By Tom Parker
MCPHERSON, KS – If someone told Billie Chesney or Rebecca Hall they needed to meet this guy or talk to that person they’d track them down no matter how far apart or the amount of time it took, their journeys across the state shot through the bug-spattered windshield with a small video camera with a few selfies thrown in, the camera held at arm’s length to frame their smiling faces like a pair of bookended parentheses around a towering grain elevator jutting monolithic toward the clear blue skies of Kansas. But that in itself was only a part of their story. Some of the rest was laced through their five-minute video, something they half-jokingly called their what-we-did-on-our-summer-vacation movie, grain elevators in Delphos and St. Francis and Goodland and Larned and others, interspersed with grainy historic photos shot through the rear view mirror of time and accompanied by the ukelele-driven “Over the Rainbow” rendition by Hawaiian crooner Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, which in retrospect was charmingly relevant to the Sunflower State.
Their presentation, based on their Kansas Co-op History Research Project sponsored by the Chapman Center for Rural Studies at Kansas State University, was shown to members of the Kansas Farmers Union during their annual convention in Topeka in early January. With them was Tom Giessel, honorary KFU historian and Pawnee County Farmers Union president, who spoke on early co-operative history and the role KFU played in organizing farmers in the early 20th century.
Dubbed “skyscrapers of the plains,” grain elevators and co-operatives have a colorful history in Kansas.
Farmer cooperatives were brought about by a series of national events and legislation in the late 1800s and early 1900s, triggered in part by an economic depression throughout the farming community due to an unequal playing field with big businesses such as J.P. Morgan and Carnegie, Chesney said. From their beginnings they were more about people than business enterprise. One early co-op pioneer said, “Co-ops work because of the people.” Their success lay in working together toward a common goal and vision at a local level rather than at a national level.
On a national level, cooperatives weren’t legal until 1912. Kansas, however, got an earlier start in 1878. At roughly the same period the National Farmers Union rose from the ashes of the Farmers Alliance, first in Texas in 1902 and then spreading across the South. Like its predecessor, NFU believed in cooperatives and worked to improve cooperative law. The organization reached Kansas in 1905, by which time regulations had improved dramatically, Giessel said.
Those early co-ops were different than what we know today. “We think of co-ops as grain elevators, but a lot of them were founded to bring in groceries or ship in hay,” Giessel said. “Grain handling was just one aspect of it.”
It soon became apparent that farmers needed both a local co-op and a regional co-op, not only for grain marketing but for grain purchasing. In 1915 the KFU formed a jobbing association that could buy from its own co-ops, a move supported by the state legislature.
As word got out of the benefits of co-ops, more communities wanted information. KFU stepped in with lecturers and organizers, Giessel said. The former would go out and preach the gospel of cooperatives and the latter would follow up to organize local organizations. “It was all very structured and effective,” he said. “KFU was very good at co-op development.”
At the time KFU was printing 28,000 newspapers weekly to spread the news. Competition, however, didn’t take the KFU intrusion lightly. One article in 1916 claimed that some grain buyers for independent and old-line elevators offered stockholders in the union elevators a half-cent more for a bushel of wheat than what the union elevators were paying. “These buyers are not bidding on your wheat,” the author wrote, “they’re bidding on your loyalty. Would you sell it for that much?”
The organization fell on hard times during World War I. It was undercapitalized and struggling to stay afloat. At the 1918 convention in Wichita it was proposed that the organization disband. According to a newspaper report, there were men with tears in their eyes, distraught over the idea. So distraught that they raised the needed capital to keep KFU viable.
By 1920 the organization was on the rebound. An article in Country Gentleman magazine stated that “Cooperation not only helps the cooperators, it helps the community.”
“I really love that quote,” Giessel said. “Those people had a real strong sense of community. They knew that if they didn’t do it themselves, it wasn’t going to happen. They struggled and they didn’t always succeed, but they always kept coming back and trying. My jaw drops when I read stories about those early co-ops.”
Those selfsame co-ops were the focus of Chesney and Hall as they made their way across Kansas. Their car was stuffed with cameras and video recorders and scanners and laptops and enough cables to stretch from border to border and a dog named Ivan that they considered a four-legged field assistant. Their focus was on century co-ops, those at least one hundred years old, but what they didn’t fully understand until somewhere in the middle of the project was just how big the state was. “We’d show up at the car dealer twice a month to get an oil change,” Hall quipped. “They’d look at us and say, ‘wow.’”
An article in a Manhattan newspaper during the 1920s asked if Kansas was the greatest state for co-ops. The question was part hyperbole and part boosterism, but it reflected the explosive growth witnessed by organizations like KFU. Cooperatives would become the norm rather than the exception, and there was no turning back the clock. Those prairie skyscrapers would stand tall and proud over every town no matter how small or remote.
Still, it’s important to remember those early days and what they signified, Giessel said. “When you think about a co-op you can’t just think about concrete and steel,” he said. “You have to think about the people. That’s what it’s all about.”
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If you would like more information about the convention, or wish to schedule an interview with one of the speakers, please call Nick Levendofsky at 785-527-0941 or email Nick at firstname.lastname@example.org