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INDIAHOMA FARMERS' UNION

In the years leading to statehood, the Oklahoma and Indian territories hosted a particularly large and active branch of the Farmers' Educational and Cooperative Union. Formed in Texas in 1902, that organization, popularly known as the Farmers' Union, was a conscious attempt to recreate the spirit and activism of the old Farmers' Alliance. A former Populist named Sam Hampton was primarily responsible for energizing the Farmers' Union in the territories, which by 1905 was large enough to warrant forming an autonomous territorial organization. In that year delegates from both the Oklahoma and Indian territories met in Shawnee to do so, uniting members from both territories into one organization, called the Indiahoma Farmers' Union.

From the beginning, the lessons and experience of Populism were crucial to the Union. The Indiahoma Union's first president, S. O. Daws, had been an important national figure in the Farmers' Alliance. He remembered the Alliance's distrust of the burgeoning industrial capitalist system, referring pointedly in his inaugural address to the hardships this system placed upon farmers.

Building on the cooperative ideal pioneered by the Alliance, Union leaders in the territories proposed two strategies for addressing those inequities. First, the Indiahoma Farmers' Union organized a crop withholding plan, whereby Union members pledged not to sell their crop below a prearranged price. The tactic worked best among cotton farmers; by holding their cotton until the harvest-time glut had passed, Union members hoped to see a significant increase in crop prices. Indeed, even though the withholding plan was purely voluntary, cotton prices in the territories increased from 6.7 cents per pound in 1902 to 9.5 cents in 1906. The second strategy, a network of Farmers' Union clearinghouses through which members would sell their crops, was even more ambitious. Members of Farmers' Union locals owned and operated the clearinghouses collectively, allowing them to control more closely the conditions under which they sold their products.

These measures proved to be wildly popular among working farmers in the territories. By 1906 the Indiahoma Farmers' Union claimed more than seventy thousand members and a network of more than clearinghouses. Not all Union members approved, however. Some, principally the more prosperous large landowners, who were uncomfortable with what they saw as the organization's hostility to capitalism, proposed more moderate, less dramatic tactics such as crop diversification and acreage reduction.

So began a bruising struggle for control in which the moderates, men like Campbell Russell and William H. Murray, succeeded in expelling radicals (such as S. O. Daws, Sam Hampton, and H. S. P. "Stump" Ashby) from leadership positions in the Union. By 1907 the moderates had prevailed, and at that year's convention the new leaders began to move away from collective action. They also pushed the organization into an alliance with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

In this way the Farmers' Union became part of the progressive coalition responsible for Oklahoma's constitution. Yet the Union that emerged after statehood, now called the Oklahoma Farmers' Union, was a different, more moderate organization than the one Sam Hampton and S. O. Daws had nurtured into prominence. It was also smaller; membership in the Farmers' Union fell to three thousand by 1907. Still, as the principal representative of the interests of Oklahoma's rural producers, the Union played an important role in the state for most of the twentieth century.

SEE ALSO: AMERICAN AGRICULTURE MOVEMENT, FARMING.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Jim Bissett, Agrarian Socialism in America: Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1904-1920 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999). Danney Goble, Progressive Oklahoma: The Making of a New Kind of State (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980). Robert Lee Hunt, A History of Farmer Movements in the Southwest, 1873-1925 (N.p.: n.p. [Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas], 1935). Theodore Saloutos, Agricultural Discontent in the Middle West, 1900-1939 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1951). John Thompson, Closing the Frontier: Radical Response in Oklahoma, 1889-1923 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986).

Jim Bissett

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