Oliver H. Kelley
Founder of the nation's largest agricultural fraternity
He was a "book farmer," a man who had learned what he knew about agriculture from reading rather than from direct experience. Born in Boston, Oliver Kelley arrived in St. Paul via steamboat in 1849, the year Minnesota was established as a territory. The following year he moved to Itasca, a small town near present-day Elk River.
Kelley was a progressive farmer, anxious to adopt the newest methods and to procure the newest equipment. He built one of the first frame barns north of St. Anthony and planted the first timothy hay. He installed an elaborate irrigation system on his farm and experimented with a variety of fruits and vegetables. He was a born leader, active in local agricultural societies and dedicated to ensuring that the area's new farmers benefited from each others' experiences.
In 1864, Kelley became a clerk for the U.S. Bureau of Agriculture. For two years, he divided his time between Minnesota and Washington, D.C. In 1867, on a bureau visit to the South, the idea of a national farmers' organization first occurred to him. "Encourage them to read and think; to plant fruits and flowers,--beautify their homes; elevate them; make them progressive," he wrote in a letter to a friend. "I long to see the great army of producers in our country, turn their eyes up from their work; stir up those brains, now mere machines . . . set them to think,--let them feel that they are human beings, and the strength of the nation, their labor honorable, and farming the highest calling on earth."
On December 4, 1867, Oliver Kelley and six of his associates from the bureau founded the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry. Within two years, Minnesota had forty Grange chapters and a state organization, and Granges were in the works in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin.
The Grange was, in Kelley's mind, both a social organization and an advocacy group. He wrote newspaper articles that were increasingly critical of manufacturing and processing monopolies that fixed prices at rates unfair to farmers and of railroads with exorbitant freight rates. As its influence grew, so did the Grange's membership. By the end of 1873, there were 379 chapters in Minnesota and about 9,000 across the country, with a total membership of almost 700,000. Today, the National Grange has 300,000 members from 3,600 branches in 37 states.
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