Smooth brome (Bromus inermis) is an attractive plant, 18 to 48 inches tall and growing upright. It produces numerous leaves, alternating in position up the stem. The leaves are 4 to 16 inches long and 1/4 to 1/2 inch wide. The flat leaf blades grow from round, waxy, veined sheaths with a covering of soft hair. The blades themselves, however, are hairless and appear grayish-blue on the top and green on the bottom. The margins are rough. Note the W-shaped constriction on the blade near the tip—this is a reliable characteristic for identification.
Populist candidate James Weaver did not become president in 1892, as most undoubtedly know. However, he did win 8.5% of the popular vote, which was considered an impressive amount for a third-party candidate. He also won the states of Kansas, Colorado, Nevada, and Idaho.
The Populist movement was far more successful in some states than others. As previously mentioned, Populist strongholds tended to be states in which farmers were hard hit by drought and economic turmoil. One of these states was Kansas.
Populists in Power
When the Kansas People’s Party first organized in Topeka in 1890, it enjoyed considerable political success across the state. The lower house of the state legislature was taken by Populists. Rancher “Sockless Jerry” Simpson, the origin of whose nickname is clouded in myth but may have come from his association with poor farmers, won a seat in the United States House of Representatives. Long-time U.S. Senator John J. Ingalls, who had been involved in Kansas politics since the territorial days, lost his seat to Populist editor William Peffer.
In 1892, a People’s Party candidate became Kansas governor with the election of Lorenzo D. Lewelling. The party also won the upper house of the state legislature, while the lower house remained divided between Populists and Republicans, leading to a rather bizarre situation known as the Legislative War.
The “war” began as a dispute over election results. The Republicans claimed to have taken control of the Kansas House, while the Populists asserted that they had done so through election fraud, making the People’s Party the majority. At first, the two parties met in the same chamber at different times to pass legislation independently, but tension finally mounted to the point that the Populist members locked themselves into the House and the Republican members gained entry via sledgehammer. The Kansas Supreme Court eventually decided in favor of the Republicans.
Fusion and the End of the Populist Era
In many elections, Populist candidates won their offices through the support of the Democrats. In fact, in the Kansas elections of 1892, the state’s Democratic Party did not nominate its own candidates, but endorsed the People’s Party ticket instead. Thus, the precedent was early on established for joining forces with the older party in a move known as “fusion.”
This created a deep divide within the People’s Party, with one faction wanting to ride the coattails of the better established Democratic Party to victory and the other cautioning that fusion would be the end of the party. Populist Thomas E. Watson warned that “fusion means the Populist party will play Jonah, and [the Democrats] will play the whale.”
When William Jennings Bryan was nominated as the 1896 Democratic presidential candidate on a platform of free coinage of silver, the People’s Party was in a quandary. Their convention occurred after the Democratic convention, and it was clear that it was likely to be a divisive event. Never before had fusion been such an attractive option, but there was a sentiment that the Populists should demand recognition from the Democrats on more issues than simply silver.
Fusion was the course pursued by the majority of the People’s Party delegates when the votes were cast. Those against fusion attempted to organize a counter-rally and regain control of the convention, but the lights in the meeting hall abruptly went out. William Jennings Bryan became the Populist nominee for president. However, the People’s Party also took the unusual course of rejecting his Democratic running mate Arthur Sewall because he was a banker and railroad man and instead nominating Thomas Watson for vice president. This created a rather awkward situation, as Watson positively refused to campaign for Bryan, but was equally obstinate in declining to step aside for Sewall. All this time, the Republicans cheerfully announced that the Democrats had allied themselves with anarchists. William Jennings Bryan ultimately lost the presidency to Republican William McKinley.
A few antifusion members of the People’s Party held out for over a decade, but the party was officially disbanded in 1908.
Impacts of Populism on Subsequent Events
While antifusion Populists were certainly correct in their prediction that fusion would destroy the identity of the party, it was by no means the end of their philosophies. The Populist movement gradually morphed into the subsequent Progressive movement. Progressive candidates, regardless of their party affiliation, tended to support anti-trust legislation, federal regulation of private industry, and federal support for the farmer and the laborer.
During his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt, while highly critical of the People’s Party, became an outspoken advocate of the Populist-friendly policy of trust-busting. Direct election of United States senators became a reality in 1912. The general notion that farmers and laborers should receive federal assistance during times of economic disaster became a concrete fact with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Thus, while the People’s Party did not achieve most of its ambitions itself, the movement marked the end of the Gilded Age and ushered in a new phase of federal government.
Legislative War Artifacts
More on the Legislative War, along with several artifacts on display at the Kansas Museum of History.
Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) receives its name from its blue inflorescence, an open, branching, pyramid-shaped structure known as a panicle. The panicle is 1-1/2 to 5 inches long and 1 to 3 inches wide. The waving branches bear spikelets on their ends. Each spikelet has three to six flowers capable of producing abundant awnless seed.
The Populist movement of the late 1800s is a major topic in Kansas history. A brief glance at history books tells us that the populism of that era was more or less radical agrarianism. While this is basically true, the topic is far more complex than this.
What did the Populists believe? How did they try to achieve it? And what became of them? Lengthy books can be (and have been) written on the subject. This week and next, we’ll try to summarize the main points.
To begin with, what Populists advocated can be summed up as “economic reform.” Not all Populist leaders agreed on the precise reforms to be implemented, but there were several important common themes.
The major policies that most Populists agreed on were:
Abolishing national banks.
Establishing a graduated income tax.
Preventing foreign ownership of land.
Limiting the working day to eight hours.
Freely coining silver to make currency more readily available.
Giving the government control of railroads, telegraphs, and telephone companies.
Populists also typically agreed that senators should be directly elected by the people. At the time, senators were selected by the state legislatures.
The topics that proved to be slightly more controversial among the Populists tended to be non-economic reforms. However, the attention brought to bear on these issues during the movement tended to secure varying levels of reform in subsequent years. Examples of non-economic reforms advocated by sizable numbers of Populists included:
Equal justice for African-Americans.
Term limits for the president and other elected officials.
The Origins of the Movement
Many historians have noted that Populism tended to flourish in areas where farmers suffered hardship, while the movement simply could not gain a foothold in areas where farmers were prosperous. This highlights one of the reasons that Populism’s stronghold was Kansas. Kansas had enjoyed favorable weather and a dramatic economic boom, climaxing in 1887, but drought and debt were defining features of the late 1880s and early 1890s. No other state had more mortgaged acres at the time. A glut of agricultural products could only fetch low prices, while railroad rates were soaring. Some farmers coped by moving to greener pastures; others demanded assistance from the state, as well as from the nation.
In the midst of this dissatisfaction with the way agricultural conditions were going was a dissatisfaction with corruption, both in the government and on Wall Street. Some reformers felt that Wall Street was practically running the federal government. Trust in either major political party was dwindling rapidly.
The immediate predecessor of the People’s Party, identified with the Populist movement, was the Farmers’ Alliance. The Alliance in turn had arisen out of the Grange, originally a secret society dedicated to the education and social enrichment of rural residents. Grange members in various states often pooled their money to receive discounts on farm equipment and purchase their own grain elevators. After the nationwide economic fiasco known as the Panic of 1873, caused by rampant speculation on railroads and other enterprises, the Grange became a lobbying organization advocating increased government regulation in affairs affecting the farmer, such as shipping rates.
The Farmers’ Alliance was first established in Texas in 1874 to protect land titles and capture horse thieves. In 1889, the Kansas Farmers’ Alliance arose from the ruins of the Grange, which had been beset by financial difficulties and warring factions. This organization at first sought to promote the interests of the farmer without entering into politics, but the 1890 elections stirred it into further action. A March convention held in Topeka saw county Alliance presidents demanding reduced railroad rates, direct election of senators, and laws to give farmers more time to pay mortgages, among other reforms.
Later that year, the People’s Party was organized in Topeka to provide candidates that were pledged to carry out precisely the types of reforms that the Alliance demanded. This party came to national attention over the course of the next few years as suspicions grew that both the Democrat and the Republican parties had sold themselves out to big business.
Some reformers began to talk of combining all the various state Farmers’ Alliances to establish their own political party, dedicated to the farmer and the laboring man. In 1892, a convention was held in Omaha, Nebraska, to establish the national People’s Party. The platform that was adopted embodied most of the principles listed above in which the Populists were unanimous. The People’s Party also nominated James Weaver as their presidential candidate. The fledgling party was ready for the campaign trail.
Many sustainable farmers are fascinated by the concept of allowing the land and its contours to dictate the best practices for every acre. For those of you who are looking for some grist to add to the mill on this subject, give Water For Every Farm: Yeomans Keyline Plan by P.A. Yeomans a try.
After a brief explanation of what keyline is (a plan of irrigation custom-tailored to the lay of the land), the book launches into an examination of land contours and how they should be treated when tilling and irrigating. These contours then become the basis of choosing the best sites for dams, roads, trees, fences, and more.
While the book is heavy on theory (e.g., the chapter on city planning), it is backed by practical experience. Yeomans implemented his ideas in the challenging landscape of Australia and by all appearances made highly efficient use of his water resources for irrigation.
Water For Every Farm is not exactly a resource for beginners. It’s rather technical and not always easy to follow. However, if irrigation is a topic of interest to you, you will probably find the time spent studying keyline principles to be valuable. Even if you are simply interested in making the best possible use of your land, there is still information here you can use.
Perhaps for the average reader, the best way to make use of this book would be to read the first four chapters to gain an understanding of what keyline is, why landscape geometry is so important, and how to identify the contours of the land. After that, the reader may choose to skip to any relevant chapters, such as those on cultivation, development of water resources, planting contour strip forests, or soil fertility.
Water for Every Farm is rather heavy reading, but it does present some information well worth considering on adapting farming practices to the land.
Silver bluestem (Bothriochloa saccharoides) is a unique, attractive bunchgrass that derives its name from its silky white inflorescences. These silvery plumes range from 2-1/2 to 6 inches in length and obtain their distinctive appearance from their short, bent awns. Another name this species has received from its appearance is silver beardgrass.
Most Americans probably know that Benjamin Franklin flew a kite in a thunderstorm to examine the properties of lightning. But did you know that he was also one of the first recorded storm chasers?
As early as the mid-1750s, Ben Franklin was chasing tornadoes on horseback. It was something of an accident, Franklin evidently being out with some friends for a pleasure ride. But when a small funnel formed, Franklin was not one to miss the opportunity.
While his friends huddled in terror, Benjamin Franklin urged his horse on through the woods toward the tornado. Just how close he got to the funnel we may never know for sure. If Franklin’s own account is accurate, he could have whipped it with his riding crop.
Fortunately for Franklin and subsequently for the rest of the nation, the tornado was very weak and quickly died out.
But Franklin was more than a thrill-seeker—he had an inquiring mind and a thirst for knowledge. He was probably one of the earliest Americans to attempt to forecast the weather in a scientific manner through observation of principles.
A short list of Franklin’s investigations and achievements in the realm of weather would include:
Charting the Gulf Stream, which affects U.S. temperatures.
Theorizing that storm movement is related to high- and low-pressure areas.
Demonstrating that lightning is nothing more than electricity.
Theorizing that the bottom of a storm cloud is negatively charged.
Promoting the widespread use of the lightning rod.
Proposing a hypothesis that the upper atmosphere is colder than the lower atmosphere, thus allowing for hail formation even in summer.
Although it shares the waxy bluish-green stem of the famous big bluestem plant, the more humble little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) has few other similarities in appearance. It only grows two to five feet tall. The upright, slightly flattened stems often branch.