The story of an anti-monopoly coalition in San Luis Obispo County circa 1890.Opened May 2008
The “Great Drought” of 1862-1864 ended the era of the cattle ranchos and ushered in a new age of homesteaders and small farmers. By the 1880s, land developers appeared on the scene. San Luis Obispo county’s population almost doubled between 1880 and 1890. The Southern Pacific Railroad entered the Salinas Valley from the north, paving the way for local farm crops to be sold on the San Francisco market. Enthusiasm for this market was dampened by steep freight rates and monopolistic business practices.
Farmers both local and national realized the need for an organization that would represent their political, social, and economic interests. The Grange was the first attempt to organize, but by 1890 a new populist-based group, the Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union, rose to represent farmers and workers across the United States. The People’s Party became the political wing of the F.A. & I.U.
George Steele, a fiery orator, supported the Grange for many years. In 1891, he began to urge local farmers to join the progressive Farmers’ Alliance to push for more effective representation by politicians who understood the farmers’ needs regarding crop prices, land prices, building supplies, transportation costs, bank credit and monetary policies. Steele’s call to action was heard loud and clear by the Swedish wheat farmers in Estrella. In 1891, they organized and bought stock in a brand new cooperative corporation, the Farmers’ Alliance Business Association. Suballiances were created during the 1890s using the name and boundaries of school districts resulting in 31 suballiances in the county. School houses were used as a bi-monthly meeting place.
Farmers’ Alliance cooperatives left behind an enduring legacy that continued to influence the local economy of the upper Salinas Valley into the twentieth century. In San Luis Obispo County, local farmers competed against monopolies by creating mercantile co-ops and labor exchanges, farmer-owned mills, and sharing farm equipment. County farmers’ struggles and reforms during the 1890s resulted in bumper crops and rising prices from 1903 to the end of WWI and brought prosperity to many families in San Luis Obispo County.
Although the local Farmers’ Alliance is more than 100 years old, it remains in the heart of the farming community today.
This exhibit was made possible by the research done by Michael Magliari, and the SLOCHS exhibit committee Pete Kelley, Nancy Hillenburg, Ann Judd, John Schutz, Elizabeth Johnson and Naomi Hoffman. A special thanks to Russel Hodin for the work on the Farmer’s Alliance graphic.