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The Trans-Mississippi West, Farmers

Granger laws, Patrons of Husbandry, National Grange, Interstate Commerce Act, cooperative stores

Federal land policy attracted settlers and land speculators. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided land, originally 160 acres, at no cost if the settler agreed to cultivate the land for at least five years. As settlers moved into arid areas farther west, however, the 160-acre plots proved insufficient, so the size of land grants increased.

As farmers settled more western land from 1870 to 1900, the nation’s agricultural production doubled. Several factors increased productivity. New farm machinery included the steel plow, which could slice through the heavy soil of the plains, and the twine-binder, which gathered bundles of wheat and tied them with string. New varieties of grain, such as drought-resistant sorghum, enlarged harvests. Barbed wire, patented in 1874, enabled farmers to protect their property from roaming livestock. Finally, the railroads made it possible for Western farm produce to be sold in Eastern cities.

However, pioneers who established farms in the plains—in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas—faced difficult and isolated lives. They also lost much of their independence. By the late 19th century, farmers had grown increasingly dependent on large businesses. Railroads transported their crops, banks loaned them money, manufacturers sold them farm machinery, and unstable international markets for wheat and corn determined their income. Overproduction, meanwhile, drove prices down. Farmers were frustrated by sagging prices, rising debt, high interest rates, and railroad practices such as fixed prices or discrimination among customers. Farmers no longer felt in charge of their own fates.

To try to address some of their problems, farmers joined together in 1867 and founded the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry, or the Grange, which established cooperative stores and urged laws to curb railroad abuses. In a number of states, including Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and California, the Grangers supported the passage of laws that regulated railroad rates and practices.

In 1887 Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act, which sought to deal with some of these problems. The law required railroad companies that transported passengers or goods to establish reasonable rates, to publish those rates, and to adhere to them. It also banned unfair practices, such as rebates to favored customers. Finally, it created a new agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), to supervise railroad operations. The new law, however, did little to curb railroad power. Railroads gained control of the ICC, evaded the law, and won repeal of the Granger laws that regulated rates; farmers’ protests grew.

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