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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Rise and Fall of the Farmers Alliance

by Clay Coppedge

The box-shaped house on Donaldson Creek in Lampasas County, about halfway between Lampasas and Lometa, where John R. Allen decided to settle in1874, was nothing special. It was what they called a "rawhide" house built out of native timber. Functional, yes. Fancy, no.

It was a place for Allen to hang his hat and raise a family and a place where neighbors gathered for fellowship and gossip. It was also the setting for the formation of one of the most successful protest organizations in U.S. history, the Farmers' Alliance.

The area where Allen and a few neighbors lived was (and is) called Pleasant Valley. It's off the beaten path today and was a true agrarian outpost in the 1870s, but events in the wider world were felt there because the world of agriculture was changing, and not in the farmers' favor.

In the years after the Civil War, farmers, especially in the South, feared they were losing control of their own destiny. A steady decline in the price of farm produce, high interest rates charged by banks and retailers, and excessive freight charges by railroads squeezed farmers' profits to something close to zero. Instead of growing a little grain and selling it locally to pay for life's necessities, farmers were now reliant on markets and the railroads that took their crops, mostly cotton, to be sold elsewhere.

Allen and 13 of his cronies, including Adolphus P. Hungate, the Alliance's "lecturer," called a meeting on Sept. 1, 1877, to discuss these changes and what to do about them. This was the first meeting of the Farmers' Alliance Number 1. Hungate later wrote that the Lampasas 14 were "relatively poor" and met to "more speedily educate ourselves in the science of free government."

The organization first called itself the Knights of Reliance but changed the name to Farmers' Alliance at the third meeting. Loan sharks and cattle rustlers remained near the top of the Alliance's list of concerns. In regard to cattle rustling, the Alliance appointed two men called Grand Smokeys to "arrest, or cause arrest, of anyone found stealing or in possession of stolen stock."

Some of the original members preferred to merge with the Grange, another agrarian protest organization, but Hungate was against it. He sensed more than the others that the cause of the farmer's alienation was the nation's changing social, political and economic bases, and there was no turning back. Hungate said the Alliance would have broader aims than simply growing a better crop of corn.

"We propose to employ the whole foundation of (the Farmers Alliance) as a single cornerstone of a grand social and political palace where liberty may dwell and where justice may be safely domiciled," he told a state convention.

Yes, the Lampasas Alliance grew big enough to hold a state convention, but that was the point where it divided in two and continued to divide even as it spread east across the old Confederacy and north to the Canadian Plains. There was a Southern Alliance, a Northern Alliance, and a Colored Alliance for African American farmers. The failure of the Farmers Alliance was the failure to consolidate the various fractions.

The Alliance did, however, lead directly to the creation of the People's Party of America, more widely known as the Populist Party. The platform of the Populist Party in the 1892 elections was a close copy of the Farmers Alliance platform from the 1870s. In Texas, Populist candidate Thomas Nugent received 25 percent of the popular vote for governor in 1892, finishing third in a field of five candidates.

The Alliance's popularity in its day is, ironically, one reason you won't find any remainder of the old Allen home today. The house was transported to the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, where it was dismantled and sold piece by piece as souvenirs. The Alliance itself would also be dismantled not long afterwards.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" September 18, 2023 column

Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • Drugstore Cowboys 8-19-23
  • Forgotten Tales of Sugar Loaf 7-13-23
  • Legend of Bosque John 6-26-23
  • Texas' Tobacco Road 5-29-23
  • La Menken and the First Horse Opera 4-11-23

    more »

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