When we last left off our brief history of the historic and influential community that is The Grange, we’d just covered a transformative moment in the movement’s history – as membership tanked following an initial boom and founding member Oliver Hudson Kelley resigned from the leadership.
However, by the end of the 19th century, The Grange solidified their outlook and goals and won a few key political battles. This led to a membership resurgence, which peaked at around 700,000 members once again during the early 20th century decades.
During this year the Grange was at the centre of one of the most important legal disputes in rural America during the late 19th century. Namely, they rejected the rights of the newly minted railroad companies to own huge swathes of rural land and charge inflated fees for grain transportation. The Grange’s official position was not against railways per se, but monopolistic practices that they saw as unfairly strangling local competition.
This struggle came to a head in 1887, with the Supreme Court case of Munn vs Illinois. This saw Chicago-based warehouse managers Munn & Scott found guilty of overcharging the maximum rates of the so called ‘Granger Laws’. They appealed, on the grounds that the law was unconstitutional. However, the Supreme Court found for Illinois, thereby upholding the rights of a State government to regulate private industry in a landmark case.
1891 – 1896: Rural Free Delivery
The next big campaign that Grange members across the country took up in numbers, was that of Rural Free Delivery. Many thousands of American farmers and other rural folks lived a long way away from a post office at this time, and this either meant a long trip to their local larger town or paying for private deliveries. Rural communities could see that urban areas were receiving subsidised state-run delivery services and wanted in on this new and exciting market.
The Grange lobbied government members to trial the scheme and by 1891 the first routes were tested out in rural Virginia. By 1896 congressman Thomas E. Watson, with the support of many Grange members of the time, managed to push Rural Free Delivery legislation through. In October that year, the service rolled out across the country – starting in rural Indiana and New York state.
1905 – 1930s Temperance and Prohibition
The Grange was an advocate of anti-smoking policies a long time before they became mainstream – some 50-plus years in fact. Many members were also interested in temperance and prohibition before the Government ever thought about banning alcohol. Indeed in 1905, new Grange members were not allowed enrol if they were involved in the production or sale of ‘intoxicating liquors.’
When the government did ban alcohol in the 1920s, the Grange officially supported that position. When it was again legalised, or in cases when farming families were being torn apart by illegal alcoholism, The Grange encouraged education and care over jail sentences or other punishments for illicit drinkers.