The Corn Belt Liberty League: Farmers in Revolt

Illinois farmers are, by nature, Republicans. Ever since Abraham Lincoln arrived on the scene, the majority of rural Illinois has been, and most likely will always be, Republicans. Illinois farmers have always held firmly to the belief that no one need tell them what to grow, how to grow, where to grow it, and most importantly, when to grow it.

In the 1920s, farmers went through massive changes in the decade. No longer was the horse or oxen the main mode of transportation. Tractors, trucks, and other motorized vehicles changed farming drastically. The truly mechanized farm could plant more, grow more, and harvest more than ever before. Machines invented in the 1870s made it possible to milk more. For farmers everything was just more. The good times seemed like they would never end. The industrial revolution was made for farmers to make more money.

All’s well that is well did not end well. Farmers began to make too much. Farm prices for crops, meat, and other products began to drop. When the stock market crashed in 1929, farmers were already reeling. Loans to pay for tractors, combines, and other machinery could not be paid back. Farms began to be foreclosed. The drought of the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma and Kansas began to spread east. Illinois farming was going under. Herbert Hoover, the Republican President, did little to help the sinking agricultural industry. Hoover was a believer that Civil Society, churches and charities, were responsible for helping the needy. Republican farmers in Illinois agreed. The rest of the nation did not. In 1932, the United States elected Franklin Roosevelt to be the next president in the United States.

In Roosevelt’s first 100 days, Congress passed a lot of new legislation called the New Deal. The first parts of the New Deal were aimed at recovery and relief. One of those programs was the Agricultural Adjustment Act. The Act was passed after farmers across the nation had already planted crops for the year. The act’s goals were to raise farm prices and delete surpluses. In order to do that, new models of farming had to be implemented. The models called for plowing under millions of acres of crops and slaughtering livestock to drive up the prices. Americans could not understand the concept while millions went to bed hungry every night during the Great Depression.

Many farmers in Illinois did not like the new policies of the AAA. The dislike was more than just being a Republican not liking a Democratic President’s new policy. This was about work. Many farmers were proud and had developed a strong work ethic. They wanted to work for their money. They wanted to farm. The AAA did not want them too. The AAA began setting acreage allotments, corn quotas, and subsidies to farmer who left land fallow.  Many farmers did not take kindly to the change. Some did. Some farmers thought the quotas would help conserve the soil and drive prices up.

In 1936, the AAA was declared unconstitutional. A new AAA would arrive in 1938. In response to the AAA, a select group of farmers, active and retired, in McDonough County in Western Illinois began an organization called the Corn Belt Liberty League to fight the AAA and the policies the AAA imposed. For the next few years, the two sides duked it out in the press, at meetings, in court, and wherever they could, they would. It did not stop with the men either. Macomb newspapers were known for women slinging mud just as much as their husbands.

From 1938 to 1940, the Corn Belt Liberty League grew from 400 McDonough County farmers to over 16,000 members in the state. It held meetings, published a newsletter, all for a $2.00 membership fee. Its arch-enemy was the Illinois Farm Bureau. The Farm Bureau supported subsidies and quotas as a way to increase prices. The heart of the issue for the AAA was that farming was farmer’s business, not the governments. To the Corn Belt Liberty League, the AAA, quotas, crop allotments, and subsidies smelled of socialism, and more so, communism.

The League, in and of itself, was a grassroots organization that stood up to government control of the economy. However, the Corn Belt Liberty League was also resistant to change. Today’s farming techniques shadow those recommended by the AAA. Just because a farmer has all that land does not mean that the farmer should farm it. However, it doesn’t mean he shouldn’t. The crux of the issue between the AAA and the Corn Belt Liberty League was one of modernity.  New machines created a farming revolution which allowed farmers to grow more which they thought would allow them to make more money. Unfortunately, overproduction of crops became the byproduct of the new farmer. As prices began to fall, farmers could not understand the paradox.

As a league, the Corn Belt Liberty League became too big for its own britches. The meetings began to take up more time. The members became well informed and yearned for the meetings often neglecting the work that needed to be done on the farm. The league had no plan to replace the AAA, the league just knew the AAA had to go and the market would take care of itself – just as most Republicans believed. Unfortunately, war would return farming to normalcy. Beginning in 1940, the farming industry began to rebound. As Europe needed food for a war, America too would soon join the fray. By 1942, the Corn Belt Liberty League had stopped functioning. In 1944, it ceased to exist.

Today, the policies put forth by the AAA are commonplace. In the 1930s, those same policies were radical.  The concepts of fallow land, stored grain, price supports, soil conservation, and government loans and subsidies are commonplace. In the 1930s, the concepts caused outrage and fear. Luckily, the Corn Belt Liberty League was able to voice itself and those voices of its members. F.G. Vining of Kankakee summed up the Corn Belt Liberty League best:

What a real farmer wants is to be let alone to raise what he pleases, where he pleases, and to sell what he raises where he pleases, and when he pleases; and not to be taxed to death to pay for a lot of bunk legislation.

While that may true, freedom to grow whatever , whenever, and wherever doesn’t make sound business practice. Farmers in the 1930s still wanted the freedom they had before the machines. In reality, the AAA was trying to re-educate farmers on how to farm in this new Industrial Age. Neither side listened to the other very well. My grandfather, in next door Henderson County, took money from the AAA. He had six daughters and a son to feed first before he could think of feeding others. My Aunt Bert, who was 20+ years older than my mom (born in 1938), wrote many letters to my mother about life in the Depression. She writes:

Mother said when they butchered the winter supply of hogs by the time they were through you could skate on her kitchen floor. She’d get awfully tired of the greasy mess before they got done. So when lockers came and they came and butchered for you, it was a great day and no one appreciated it more than farm women. To have fresh frozen meat, fruit and vegetables all year round was a treat and it all came in when the farms were electrified. In Mt. Pleasant it was electrified in 1940. Everyone immediately bought a refrigerator, a fan, a clock and an iron. It was a wonderful thing for it made water systems possible and bathrooms workable. Civilization improved a lot.

And that is the heart of the matter for the Corn Belt Liberty League – they resisted change in the AAA, but mostly because they wanted things to be the way they always had been. Those days of farming were gone.

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6 comments

  1. Thanks! The reason I asked is because my dad’s family farmed before, during and after the depression and they were die-hard Republicans. I have a strong feeling that they might be involved with something like that. It’s now on my list for family history! 🙂

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