American commerce changed in 1877 when the Supreme Court broadly authorized states to regulate businesses, a dramatic shift.
Noted The New York Times, the ruling settled “one of the most important questions ever considered by the court.” The great recasting began with one federal bureaucrat who thought he knew more about farming than most farmers—and, in fact, did. As a farmer in Benton County, Minnesota, before taking a job with the new Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC, Oliver Kelley had been a voracious reader of agricultural journals, enthusiastically adopting new techniques.
He was the first farmer in Minnesota to plant timothy to feed his horses and to own a mechanical reaper. His spread survives as a “living history museum" maintained by the Minnesota Historical Society. Kelley’s superiors at Agriculture sent him to report on the woes of Southern farmers struggling to recover from the Civil War’s devastation. These agrarians’ parlous condition, Kelley reported, stemmed from being “ignorant” and “using a system of farming that was the same as that handed down by generations gone by.”
His solution was not to import experts from Washington, but to persuade farmers themselves to band together, collectively develop better techniques, and pass those methods on to peers. Kelley rounded up seven like-minded associates and in 1868 founded the first chapter of the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry. In 1871, he became the group’s fulltime secretary
The Grange was the right idea at the right time. Within a decade, Kelley's organizational abilities had Grange chapters proliferating nationwide. Membership reached 1.5 million; Ohio alone counted 900 chapters. These local entities not only preached modern farming but ran stores where members paid less than what commercial retailers charged. Chapters pooled resources to buy equipment members could share.
Beneficent self-interest produced political awareness and clout. The Grange pushed for free rural mail delivery, direct election of senators, and woman suffrage. Its earliest legislative success came in getting state legislatures to curb fees charged to store and haul crops rates that since the Civil War had been rising steadily.
States had not previously done anything of the sort.