Oliver Kelley

On January 7, 1826, Oliver Hudson Kelley was born in Boston, the fifth child of a tailor. He would significantly impact Minnesota, national, and agricultural history.

At 21, Kelley left New England and ventured west. He worked briefly as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune before training to be a telegrapher and moving to Iowa. There he met and married 18-year-old Lucy Earle, and soon after the newlyweds boarded a steamship and moved to St. Paul in the newly created Minnesota territory in June 1849.

He carried a letter of introduction to territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey from a mutual friend, who noted that Kelley “possesses ample business capacity, with active mind; and is anxious for steady employment.” Within a few months, Kelley was made a messenger of the territory’s House of Representatives and an aide-de-camp to Gov. Ramsey.

Less than a year after Kelley arrived in St. Paul, word spread that the legislature was attempting to make the new town of Itasca (near present-day Elk River) the territory’s capital. Speculators, including Kelley, rushed to stake a claim to land in Itasca. The town didn’t become the capital, but Kelley - with no former farming experience - decided to cultivate his new property. He and Lucy moved to the homestead in the fall of 1850.

A "book farmer"

Kelley became a “book farmer,” learning the latest farming techniques from agricultural journals. He built one of the first frame barns north of St. Anthony. Over the years, he tried his hand at growing a wide range of crops, from asparagus to melons. He was reported to be the first farmer in Minnesota to own a mechanical reaper and the first to sow timothy hay.

Kelley installed an elaborate irrigation system and experimented with a variety of livestock. He campaigned eagerly for more experimentation, advanced methods and exchange of information among farmers - all of which he published.

After his first wife and infant child died that first year on the homestead, Kelley married Temperance Baldwin Lane, a local Anoka schoolteacher and Boston native. Over the next 10 years, they had four daughters — Julia, Fanny, Grace, and Garaphelia.

In 1852 Kelley helped found Minnesota’s first county agricultural society in Benton County, and a year later, he was involved in forming the Minnesota Territorial Agricultural Society. As corresponding secretary of the Benton County Agricultural Society, he wrote to farm journals about Minnesota's agricultural progress and ran a regular column on agriculture in the Sauk Rapids Frontierman.

Minnesota’s population was also booming; between 1855 and 1857, some 700 new towns were surveyed and platted. Kelley and his brother Charles were eager to speculate during the boom, so in 1855, they bought 270 acres on the Mississippi in Wright County, formerly home to the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago), who the government had recently moved to a reservation.

The brothers founded the town of Northwood, and Kelley started a logging company and brickyard there. A steamboat started making regular stops at Northwood on its way between St. Anthony and Sauk Rapids, connecting the area to major markets. But the panic of 1857 devastated the Kelleys’ real estate speculation scheme, leaving them with virtually worthless land, and they defaulted on their mortgages.

Move to Washington

By 1864, U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture Isaac Newton offered Kelley a clerkship, thanks to a recommendation from Alexander Ramsey. Kelley moved to Washington, D.C., but kept his farm in Minnesota and returned to it on occasion. He began working on agricultural issues, including touring the South in 1866 to aid irrigation and agricultural reconstruction after the Civil War. Kelley, a Mason, noted how fellow Masons welcomed him in the South, despite post-Civil War tensions. He began to imagine a similar brotherhood for farmers around the country.

For the next few years he focused primarily on his idea of developing a fraternal organization for farm families. "Encourage them to read and think; to plant fruits and flowers,—beautify their homes; elevate them; make them progressive," he wrote in a letter to a friend. "I long to see the great army of producers in our country, turn their eyes up from their work; stir up those brains, now mere machines...set them to think,—let them feel that they are human beings, and the strength of the nation, their labor honorable, and farming the highest calling on earth."

Creation of the Grange

In December 1867 — with insight and help from his niece, Caroline Hall — Kelley and six other men created the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, the country’s first nationwide farm organization. The Grange served as both a social and advocacy group for farmers. He wrote newspaper articles that were increasingly critical of manufacturing and processing monopolies that fixed prices at rates unfair to farmers and of railroads with exorbitant freight rates.

Within two years, Minnesota had 40 Grange chapters and a state organization. By 1873, with farmers battling falling crop prices and rising railroad shipping costs, the United States had around 9,000 chapters with nearly 700,000 members.

Soon after, Kelley returned to Minnesota. While the Grange prospered, an unpaid mortgage forced the farm to be foreclosed in 1871. The Kelley family moved back to Washington, D.C., where Oliver became the fulltime secretary of the Grange.

Thanks to some financial manipulation and aid from family, Kelley bought back the Minnesota homestead in 1873. Julia and Fanny returned to the farm in 1875 and managed it for the next 11 years. Kelley resigned from the Grange in 1878 and founded a town in Florida called Rio Carabelle. The Kelleys continued to own the farm until 1901.

Oliver Kelley died in Washington, D.C., in 1913 at the age of 87.

Further research

The National Grange of The Order of Patrons of Husbandry

  • About the Grange
  • Oliver Hudson Kelley Papers, 1863-1966
    Available in the Gale Family Library
    Collection of papers relating to Oliver Hudson Kelley and the Grange. Includes correspondence from 1863-1866 regarding a find of a prehistoric settlement near the mouth of the Crow River, and several articles published by Oliver Hudson Kelley.

  • Oliver H. Kelley Biographical Memorabilia, 1851-1912
    Available in the Gale Family Library
    Appointments and certificates of Kelley, Elk River, Minnesota farmer and one of the founders of the National Grange, including his appointment as aide-de-camp to the Commander in Chief of the Minnesota Territorial Militia, signed by Alexander Ramsey (April 18, 1851), Benton County notary public commission (April 25, 1851), and notification of election as Wright county justice of the peace (September 16, 1856). The latter also contains Kelley’s oath to uphold the constitution (September 20, 1856) and filing notations of the Wright County Register of Deeds (September 25, 1856) and Clerk of Court (September 9, 1857).