Within a few years of its organization, the Nonpartisan League was overwhelming North Dakota’s political landscape by the time war was declared in 1917. It quickly denounced the US entry into the war, stating it was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. It found a sympathetic ear among the rural population of North Dakota that had seen its sons and husbands march off to war, while war profiteering significantly increased the costs of farming.
Due to a drought, crop yields were poor. Ranchers, desperate for hay, culled their herds. Eastern millers set grain prices low and dockages were excessive. With war-time labor scarce, migrant farm workers demanded higher wages, so farmers were forced to band together to reduce labor costs. The price of gas, tires and machine parts had become excessive, and most farmers could no longer afford to buy modern machinery. The effort to increase war-time production meant longer hours in the fields at a time when thousands of prime draft horses were picked up by the military, making work horses scarce.
The socialistic platform of the NPL promised a new era for the farmer. It called for an end to the flour trusts and a lessened dependence on eastern capitalists. The government would oversee transportation costs, and railroad rates would be regulated. North Dakota farmers were promised fair prices for their commodities, and state supported institutions, such as a state bank and a state mill would aid the farmer. Many small businessmen whose welfare depended upon farmers also supported the NPL.
During the summer of 1917, along with everything else, the price of wheat increased to match the cost of production. However this increase was short lived. The Federal Price Fixing Commission, created to regulate excessive war profits, now set the cost of #1 wheat at $2.20 a bushel. This was down from a market price of $3.30. However, this same commission failed to address the costs of such things as steel, lumber, canned goods, and even flour. This became ammunition for the Nonpartisan League and its leaders, A.C. Townley, Governor Lynn Fraizer and Senator Asle Gronna. They mounted an impressive campaign denouncing the war and war profiteering. But the industrially supported, eastern press, as well as anti-League factions in the Northern Plains, were able to label the NPL as Socialists, pro-German, and unpatriotic. Nonpartisan League members were accused of treason, and meetings were banned in many midwestern states. While a majority of North Dakotans clung to the hope of better treatment in the marketplace, the Nonpartisan League began losing support, and was forced to tone down its rhetoric and proclaim its patriotism.
Dakota Datebook by Jim Davis
Nonpartisan Leader, July 5, 1917
Ibid, September 13, 1917
Ward County Independent, September 6, 1917