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Granger Gourd

Ceremonial container made from
a gourd, presented to Wisconsin Governor William R. Taylor, 1874.

(Museum object #1993.53)

In the fall of 1873, Wisconsin wheat farmers were hopping mad. Expecting to profit from a bumper harvest, they were furious when the state's two most powerful railroads, the Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Company and the Chicago & North Western Railroad, simultaneously increased their freight rates. For many Wisconsin farmers - already outraged at paying higher rates to ship their grain to Milwaukee than did farmers in Minnesota - this was the last straw. They made common cause with Democrats and disaffected Republicans that fall, electing William R. Taylor, a farmer from Sun Prairie, Governor of Wisconsin on the Democratic-Reform ticket. In Wisconsin and other Midwestern states the farm revolt of the 1870s was led by the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, or "Grange," a fraternal organization aimed at improving the social, economic and political welfare of farmers. This presentation piece is in part an artifact of that rural discontent.

The object is made from a hollow gourd, 17 inches in diameter, the top of which has been sliced off and reattached with metal bands, a hinge, and a knob on top. It is painted with the message: "GRANGER./ Presented/ TO OUR REFORM FARMER GOVERNOR W.R. TAYLOR/ BY/ CHARLES, WATERS/ 1874." There were several Charles Waters in the Wisconsin census of 1870, but the one most likely to have presented this gourd was Charles Waters of Springville (Vernon County), a nurseryman who was also Secretary of Viroqua Grange # 169.

Taylor is often called "the Granger governor" by virtue of his active membership in the Grange. A self-made man, Taylor had served in many public offices and on numerous civic organizations. Taylor's administration is best known for passage of the "Potter Law", Wisconsin's first effort to reduce railroad freight and passenger rates. The strongest of several railroad regulation (or "Granger") laws passed by Midwestern states, the Potter Law was initially seen as a triumph for the reformers in general and for angry Grangers in particular.

As is often the case, however, the political and legislative reality behind the Potter Law was considerably murkier. Taylor's election arguably owed as much to independent Milwaukee grain merchants being squeezed by the railroads and to anti-Temperance forces as it did to farmers. Almost two-thirds of Taylor's margin of victory came from Milwaukee's beer-loving German districts. During the 1873 campaign, Republicans supported railroad regulation at least as consistently as the reform Democrats did, and one historian called it a "foregone conclusion" that the 1874 legislature would enact some form of railroad regulation. Moreover, the Potter Law, which passed with bipartisan support, was one of the weakest of the many regulation bills introduced in the legislature that session – hardly the work of reform zealots.

Taylor himself was not an enthusiastic supporter of the bill until the railroads began openly defying it by charging higher rates than those set by the Railroad Commission. Citizens sued the railroads under the Potter Law and won at every legal level. The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the Potter Law on September 15, 1874, reaffirming the state's right to regulate the railroads operating within its borders.

This gourd was likely presented to Gov. Taylor some time between the passage of the Potter Law and its confirmation by the Supreme Court. Still, the gourd appears to be as much about pride in a shared fraternal identity as about rural resistance to corporate power. The "Granger" dominates the object, while the word "reform" appears in much tinier letters. The gourd seems to have been given by one Granger to another to celebrate their group's shared political success.

Despite the helpful inscription, we don't know a great deal about the context of Charles Waters's gift. We don't know if Waters personally grew the gourd or made it into a container himself, or why he chose to use a gourd for such a ceremonial purpose. As a product of the field, a gourd might have had more meaning to Grange members than, say, a silver cup. And as vegetables go, it is quite practical. Gourds can be large and impressive-looking, and they dry well; this one has survived for well over a century. But, really, why a gourd? Is there some deeper meaning involved?

Gourds have rich symbolic meanings in many cultures. In the European tradition, gourds most often appear in the Biblical story of Jonah. In Jonah 4:10, God causes a gourd plant to grow up to shade Jonah in the desert, then sends a worm to make it wither. Jonah's gourd, "which came up in a night and perished in a night," has come to symbolize rapid growth and quick decay.

This phrase might equally apply to the Potter Law itself. Less than a year after its resounding endorsement by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the law was progressively gutted and eventually repudiated by its legislative champions. Freight rates were raised and the Railroad Commission was reduced to a single member with few powers. It is difficult to explain such a dramatic turnaround, but economic conditions were a crucial factor.

Despite their loss in the courts, the railroads kept up a withering propaganda attack on the regulations, and backed it up by publicly refusing to make further investments in Wisconsin as long as their ability to set prices was curtailed by the law. As a severe national depression - which had begun just as William Taylor was being nominated for governor – grew deeper, the railroads' refusal to expand mileage or build new grain elevators may have seemed a greater threat to beleaguered farmers' long-term prosperity than the prospect of higher rates.

Although Taylor was defeated for re-election in 1875, there is a certain optimism about this gourd: a sense that farmers, acting together, could make a difference.

[Sources: Miller, George H. Railroads and the Granger Laws (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1971); Buck, Solon J. The Granger movement; a study of agricultural organization and its political, economic, and social manifestations, 1870-1880 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963).]

DBD


Posted on November 06, 2008

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