grange never gained much membership in the South. In the South, many local alliances were formed by farmers struggling with the high prices of their inputs and the low prices for their produce and the costs to store and transport their produce. In the mid-1870s in Lampasas County, Texas, a group formed that quickly spread throughout Texas and began merging with local alliances in other parts of the South. As the Texas State Farmers’ Alliance it carried the message of strength in alliance into Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina with varying success. The Alliance then became known as the National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union (also known as the Southern Alliance). Studying these various organizations can be confusing because there was also a group called the National Farmers’ Alliance that grew out of the Patrons of Husbandry that was also known as the Northern Alliance. These various groups differed in their primary focuses (political advocacy versus creating a co-operative store to assist farmers, educating versus lobbying, or staying non-political versus taking political positions and creating their own political parties) and their structures (loose versus tightly managed or allowing black farmers versus not allowing black farmers) but they all were a reflection of the stress farmers were under to continue farming and having a viable livelihood to support their families.
Certainly, not every farmer felt the need to join one of these groups. Many of these groups touted their social components as much as their advocacy for farmers, especially near the end of this overall movement to create cooperatives for farmers. Most of these groups also used some of the same internal structures as the Freemasons. Some required a belief in a creator (not necessarily the Christian God), most had secret handshakes and rituals during initiations that linked the new member into the group. But regardless of what members expected to receive from the group, and ultimately received, most likely wanted some relief from high input costs, high storage and transportation costs, and low payments for produce. A number of the alliances created cooperative stores that made various attempts to lower input costs by banding together to bring down prices and in some cases significantly change the market. One such effort was decreasing the cost of bags used to collect cotton. A number of alliances created alternative bags that were less sturdy but cheaper to produce and purchase and the number of farmers refusing to buy the more expensive and more accepted bags forced some produce buyers to relent and accept the newer bags.
There is not a lot of material in the written literature on the Southern Alliance. The best I’ve found so far are listed below. And these cover areas in Florida even less, and as is often the case the Panhandle gets even less coverage. But I made a wonderful discovery a while back. As many of you know who’ve been reading my blog for a while, I’ve been working with Yellow River Baptist Church in Okaloosa County to digitize their earliest records and make them more accessible for researchers. That project is nearing complete. But when the earliest records made their re-appearance at the church they were tucked into a ledger book that at first glance was odd. There were references to dues and a list of members and sometimes cryptic references to meetings and a page or two with the name “Bethel Alliance” or “Bethel Sub-Alliance” written out and some of those had a nice embossed icon that appeared to have a plough in it. Since I had read some about the Farmers Alliance, the plough got my attention and after a good bit of reading, I am about 90% convinced that the Bethel Sub-Alliance was either a stand-alone local alliance or a local alliance associated with the National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union. Next month, I will present some of my findings in these few pages and I will have a more detailed section on the Alliance in my upcoming book on Oak Grove in Okaloosa County and its surrounding communities.
I hope each of you have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday and remember where all of that wonderful food came from to arrive on your table and include farmers in your prayers and gratitude. What happens to farmers, happens to all of us eventually.
Until Next Time
- Populist Vanguard: A History of the Southern Farmers’ Alliance by Robert C. McMath, Jr. (paid link)
- The Populist Revolt by John D. Hicks. (paid link)
- History of the Grange Movement: The Farmer’s War Against Monopolies. Being A Full Account of the Struggles of the American Farmers Against the Extortion of the Railroad Companies by James Dabney McCabe. (paid link)
- The Economics of the American Farm Unrest, 1865-1900 by James I. Stewart, Reed College.
- The Grange Movement, 1875, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.