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Who Feeds Them All

I made a cold call to the Jamestown offices of the North Dakota Farmers Union in order to talk with Trevor Lewis, the Youth Education Specialist in charge of the Farmers Union summer camp program. I asked Trevor, are you familiar with the old song, “The Farmer Is the Man”? And bless his union heart, he was! I wanted to know whether the summer camp songbook still contained the stanzas of the song. Trevor got right back to me with a copy of the 2022 Farmers Union Camp Songbook.

The published songbooks for summer camps of the North Dakota Farmers Union are eclectic. There are the silly summer-camp standards like “God Bless My Underwear;” there are old popular songs like “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog;” and here and there, peeking out like pieces of old farm machinery parked in the shelterbelt, are a few old standards of farm organization and agrarian advocacy on the prairies—like “The Farmer Is the Man.”

When the farmer comes to town
With his wagon broken down,
Oh, the Farmer is the man who feeds them all.

It seems like no one in the Farmers Union knows where this song came from—but I do. A year or so ago I discovered the original text and identified its author—the evangelist Knowles Shaw. Reverend Shaw is best known as the composer of the Protestant hymn, “Bringing in the Sheaves.”

He was living in Kansas in 1874 when the Granger movement—the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry—gathered steam as a fraternal organization for farm advocacy. The Grange organized farmers with evangelical fervor, which got Shaw’s attention, and so he wrote them a ballad. “The Farmer Is the Man” quickly became a Granger favorite for singing at picnics and rallies.

This got me wondering, since the song is still sung here, was the Grange ever a going thing in North Dakota? To begin the answer to the question, first recognize that the heyday of the Grange was the 1870s, and North Dakota did not become a state until 1889. So really the question is, was the Grange ever a going thing in the northern half of Dakota Territory?

The answer is, well, not so much. The only record of Grange organization I have located, in the state archives, is a charter issued to a local Grange in Buffalo in 1884. This appears to have been the work of an interesting Danish immigrant to western Cass County named Christian Westergard. I don’t think his grange really got off the ground.

Since Minnesota had hundreds of granges in the 1870s—indeed, Minnesota was the place where the organization first got traction—why not in North Dakota? One answer is chronology. The Grange was failing by 1880, and agricultural settlement at that time had only well begun in North Dakota.

A study of newspapers of the era, however, while confirming the lack of Granger activity here, also gives clues as to the reason for such lack. The city of Bismarck had just been founded in 1873 when the Bismarck Tribune, hearing what was going on with those radical farmers in Minnesota, declared that “the Grangers have created distrust of railroads, and investors have turned from them, choosing Government bonds bearing a low rate of interest instead.” The Northern Pacific Railroad had financial problems, and it succeeded in blaming the Grangers for its problems.

So I have no idea how the old Granger song got established in North Dakota, but I can tell you, in Farmers Union summer camp, the farmer is still the man. Who feeds them all.

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