The Nonpartisan League’s rise, fall and controversy in Sanborn County, South Dakota, and the Midwest

By Rachel Lindgren

In the early 1900s, farmers of the Midwest became upset with what they saw as big business-owned elevators and railroad monopolies cheating them out of hard-earned money by buying low from producers and selling high to customers. This brought about the rise in popularity of the Nonpartisan League, which was a political organization of farmers. The national Nonpartisan League only allowed farmers to become members of the organization, but also worked cooperatively with workmen and laborers. According to an article published in the June 24, 1920, Sanborn County Herald-Times, there were over 200,000 members across more than a dozen states. 

The League’s platform stated that a state-owned system including a terminal elevator and flour mill, a state-owned cattle slaughtering plant, state inspection of grain, state hail insurance and low interest loans from rural-credit banks would create a fairer place for farmers to sell their product and thrive in their businesses. In the Dec. 4, 1919, issue of the Sanborn County Herald-Times, it is quoted that “the farmers’ organizations never have, nor do they now demand anything more than the all-round square deal.”

The Nonpartisan League controlled North Dakota state politics from 1916 to 1921. According to ndstudies.gov, the founding organizers were Albert Bowen and Arthur C. Townley, who previously helped organize the Socialist Party in North Dakota. According to Chris Maier in his article “The Farmers’ Fight for Representation: Third-Party Politics in South Dakota, 1889-1918, “farmers who felt abused by the capitalist elite” liked the ideas of the Nonpartisan League and those it endorsed. The League’s influence led to the establishment of the State Mill and Elevator and the State Bank in North Dakota. 

The Nonpartisan League gained traction in many states besides North Dakota, and notably, in South Dakota. Townley traveled from community to community in a Model T, visiting with farmers and drumming up support. In order to make more appearances in a day, Townley later began using an airplane to travel to his various events. 

…Read on in this week’s issue of the Sanborn Weekly Journal!

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