Agricultural Wheel

The Agricultural Wheel in Tennessee traced its origins to a February 1882 meeting of seven disgruntled farmers in Prairie County, Arkansas. Concerned over continuing depressed farm prices and mounting agricultural debt, the founding farmers named their organization the Agricultural Wheel to reflect their belief that agriculture represented the "wheel" that moved the world's industrial economy--without agriculture, all other economic endeavors failed. From its humble origins, the Agricultural Wheel spread across Arkansas and into surrounding states including Tennessee. By 1887 the National Agricultural Wheel claimed five hundred thousand members.

The Wheel made its first appearance in Tennessee in February 1884, when J. R. Miles organized a local wheel in Weakley County. One year later Miles became the first and only president of the Tennessee State Wheel. By the time the National Wheel merged with the National Farmers' Alliance in 1889, Tennessee had sixteen hundred local wheels scattered across the state.

The Agricultural Wheel championed a radical agrarian reform program that advocated currency expansion through the free coinage of silver; an end to national banks; regulation of railroads, telegraph, and telephone, or failing regulation, nationalization of these services; restriction of the sale of public lands to American citizens; the imposition of an income tax; and the popular election of United States senators. Wheelers recognized the need for change in state and national laws and encouraged farmers to become educated in the political economy and vote their interests. The Wheel denounced partisan politics and promised to support candidates of either party who agreed to vote the farmers' interests. In Tennessee the Wheel was most often associated with the Democratic Party; in the 1889 meeting of the Tennessee General Assembly, over forty members claimed membership in the Wheel or Alliance.

Wheel ideology also included prescriptions for individual action and local cooperative efforts. Wheel members were urged to reduce farm expenses through self-sufficiency and good management. The state newspaper of the Wheel and Alliance, the Weekly Toiler, encouraged farmers to read the latest agricultural journals and attend local meetings to learn the techniques of scientific farming. Nevertheless, Wheel leaders recognized that good management counted for little unless farm expenses fell and farm prices rose. The Wheel established a cooperative system in 1888 for purchasing farm equipment and selling farm products. Financed entirely through the one-dollar assessments of individual members, the state agency met immediate resistance from Tennessee merchants.

In 1888 and 1889 the Wheel and Alliance joined in the national boycott of jute bagging, which was used for wrapping cotton bales, to protest the precipitous rise in prices imposed by the jute trust. In Clarksville the Wheel established a tobacco warehouse to store, grade, and sell tobacco for members. Peanut farmers on the Highland Rim worked to establish a cooperative system within the state and to join their efforts with those of Virginia farmers. Locally, county wheels built mills, warehouses, and cooperative stores. With a lack of strong financial backing and in the face of considerable economic resistance, however, most of these efforts were of short duration.

The Agricultural Wheel's effort to reform the agricultural economy officially ended in 1889 when it merged with the Farmers' Alliance to become the Farmers' and Laborers' Union. The Tennessee Wheel was the first state organization to ratify the new institution's constitution.

Published » December 25, 2009 | Last Updated » January 01, 2010