The late nineteenth century was a time of unrest in many parts of America. While cities boomed and populations began to shift, rural America was left to fend for itself. Banks, railroads, and other entities began to take advantage of farmers—farms could not be properly financed, and crops could not be moved to urban marketplaces. Farmers, tenants, and rural agribusinesses began to rebel against the monopolistic practices. But, without a collective clout, they had little hope for prosperity.
The agrarian populist movement was born from these desperate times. By the 1870s, many farmers began organizing granges to find their collective clout. With these cooperative ventures, these groups showed they were set on taking care of themselves and completely bypassing big city middlemen.
In the 1880s, a national organization called the Farmers’ Alliance attracted many local members. Although popular, the Alliance, and other farm organizations like it, lacked the capital necessary to establish the ventures needed to make middlemen obsolete. The Alliance attempted to gain capital by merging with urban labor unions but failed because they lacked a common cause—higher prices for crops meant higher prices for food in the urban markets. By 1892, the Alliance was on the decline and soon ceased to exist altogether. Nonetheless, farmers persisted in trying to collectively beat the system that kept them on the edge of poverty.
The agrarian populist movement was especially strong in eastern Texas. That’s where the movement and Newt Gresham crossed paths. Orphaned at ten, Gresham and his four brothers had known nothing but hard times. Gresham worked on the land and was a field organizer for Farmers’ Alliance for five years until the organization began to wane. Self-educated, Gresham was also the editor of a weekly newspaper that led to sharecropping and the establishment of the Point Times in Point, Texas.
Although the fall of the Grange and the Alliance was fresh in the minds of many, Gresham still had faith he could rouse farmers to organize another crusade. Drawing from his experience in the other two organizations, he began planning a new farmers’ organization in early 1900.
His idea was not well-received. In addition to the demise of prior efforts, there was concern over previous organizations’ political affiliation. Initially apolitical, the Alliance had become increasingly associated with the Populist Party and participants wanted to avoid the same mistake.
While Gresham was active in politics, he agreed partisan politics had destroyed earlier farm organizations. The new Farmers Union would emphasize economic cooperation and should remain clear of political entanglements. In essence, the Farmers Union was a resurrection of the Farmers Alliance, but it would go no further than lobbying to secure legislation that protected farmers’ interests.
After much personal economic hardship and struggle to get his idea going, nine men of different political affiliations believed enough in his idea to become founders of the new Farmers Union. This ten-man group secured a charter for a farm organization from the state of Texas on Aug. 28, 1902, with the intent of spreading to other states.
September 17, 1902
Farmers Educational and Co-Operative Union of America Chartered
In late 1902, Judge A.L. Beckett of Warner, Indian Territory, traveled to Point, Texas, to obtain information about the Farmers Union that had been established earlier that year. While at Point, he became a member of the Union in Gresham’s home. He returned to Warner, where he and Campbell Russell began promoting the Farmers Union.
The organization seemed to spread like wildfire. Soon, Farmers Union was planted in both Oklahoma and Indian Territory. An example of the sense of urgency surrounding the fledgling organization was in Wakita, Oklahoma, where a local organization was incorporated in December 1902 and received its national charter on February 11, 1903.
As the Farmers Union movement continued to grow, organizers were sent from place to place to create local bodies and, in 1904, they were recognized with a territorial charter.
When a Farmers Union organizer came to the Emet community in Indian Territory, he failed with his first attempt, but a flyer left by the organizer convinced William H. Murray it was a worthy cause and he invited the gentleman back. This time, Murray placed his influence behind the movement and one meeting resulted in the formation of four locals and a total of 700 members.
At the Texas Farmers Union meeting at Fort Worth in February 1905, there were 839 locals in Oklahoma and Indian Territory, with a total membership of 29,365. While at the meeting, delegates asked to be organized into a formal state union. The twin territories were accepted and organized under the general name Indiahoma. S.O. Dawes, prominent in the former Farmers Alliance, was elected the first president of the new state union, followed by J.A. West.
The first convention of the newly minted Indiahoma Union was held in Tishomingo, IT, July 18-21, 1905. In addition to general convention guests, 109 delegates attended the convention. Agriculture statistics, legislation, arbitration, and education were all early discussions. Of particular interest was the desire for farmers’ labels on all goods produced by union members.
Early organization elections included officers and executive board members, as well as a business agent, organizer, chaplain, conductor, and doorkeeper. The business agent took care of business activities on behalf of the organization; the organizer helped create locals and member involvement; and the conductor inspected membership cards, received, and introduced candidates and visiting members, tended to the ballot box and took charge of Union property. The doorkeeper made sure everyone gave the password before entering the meeting, which in the beginning was often “Ten Good Men and True – Watch Them!” The doorkeeper was a key job because many wanted to infiltrate the meetings to break up the union. Although not an elected position, the lecturer was usually the individual who came to local meetings to fire up the membership.
The organization was initially established as a fraternal entity. Members were referenced as “brother.” Correspondence was either addressed or concluded in the same manner. Ceremonial meetings and installations of officers were used in early meetings.
Postponed from an earlier September 23 date because of a yellow fever outbreak, delegates from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana met in Texarkana Dec. 5-7, 1905. The delegates organized a national union in accordance with the laws of the state of Texas and Campbell Russell of Oklahoma was elected to the first National Farmers Union (NFU) board of directors.
Although the Farmers Union was officially non-political and non-partisan, the organization advocated for many things, which inevitably developed a political direction. In 1905, the Farmers Union inaugurated what may have been the first crop curtailment program in the nation. Trying to get higher prices, members were asked to plow up a certain percentage of their cotton and plant other crops. This took place about 28 years prior to the Federal Agricultural Adjustment Act which also established such practices to impact crop prices.
William H. Murray, the man who helped plant Farmers Union in Indian Territory, remained active in Farmers Union activities and his work became known throughout the two territories. Murray later became a writer of the state constitution and became the young state’s ninth governor. Murray furthered the political direction of Farmers Union when, after turning down an Extension Department job offer from the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, he persuaded the Secretary to help local farmers with their problems. At the request of the Indiahoma Farmers Union, one of the first national soil surveys and the first in the soon-to-be state was conducted within a forty-mile square of Tishomingo, Okla.
Territorial Charter Issued
Request for State Division Charter, Fort Worth, Texas
March 23, 1905
Indiahoma State Union Charter Granted (Recognizing Oklahoma and Indian Territories Together as one State Charter.)
July 18-21, 1905
First Meeting of Indiahoma Union after Charter, Tishomingo.
November 20, 1906
State Constitution Influence
Farmers Union members were at the table during a meeting in Shawnee when the “Shawnee Demands” were drafted, reflecting membership goals to be included in a state constitution.
The Shawnee Demands provisions included: (1) initiative and referendum; (2) recall; (3) vast authorization for the government to involve itself in industry; (4) limited work-day (eight hours) for certain professions; (5) government regulation of railroads; (6) elected officials to regulate labor and agriculture; (7) election of all state officials; (8) government ownership of utilities; (9) antimonopoly statutes; and (10) a ban on child labor. Many of the demands were the basis of the Farmers Union beginnings in fighting corporations.
The constitutional convention delegates assembled in Guthrie on Nov. 20, 1906. Of the 55 Oklahoma Territory seats, 30 were Farmers Union members. Thirty-four of Indian Territory’s 55 seats were supporters of the Sequoyah Convention. Ninety-eight of the total 110 seats were staunch Democrats. As to the chairmanship for the convention, William H. Murray had the votes figured to the man well in advance of the assembly. And, he was not disappointed.
Following his election as convention president, Murray delivered an address outlining his views about important provisions that should be included in the state constitution. After urging the delegates to support the platforms that led to their election, which were mostly tied to the Shawnee Demands, provisions he endorsed included:
(1) prohibiting alien and corporate ownership of land; (2) a graduated land tax; (3) safety and health inspections of coal mines; (4) the eight-hour work day on railroads and public works; (5) fixed maximum rates for railroads; (6) the initiative; (7) the referendum; and (8) granting of utility franchises by voters.
Once again, many of the Farmers Union’s issues had been included during the debate. After almost four months of work, the convention concluded. Oklahoma was on its way to statehood.
As for Murray he also served as draftsman and leader in the writing of the bylaws of the Oklahoma Farmers Union and went on to become the first Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives and the state’s ninth governor.
The State Debate
The Twin Territories operated as the Indiahoma Farmers Union until the question of creating one or two U.S. states from the territories brought much discussion and division. While the issue was being debated nationally in 1906, the Indiahoma Farmers Union divided, forming the Indian Territory Union, in addition to the Indiahoma Union. A.J. Malcom was elected president of the Indian Territory Union.
Leaders in Indian Territory opposed single statehood and took preemptive steps to prevent unification. In 1905, leaders of the Five Civilized Tribes called for a constitutional convention where delegates drafted a constitution and proposed the creation of the state of Sequoyah. Farmers Union member William H. Murray served as a vice president of the convention. The proposed constitution was ratified by voters of Indian Territory, but Congress refused to grant statehood.
Congress settled the issue by combining both territories into a single state. On June 16, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law the Oklahoma Enabling Act. The Act stipulated the Twin Territories were to begin preparation for admittance into the Union as a single state.
The influence of the Sequoyah Convention was not lost. Its reflection of the Progressive Era would impact the writing of the Oklahoma constitution which ultimately featured strict corporate regulation, humanitarian measures allowing the government to assist the underprivileged and almost every other demand of the growing progressive cause.
As for the Indiahoma and Indian Territory Farmers Union, the two unions became one and were re-chartered as the Oklahoma State Union in 1907. To allay the bitterness and strife that had existed between members during the state debate, a compromise was forged as officers from both unions formed the new union board at the Aug. 20, 1907, state meeting in Shawnee. Membership totaled 50,000.
Indiahoma State Union Division (Oklahoma Territory)
August 20, 1907
Oklahoma State Union (Re-Merged Indiahoma/Indian Territory)
Meeting The Insurance Mission
In 1919, delegates to the Oklahoma Farmers Union (OFU) state convention directed the organization to form the Oklahoma Farmers Union Mutual Fire and Lightning Insurance Company to serve rural areas in covering farm buildings, household goods, farm implements, farm products and livestock.
Using its political strength, the organization secured passage of a law that enabled a farm organization to insure the properties of its members without capital or outside control by the Commissioner of Insurance. The legislation meant OFU could make its own rules, fix its own rates and settle its own losses.
Z.H. “Zed” Lawter, a Farmers Union member who was OFU President John Simpson’s neighbor in Custer County, moved to Oklahoma City to take charge of the new insurance company. Before the company could be chartered, Lawter had to find 1,000 members who would apply for a policy—no policy could be less than $500. With only 284 policyholders, the company officially began in January 1922. Initially, it was delivered through the network of local organization secretaries.
Each agent received a policy fee of $1, plus an additional fee of twenty-five cents per $100 of face value upon delivery of the policy. It was a small sum, but the agents worked hard. By 1921, the membership rolls for the state were 23,000.
An example of the original cost of OFU insurance is with policy number 69. In January 1922, Mr. W.A. Stone of Byars, Okla., purchased $675 worth of coverage for his home, livestock, and equipment. The policy provided coverage for five years and cost Byars $4.35.
As time passed, more coverages were offered by the OFU insurance company. A tornado clause was soon added, followed by a death benefit policy. Simpson calling the death benefit program “helpers,” providing up to $200 in burial expenses at a cost of ten cents for each member of a family. The “helpers” plan moved slowly in the beginning, but Simpson’s continuous pleading and cajoling got the program underway.
Several years passed before a loss had to be paid on the new “helper” insurance. This unusual luck certainly helped the plan survive. By 1940, such prominent Oklahomans as Congressmen Jed Johnson, Will Rogers and Wilburn Cartwright were listed as “helper” participants.
The first beneficiary did not actually receive the full $200. On February 27, 1922, the family of W.A. Townsend of Broken Bow, became the first recipient of the death benefit clause. At that time, only 243 members had registered, which meant that the family was paid only $24.30, the total fund in the treasury. State officers added another seventy-five cents to the amount. The voluntary nature of the death benefit clause ultimately led to its demise—members were asked to contribute at the time of a member’s death to assist their family, but members often failed to send their contributions.
The first loss for the OFU Mutual Insurance Company came a few months later. Brother Ed Roesley of the Cottonwood Local No. 298 in Custer County filed the first claim when a heavy windstorm unroofed his barn on April 10, 1922. After proof of loss was verified, Lawter sent a check for $55, the full amount of the loss assessed by them.
The first headquarters of the infant Oklahoma Farmers Union was in Durant. The office was temporary and later moved to Shawnee, at the invitation of the Shawnee Commercial Club. The Shawnee location included furnished office space at expense of the city and a beautiful hall and offices for state meetings.
During World War I, offices were established in Custer County and remained there until 1920 when the headquarters were transferred to Oklahoma City. Office space was leased in the Campbell Building and, later, the Oil Exchange Building.
In 1926, an office building was constructed at 18 North Klein in Oklahoma City. The top floor housed the insurance company and other organization administration. The first floor provided hardware supplies with a desk in the corner used by State Secretary Zed Lawter. To the north, a cooperative grain elevator, feed store and supplies building was constructed.
A new and much larger office building was constructed at 4 North Klein in 1941 and later expanded as demands for space grew. During the next 20 years the organization experienced substantial growth, necessitating a need of an additional building to house the employees of the insurance organization and other personnel.
In 1961, the original property at 18 North Klein housed a hardware store, a lumberyard and a fertilizer warehouse across the street. Three large parking lots and a tire warehouse from which Saxon tires, batteries and filters were sold across Oklahoma and adjoining states also occupied the site. In 1964, a new Farmers Union store was opened at 1601 South Agnew in Oklahoma City. The store featured general farm supplies, including fertilizer, fencing material, general hardware and animal health products. In 1967, 1977 and 1984 expansions of the existing headquarters building occurred.
In 1989, Oklahoma Farmers Union acquired a modern structure and moved the corporate headquarters to 6200 N.W. 2nd St. in Oklahoma City. In April 2007, Oklahoma City’s old Central High School at 800 North Harvey became the organization’s home and, in May 2014, the organization made its most recent move to 4400 Will Rogers Parkway, Oklahoma City.
Growth and Expansion
By 1924, fifty percent of the members participated in the insurance company. In 1935, the insurance department reported $45 million in force and more than 13,000 policyholders. In the beginning, local agents or secretaries would sell the policy, adjust a claim and often do the repairs on the loss. The growth in the insurance business resulted in moving the headquarters from rural Custer County to Oklahoma City.
In 1938, a contract with Lloyd’s of London was negotiated to underwrite Farmers Union insurance policies. That same year, OFU formed its Hail-Crop Insurance Department and the Union Mutual Insurance Company was created to insure churches, schoolhouses, community halls and lodges.
The company began writing automobile insurance in 1945 with the Farmers Union Automobile and Casualty Co., a national mutual company operated as a cooperative by the National Farmers Union.
The group’s fraternal role toward operating the business changed in the mid-1950s. With new requirements for insurance reserves, the company began operating with a well-capitalized objective to meet claims and operational needs. In 1956, the company began documenting insured property with cameras and the Union Mutual Company set up shop next door with a separate board of directors from OFU. In 1959, OFU started the Union Casualty Co. so it could separate from the National Farmers Union Automobile and Casualty Co. and write its own automobile insurance.
Also in the 1950s, OFU created a new property company and acquired a major interest in a life insurance company – Farmers and Ranchers Life Insurance Company. A controlling majority was achieved in this company by 1966. It was sold in 1988, but Farmers Union agents continued to write business for the company. The company was reacquired in 2000 and brought back to Oklahoma where it continues to operate today.
In 1982, the state of Oklahoma eliminated the historic exemption to the insurance code and required the Oklahoma Farmers Union to form the domestic Oklahoma Farmers Union Mutual Insurance Company (OFUMIC). In 2005, the company took steps to expand to other states by acquiring Twin Falls Mutual, a property insurance company based in Idaho. At the 2007 OFU Convention, delegates approved changing the name from OFUMIC to American Farmers & Ranchers. The change was intended to enable the company to market insurance products outside Oklahoma under a common branding name. Later in 2007, Idaho-based General Fire & Casualty—a commercial multi-peril company focused primarily on agribusiness—was acquired and renamed American Farmers & Ranchers Insurance Company (AFRI), creating a stock company associated with parent company American Farmers & Ranchers Mutual Insurance Company (AFRMIC). AFRI has since ceased active operations, but parent company AFRMIC has retained licenses in the 24 states associated with the Twin Falls and General Fire & Casualty acquisitions.
Today, AFRMIC is one of 50 companies—documented by the Oklahoma Secretary of State—still operating that was in existence at statehood. Many agents and officers in the company and organization are multi-generational, creating a company culture strong in customer loyalty and trust. The company celebrated 109 years in 2014 and continues to make a mark on state and national government. AFRMIC is recognized as a leading domestic insurance carrier in Oklahoma and stays current on the latest industry information available through its involvement in the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies (NAMIC), which primarily represents smaller farm and rural mutual companies.
OFU State Presidents
Oklahoma Farmers Union & The State Constitution
The history of AFR Cooperative is rich with culture and growth and began with the membership services organization Oklahoma Farmers Union. The longevity of this company reflects the strength that has remained within the organization since its beginning. Going back to its early roots, the organization membership was involved in debating the statehood of Oklahoma and taking part in writing the Oklahoma State Constitution. Its members were a persuasive part in the passage of the bill creating the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, and one of the early Farmers Union Vice Presidents, J.P. Conners, served as the very first President of the Board of Agriculture. Over the years AFR Cooperative has been a leader in cooperative development, legislative and education programs.
Historical Symbols of Farmers Union
The symbol for Farmers Union lauds the main tenets of the organization, consisting of a triangle with the words “Cooperation,” “Legislation” and “Education” forming the three sides. The triangle reflects the chief aims and purposes of the organization and how Oklahoma Farmers Union seeks to provide leadership for its members.
The Farmers Union insignia is the plow, rake and hoe—traditional tools of the early farmer. The official colors of the Farmers Union are blue and gold. Blue represents the clear blue skies while gold represents the sunshine that gives warmth and light to the fields of growing crops.
Early members were first served by Texas and national Farmers Union founder Newt Gresham’s Password, the organization’s official mouthpiece which was created in 1903.
In 1906, The Indiahoma Signal, the official publication of the Farmers Union, was moved to Shawnee. It had been started at Cordell. After a year at Shawnee, the publication was rechristened the Farmers Union Advocate by its editor, H.H. Stallard. The Farmers Union Advocate and J.K. Armstrong’s periodical The Advocate and Union Review, were edited in Ardmore and espoused the Farmers Union’s program of organization, cooperation and education. By 1910, the two papers had declined in popularity and were combined into the Union Advocate Review. This effort also failed.
The Union had no official voice until after World War I when President John Simpson, at the direction of the OFU Board of Directors, created and published the Oklahoma Union Farmer on January 1. It remained the Union Farmer until 1987 when it was rechristened the Oklahoma Farmers Union Farm News and Views. With an organization change to American Farmers & Ranchers in 2008, the newspaper continued to evolve and is now called AFR Today.