A Brief History of Lane County’s Radical Farmers (According to a Book I Found on the Ground at the Fair)
When I went to the Lane County Fair on Thursday, I had nothing on my mind. I wandered into the fairgrounds just after 4 p.m. as a completely blank slate, hoping to have some sort of experience imprint itself on me. I had no preconceived notions or angles ahead of my arrival. In truth, I wanted to think about nothing at all. I just wanted to observe. I didn’t want to chase a story, I wanted a story to come to me.
After I walked into the fairgrounds and overcame a minor anxiety attack after seeing several thousand people in one place for the first time in nearly 18 months, I headed straight for the exhibition halls. To me, this is the heart of the county fair. I don’t much care for the rides, and I stopped consuming gimmicky fried foods after I realized that I don’t have a teenage metabolism anymore, but I can’t get enough of all the student art exhibits and award-winning baked goods and model train sets. I expected this year’s exhibits–from abstract paintings to table-setting to quilting to artisanal flavored vinegars–to be especially fun. After a year and a half staying at home, I imagine that people really leaned into their existing hobbies and obsessions.
And, I just like knowing that there are people who have spent an entire year perfecting a pie recipe to impress the judges at the county fair. I like that there’s a place for regular people to show off their creativity, even if it’s just for one week a year. That’s so wholesome and beautiful to me. I don’t have to understand why the old men with the model trains are so enamored with their hobby, it’s enough to know that these strange old men are happy and at peace when they’re looking over their little model fiefdom.
It’s easy to forget that the fair isn’t just about janky carnival rides, absurd fried foods, and ready access to adorable farm animals, but about celebrating these archaic but proud old skills, hobbies, and traditions. If anything, I think county and state fairs should explicitly work to honor and celebrate farmers, producers, and laborers for their contribution to society.
Of course, celebrating farmers and a rural lifestyle in the year 2021 means dealing with some unsavory truths – namely that people who live in rural areas, especially around Eugene, have turned toward more extreme branches of the right-wing in recent years. The last year, especially, has shown us that there is a very stark urban-rural political divide in Lane County, and I haven’t seen many attempts to resolve these bitter divisions.
The Lane County Fair is a good example of that. It’s got that weird mish-mash of rural Americana and excessive camp that attracts both city slickers and the country folk. As a celebration of a rural lifestyle, it’s an event that draws a large number of people from the surrounding rural communities into Eugene itself, which subsequently makes it a magnet for the kind of loud-and-proud right-wing acolytes that most city-folk only see on TV or James’ Twitter feed. In just the few hours I was walking around, I saw MAGA hats, “Stop the Steal” buttons, QAnon merch, Punisher skull masks, Three Percenter patches, a bootleg Smokey the Bear shirt that vaguely threatened “socialists,” and at least two people that have been doxxed by antifascists in the last year.
There’s a trend there that can’t be denied, as anyone who’s driven through Creswell or Pleasant Hill in the last five years can attest. These rural communities are overwhelmingly conservative, and their worst and loudest neighbors have somehow gotten worse over the years.
I’ve been struggling with that for a long time, because I don’t believe that every person who lives out in the country is that far gone or so ready-and-willing to go against their own self-interest. I’m willing to bet that most people who actually farm or raise livestock for a living don’t really have the time to get too worked up about any politics that don’t directly impact their lives. And I firmly believe that a lot of these people–the ones with an actual livelihood at stake–might be willing to go along with a lot of left-leaning ideas if someone could actually explain to them, in clear terms, how it would make their lives better.
If only anyone was willing to do that.
Feeling very annoyed with myself for using an afternoon at the fair to muse about the implications of right-wing extremism in rural communities, I wandered into the little outbuilding that hosts all the local grange halls. Right there in the foyer, there was a small brown book with faded yellow lettering on the ground. I took it inside and asked the only person in the room, an old lady fiddling with a basket of fruit, if she had lost her book.
“No, couldn’t be mine,” she said. “And you’re the only one that’s come around in the last fifteen minutes, so looks like you got yourself a free book, young man. Hopefully it teaches you something.”
Market Days, written by Stan Bettis and published by the Lane Pomona Grange Fraternal Society in 1969, is ostensibly an “informal” history of the Eugene Producers’ Public Market – the first farmer’s market in Eugene. But it’s also a brief history of the arrival and early influence of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry–commonly known as the Grange–on Lane County’s agriculture.
In the preface, Bettis acknowledges that the book is the brainchild of the Society’s board of directors, who “decided that the market’s history should be written before memories and records of the establishment were lost.” So, it’s fair to say that it’s not an entirely unbiased accounting of the early history of organized agriculture around Eugene. But it does offer a unique glimpse at how rural farmers and laborers were among the earliest radical activists in Oregon, and how their arguments against capitalist exploitation at the turn of the 20th century don’t sound all that different from what one might hear on Twitter today.
Bettis begins by explaining the founding of Eugene and how its geography and fertile soil made it a natural center for agriculture. But, because there were basically no roads between Eugene and the markets in Portland that could handle sending goods, the farmers had to rely on a steamship that went up and down the Willamette. Because only steamships could make the journey, shipping costs were absurdly high and the farmers couldn’t make any profit, leaving them treading water.
Later, the Oregon-California railroad finally came through town, and the farmers breathed a sigh of relief, thinking they’d be able to finally ship things cheaper and quicker and start to finally turn a profit. But, as they soon discovered, the railroad barons were even greedier than the steamboat captains and actually charged the farmers even more money. Bettis notes that it cost the equivalent of “a bushel and a half of wheat to ship one bushel of wheat on the railroad.”
Tired of getting screwed over by everyone, the farmers started to gather together in a more organized fashion. They started with “Farmers’ Clubs,” which were basically just informal gatherings where farmers could commiserate with one another about these greedy railroad barons. But talking more frequently with their neighbors about their shared problems led to more formal talks about what they could do about said problems. That led to the founding of the first chapter of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry–Marshfield Grange No. 1–was founded in Clackamas County in 1871.
The idea behind the Grange was, at first, to share information and techniques in order to modernize the American agricultural system, which was still relying on old-school methods of growing, harvesting, and transporting their products. One way to think of it as Freemasonry, but for farmers – the original Grange founders held secret meetings and had degrees of membership. They also served as social halls for the community and informal bartering markets for surplus supplies, so everyone had enough food to survive long winters and bad harvests. But soon, they were an explicitly political union of farmers hoping to challenge the transportation monopolies and get out from under the thumb of capitalist exploitation.
The idea caught on quickly in Oregon, according to Bettis. Lane County’s first grange started in Springfield in 1873. By the end of the year, there were six granges in the county–including Grand Prairie, Union Ridge, Lorane, Coyota and Pleasant Hill–bringing the statewide total up to 40. By the end of the year, all these separate granges organized the State Grange, forming a formidable network of agricultural workers. It seemed that farmers were eager and willing to band together for their common benefit; as soon as a grange opened in a town or village, farmers flocked to join up. By the end of 1874, there were 175 granges across the state with over 10,000 active members.
The enthusiasm didn’t translate to instant success though. The transportation monopolies didn’t blink at the sudden organization of Oregon farmers against them, and the collective granges didn’t make much of a dent in the price of shipping goods. But they had other victories. In 1879, they helped pressure the Oregon legislature to enact a law “that brought water transport companies under government regulation.” They also worked to improve rural public schools and helped jump-start the Agricultural College in Corvallis, now Oregon State University, and its subsequent extension program.
But according to Bettis, the Oregon granges didn’t really hit their early stride until a Clackamas County farmer named H.E. Hayes took over leadership of the state organization. Hayes was a former Mississippi River steamboat captain who planted an orchard near Portland and became a prominent fruit farmer, but his real passion was public speaking and writing an absurd amount of letters to newspapers and other grange leaders.
There are plenty of quotes and excerpts from Hayes’ letters in the book, which help demonstrate the simmering political anger expressed by American farmers toward their conditions as the 20th century loomed large ahead of them.
In a 1885 letter to an unspecified newspaper, Hayes wrote:
“The remark is often made by moneyed men, speculators, transportation companies, bankers and politicians that ‘you Grangers should discuss only farm topics and leave these other financial questions to us.’ But when the profits are summed up, we find that we have worked the hardest, lived the poorest, dressed the most shabbily, and paid the most taxes, and when the dividend is struck we have the buzzard and they have the turkey. And why? Because we allow others to do the mental while we perform the physical work. Our great financiers have taxed their brains for the last twenty-five years to increase the wealth of those already made rich, while they have placed the burdens upon the producers of the country. Thus it becomes essential that we should organize and protect ourselves.”
A key element of Hayes’ letters and speeches was a keen understanding that it was all but useless to lobby the State government for help. In another letter from the same year, he writes:
“We must never expect to get any justice under our current system of government. Corporations control our legislature, and to a great extent our courts, and our only remedy is the organization of the laborers and producers… the producers of this country, having seventy percent of the voting power, should and must have seventy percent of the direction of public affairs. Soon, I intend they shall shuffle off this idiocy of submission to the dictation of men who are ready to pursue any form of oppression and robbery to add to the millions which have served to scandalize the country.”
Under the leadership of farmers like Hayes, the Grange eventually won considerable protections for farmers – both in Oregon and across the country. The local granges pushed for state and county road projects and equalized property assessment, while the state grange successfully pushed for a progressive state income tax, the right for citizens to petition their government via referendum, and the foundation of publicly owned hydroelectric utilities.
The Grange was also at the forefront of the fight for women’s suffrage. The right to vote was a key pillar of the grange’s political activism, and rural women were a key part of the grange’s early success. Grange rules required that women hold at least four elected positions in the grange leadership, out of a possible 13–not exactly a mandate for equality–but certainly light-years ahead of the rest of America in the late 19th century. The women who got involved in grange affairs, Bettis notes, were among the earliest suffragettes, and he ascribes the influence of the Grange in western states as a key reason for women winning the right the vote in states like Wyoming, California, Washington, and eventually Oregon before the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
And though the dismantling of the railroad monopolies took a long time, the Grange eventually won that protection, too. Though the book doesn’t go into any detail about specific tactics early Oregon Grangers used, their activism was mostly economic–effectively boycotting unfair railroad prices by going around them as much as possible–sometimes as far as manufacturing their own farm equipment and sharing existing equipment amongst themselves. Eventually, they won enough political power in state legislatures to pass laws regulating railroad and other prices.
The Lane County granges–all 54 of them–banded together to found the first Farmer’s Market in Eugene in 1912, and even that had an clear economic and political goal. Local retailers and merchants had long been jacking up the price of the produce they bought from local farmers, ripping off the farmers and customers alike. So the farmers decided to cut out the middleman one day a week and sell produce directly to the people. But first they had to convince the city to give them a space to sell their goods, which of course turned into an entire ordeal involving a corrupt real estate mogul, a hostile city council, and an out-of-touch mayor.
After the months-long battle with the city about whether or not local farmers were allowed to just collectively sell their goods wherever they wanted, the market opened up on Park Street and 8th Avenue – right where the Saturday Market is held every week. Later, it moved to the corner of Broadway and Charnelton, where an office building now stands. It proved wildly successful, and though the original Eugene Producers’ Public Market ended operations in 1959, the idea of a farmers’ market never died.
What’s unique about the Grange’s political activism is that it was not even remotely associated with an existing political party. The farmers detested party politics, and the Grange explicitly refused to endorse any candidates or political parties, instead only endorsing specific platforms and legislation that applied to and affected farmers. In this way, the Grange wasn’t a branch of an existing party platform, but rather its own standalone organization with its own goals that defied attempts to bring it under the umbrella of some big political party. The farmers had struggled for a very long time against seemingly unbeatable odds to win these protections, and they weren’t going to just give them up to some city folk looking for some extra votes every four years.
Overall, the Granger movement, as it became known, was closely aligned with the aims and goals of the Populist and Progressive movements during the height of America’s Gilded Age, which never won much political power in America but certainly represented an early explosion of popular discontent with the order of the day. Income inequality was rampant, and the poor and working classes were sick of toiling endlessly for spare change. The farmers were being exploited by the capitalists, and they weren’t going to take it anymore.
Now, well over a century later, something similar has happened – an upswell of popular resentment among rural and working people against the existing order. But instead of demanding broader economic justice and support for the people who make the country run, they’ve fallen back on an old adage: “Fuck you, I got mine.”
I can’t help but think the grangers of the past would be disappointed to see what some of their fellow country folk have become.
I read all of Market Days–it’s not very long and full of pictures–while sitting on a shady slope to the left side of the main stage–where the techs for country duo Big & Rich were setting up for the night’s main show. A man was passed out on the grass not far from me, his ass hanging out of his Wranglers, completely unbothered by booming drums and piercing guitar. After a while, I started to suspect that he might be dead.
Every so often, I’d look up from the book and see another small group of people walking by in clothes signaling their contempt for leftists, liberals, and their assorted ideas. Then I’d return to the book and read another passage about a farmer fighting against railroad monopolies and condemning the government as a tool of corporate power. The dissonance was deafening.
Now that’s not to blindly celebrate a bunch of 19th century white dudes just because they were marginally better people and aligned against the interests of capital. Market Days obviously doesn’t bother to mention any negative qualities of the Grange and its leadership, but I’m willing to bet a good chunk of them–being 19th century white dudes–probably had pretty awful ideas about race and Manifest Destiny. They were settler colonists on stolen land. Records about the people mentioned in the book are sparse, and there’s not much to suggest that any of them were, like, Klansmen or anything, but that’s always a possibility when we’re talking about 19th century white dudes.
And that’s the most curious thing about labor and activist history. There’s this infuriating contradiction at the heart of it all, wherein people wanted to be protected against capitalist exploitation and government oppression while also having no qualms about exploiting entire nations of people, both at home and abroad. It’s a contradiction that can’t be ignored when we talk about the past. Obviously, we’ve come a long way since then, but at the same time, we really haven’t gone all that far. And maybe it was inevitable that those prejudices would rear their ugly heads once push came to shove.
It’s funny how much things change while staying exactly the same. The things people are struggling for today are largely the same things people were struggling for a century ago; the only difference is which people are on which side.
I left the fairgrounds just before Big & Rich took the stage. The sort of crowd that comes out to hear “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy” in the year 2021 is not my kind of crowd. As I walked through the parking lot behind the fairgrounds, between giant trucks draped in giant American flags, I wondered where things went so wrong that rural populism could be so easily co-opted by right-wing extremists. And I wondered how proud rural families could so quickly forget how their grandparents and great-grandparents struggled so hard against the forces that their descendants seem so willing to blindly embrace. I just don’t see how someone raised on traditional ideas of self-sufficiency could be so eager to put their faith and support in politicians that feel nothing but contempt for them.
I suppose rural farmers aren’t all that different from everyone else. They just want to know that someone is listening to them, I guess. Maybe to them, it’s not about voting against one’s own interest, but voting against other people’s interests. Maybe that’s something I don’t have the time and patience to really understand. I suppose I’ll be struggling with that notion for a long time.
But finding Market Days on the ground at the fair offered a glimpse of a different world, one where rural folks are not so quickly inclined to favor conservative economics and politics, and one where working people both rural and urban are united against the slavering maw of capitalism.
“The [Grange] proved its soundness,” Bettis writes toward the end of the book. “It has proved that whatever has been done and may be done in the future of Eugene and Lane County is built on and rooted in the soil. The old-time fight between the town and the country is done away with and the people have learned to work together. The soil and its products constitute the principal basis of prosperity and progress for this district and only as they are developed and encouraged can the city and country go ahead.”
Of course, future developments proved Bettis wrong. But it sure is nice to dream.