The Grangers, Then and Now

Recently an issue which has been occasionally popping up in my newspaper as well as my family research was on the front page of the Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA): The resurgence of the Grange.

Bennett Valley Grange Hall, Santa Rosa, CA
Bennett Valley Grange Hall, Santa Rosa, CA

The very word grange brings up good memories from my childhood. As a kid I remember occasionally attending social events held in grange halls in Sonoma County, the nearest of which was the Bennett Valley Grange. Dances were held there regularly as well as other social events and meetings. This morning I read that Bennett Valley is the oldest continuously operating grange hall in the entire nation, founded in 1873.

The topic of the Grangers, or the Patrons of Husbandry, has also come up in the family research I’ve been doing. A letter written in 1874 by Sarah (Little) Love, an Irish immigrant to and resident of Illinois, and half-sister to my great grandmother, Catherine (Foster) Clarke, mentions the growing Grange movement. Both Catherine and Sarah were married to farmers, and their letters frequently addressed topics that were important to their farming families.

Sarah writes:

As for the Granger’s [sic] they are doing very well and I think in a year every farmer will join them, if they know what is for their good. Eddie [Sarah’s son] went last Monday to one of three meetings and said they had a very good and large gathering. I think we shall join them.

This little snippet about the Grangers caught my attention and piqued my interest about the organization. I found several good sources of information. My favorite was a book written in 1874 by Ezra Slocum entitled The Patrons of Husbandry on the Pacific Coast. It is a rather amazing history of farming in general as well as a detailed history of the Grange in California. Slocum was a professor of agriculture at UC Davis and was involved in many of the early meetings.

Another book that has shed much light on the plight of the farmers is Rulers & Rebels, a People’s History of Early California, 1769-1901 by Laurence H. Shoup, a professor at UC Berkeley. Published in 2010, it is a Howard Zinn-styled history of the state in terms of capitalism vs. labor, class and race. Shoup describes the absolute monopoly the railroad barons had on transportation. By the late 1860s the owners of the Central Railroad—Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins—were creating a vast monopoly which included owning or controlling the docks in San Francisco, the granaries where the farmers’ wheat crop was stored until it was shipped, the steam ships, and of course, the railroads. By the early 1870s the farmers could not turn a profit on their wheat crops (the primary crop grown in California at the time) due to the extortionate storage and shipping fees. Even the price of the sacks required to ship the wheat was controlled by this monopoly, and you might imagine that the prices were not set to benefit the farmers. This scenario was being played out all over the nation. The Patrons of Husbandry, which had begun in England, got started in the U.S. in 1867, and was in essence farmers organizing against policies that were ruining them.

By the mid-1870s, the California Grange had succeeded in building their own storage silos, formed their own bank, hired an agent to work on their behalf to ship their crops to England, and formed various cooperative arrangements that saved money on sacks and implements. They encouraged a bigger manufacturing presence in the state so that they did not have to rely on goods made out-of-state, which were, of course, transported by the railroads, driving prices up. On a state-by-state basis the Grangers were eventually able to increase regulation of the railroads, but it was not until the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 that federal regulations were passed. All in all, the Grangers had a very positive effect on the economics of farming.

The Grange movement also had the goal of reducing the isolation of farming families by hosting social events and assisting farmers in keeping abreast of new techniques by hosting workshops and maintaining agricultural libraries. The Grangers were involved in getting Rural Mail Delivery put into place on a national scale so that farmers could receive mail at their homes rather than having to go in to town or pay private delivery companies. Women held equal places with the men in the Grange halls and were able to hold office, present policy papers, and take part in every aspect of the organization. Thus the Grange became the heart of many farming communities.

Lately I’ve been reading that the Grange has had a recent resurgence in Sonoma County. The Sebastopol Grange is one of many that has become very active with a new generation of young farmers. A visit to their website reveals that “The Grange isn’t just for farmers! Come to the Grange if you’re a supporter of local food and sustainability or a farmer or an eater…” In addition to the Farmer’s Guild meetings, events such as a Fermentation Workshop, and a film and discussion on permaculture were offered. I was heartened to learn that the Grange continues to hold a place in rural communities.

There is trouble on the horizon, however, as it turns out that these Granges have been operating apart from the National Grange under a reorganized California State Grange. Many small farmers in California and Oregon particularly feel the National organization has become too closely intertwined with industrial farming. The National Grange has sided with Monsanto, a chemical company which produces genetically modified seeds which it sells to farmers while prohibiting seed saving, requiring farmers to buy new seed every year. The National Grange is also strongly in favor of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) while the California State Grange was a primary force in trying to get a ban of GMOs on the California ballot. The national organization has filed several lawsuits against the California State Grange resulting in the state organization severing all ties with the national in 2013. Now the National Grange is threatening to take over the assets of the local granges, including the Grange Halls, and threatening to sue the reorganized California Grange for using the word “Grange” in the name. It’s a sad state of affairs that the organization that once stood for the small, family farmer against the monopolies of huge corporations has now gone to the dark side, aligning itself with giant agribusiness and corporate farming. At the same time I’m greatly heartened by the local efforts to organize around sustainable food and land issues in northern California and other regions, and hope that they will be allowed to continue in the true spirit of the original Granger movement.

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The Clarke Family Takes Root and Expands

The next decade or so after their marriage in 1867 finds William and Catherine Clarke—or Will and Katie, as they were known—building their family, their farming and ranching enterprises, and their community involvement in Yolo County. At the time of their marriage, Catherine’s daughter from her previous marriage, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Tenney (my great-grandmother), was four. Two months after the wedding a son, William Dougal Clarke was born (recall that Lizzie as an adult wrote in a letter that she had learned that brother Willie was in fact her full brother, not her stepbrother as everyone had been led to believe, i.e. he was not the son of WJ Clarke but of Catherine’s first husband, Willard Tenney). Two years later a daughter, Margaret Jane, was born (1869). In 1871 another daughter, Catherine May, followed by a son, Noble Foster, in 1873. Two more children came along, Celia Violet in 1876 and George W. David in 1879. Twelve years after their marriage the Clarkes had seven children.

Although William and Catherine Clarke have plenty of descendants living today, these descendants all came from three of their seven children: My great grandmother Lizzie bore nine children, all of whom lived into adulthood; Margaret bore three sons, two of whom lived into adulthood; and Foster Noble produced a son and two daughters, all living into adulthood.

A tragic event occurred just five months prior to William’s marriage to Katie. William’s partner Jack Stewart was killed in a bar fight in the Knight’s Landing Union Hotel, stabbed to death by Charles A. Brown, who was convicted and sentenced to six years in state prison. Clarke subsequently bought out Stewart’s heirs—siblings still living in Scotland whom I’m sure had no use for wheat fields in California—for Stewart’s shares in the ranch. In 1870 the 60 acres that had been Stewart’s share were purchased by Katie (Foster) Clarke’s brother, James Washington Foster—the only one of her siblings to be born in the U.S. (Illinois) after her family emigrated from Ireland.

William and Katie Clarke each had siblings who settled nearby—remember that both the Clarkes and the Fosters immigrated initially from Ireland and came to California by way of Illinois, although I don’t yet know if the two families knew each other prior to their lives in California. Perhaps not, as a letter from one of William Clarke’s cousins who remained in Illinois asks William about his bride, “Where did you find her?”

One of the things I’ve found to be common in my own family history, and is probably common to many families in early California, is the intermarrying of families, i.e. two brothers from one family marrying sisters from another, or cousins marrying sisters, etc. This situation sometimes creates confusion, especially around names when the tendency for kids to be named after aunts, uncles and grandparents is added into the equation. Katie Clarke’s mother was Margaret, and she had a sister also named Margaret. William Clarke also has a sister Margaret, and he and Katie named their daughter Margaret. Katie’s brother James Foster married a woman named…wait for it…Margaret.

Noble Clarke, brother of William John Clark
Noble Clarke, brother of William John Clark

In any case, by the 1870s William had two siblings living in the Yolo/Colusa Counties area, his brother Noble and his sister Margaret. Katie Clarke also had two siblings in the area, her half-sister Elizabeth Little, who married William’s brother Noble, and her brother James Worthington Foster, a Civil War veteran who is shown to be living with Will and Katie Clarke in the 1870 census.

The pattern of my family’s immigration followed that of many other families: Siblings following siblings across the ocean and across the continent. By the 1870s both William and Katie have relatives who remained in Ireland as well as relatives who remained in Illinois—parents, siblings and cousins. Fortunately, some correspondence between the family groups has survived into the present day and sheds light on family events. Letters from a cousin of William’s inform him that his mother had died, and then his father. Letters from Katie’s half-sister Sarah in Illinois comment on the floods and loss of crops that the Clarkes endured over the years. In 1874 she writes,

“I do not see how you can live out there with so much water around you. I think it must be very unhealthy and then [to] lose so much wheat. I do not think that pays very well.”

In spite of Sarah’s misgivings about the area, it seemed to suit Will and Katie Clarke and they lived out their lives in Yolo and Colusa Counties.