The farmers of Arkansas had often talked about their troubles and grievances when they met at the market places, in social gatherings, or at religious services. They talked, but parted without coming to definite conclusions as to their best course of action. The persistence of their problems, however, was evidence that individual action and talk alone were inadequate remedies.
By early 1882 the distress of the farmers of Prairie County was acute enough to pave the way for group action. The severe drought of the previous year had ruined their crops. The Flat Prairie terrain had been drenched by the terrible rains of January and February. The rich lowlands were flooded by the raging White River, which ran through the county. Anaconda Mortgages held many of the small independent farmers within their relentless coils. Undoubtedly even a greater number of the tenants who farmed approximately 40 percent of the Prairie County farms were victims of the same credit system. Moreover, the debtors failed to understand the situation in which the merchants and other mortgage holders found themselves. The discontented farmers felt that these misunderstood "Shylocks" took advantage of their "victims" and squeezed them tighter and tighter instead of helping them. The action of the doctors during this period of hardship added to the growing conviction of conspiracy and highlighted the advantages of organization. These short-sighted men of medicine met in nearby Lonoke and resolved that they would not practice in any family indebted to them unless the head of the family would give them a mortgage said that "all we could hear . . . . was mortgages! mortgages! MORTGAGES!"
Under these circumstances it is not difficult to comprehend why W. A. Suit and W. Taylor McBee, two independent Prairie County farmers, decided to attempt to arouse their neighbors to the importance of organization and collective action. Previous discussions of their own grievances and the plight of their farmer friends helped them reach this decision in their conversation of February 12, 1882. At this time a general invitation was extended to the farmers of the neighborhood to meet at McBee's school house the following Saturday night.
Saturday night, February 15, 1882, in an old log school house eight miles southwest of Des Arc, in Prairie County, Arkansas, the organization later to achieve national prominence as the Agriculture Wheel had its very inauspicious beginning. Nine persons were present at this first meeting, but as two of that number were from adjoining Lonoke County they took no part in the proceedings. The seven Prairie County farmers certainly had no prescribed remedy ready to alleviate agricultural distresses. They did not know the answers to their problems, but they were determined to do something. They saw organization as the first step toward a possible solution and proceeded to elect William Walker Tedford, president, and W. Taylor McBee, secretary.
After this simple organizational procedure, the small group was called to order and one of the seven participants made a brief speech calling for complete organization. The speaker's suggestion was adopted unanimously and John W. McBee was selected to join the president and secretary in drafting a constitution, by-laws, and a ritual of secret work.
The committee met at the home of W. Taylor McBee two nights later and drafted the first constitution and by-laws, and secret work of their obscure agricultural organization. These were adopted by the members at their second meeting on February 22, 1882. The approved constitution and by-laws were brief and to the point. They provided that the organization would be known as the Wattensas Farmer's Club, that its object would "be the improvement of its members in the theory and practice of agriculture and the dissemination of knowledge relative to rural and farming affairs," and that the "members shall consist of such persons as will sign the constitution and by-laws and who are engaged in farming." Provision was made for the usual officers, and the first and third Saturday nights of each month were designated for meetings at McBee's school house. Significantly the seven members of the Wattensas Farmer's Club had optimistically approved a constitution creating eight officers. They obviously believed their club would attract others like themselves.
The seven founders of the Wattensas Farmer's Club were in many respects a homogeneous group. Unfortunately very little can be learned about any of the men who played such important roles in the early drama of the agricultural revolt in Arkansas. They were little known outside their neighborhood, or their county, in their own day. It has been established that all seven of the original members were lifelong Democrats, and that six of the number farmed their own land. Three of them were not only natives of Prairie County, but were closely related by blood or marriage. Only one of these men is known to have been born outside the state, and he had resided in Arkansas since 1858 and was thus familiar with the agricultural problems of the area.
That these early founders were practicing Christians may be deduced from the frequent use of Biblical quotations and the later influence of the Bible in renaming their organization. William Walker Tedford was only twenty-one years old when he was elected president at the first meeting held in McBee's school house in 1882. His father had migrated to Arkansas from Macon County, Missouri, thirty years earlier. He grew up during the lean years of the Civil War and reconstruction and consequently did not receive much schooling. He did, however, study at home and gain enough academic learning to qualify as a rural school teacher and a Cumberland Presbyterian minister by the time he was twenty-seven years of age. He became an aggressive leader in his community and was instrumental in getting one of the first United States rural mail routes in his county established. He led his community in building an independent telephone system. He also invented a fertilizer distributor and had it patented May 25, 1906. According to W. Scott Morgan, the official historian of the Wheel, Tedford was no "hope of relief except through united and independent action on the part of the people" so he contributed his energy and skill to the fight against monopoly and oppression which he said were the parents of their agricultural organization.
W. Taylor McBee and John W. McBee were Prairie County natives who had farmed all their lives. They were brothers of George W. McBee who joined the club within the first month of its existence. They were also related to the John McBee from Lonoke County who attended the first meeting but did not participate in its proceedings. W. Taylor McBee, who was thirty years old at the time of their first meeting, was married to president Tedford's sister Laura. The McBees were an old Democratic family, but believed in the organization of the laboring masses and thought it was time to "quit following blind fool Partisan leaders."
William A. Suit, who claimed to have been the first to suggest that the farmers organize themselves for self protection, was the only original member not a native of the state. He was born in Lauderdale County, Alabama, in 1837. His parents migrated to Tennessee when William was quite young. He moved to Arkansas in 1858 where he followed the family occupation of farming. Suit was probable the oldest member of the original group. He was a Jeffersonian Democrat who was opposed to conventions and machine politics, but he believed in independent and united action upon the part of the farmers and laborers.
Almost nothing is known about the lives of H. Bluford Lakey, J. W. Walls, and L. F. Thrasher. Lakey, who was perhaps the youngest member of the group, died before their organization attained its greatest influence. Thrasher later moved to Ellis County, Texas. Walls, the first vice-president of the Wattensas Farmer's' Club, remains completely hidden in the mists of the past. All three of these men were, however, native, Democratic farmers of Prairie County, Arkansas, who apparently saw a need for social and economic organization of the farmers of their county.
The founders of the Wattensas Farmer's Club had hoped and believed that it would attract others like themselves. That they understood their farmer friends and their economic plight is demonstrated by the fact that the membership tripled within one month after their first meeting. Their initial step of organization had made the farmers of the state more conscious of the possibilities of such action. The rapid growth of the club is not only indicative of the existing general conditions these people face but also of their willingness and determination to improve those conditions and make them more favorable to the welfare of the toiling farmers.
During the month between the first and fourth meetings of the Wattensas Farmer's Club, E. R. McPherson, a school teacher and farmer considering membership, was granted permission to read the constitution and by-laws. On his suggestion, amendments to the constitution were adopted, along with a ritual and a new secret work, which he also drafted and proposed. The members were very careful at a later date to call attention to the fact that "these ... were but amendments to our Order, as we were thoroughly organized, having constitution, by-laws and secret work before [McPherson] became a Member."
About this time it was also decided to give the club a new name with only the Poor Man's Friend and the Agriculture Wheel suggested as names; the group adopted the latter for various symbolic reasons. One was that "no machinery can be run without a great drive wheel, and as that wheel moves and governs the entire machinery, however complex, so agriculture is the great wheel of power that controls the entire machinery of the world's industries." Another reason was because they felt themselves to be surrounded by "rings" of many kinds. Perhaps they considered, or hoped, that the Wheel with its hub, tire, and spokes would be symbolic of the cooperative strength they would develop to break those evil rings. The new name also had a religious connotation, since the Prophet Ezekiel had spoken of a Wheel several times.
At the fourth meeting of the newly named Agriculture Wheel, E. R. McPherson was admitted to membership. The young and inexperienced William Walker Tedford then resigned as president and the older, more experienced, better educated McPherson was elected his successor. The new president was also added to the committee, which had been attempting to obtain a state charter. He was an able leader and the guiding genius of the Wheel for the next few years.
The committee on charter, with the professional services of James E. Gatewood, a Des Arc lawyer who refused pay for his services, finally obtained a certificate of incorporation August 22, 1882. Under the provision of incorporation, the Agriculture Wheel was given permission to grant permits to other groups, which would subscribe to their articles of association. As there were by this time approximately one hundred members of the original organization, they divided into three additional Wheels. The Wheel was adding new spokes around the hub, gathering new strength, and preparing to roll throughout the state spreading the twin tenets of organization and cooperation.
By early 1883, the Wheel had grown to such an extent that its leaders deemed it expedient to form a State Agriculture Wheel. This was accomplished at the home of W. Taylor McBee, about a quarter of a mile from the birthplace of the Wheel, on April 9, 1883. E. R. McPherson was elected Grand President of the State Wheel, which had about 500 members, and Wheel deputies were authorized to go into all parts of the state to organize other Wheels.
The expansion of the Wheel from an organization of seven independent farmers to a membership of approximately 500 in a year's time was extra-ordinary. It is, however, readily explained. The conditions that had caused W. W. Suit and W. Taylor McBee to instigate the Wattensas Farmer's Club had not abated locally or nationally. If anything the effects of those conditions were becoming more pronounced and more unbeatable. Evidence of a continuing depression in agriculture was manifest. The citizens of Clay County held a mass meeting and appealed to the general government for relief. The people of Camden passed resolutions requesting Governor Churchill to call a special session of the legislature for the purpose of postponing the collection of taxes until the next regular collection time. It was said that these were not isolated instances of unworthy individuals who chronically pleaded improvidence and begged for state aid, but that a "similar state of affairs" existed, "more or less, in nearly every county in the state." It was also reported that the short crop of 1881 had left many of the farmers in need of money, and yet there was only one bank in Fort Smith and none in the Arkansas Valley for 150 miles to lend the needed cash. This scarcity of banks plus the fact that it was reported that no national bank could lend money on real estate left the farmers at the mercy of individuals and merchants for money and supplies.
The results of that situation need not be reiterated. The farmers required money for many reasons, but especially for the payment of taxes. In 1882 the delinquent tax lists of Columbia County alone contained around 1,430 tracts of land, and the Saline County Courier reported a decline of 152 assessments and a $40,848 decline in valuations. In 1883, almost "seventy thousand acres of land were sold . . . in Woodruff County, at an overdue tax sale, and the delinquent land lists reported in the Arkansas press made interesting, but disheartening, reading. In the areas where cotton was king a very large proportion of the properties was declared delinquent.
Along with the dire need for cash came a decline in the market for the farmer's products, which added to his burdens. The Fort Smith Elevator reported that corn was selling at fifty cents per bushel, cotton at nine cents, Irish Potatoes at one dollar per bushel, and sweet potatoes at fifty cents per bushel. The same paper had in an earlier issue stated that corn was selling at Searcy for the ruinous price of fifteen cents a bushel. The farmers found it difficult to account for these prices, especially those of corn. They recalled that only a few months prior to this corn had been "so high and scarce . . . that many farmers work[ed] their stock without feed--only turning them upon the grass for subsistence." Naturally, these conditions encouraged farmers to turn to the Agriculture Wheel with the hope that through organization, cooperation, and knowledge of improved techniques they could solve their problems.
The Waldon Reporter provided additional information, which helps explain the phenomenal growth of the Wheel during the first year of its existence. It said:
The law business, particularly with justices of the peace and constables, in Scott County, seems to be rushing and thriving. From all directions we hear of attachments for debt, many for rent, closing out under mortgages for supplies, suits on notes, filing schedules for exempt property, etc. All the direct result of the ruinous credit system, and raising cotton to sell below cost of production.
Many of the farmers undoubtedly found it difficult to reconcile their reduced financial position with the apparent prosperity of the railroads and other non-farming enterprises. They could not understand why the state neglected the interests of the farmers who were the bedrock of Arkansas society and yet provided direct and indirect monetary aid to soulless corporations, monopolies, and assorted enterprises. The memory of the old "Railroad Aid Bonds," the old and recent controversies related to those bonds, and the current railroad tares (taxes?) and actions only added to the farmers' conviction that the railroads were not worthy beneficiaries of such aid. No doubt information similar to that appearing in the Morrilton Headlight helped convince the financially harassed farmers that the railroads needed to be controlled more and aided less by the state. The Headlight reported that the gross earnings of the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad for the year ending December 31, 1881, were $562,657.80, and that 47,785.57 acres of land were sold for $185,705. This made a total of 322,460.76 acres of land that the railroad had sold, and it still retained unsold 734,566.95 acres. This same paper had information that in the six succeeding months "some 150,000 to 200,000 acres of this have been parceled out into colonies . . . and is therefore as good as sold." Failing to distinguish between gross earnings and net earnings which were not reported, the average Arkansas farmer concluded that the railroads were enjoying tremendous profits which they used indiscriminately to enable them to continue to prosper at the expense of the common people. Perhaps farmers' organizations might tackle this problem.
Some portion of the amazing first year growth experienced by the Agriculture Wheel may be explained by press reports of forgery, perjury, malfeasance, defalcations, embezzlements, and grand jury citations of inefficiency and carelessness by public officials. A grand jury investigation in Franklin County found that the sheriff was in default, that in 1877 there was a failure to charge the treasurer with $2,459.92 which was never collected, that delinquencies appeared against constables from 1876 to 1881, and that the county judge was guilty of "many inefficiencies." Washington County also had its troubles. The Fayetteville Blade said 38,210 acres of land in Washington County were subject to forfeiture, because even though the taxes had been paid the tax collector "through carelessness, or dishonesty," had failed to make the proper entries showing the taxes had been paid. This practice had been going on for ten years and had resulted in the lands being certified as delinquent to the state government in Little Rock. The Fayetteville Times reported court action against the sheriff and ex-officio collector of 1879 who had never paid to the county $2,481.65 of the school tax he had collected that year. That the Times did not hold the next sheriff in high esteem was indicated by the statement. "The worthlessness of our sheriff is without parallel." This was the heading of an article discussing official carelessness which had permitted nine "bad prisoners" to flee from custody making a total of sixteen who had escaped in a seven weeks period. The Little Rock Democrat reported that the sheriff of Pulaski County was $50,000 behind with his accounts and denounced the same sheriff and the county judge for malfeasance in office which it listed item by item. Further sampling of the state press reveals other instances of violations of the public trust by officials within the state. Not only was the assessor-elect of Desha County "wanted by the sheriff for grand larceny," but fourteen other recently elected Desha County officials had failed to qualify for office. The Columbia Banner said Ouachita County would lose $8,000 because it understood the "late treasurer" was a defaulter and that his bondsman" was both dead and insolvent." A United States Marshall who was a deacon in his church, superintendent of his Sunday school, and worth $50,000 personally was indicted on about seventy counts of forgery and perjury. An ex-state treasurer was elected governor before investigations revealed shortages in his accounts placed at varying five and six figure sums. No doubt other newspapers of the state whose files have not been preserved carried reports of the same type and nature.
The people of Arkansas also knew of malpractice by national officials and public officers of other states. They probably agreed with one of the state papers, which wrote:
And now comes the treasurer of Alabama with a $250,000 defalcation. How many state treasury troubles have we had in the south in the last two years? Let's see: There's Gates of Missouri; Churchill, of Arkansas; Polk, of Tennessee; and Vincent, of Alabama. Brethren the thing is growing monotonous.
Honest citizens were astonished that the malpractice of public officials could exist on such a scale when state laws required the officials to make yearly reports, which were supposed to be carefully audited. They were not only amazed at the men and the crimes committed but alarmed by "the easy way of escape afforded them through quibbles and technicalities, and the ingenuity of skillful attorneys." They went so far as to urge the election of competent, qualified, honest men to office regardless of the "bloody shirt, secession, war and reconstruction nonsense some are still preaching." Other farmers who swelled the ranks of the Wheel to 500 in one year joined because they finally realized that if they were organized they might "do away with exemption law, establish confidence in one another, and restore credit to our country." Farmers realized the exemption law, which required all mortgaged property, sold at public auction to sell for no less than two-thirds of its appraised value made it difficult to obtain money and supplies at reasonable interest rates. Many had hoped the legislative session of 1883 would modify this law in the best interests of the state so that capital might have "an easy flow through all channels of business." The state legislature had been composed of a majority of men who at least listed and called themselves farmers, but they neglected the interests of the farmers. Undoubtedly the real farmers of the state agreed with the Des Arc Citizen When It said:
The present legislature has passed some good laws and . . . done some very foolish acts. The farmers are in a large majority but they have not protected their rights, as they should have done. They should never have amended the mortgage laws, nor passed an act making it a criminal offense for tenants to fail to carry out their contract, thereby giving the landlord everything that they owed him . . . without giving them any protection against his shortcomings.
Still other farmers noting how the legislature and other political representatives of the people, both past and present, had consistently acted in the interest of the few might have seen the Wheel as an instrument to articulate their views and demands on vital issues. They needed a means of effectively pressing their interests because the politicians paid little attention to the unorganized and politically impotent groups. In too many instances the words used by the Fort Smith Elevator to describe the Sebastian County Democratic Committee would have applied to other county committees. The Elevator said "the best partisans and the best wire workers and string pullers, though they may be as rotten and corrupt as thieves, work themselves in as a rule, and honest and unassuming men of merit are left out."
Small wonder that the Wheel was rolling 500 strong at the time the State Agriculture Wheel was organized at W. Taylor McBee's. The farmers were convinced that the interests and welfare of the common people of the state of Arkansas had been, and were still, studiously neglected by the powerful rings in co-operation with the politically potent few. To the Arkansas Wheelers the solution seemed to be a still stronger Wheel to roll still further and faster to break those rings opposing the farmers. They wanted a Wheel with a better hub, more and stronger spokes, and a large, tighter tire.
Under the impetus of these conditions and aims, the Agriculture Wheel continued to grow. At the Goff's Cove meeting of the State Wheel, July 18, 1883, most of the thirty nine strong Subordinate Wheels were represented by delegates who endorsed the policies of E. E. McPherson by re-electing him Grand President. At this meeting a resolution prohibiting the organization of Wheel within the limits of incorporated towns was adopted, and steps were taken to roll the Wheel into other counties and other states. The Wheel leadership felt that this action would maintain their organization of simple, practical farmers and help prevent the entrance of politically "senile editors and Potato Lawyers" into their midst. This was essential if the Wheel expected to be an organization whose influence was felt and feared alike by the cross-roads' merchant and the "infamous trusts that" had "become an incubus upon" the "body politic." It was only common sense to prevent the infiltration of the organization by those who might reduce the effectiveness of the fight against the rings and combinations, which the farmers felt, were responsible for their plight. Realizing the need for favorable publicity, the steadily expanding farmers' clubs adopted or established newspapers favorable to the labor man's interest to aid their program of expansion and to increase their effectiveness. The Clarksville Laborer's Herald, published by J. S. Gray, and the Wheel published by A. Walter at Cabot, Lonoke County, were of this type. In general, they extolled the virtues of the cash system of purchase, encouraged organizational efforts to make agreements with merchants or establish joint stock exchanges, and praised energetic labor and frugality. They advocated diversification, and attacked, or defended, the exemption laws according to the light in which they saw the farmers' problems.
Even other newspapers were favorable to group action by the farmers at this time. The Arkansas Weekly Democrat, published in the capital city, wrote:
If farmers choose to organize for the promotion of their interests why should anyone object? We all do so. They are certainly the very pillars . . . of our society. Fighting fairly and openly for their own fights without attacking the rights and privileges of other Classes, the farmers . . . should have the hearty good will of the public.
The Dardanelle Post reported that farm clubs were "growing in number and influence throughout Yell County," and that over forty lodges had been organized in Pope County where contracts had been "made with four merchants."
Editorials and articles favorable to the farmers' organizational efforts were frequently accompanied by admonitions that organization alone was not the answer. Members were warned to be ever watchful and alert to see that the new clubs did not fail as similar organizations had failed in the past. A correspondent of the Clarksville Herald gave the following as one of the reasons why other agrarian groups had not succeeded: "The . . . greatest cause of failure was that the . . . organization fell into the hands of strangers. Farmers . . . permitted outside parties to come in and take control of these orders, and . . . they . . . went to ruin." The Arkansas Weekly Democrat agreed with that statement and said:
Farmers, as a class, have less concert of action, less of organization for the common good than is found in any other class. When they have perfected organizations looking to the advancement of farming interests, they have almost invariably fallen into the hands of strangers and of politicians, who have been failures in the great political parties.
The state press carried reports, which revealed that the agriculture Wheel was not the only agrarian organization in the state. Other groups included the Brothers of Freedom, Sons of Liberty, Farmers' Club, Farmers' Union, and a Reform Society. The existence of these different agrarian reform groups indicates that some of the farmers of the state had become crusading, militant organizers. Nevertheless, the membership of the smaller clubs apparently gradually affiliated with either the Wheel or the Brothers of Freedom, which were by far the largest of these groups. Wheel membership and the number of subordinate Wheels increased under these favorable circumstances.
The delegates representing almost 5,000 members of the 114 Subordinate Wheels composing the Grand State Wheel met at Stony Point, Arkansas, on January 9, 1884. They represented a rapidly expanding agrarian movement, which was at this time completely divorced from politics. At this meeting a committee on crops was appointed and a system devised whereby reports would be made at each State Wheel convention on the kind, condition, and value of crops in each county in which a Wheel chapter was located. Because of the difficulties associated with this excellent proposal, or for other reasons, it was unfortunately never carried into effect. The delegates did take action to enable the Wheel to be of greater service to its members, and to facilitate the program of expansion. The constitution was amended to provide for the organization of a County Wheel when as many as five subordinate Wheels existed in a county. The meeting also approved a resolution asking Congress to prohibit dealings in grain, provisions, and cotton futures. In addition, a committee was appointed to consider the question of organizing a National Agriculture Wheel; provision was made for the meeting of the State Wheel annually on the fourth Wednesday of July instead of semi-annually as heretofore; and a strong resolution was passed denouncing the mortgage system.
Less than three months later, in line with the proposed action toward a national organization, the Wheel had expanded into the states of Tennessee and Texas. R. Miles of Prairie County, Arkansas, carried the Wheel into Tennessee by organizing the Public Wells Wheel there February 1, 1884. Once again an old log school house provided the birthplace for a local Wheel. G. W. Ritchie of Cleburne, Texas organized the Lone Star Wheel No. I on April 5, 1884. This was the first Wheel organized in Texas, the home state of another great farmers organization, the Farmers' Alliance.
Perhaps others beside the farmers of Arkansas felt the appeal of the old Wheel poem and anonymous authorship: