Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

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OKLAHOMA FARMERS' UNION

The proposal for a national union for farmers originated in the little northeastern Texas community of Pilot in 1902. Isaac Newton Gresham, visionary newspaper editor and rarely profitable small farmer, along with eight of his neighbors, founded the first branch of the movement that spread quickly into the Twin Territories. Based on the goals of earlier farm movements, including the Granges, Farmers' Alliances, and Populism, the secret agrarian union was dedicated to improving farm incomes through cooperative action.

Farm leaders William H. Murray of Tishomingo and Campbell Russell of Oklahoma City, along with other transplanted Texans, brought the union philosophy to the territories within months. Aggressive recruitment caused quarrels between the rival branches that slowed growth, however, until 1905 when the two territorial groups joined memberships in 839 locals into the "Indiahoma Union." This group split again over the question of single or double statehood, but after passage of the Enabling Act of 1906 the unions combined permanently as "The Farmers' Educational and Cooperative Union of the State of Oklahoma" with a membership of 29,365.

Membership continued to expand under the presidency of the controversial and militant John A. Simpson (1916-30) and his secretary-treasurer, Zed H. Lawter of Weatherford. The two abandoned the practice of holding secret meetings, established the union headquarters in Oklahoma City, organized cooperative gins, grain elevators, stores, and businesses throughout the state, founded the first successful Oklahoma union newspaper, the Oklahoma Union Farmer, and created the Farmers' Union Insurance Company in 1921.

Largely due to Simpson's efforts, the Oklahoma Farmers' Union achieved the highest membership of the twenty-six-state organization in 1930, and he was elevated to the national presidency. An ardent opponent of Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression, Simpson supported Franklin D. Roosevelt until personality conflict with FDR, coupled with Simpson's philosophical debate for acreage restriction under the Agricultural Adjustment Act, caused him to become a severe critic of the president. After an angry, public debate between the two men, Simpson became an enemy of the New Deal until his unfortunate heart attack in 1934.

The Oklahoma Farmers' Union continued to prosper, nevertheless, under subsequent presidents Tom Cheek (1930-45) of Roger Mills County, Homer Duffy (1945-56) of Lexington, and George Stone (1956-80) of Byars. Among their achievements was the temporary establishment of a union hospital at Elk City, but the most notable efforts were by Stone, who became a committed union leader while working in the insurance division of the organization.

Elected during the midst of the hotly contested union campaign of 1956, Stone adapted modern business techniques to the union insurance business, placing it on a firm financial foundation. At the same time he became a nationally recognized voice for the American farmer, resulting in his promotion to the national presidency in 1980. By this time the Oklahoma union was the largest of the 300,000-member national organization.

Working to keep the union strong while seeking solutions for current farm problems was the goal of presidents Jimmie L. Jarrell (1980-85) of Stratford, Jack B. Kelsey (1985-92) of Waynoka, and Phillip Klutts (1992-) of Okemah. With a 1999 membership of 115,000 in 239 locals, the Oklahoma Farmers' Union continued to be a powerful voice for agriculture and rural issues in the state. See also AMERICAN AGRICULTURAL MOVEMENT, FARMING,

SEE ALSO: INDIAHOMA FARMERS' UNION.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: R. A. Harbo, Farmers' Union Past and Present (Denver, Colo.: National Farmers' Union, 1968). C. E. Huff and Perry Eberhart, The Voice of the Family Farmer (N.p.: National Farmers' Union, [1967]). James C. Milligan, Oklahoma Farmers' Union: A History of the First 91 Years (Oklahoma City, Okla.: Cottonwood Publications, 1997). James C. Milligan and L. David Norris, "Organizing Wide-awake Farmers: John A. Simpson and the Farmers' Union," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 74 (Winter 1996-97).

James C. Milligan

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