The American Agriculture Movement: Part 2

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Last year, the Southwest Collection shared our American Agricultural Movement (AAM) Records in an exhibit entitled Tractorcade! commemorating the 35th anniversary of the AAM’s last great Tractorcade in 1979. It featured oral histories, photographs, newspaper articles, and artifacts that allowed our curators to tell this unique story of authentic U.S. grassroots activism.

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We told you back then about the AAM’s formation in Campo, Colorado, in 1977, and its focus on “Parity”—economic balance between agriculture, other industries, and the U.S. government. It organized farmer’s strikes throughout the U.S., using pamphlets such as the one above to get them going. And it worked: in 1977 around 5,000 farmers held a tractor rally in Lincoln, Nebraska. Farmers in other states soon followed with their own rallies.

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Unfortunately, the AAM’s activism sometimes led to violence. On March 1st, 1978, a large group of protesting farmers was trapped on the International Bridge south of McAllen, Texas. U.S. police and Mexican Federal troops tear-gassed and beat some of the protestors, later arresting and jailing 200 of them. But this wasn’t typically the case. At almost the same time, numerous farmers found themselves peacefully gathering in Washington, D.C., in opposition to the 1977 Farm Bill. All of these events and many others were chronicled in local publications such as the American Agricultural News, of which we have dozens of issues. The above article and poems are examples of such, written by supporters–but not necessarily protest participants–from Oklahoma and Kansas, not just Texas or the AAM’s birth-state, Colorado.

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Combinations of strikes, protests, and legal opposition would later lead to massive Tractorcades in 1978 and 79. January of the former saw around 3,000 farmers driving their tractors to Washington, D.C. 1979 proved even more successful on a second trip to D.C., although traffic across the nation found itself stuck behind slow moving tractors festooned with protest signs. Washington was practically shut down as they drove through the city, and when at last they stopped at the National Mall, the police quickly penned them in with squad cars and city dump trucks. Surprisingly, there were only a few scuffles between farmers and police. Most interactions were friendly, although national public opinion was split on the farmer’s stated issues. But the Tractorcade can, in some part, be summed up by their emotional visit to the Lincoln Memorial documented in the photo above. It was a peaceful affair, generating unity within the AAM and fond memories for all of the participants that they’ve shared with SWC staff during every visit.

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There are many other tales of the Tractorcade and the AAM available at the Southwest Collection, many found in oral histories of participants and opposition members alike. They explain to interested researchers how the AAM metamorphosed into the guardian of farmers and lobby-er of politicians that it is today. These materials, and the many newspapers, documents, and artifacts in the AAM collection, are always available for research. And our helpful Reference Staff shows up when the rooster crows every day to make sure they can help you find them.

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American Agricultural Movement: Tractorcade!

AAM plaque From March through mid-June, the Southwest Collection is exhibiting their American Agricultural Movement (AAM) records in an exhibit entitled Tractorcade! It commemorates the 35th anniversary of the AAM’s last great Tractorcade in 1979. Bringing together a host of oral histories, photographs, newspaper articles, and artifacts such as the plaque above, our curators attempt to tell this unique story of authentic American grassroots activism.

The AAM formed in Campo, Colorado, during 1977. Wanting the U.S. Government to address their concept of “Parity”—defined loosely as economic balance between agriculture, other industries, and the U.S. government—the AAM attempted to organize a farmer’s strike. Although widespread strikes didn’t take off immediately, later that year around 5,000 farmers held a tractor rally in Lincoln, Nebraska. Farmers in other states soon followed with their own rallies.McAllen photo2Sadly, sometimes the AAM’s activism would lead to violence. For example, on March 1st, 1978, a large group of protesting farmers was trapped on the International Bridge south of McAllen, Texas by city police on the U.S. side and Federal troops across the Mexican border. Protesters were tear-gassed and beaten, with 200 arrested and jailed. By the next day 2,000 more farmers arrived to join the protest. A thousand miles away on March 15th, 30,000 farmers arrived in Washington D.C. with the express intent of seeing the 1977 Farm Bill replaced. These events and many others were chronicled in local publications such as the American Agricultural News, digital copies of which—along with other digitized AAM materials—are available at the SWC.capitol tractorNot all efforts spawned violence. In January 1978, around 3,000 farmers drove their tractors to Washington D.C. The following year, farmers and their tractors made the trip to D.C. a second time, creating huge traffic snarls as they slowly made their way through the city. When at last they stopped at the National Mall, the police quickly penned them in with their squad cars and, later, with city dump trucks, hoping to prevent any further traffic disruptions. In spite of the heightened tensions caused by the corralling, there were only a few scuffles between farmers and police. By far most interactions between demonstrators and public officials were friendly, and often helpful. But in many cases top-level government and city leaders remained unsympathetic, as did public opinion.snowed inThen came Presidents’ Day weekend, when a massive winter storm dumped two feet of snow on the Capitol city. The only vehicles capable of operating in the mess were the tractors, and soon the farmers were carrying policemen to emergency calls, transporting nurses, doctors and other emergency personnel to hospitals and fire stations, bulldozing the snow drifts that blocked whole streets, and generally helping out wherever possible. The trouble-making farmers were now heroes; what AAM leader Gerald McCathern dubbed “Gentle Rebels.”buttonsToday, AAM serves as a watchdog for farmers as well as providing information useful to both elected and appointed officials who are responsible for forming farm policies. In June 2013, members from the AAM held a reunion in Lubbock, Texas, to discuss their shared history. The SWC worked with AAM members to collect oral histories, photographs, scrapbooks, and artifacts such as these to be preserved at the SWC. These materials are now available for research, and our helpful Reference Staff would be happy to help you find them.

– Andy Wilkinson

Head West!

At the turn of the century (the 20th century, that is), many corporations, investors, and capitalists wanted to share a little something wonderful with you: THE AMERICAN WEST. Anywhere west of the Mississippi River was a latter-day Eden, and for a few cents on the acre you could own a piece of this unique prize. Only a fool would pass on thousands of square miles of: Bountiful harvests! Spacious ranches! Amazing weather! And plentiful railroads!

California Is the Place You Want to Be!

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Jerome Madden, Land Agent for the Southern Pacific Railroad (S.P.R.R.) Company, knew everything about California in 1890. His mission was to share that knowledge with you. In his publications, nary an acre of land nor the crops that flourished there were left unexamined (the orchards alone could conjure a man’s fortune!) No comparison to other regions was left unexplored, either. How did California compare to Europe? Madden knew this much: “the superiority of the climate of California over that of Italy has been mentioned by many noted travelers.” Why, even the London Spectator described California’s weather as “the nearest (to) perfection in the world,” comparable only to Tasmania!

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Now that Mr. Madden had potential buyers’ attention, it was time to tell them how to find to this coastal paradise. Fortunately, there were only three railroads headed west (that bore the S.P.R.R.’s seal of quality, at any rate), keeping the move to California as simple as possible. Pick one, and profit!

Colorado, Here We Come!

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California wasn’t the only paradise on earth in the United States, at least according to the Union Pacific Railroad. South Platte Valley, Colorado boasted soil vastly superior in depth and content to that of the “Eastern and Middle West States,” which was fortunate because there was cash money in that soil…in the form of sugar beets! “It is the belief of experts that the production of sugar beets will become the leading business of inhabitants of this valley” due to its “bright sunshine” and light summer rains. There were other financial opportunities in the area, to be sure, but for the discerning emigrant, beets were Coloradan gold.

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Not to be outdone by competitors such as the S.P.R.R. whose helpful directions were undoubtedly inspiring Americans to move west by the gross, the Union Pacific line’s publications shared their extensive travel information. The Union Pacific Overland Route was, after all, “the only direct line to all principal points West.”

Hurry On Out to Sunny Texas!

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The Caswell Brothers knew what the savvy homesteader really wanted: tillable land on the cheap! And, if you were feeling particularly cowboyish, there had a little ranch land to sell, too. But wait! Why not live in the city instead? After all, Fort Worth had boomed from a modest hamlet of 11,000 people with no railroad access in 1876 to a whopping 30,000 souls in 1880, every one of whom could boast that they now enjoyed eleven railroads leading out of town!

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Texas held more temptations than just the railroad-clogged metropolis of Fort Worth. After all, weren’t folks tired of the incessant blizzards plaguing them in, presumably, every other part of the United States? Look no further than Texas for sweet relief! This image, helpfully provided by the Caswell Brothers in their promotional material, shows the truth of the matter. The shivering masses turn their eyes to the Lone Star and its abundant crops, cattle, and cowtowns. Why, who wouldn’t point their wagon toward sunny Texas immediately?

The Southwest Collection is full of a variety of curiosities such as these promotional land pamphlets, many of which can be found in digital format here. Our Reference Department would be happy to help you find any others if you, the interested researcher, would like to see them.