Georgia fruit growers embodied the intelligent, business-minded mentality about which New South boosters preached. Rather than stubbornly adding to the already glutted cotton markets, these modern farmers diversified. In supplying urban markets with fruit and truck, growers drew the attention of northern capital southward. Queen Peach and her cousins would supplant King Cotton and bring prosperity to the prostrate South. Yet it was with the New South's critics that many growers allied themselves in the 1890s. Despite epitomizing scientific agriculture and virtuous industry, Georgia growers asserted the near impossibility of squeezing profits from fruit. Railroads, they argued, hindered the promised progress and liberation through extortionate freight rates. Consequently, growers became leaders of Georgia's Populist revolt. Their story challenges notions of Populism as backward-looking while revealing the inefficiencies, failures, and precarities of corporate capitalism exemplified by southern railroads. Moreover, it demonstrates the Populists' distinct threat to the rising corporate order.
Excessive Freight Rate will paralize [sic] the fruit industry at the South—The Injustice demonstrates the necessity for Government Ownership.—People's Party Paper, June 21, 1895
The limbs of georgia peach trees struggled under the weight of the luscious, nearly ripened fruit, and Georgians of every stripe were outraged. Temperatures rose under the June sun as peach picking season had arrived in 1895. It was the biggest year the crop had seen since the post–Civil War expansion of the country's railroad network. Georgians had long dreamed of commercializing the sweet and tender fruit, and now, just as the railroads appeared to breathe life into the promising New South industry, critics claimed that the same railroads were bound to stifle it. At the height of the Populist revolt, antipathy to the railroads appeared often enough, but the recent announcement that southern railroads had raised freight rates on peaches threatened to turn strong allies into frightening enemies.1 “We have often thought that the railroads were unjustly treated by demagogic legislators,” wrote the Democratic LaGrange Graphic, “but the antipathy has some foundation when a road makes such a foolish move.”2 Populists across the nation, but especially in Georgia, had declared war on the railroads; outrage over peach rates made it seem a war they might just win.
Just as King Cotton dominated the lives of countless farmers in the postbellum South, so it has dominated southern agricultural history. The seeming inescapability from the all-encompassing reign of the powerful yet much-loathed fluffy white monarch has stood in as both the cause and the consequence of southern economic underdevelopment. New South boosters and historians alike declared that the stubborn persistence of cotton monoculture led to overproduction, falling prices, and the consequent poverty of struggling farmers. Poverty in turn exacerbated the scarcity of native capital, forcing southerners ever deeper into the dependencies of debt. Cotton represented either the personal failures of individual farmers opposed to modernity or the underlying structures that hindered agricultural progress, whether desired or not. This overwhelming focus on cotton makes sense, as cotton production and manufacturing composed a larger portion of the southern economy than many other industries combined. Nevertheless, the reliance on cotton culture in understanding the problematic history of postwar southern political economy can often prove just as damning as contemporaries' own obsessive fixation on the staple crop. Such a singular focus tends to obscure other crops that many saw as viable alternatives. Moreover, it runs the risk of flattening the complexities of the Gilded Age South and its critics, often concealing broader national and global trends, outlooks, and structures behind those more limited and parochial. And finally, even the most careful of cotton-focused studies faces the previously mentioned challenge of extricating the personal from the structural, often succumbing to the easy presumption of the peculiarly hidebound southern farmer.3
Enter the southern fruit and truck growers, often well-capitalized farmers who saw dollar signs in the growing northern and eastern demand for fresh fruits and vegetables (fig. 1). They embodied the ideal farmer of the New South, men who saw farming as a business rather than simply plowing the same old furrows as their fathers and grandfathers. In the words of Henry W. Grady, editor of the Atlanta Constitution and unparalleled voice of the New South movement, these were “practical” men who “saw nothing but dependence and ruin in cotton.”4 Boosters pleaded for and promised that diversification would invite outside capital and immigration, and fruit growers obliged. From Union veterans forming fruit-growing colonies to the older brother of the famed Irish nationalist Charles Parnell, all were drawn by the promise of sweet prosperity.5 The quest for efficient distribution drove others to establish canning factories and distilleries to use unsold and less marketable produce, as well as refrigerator car companies to ensure the safe transportation of the delicate fruit.6 In short, Georgia fruit growers were everything that New South boosters had dreamed of, but their fight against the railroads led many leading growers not only to ally themselves with the Populist critics of the corporate-friendly conservative elites but also to take active positions as leaders of the third party.
By shifting focus to the roles of Georgia fruit and truck growers in the Populist revolt of the 1890s, we can better understand southern Populism as well as its more far-reaching vision of economic and political power. Not only does this shift shine light on a barely studied aspect of southern Populist agriculture, but it also demonstrates the validity of historian Charles Postel's contention regarding Populism's embrace of modernity.7 Rather than backward-looking and largely unwilling participants in a rapidly expanding national economy, those who critiqued the changing status quo were just as much people of the times as those who welcomed it.8 Indeed, the turn-of-the-century experiences of fruit raisers, particularly peach growers, demonstrate the acceptance of increasingly distant markets, centralization and “rationalization” of distribution, and a sophisticated understanding of the interconnections of regional, national, and global economies that went well beyond the stereotypical denunciation of local merchants, fence laws, or crop liens.9
Ultimately, Populism was less an oppositional reaction to capitalism's rapid advance and more of what historian Richard White describes as a “struggle between different forms, imagined or real, of capitalism.” The alternative to corporate capitalism was a “utopian capitalism” evolved from the antimonopolist tradition that sought to balance the individual with the collective, the beautiful promise of the market with the responsibilities and needs of society.10 Railroads, more than any other corporations, symbolized the precarity of this balancing act. Created and empowered by the law, railroads profited individuals while serving the needs of the public. They condensed time and space, opened new markets, and brought exciting diversity to people's lives, at the same time amassing great fortunes to their owners. The privileges of railroading, though, came with a debt, not just to owners of public securities but to the public as a whole. Many Gilded Age Americans believed that railroads had defaulted on that second debt, so they turned increasingly to government action in an effort to collect. State and federal regulation was as far as some were willing to go, but the Populists insisted that the only truly effective remedy was government ownership. Although Populists and their corporate foes envisioned different solutions, both had concluded that competition did not work in railroading. The “railroad question” was not the Populists' sole issue, but it was a question very much entangled with the other turn-of-the-century “questions” of race, money, and debt that Populists also sought to answer. The fight over freight rates on fruit brings these clashing capitalisms to the fore, revealing the stakes involved in the Populist challenge to the rising but insecure corporate order.
Fruit Growing, “Dumb Growth,” and the Rise of Populism
Before the 1840s and 1850s, southern fruit culture was not much to talk about. The peaches, grapes, apples, and other fruit that grew there were largely “wild” leftovers from earlier European and Indigenous settlements. Few considered intentional cultivation, much less commercial production. The Industrial Revolution and cotton gin had made cotton king, and most farmers considered fruits as simple peasants in its service. Nevertheless, the deleterious effects of cotton led some reformers to see horticulture as a means of challenging the king while beautifying their environments and bolstering southern self-sufficiency. As sectional struggles over the future of slavery reached the breaking point in the 1850s, reformers and southern nationalists alike turned to fruits, especially peaches, as a symbol of a peculiar southern identity worthy of independent nationhood. Commercial forays into horticulture demonstrated some successes, but scarcity of southern urban demand, limited transportation infrastructure for shipping perishable crops, and the overwhelming affinity of capital for more land and more slaves belied the purported influence of reformers.11 Slavery and cotton prevented any real development of a southern horticultural industry. It would take the economic and political revolutions of the Civil War and Reconstruction to make it seem possible once again. Incidentally, these same revolutions would also lay the framework for the Populist critique of Gilded Age society.
Emancipation and the enfranchisement of the formerly enslaved, along with federal supervision of elections, brought a new political leadership to the South, as well as a new economic mentality. Republican-dominated legislatures and northern investors determined that the best means of rebuilding the southern economy was to transplant northern-style industry into the conquered territory. First in importance was the necessity of repairing and expanding the war-ravaged southern railway network and more effectively linking it with that of the North. A flood of federal aid and northern capital largely completed the work of repair by 1867. Through the liberal distribution of state aid, Reconstruction governments assisted in expanding the network. But a demolished tax base quickly left state coffers dry, so legislatures often took on debt directly or indirectly by endorsing corporate bonds.12 Real and imagined corruption in the distribution of state aid to railroads sparked cries of outrage against the so-called radical Republicans. White conservatives of both parties, desperate for a return to “good government,” negotiated what historian Scott Reynolds Nelson refers to as a “railway redemption.” Putting aside their previous animosities, “redeemers” partnered with northern railroad interests and handed over control of key southern lines in exchange for “home rule.”13 Once in power, southern Democrats made their alliance with northern capital complete by continuing, and often surpassing, the “radical's” policies of liberal state aid and corruption.14 Thus the South had joined the North in viewing railroads, despite their evils, as a necessary source of both salvation and prosperity.
But the boom mentality would have drastic consequences for both railroads and the nation. The Panic of 1873 hit hard. Banks collapsed, workers lost jobs, farms failed, wealth vanished. Overextension in both railroad construction and credit was a primary culprit. Railroad mileage in the United States had nearly doubled during the decade after the Civil War in what White critiques as a dizzying period of “dumb growth.”15 If the build-it-they-will-come philosophy of railway-based western economic development was perhaps ill-advised, we could certainly say the same for that of the South. The benefits of an expanded transportation network that would promote the rise of a southern fruit and truck industry came at great social and political costs. Underlying these were the more concrete financial costs that would eventually serve as the foundation of the Populist critique of the rising corporate order and its debts to society.
While most railroads suffered under the strain of economic depression, southern roads were particularly ill prepared. Serving smaller, more dispersed populations brought comparatively smaller revenues that only became smaller during a downturn. Moreover, southern lines were often built more shoddily than northern lines and at greater expense, thus driving up average operating and maintenance costs as well as heavy debts. Much of the revenue that remained often went to servicing interest rather than improving tracks, facilities, and rolling stock.16 Managers' strategy of increasingly expanding their roads' territory to make up for falling revenues only exacerbated their problems. Expansion caused by fears of potential competition led to actual competition with other systems just as intent on expanding and defending their own turf. Rate wars abounded. This, of course, demolished companies' financial health even further.17 As more and more southern farmers fell victim to the “vortex of the cotton economy,” southern railways succumbed to the vortex of falling revenues, cutthroat competition, and rising debts, leading them into both receivership and the next stage of agrarian revolt.18
The rash of receiverships during the 1870s and consequent reorganizations and consolidations of failed southern railroads translated to a period of renewed prosperity during the 1880s. Freight rates stabilized somewhat but still trended downward because of a combination of occasional rate wars and regulation by state railroad commissions. Farmers and other shippers benefitted from the declining rates, but popular opposition to continued discriminations and consolidations continued to rise while the railways' financial precarity only worsened. The reorganizations often shifted control of the roads to younger managers who pursued expansion even more tenaciously but with much less concern for long-term financial stability and growth. These were the infamous “railroad wreckers” who sought returns from financial manipulation and corrupt contracting work rather than efficient railroad management. They wracked roads with even more debts and destroyed the share value of minority holders, often depicted as poor local women and children. Receivership generally turned bondholders into stockholders and gave stockholders nothing. As a result, southern stockholders saw their “local” roads falling into the hands of unscrupulous outsiders interested only in private gain at public expense.19 Moreover, the increasing consolidation of railway interests through purchase, lease, interlocking directorates, and pooling associations reignited antimonopolist fervor, especially in Georgia.
In 1888, after years of fighting to preserve “local” control, the beloved Central of Georgia Railroad fell into the clutches of the Richmond Terminal, a powerful holding company that financially consolidated numerous southern railroads into a single system.20 Almost immediately, legislators introduced a bill to make it illegal for corporations to possess stock in or control of any other corporations that might “encourage monopoly.”21 Opponents argued that enacting this bill, commonly referred to as the Olive Bill after its author, would harm the state by scaring away further investment. Attorneys and managers associated with the Terminal system insisted that consolidation was preferable to the destructive competition that had plagued railroads and shippers alike. Their opposition proved just strong enough to defeat the bill later the next year. At the same time, the Farmers' Alliance, the agrarian cooperative organization that preceded the People's Party, had made its presence felt throughout the South, and the Olive Bill revealed significant rifts within its ranks that went beyond the boundaries of Georgia.22 The question of whether the government would own the railroads or the railroads own the government would play a role in the demise of the Farmers' Alliance as well as the formation of an independent People's Party. But before the railroad question helped launch the third-party revolt, Georgia's fruit and truck industry entered a period of rapid growth that would place the railroads increasingly in its crosshairs.
Despite the chaos that the postbellum “dumb growth” of railroad construction and expansion wrought on corporate finances and politics, there were undeniable benefits. More railroads meant that more people could gain from connected markets. Prices fell and the diversity of products expanded.23 One of the greatest changes was in the American diet. Perishable goods like meat, fruits, and vegetables became increasingly divorced from local seasonality and supply.24 And as urban demand for these goods in the East and Midwest continued to grow and strain local production, opportunity knocked in places like the South. Cheap land as well as an earlier growing season, many believed, made the South ideally suited to commercial fruit production, which had begun its rapid expansion by the early 1880s. John Parnell, a grower near West Point and brother of the Irish nationalist, insisted that Georgia “might have the virtual monopoly of the early peach trade.”25 Imagining the immense possibilities, one grower wrote that his predictions “may look extravagant to those who are sleeping over a gold mine and do not know it, who are making cotton at 10 cents that costs about 12 to produce.”26 The power of peaches grew to mythical proportions. “An old farmer” who had struggled under cotton and “was forced to mortgage his little mountain farm” changed tack by turning to peaches. Years later the former debtor, “now thrifty,” had become a creditor as well as “‘the daddy’ of the fruit growers of his section.”27 Fruit raising was not only superior to cotton in producing vast wealth, it was apparently potent enough to magically convert personal failures to thrifty prosperity.
Not all growers were as blessed, though, and most had to come by their business acumen prior to their conversion to fruit culture. Although some farmers engaged in horticultural pursuits without regard to “rational” practices, growers were often proponents of scientific, “progressive” agriculture.28 Growers formed organizations like the Georgia State Horticultural Society in which they shared results of various experiments in fertilization, grafting, and varietal difference.29 Similarly, they investigated and invested in better means of distribution and marketing (fig. 2). Men like Samuel Rumph, who developed the famous Elberta Peach, designed refrigerated railcars, while others sought to establish Georgia fruits' value by urging the shipment of only the best produce, insisting on quality over quantity. To the Connecticut transplant J. H. Hale, brand recognition and reliability were central to success.30 Commenting on the rapid growth of Georgia's fruit industry, the Detroit Free Press concluded, “Her boom is not a speculation, but has been brought about by hard work, good planning and common investments.”31 Fruit raisers were more than farmers; they were businessmen.
They were quick to share the credit, however, and frequently praised the railroads, which early on provided “quick time and reduced rates.”32 John D. Cunningham, owner of “the largest peach orchard . . . in the world” and eventual chairman of the Georgia Populist Party, specifically praised the Central of Georgia, which had “never refused any favor I asked.”33 At conventions, growers thanked the roads for supplying ventilated railcars and better handling facilities.34 In short, railroads were crucial to both the existence of southern commercial fruit growing and its further development.35 They were allies in an endeavor that promised a bounty for both.
The interests of fruit raisers and railroads appeared to be entirely mutual. Growers obviously needed the railways to ship their produce quickly, safely, and cheaply. Railroads in turn benefitted from increased freight traffic during the normally dull months between cotton planting and picking seasons.36 “The situation is a simple one,” read an article in the Atlanta Constitution. Freight cars carrying goods south often went back empty. Why not fill them with peaches? “The great cities of the north and west want the peaches, the railroads want freight cargoes, the orchard men want a market.”37 When conventions of fruit and truck growers met to organize plans of marketing and distribution, railroad representatives joined them. Reports on these meetings often praised the businesslike actions of all parties involved. Instead of encouraging “fault-finding,” “censure,” and “complaint,” these conventions were meetings between equals, all of whom were interested in building the industry.38 Despite the seeming cordiality, though, the question of rates continued to pose a prickly problem. And regardless of any shared desire to boost the industry, disagreements over the justness of shipping charges created doubts about the extent of purportedly shared interests.
As the boom of the eighties moved into the depressed nineties, growers and their supporters insisted with increasing intensity the need for still lower rates. Railroads had two options: lower rates and help build the industry or “crush out the new business by excessive freight charges.”39 Fancy prices prevailed at markets in the North and West, but growers claimed to see only a small portion of these revenues. One carload of pears shipped to Philadelphia, for instance, bore a freight charge of $182, of which $130 was pure profit to the railroad. These “extortionate levies” were forcing growers to abandon the enterprise and discouraging the entrance of new growers.40 The usually pro-railroad Atlanta Constitution did not mince words when it called excessive freight rates “robbery.” Standing by the veracity of their reports and desiring “to give both sides a hearing,” the Constitution's editors mockingly “invited the railroads to give the process a new name” and boasted, “Thus far no railroad has responded.”41 Boosters accused the roads of myopia. There was more at stake than stunted development. Railroads' rate policies aroused “popular prejudice and indignation” and initiated a “suicidal contest” in which the railroads “hurt the people” who then “hurt the railroads.” In the end, everyone would be hurting.42 A Populist revolt was on the rise, and the railroads were “blindly” feeding into it.
Complaints about freight rates were a common feature of the nineteenth-century “railroad problem,” but many factors figured into these critiques, the least important of which was the actual charge. More significant was what the charges represented. The issue was one of relativity. Growers looked to other fruit-producing regions to better determine what constituted a fair rate. Other sections like California, despite having to transport greater distances to the same markets, paid better or only slightly higher fees, which amounted to “a most serious discrimination,” according to Cunningham.43 John P. Fort, a prominent Populist, complained that apples shipped to Georgia from Philadelphia paid about half as much freight as a Georgia-to-Philadelphia shipment of pears, even though both fruits were of similar durability and perishability.44 This discrimination was actually baked into the national transportation system in the form of regional differentials. Railroads faced differing realities depending on which section of the country they operated in. As mentioned above, southern roads served sparsely populated territories and faced greater seasonal variations in traffic due to the predominantly agricultural economy. This led to rate structures that were consistently higher than those in the heavily populated, diverse economy of the Northeast. Although not intentionally discriminatory, it was nevertheless the result. Goods shipped from the high-rate South to the lower-rate North were competitively disadvantaged by what amounted to a protective tariff for northern industries.45
In addition to regional rate differentials, growers compared rates with those they had paid in the past. The turmoil of “dumb-growth” expansion and rate wars during the 1870s and 1880s was devastating to railroad finances but a boon to shippers who grew accustomed to the steady decline in rates. But after the formation in 1875 of the Southern Railway and Steamship Association (SRSA), which brought several southern roads and potentially competitive steamship companies into one of the first and most effective pooling arrangements in the country, rates began to stabilize and eventually stagnated.46 In 1889 the SRSA officially added peaches to its schedule at a rate of $1 per one hundred pounds, where it remained into the next century.47 Economist Mark Aldrich has asserted that changes in trends—that is, falling rates to stagnant or rising rates—led to increased Populist protest against railroads.48 Fruit growers' complaints about freight rates during the 1890s confirm this. Acreage in peaches and watermelons was increasing, which led growers to anticipate further rate reductions that never came.49 High rates made sense when shipments were small, but “freights are now the same as those established when Georgia shipped only 100 cars,” stated a grower in 1900.50 Growers were doing everything right; they organized, rationalized, diversified, and improved. The railroads were not holding up their end of the bargain.
Underlying this belief was a broader antimonopolist critique that was foundational to the Populists' “utopian” alternative to corporate capitalism. The seeming failure of railroads to fulfill their obligations to the communities they were meant to serve arose from the fact that southern railroads possessed an effective monopoly on transportation. This monopoly granted them immense powers over the economic destiny of the South. Even more importantly, the railroads used their monopoly power to manipulate government in their favor. As railroads increasingly consolidated their power and influence, the relationship between corporations and government appeared flipped on its head. Thomas E. Watson, the most well-known southern Populist who also happened to be a watermelon grower, contended that, rather than the government regulating the railroads, “the railroads reserve to themselves the right to regulate the government.”51 The earlier demise of the Olive Bill, which sought to curb this monopoly power, in conjunction with other developments in the years preceding the official formation of the People's Party in 1892, confirmed the fears of antimonopolists while convincing many that only the federal government could control “the Octopus.”52
Members of the Farmers' Alliance were divided on how best to address the railroad question. Conservative members favored tougher regulations, while more radical members called for government ownership. Disunity clearly revealed itself in the Georgia Alliance, which vacillated on the Olive Bill. The leader of the state alliance, Leonidas F. Livingston, for instance, originally supported the bill but subsequently convinced the order to withdraw its endorsement. Livingston also played the key role in causing the National Farmers' Alliance at its 1890 meeting in Ocala, Florida, to substitute regulation for outright nationalization, despite previously favoring the latter. It appears, however, that this vacillation was not based entirely on a careful weighing of the pros and cons. Representatives of the Richmond Terminal system that the Olive Bill was meant to defeat gave alliance leaders free railroad passes and personal loans. The Terminal also flooded the legislature with lobbyists. Even more convincing of railroad chicanery was the “Alliance Legislature's” 1890 election of John B. Gordon to the US Senate. Gordon was not only an “Atlanta-ring” Bourbon and enemy of the alliance, but he also had ties to the Georgia Pacific Railroad, which was part of the Richmond Terminal system and a key component in the shady dealings behind the Terminal's absorption of the Central of Georgia.53 Clearly, the monopolistic corporation had the power to kill unfavorable legislation, as well as infiltrate and co-opt the very organizations that threatened its interests.
The People's Party arose out of the confusion, failure, and betrayal of the so-called Alliance Legislature. The old system of operating within the existing parties had been tried, and it failed. Farmers had elected men pledged to enact change, but they “repudiate[d] our demands.”54 Politicians owed a debt to their constituents and had declined repayment. There were many strange things in the country, wrote the People's Party Paper, but “about the strangest is the lack of fidelity in office holders to their constituents.”55 Times had changed, and the old system no longer worked. Popular government had struggled to address the changes wrought by industrialization and brought about “an unprecedented displacement of the wealth of the nation.”56 The problem arose from conflicting loyalties. Too many politicians had formed “entangling alliances with the railroads”57 that caused them to legislate for “private gain rather than for the public welfare.” Rather than a reactionary hostility to “modernity,” the People's Party and its call for government ownership of the railroads was “a sign of the times.”58
Georgia fruit growers' fight only seemed to make the need for a change more urgent. After the financial collapse of the Richmond Terminal in 1892, the Central of Georgia regained its independence, but it made no real difference as far as rates were concerned.59 The powerful SRSA, created in 1875, combined southern railroad and steamship interests in a cartel that presented shippers with the illusion of choice without the benefits of competition. The SRSA's primary function was the maintenance of rates, especially those of eastern markets. It proved quite successful because of strong policing powers as well as the interdependence of the constituent roads in handling increasing through shipments. The 1887 Interstate Commerce Act, which banned pooling arrangements, left the association's rate-setting powers largely untouched, and the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) ultimately recognized and endorsed this power. This official sanction also further institutionalized the regional differentials that made southern fruit less competitive.60 Moreover, the SRSA, in the eyes of many, continued to prove the impotence of state regulation. Although Georgia possessed perhaps the most strictly “anti-railroad” constitution as well as one of the strongest railroad commissions, little could be done to affect the SRSA.61
Indeed, this acknowledgment is what set the Populists' critique of railroads apart from the broader antimonopolist movement. The solutions to the Gilded Age monopoly problem, especially in railroading, were extremely diverse. Many antimonopolists saw increased competition as the solution. Break up the railroads' power by building competing lines, some believed, and the added choices available to shippers would inevitably reduce rates. This was particularly popular among municipalities through which multiple potential lines might run, but it left unaddressed the inescapable fact that most localities would still only have one line if that (fig. 3). In fact, decreased profits caused by increased competition in cities were often made up by higher rates in more rural areas. “Local control” of smaller or regional lines ultimately depended on which “locals” had control; not everyone would benefit from “alternative tracks.”62 Not to be forgotten are the constant disputes over local government bond issues to subsidize new lines that would disproportionately benefit town-based shippers while being paid for by tax revenues coming primarily from rural property taxes.63 Moreover, this misguided faith in greater competition only exacerbated the inefficiencies of the “dumb growth” that gave rise to the SRSA. Any competing line, whether by rail or steamship, would likely choose the stability of cartelization provided by the SRSA over the chaos of a rate war. And as the disappointment of the “Alliance Legislature” had shown, simple regulation and reform were often defeated by corporate influence or disagreement as to what “reform” actually meant.64 The Populists and railroads ultimately agreed that competition in railroading was the problem and that centralization was the solution. They disagreed only in whose hands centralization—and its benefits—would rest. The Populists' vision of a “utopian capitalism” was distinct from that of other antimonopolists because they had concluded that the market, even if regulated and expanded, could not adequately resolve the problems of corporate ownership of railroads.65 And after the SRSA raised rates on peaches in the summer of 1895, fruit growers declared war.
Rotten Railroads, Alternative Visions, and Blighted Development
Just months before the monumental Cotton States and International Exposition at Atlanta, southerners celebrated the arrival of Queen Peach at the three-week Peach Carnival in Macon.66 The 1895 peach crop was the biggest on record, and hopes for prosperity were high. The Oglethorpe Echo, alluding to the Populist demand for currency inflation, insisted that the crop's proceeds would inject more money into the South than “all legislation that can be devised.”67 At the same time, several fruit growers led by Cunningham pleaded for lower rates. Increased production was bound to affect prices, and the high rates set by the SRSA were causing some growers to consider letting their fruit rot on the trees rather than risk a loss. Cunningham detailed dwindling profits and discrimination and revealed his Populist leanings by linking falling prices with the deflationary effect of the gold standard: “The rates were made on a bimetallic basis and this crop must be sold at single gold standard prices.” He added that the lackluster growth in southern canning factories was due to the railroads' extortionate rates on empty cans. Sending a copy of his address to the Constitution, Cunningham expressed that he had no delusions that his arguments would bring about a change in policy. Instead, he shared his comments to reveal to everyone else the simple truth: “Let no man say that the need of thrift, energy or even capital was the cause of [the industry's] failure.” The blame lay entirely with the railroads.68
A day after Cunningham's comments appeared in the Constitution, the SRSA released a circular changing the minimum carload weight on fruit from twenty thousand pounds to twenty-four thousand pounds. This amounted to a 20 percent rise in rates, as shippers would have to send more fruit to get the special carload rate. According to growers and representatives of refrigerator car companies, however, it was “an absolute impossibility” to pack a refrigerator car with even twenty thousand pounds without risking damage to the fruit. Crated peaches had to be packed into refrigerator cars in such a way that allowed room for ice-cooled air to freely flow through the car. Trying to load more hindered this airflow, causing rot in transit (fig. 4). Although the circular was dated several days earlier, the date of release made it clear to Cunningham that the roads withheld the circular until growers “were too busy with their fruit to make any united protest against this underhanded raise of the rate.” The SRSA's motivations, Cunningham insisted, were incomprehensible, but his only hypothesis was that the associated lines were “controlled by some power that is opposed to the development of this section.” One grower stated that it seemed the roads were trying to kill the fruit business before it could develop more completely as a staple industry. Cunningham mocked individual railroad executives' purported desire for lower rates because their collective action belied it.69 Decisions regarding rates required unanimity in the rate committee, so members could assert their friendship just to later plead, “I did all I could, boys, but I'm afraid the other fellows have downed me.”70
Within a week, fruit growers met and organized the Georgia Fruit Growers' Association (GFGA) for the purposes of defending their interests. Unlike previous grower organizations, the GFGA went on the offensive as well, and signs pointed to testing the legality of the SRSA in the courts. It also planned to take its complaints to the state railroad commission. Only “bona fide” fruit growers could join the association; no false friends allowed.71 And public sentiment was overwhelmingly in the growers' favor. Outrage over the minimum weight increase and the purported opposition of some roads led to a quick suspension of the new rule, which one manager walked back as a mistake.72 Still, the GFGA moved forward in its appeal to the railroad commission, maintaining that rates remained too high. At a hearing before the commission, emotions ran hot, and fisticuffs nearly ensued at points. Agents of the railroads insisted that fruit shipments were exceptionally costly owing to the risks associated with perishability as well as the increased weight of iced refrigerator cars, which amounted to “dead weight” hauled for free.73 After the two-day hearing, the railroad commission upheld nearly every claim of the growers. As for peaches, the commission cited the recent Florida orange case decided by the ICC as evidence that railroads “can err in pressing too heavily upon certain articles.” Referring also to the ICC case of Charleston strawberry growers, it rendered the railroads' arguments regarding refrigerator cars moot. In that case, the ICC compared special services and facilities necessary for the shipment of perishables to that of “light, heat, ventilation and seats” in passenger transportation. These services were “incidental to and inseparable from the service of transportation itself.” The commission further ignored the alleged risks incurred by the roads because refrigerator companies covered any losses to the fruit except in cases of wrecks. In the interest of “justice,” the “shippers, the public and the railroads,” the commission unanimously urged a reduction of $32 per car.74
It was a significant victory for the fruit growers, but only a tentative one. The railroad commission had no power over interstate rates, so it relied on the cooperation of the SRSA to bring about the desired change. If the railroads chose to ignore the commission's suggestion, the only power the commission had left was to take the case to the ICC. And as the SRSA chairman made clear in a letter to the Constitution, cooperation was unlikely. He asserted that the GFGA was lying about a rate hike and that rates had actually been lowered. Railroads, he added, had done more to aid fruit growers than any other industry. Apparently forgetting the massive crop currently being harvested, the chairman insinuated that, despite improved service and facilities, the increased production promised by the growers “did not materialize” (fig. 5). In addition to reiterating arguments about refrigerator cars, “dead weight,” and risks caused by perishability, he attempted to focus animosity onto commission merchants. At bottom of the GFGA's complaints, he believed, was a more sinister motive than one of justice. Was it a “crusade” against the railways? Or was it something “gotten up by . . . one or more on the inside of the fruit growers' organization, to enable them to ride into office?”75 Former governor William J. Northen similarly denounced the “incendiary methods of stirring up strife and calling the railroads bad names.” Also demonstrating a convenient forgetfulness, he intimated that railroads “would do right if they were approached in the right manner.”76 Peaches had clearly become political.
Railroads and Democratic ex-governors tried to pooh-pooh dissatisfaction with the railroads as politically motivated rather than based on legitimate grievances, but they also were not wrong. The leading members of the GFGA were nearly all Populists.77 John D. Cunningham, the face of Georgia's fruit growers and president of the association, also served as chairman of the Populists' state executive committee. One Democratic paper later claimed his chairmanship made sense because only the most successful of fruit growers could “nurse the barren tree of the hybrid party.”78 Politics infected almost every aspect of life, and fruit raising was not immune. In 1892 Tom Watson received from a supporter a box of “regular People's Party cherries, so you can eat them with a clear conscience.”79 Placing an ad for his Kennesaw Nurseries in the People's Party Paper, Cunningham told prospective customers, “Be sure to mention this paper when you write.”80 The Populists had long insisted on government ownership of the railroads, but the paralyzing effect of excessive rates on the fruit-growing industry seemed to make the need all the more urgent. Government ownership was “destined to become a burning issue in the fruit growing sections of Georgia,” read the People's Party Paper after the minimum weight change.81 The paper applauded the organization of the GFGA and its fight against the railroads, but also expressed doubts about the possibility of correcting the “evil” through the usual channels.82 The pessimism proved prescient, as the ICC never made a decision on the case after hearing arguments the following March.83 Again, regulation had proven a failure; government ownership was all that remained.
Thus the SRSA chairman's paranoia about a “crusade” against the railways was not so outlandish. It was, however, oversimplified. While fruit growers certainly held a personal interest in provoking hostility against the railroads, this alone does not explain their embrace of Populism and government ownership. Surely the Populists would have carried the country handily if feeling squeezed by the railroads were the only prerequisite. Instead, fruit growers' experience in dealing with the railroads made them aware of larger systemic failures in Gilded Age political economy. Moreover, it convinced them of the inadequacy of the New South creed of diversify, rationalize, and work a little harder. Longer yield times required large up-front capital with delayed returns, pests and disease necessitated constant care and awareness of the latest advancements in their control, and fickle markets called for skill in distribution and marketing. Fruit growers checked all the boxes of businesslike, progressive agriculture and stood as the hope of a region. Yet even these exemplars of thrift, industry, intelligence, and organization felt that forces beyond their control were operating against them. In their fight against extortionate rates, growers shined light on problems created by and embodied in the railroads as well those that constrained the actions of railroads, patrons, regulators, and legislators alike. They exposed an interconnected web of debts, real and metaphorical, that created a political and economic environment increasingly undemocratic and unjust.
The first in this web was the broader debt railroad corporations owed the public. Drawing on the antimonopolist tradition, Populists insisted that railroads owed their existence to “the people” and were thus meant to serve the public interest. In short, Populists viewed railroads as public utilities, a perception held by non-Populists as well.84 By the end of the nineteenth century, railroads had surpassed public roads and water as the best means of transportation; in many places they were the only means. Tom Watson stated in 1892 that, “by the evolution of modern society, the railroad takes the place of the river.”85 Yet unlike the public roads and rivers, railroads were owned by private individuals seeking a profit. And the interests of private profit often overshadowed those of the public, resulting in discriminations against shippers, communities, or entire regions. Watson wrote extensively on “the railroad question” and frequently referenced the absurdity of placing rivers and dirt roads in private hands. Every reason in favor of government ownership of rivers and highways, he concluded, “applies to . . . the iron highways, also.” Indeed, the Goulds and Huntingtons “could rob the public less” by owning the rivers than they currently did owning the railways.86 Referring to the regional discrimination against southern fruit, the Populists asserted that with government ownership “there would be no favored sections.”87 All interests would be served equally with Uncle Sam in control. Populist fruit growers' “utopian” alternative would re-level the playing field corrupted by corporate privilege.
Railroads' debt to the public was more than simply metaphorical, however. As mentioned above, governments lavishly aided railroad development. This was especially true in the South, where state and local governments, before and after the Civil War, played much larger roles in providing and securing necessary capital. States like Virginia took on massive public debts before the war to bolster railway construction, often holding majority ownership.88 Georgia, Arkansas, and others incurred public debts during Reconstruction to aid railroads. “Redemption” led to repudiation of much of this “illegitimate” debt, damaging southern governments' credit well into the twentieth century.89 The railroads remained and received land grants and tax exemptions.90 Watson argued that “wherever they asked government ‘aid’ . . . the doubtful deed has been consecrated by the plea of ‘developing the country and benefitting the public.’” Only occasionally, he said, were railroad executives honest enough to say, “‘The public be damned; I run my roads to make money.’” He asked finally, “Does the public good demand that the government take charge of these public agencies and run them in the interest of the public?”91
Populists also pointed to railroad corporations' own debts as the ultimate cause of high freight rates. Postbellum railroad development was “dumb growth” that resulted in enormous debts. And these debts always came due. Roads throughout the country defaulted, but especially in the South, where funded debt represented a greater portion of railroads' capital structure than in other sections.92 Default and subsequent reorganization led to the rise of the “railroad wreckers” that treated railroads as speculative enterprises, saddling them with more debts and frivolously issuing new stocks. The Central of Georgia, which had briefly fallen into the clutches of the Richmond Terminal but eventually regained its independence, nevertheless suffered from the wreckage. By 1891 the Central's funded debt was nearly $15 million, two times the value of its capital stock. Added to this was a crippling floating debt, which bore higher interest charges. Despite this, the road still paid dividends.93 Herein lay the true reason for high rates. Railroads fixed rates not to cover legitimate operating costs but to pay interest on exorbitant debts and dividends on its stock. An association of “plain business men” in 1896 expressed that railroads deserved to make a profit, but shippers and passengers should not be expected “to pay returns upon watered stocks, upon extravagant issues of bonds.”94 In an interview with the Constitution, Tom Watson compared railroads' rate-setting power to that of taxation. The Democrats, he said, complained of the tariff but said nothing about the system, “which takes fully as much money . . . as a dividend from property which does not exist.”95 Consequently, “the melon raiser, the truck farmer, the fruit growers, the cotton and wheat producer” were robbed of their profits.96
The centrality of railroad debts in determining freight rates goes deeper than this, though. Regardless of any intent to rob or extort, debts restricted the options available to southern railroads. As mentioned above, southern roads' higher operating costs and smaller, less valuable market led to higher rate structures than those in the North. Debts figured into these costs and therefore manifested themselves in regional differentials that proved so onerous to fruit growers. Watson's comparison with the tariff was quite apt then. Rate differentials served to redistribute wealth by region.97 The more railroads paid in interest, the less they could invest in improving their service. Southern roads consistently possessed inferior rolling stock, which figured into railroad managers' calculations of cost and risk in justifying high fruit rates. When peach growers again sought relief in 1904, the ICC indicated that the faster schedule required for shipping peaches meant that locomotives carried fewer cars, about ten. But better engines owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad, which handled much of the fruit once it crossed the Potomac, could carry twenty-five cars on the same schedule.98 This difference in motive power meant that southern roads bore higher relative costs per train even before dividends and interest. Railroads passed these costs to shippers. Thus southern railways were much like everyone else in the South, in that underdevelopment was expensive and fostered a cycle of indebtedness and further underdevelopment.
Populists picked up on this similarity in their broader critique of the financial and monetary system. One writer under the pseudonym “John Farmer” satirically offered railroads advice as they struggled during the 1893 depression. “You are mistaken when you seek to get relief by a 25 per cent increase in freight rates,” declared Farmer, for it was only a temporary solution and would inevitably result in a request for more. No, what railroads needed was a new method. “You want to adopt the intensive plan,” he insisted. As a farmer, the writer was familiar with stock, and while the railroads' stock looked healthy, “they have the dropsy—every one of them.” The proper plan was to kill these stock, use them as fertilizer, and get newer, better stock. In the meantime, railroad managers must refrain from “the too copious use of fine wines, cigars and expensive imported clothing.” Farmer concluded his advice with the New South mantra: “Work harder, live closer, complain less, keep out of politics and you will be alright.”99 Mocking aside, Populists argued that railroads would benefit from their policies, especially an inflated currency. After all, railroads were “largely debtors.” Easier money would not only decrease the value of their own debts but also ease those of the communities they served. Their burden lightened, shippers would be able to conduct more business with the railroads, and all would prosper.100 While talk of the “Money Power” occasionally veered into paranoia, the Populists more broadly contended that everyone was connected in a chain of debt. Although better able to shift the weight to those further down the chain, railroads and merchants were still victims of the same iniquitous system. Constantly passing the burdens on only resulted in impoverishing those at the bottom, whose poverty rippled back up the chain.101 The system had to change, for if all could not rise together, they would certainly fall together.
The peach rate fight regarding refrigeration revealed another instance of this economic interconnectedness as well as additional constraints railroads faced. In developing the dressed-beef industry depicted in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, meat-packers in Chicago faced intense resistance from railroads, which were financially interested in live-cattle transportation. The packers overcame this resistance by developing a growing fleet of refrigerator cars, bringing ever cheaper processed meats to urban markets. In the process, Armour & Co. came to own the most refrigerator cars in the country, which it leased to railroads to carry not only processed meat but also fruits and vegetables. In addition to a fixed charge paid by shippers, the packers forced the railroads to pay a mileage rate, whether cars were full or empty.102 So while the Georgia railroad commission disregarded managers' arguments about higher costs associated with refrigerator cars, it missed a deeper truth in what the managers claimed. Growers paid for the use of refrigerator cars, and the refrigerator car company covered most losses, but this did not consider mileage charges. And since roads had to pay mileage whether or not cars were filled, the SRSA's persistent cry about cars being “returned empty” makes more sense.103 It did cost more to ship fruit with refrigerator cars. Railroads were largely powerless to remedy this problem, so they were all too eager to pass the costs on to shippers.
This “private car” problem played against fruit growers in other ways as well. Although Georgia's growers did not express major complaints against refrigerator car companies themselves, they did take issue when railroads signed exclusive contracts with a specific company. During the 1898 season the Central signed a contract with the Fruit Growers' Express Company, an Armour line. Growers complained that this line had raised refrigerator rates and the contract forced growers into paying higher transportation costs. The GFGA instead desired to work with the Continental Fruit Express Company, since it offered lower rates.104 Citing the earlier declaration of war against Spain, the Central pointed to an anticipated shortage of refrigerator cars caused by the mobilization. It signed the contract, it claimed, because the Armour line was the only one that could reliably provide a sufficient number of cars.105 Apparently unknown to the growers and the Central, though, the scarcity of refrigerator cars had been manufactured. Both the Fruit Growers' Express and the Continental Fruit Express were competing for the California citrus trade. In exchange for allowing the Continental line to increase its share of this trade, the Armour line demanded that it withdraw from competition in southern fruit.106 Again, southern roads had few options owing to the near monopoly on refrigerator cars (fig. 6).107 It seems the monopolization of refrigerator cars in the South subsidized competition for California. Finally, Armour interests in the California fruit industry may lend credence to the belief in a larger conspiracy against southern growers. It was common practice during the 1890s for California growers to get back from refrigerator lines up to $25 per car, despite published rates from California to Eastern points being the same as those paid by southern growers closer to those markets.108 Although it is probable that southern growers also received rebates, the fact that published charges were the same demonstrated, in effect, another regional discrimination.
Given this information, a brief comparison with growers' experiences in California would prove informative in understanding Georgia growers' particular interest in Populism. California orchardists experienced their own “red ink” years in the early 1890s but were apparently less interested in Populism than Georgia growers. Much of their energy went to forming powerful marketing cooperatives like those that eventually became Sunkist and Sun-Maid. Nevertheless, the ultimate success of these cooperatives should not be misinterpreted as proof that “apolitical” cooperation was inherently a better solution than overt third-party action. As we have seen, Georgia growers also organized to improve marketing efficiencies, and one California grower “whisper[ed]” in 1900 that deciduous fruit growers in Georgia helped set the quality standard for marketable produce “very high indeed.”109 Similarly, well into the second decade of the twentieth century, experts remained uncertain about the long-term viability of such co-ops, referring to cooperation as variously a failure, “prospective,” and “still in the formative stage.”110 In short, successful cooperative “trusts” were exceptions to the rule characterized by failure. What set California apart were favorable cooperative incorporation laws that eventually served as a model for national farm policy, and, significantly, an abundance of highly mobile capital and credit that fostered not only orchardists but also supporting industries.111 According to one scholar, “California was the primary financier of its own agricultural development, something that can hardly be said of the South, despite southern growers' having better access to capital than other southern farmers.112 Most important for the purposes here, however, is that California growers' relationship with railroads, while contentious, was still better than that of southern growers.
California fruit growers faced severe constraints because of their distance from markets as well as the overwhelming power of the Southern Pacific “Octopus.” And they consistently called for cheaper rates and better service for their produce, even while they attempted to cut costs through cooperation. But the Southern Pacific (SP) was not interested in California fruit solely as a high-value product with which to fill its railcars. As a major landholder in California, the Southern Pacific's success was bound entirely with that of the state. When mining and wheat prospects began to dwindle, the SP and its subsidiaries saw fruit as the future and began transforming its vast holdings from state and federal land grants into orchards while aiding the crucial irrigation projects that made commercial horticulture possible. The SP also helped launch California fruit co-ops' nationwide marketing campaigns, most famously its 1907 “Oranges for Health, California for Wealth” campaign.113 Such fruitful relations were in part the consequence of increasing competition that helped break the “Octopus's” hold over California, just as southern growers faced the virtual monopoly of the SRSA. The completion of the Santa Fe Railroad in the late 1880s, for instance, put southern California growers in a position to demand “favors” from companies that simply wanted access.114 Lastly, related to the refrigerator car fight, the financial interests refrigerator companies held in California fruit removed the “empty car” hassle faced by southern railways. Not only did the SP and Santa Fe pay lower mileage rates to these companies than southern roads, but “neither paid any mileage upon empty returning cars.”115 California's fruit industry may have been a consequence of “dumb growth,” but it was nevertheless a well-financed stupidity.116 For the cash-strapped South, there was no such luxury.
Thus Georgia fruit growers' turn to Populism was not simply an alternative to forming cooperatives or improving their techniques. Rather, it was a consequence of the underdeveloped, colonial status of the South within a national economy seemingly intent on leaving the region to the wolves. In some ways, their abuse of the railroads, then, was perhaps unfair. But while even southern railroads faced forces beyond their control, this in itself confirmed growers' and Populists' belief that the nation's transportation system was rotten to the core. Moreover, that rot had contaminated the rest of Gilded Age America.
Corporate control of the nation's railroads had “tainted American society with a mercenary spirit,” claimed the Populists.117 The quest for private profit had wrecked the roads financially and led to the robbery of “the people” through extortionate freight rates. Railroads had usurped the power of taxation and could destroy any industry at will. With their ill-gotten gains they had packed the halls of government with their agents and elevated their attorneys to the bench to neutralize unfavorable legislation.118 To those who feared that a dangerous patronage power would follow nationalization, Populists responded that it could not be worse than the political power currently exerted by the railways.119 It was only “human nature” for railroad managers to get as much money as possible while doing all they could to maintain their power, whether by bribery, rate hikes, wage cuts, or Pinkerton warfare.120 “Get rid of the corporation ownership entirely, and there will be no motive for oppression and injustice,” wrote Tom Watson. “When the motive ceases the evil will cease.”121
While the railroads' rot had metastasized into politics, it also provided the Populists with a powerful weapon. As discussed above, cumbersome debts and inefficient management had placed many of the country's railways in the hands of receivers. During the 1890s about half of southern roads succumbed to receivership.122 And though receivership often allowed managers to remain at the helm, sidestep creditors, escape already limited taxation, and crush strikes, it technically put their roads under government control.123 Even the fact that receivership often worked to roads' advantage played into Populists' hands. Roads decried government “interference” when business was good, but “in times of trouble and of shrinking dividends they are quick to cry ‘send us a receiver.’” Railroads themselves were proving the shortcomings of private ownership. Pointing to the 1894 Pullman strike, during which “the melon raiser and fruit farmer saw his perishable crop rotting on the side tracks,” Watson asserted that railroad managers “were utterly unable to operate their roads, and the government had to step in and do it for them.” If the government could run the roads when they were in trouble, why not all the time?124 After all, said Watson at a campaign speech in Lincoln, Nebraska, this was the case in “nearly every civilized country in Europe.”125
As Americans dealt with the railroad problem, they frequently looked to see how others handled their transportation systems. Writing in the 1870s, railroad executive and regulator Charles Francis Adams, grandson of one president and great-grandson of another, said that other countries' experiences could throw a “side light” on the issue but cautioned that differences of “social and political habit and education” prevented transitivity. What worked on the Continent likely would not translate to the “systems of the English-speaking race” based on laissez-faire principles.126 Nevertheless, the Populists continued to see European systems as promising examples. They cited progressive scholars like Richard Ely, who wrote favorably about Germany's state-controlled railways in comparison “with the careless management of our own lines.”127 Unburdened of the expenses of bribery, lobbying, and lawyer fees, railroads under government control charged lower rates, made more money, and were safer.128 This last point was particularly salient to southerners, as the poor condition of southern railways made them the most dangerous in the country.129 And although government control was often more complicated than political argument allowed, there was a simple truth in the Populists' comparisons: state-owned railways were generally better run. Even Adams admitted that limited government ownership could rein in the “lawlessness” of competition.130 American roads in the 1890s ranked among the most inefficient. At the same time, more governments were turning to some form of state ownership and seeing increased efficiency.131 And for the growers of highly perishable crops, railroad inefficiencies proved too costly to bear. This truth was simple, but it was also frightening to proponents of the corporate order.
The SRSA chairman's intimation of a “crusade” against the railroads during the fruit rate fight made it clear that he and his fellow managers were running scared. During the 1896 campaign that would ultimately end in Populism's demise, the railroads bumped up their insurance policy against hostile legislation. Mentioning the anticipated “war on railroads” in the state legislature, the anti-Populist yet progressive Atlanta Journal commented on the preponderance of railroad attorneys nominated for office. Before listing the candidates and their corporate affiliations, the Journal remarked that “the Southern Railway seems to have taken pretty good care of itself.”132 John Temple Graves, who had earlier denounced the corporate domination of Georgia's Democratic Party and now campaigned for the Populists, detailed the use of free passes by Democratic speakers. Flipping Democratic cries of “Negro rule” back onto them, Graves noted sharing a train with “a big mulatto” hired by the Democrats “to make speeches to the edification or mystification of his race.” The pass held by this man, marked “complimentary,” suggested to Graves “a degree of intimacy between the corporation and the [Democratic] machine.”133 After the state election, John Cunningham similarly mocked the self-proclaimed white man's party for securing “its majority from the very class it has abused and decried.” Although he admitted there was no proof that the Southern Railway furnished money, it was abundantly clear that it “threw all of the immense power it could wield to aid Democracy [the Democratic Party].”134 Graves was intentionally speculative in his letter, allowing “the people to decide” for themselves, but he nevertheless hinted at the proper answer. The Southern Railway, he wrote, was one of the biggest corporations in the country and the greatest monopoly in the South, and it had “a vital interest at stake” in crushing the Populist revolt.135
At stake was the future of corporate capitalism as well as that of the South. Corporate-friendly conservatives believed that prosperity came with the railroads. Burdensome regulation and the threat of more such regulation, boosters contended, would frighten off the valuable investments crucial to southern development, which managers eagerly confirmed when explaining their opposition to “anti-railroad” legislation. When former governor Northen denounced fruit growers' complaints as “incendiary,” he feared what would happen if it got “abroad that the railroads of this section were fighting all enterprises along their lines.”136 For better or for worse, conservatives believed that railroads would pull the South from the depths of dependency, but only if they were given a free hand in doing so. In contrast, Populists asserted that corporate ownership of the railroads was what was holding the South back. Not only were the railroads hindering capital inflows by squeezing the growers and stunting the industry's growth, but their “robbery” was “a nice spectacle to present to the colony of Union veterans” who had purchased prime fruit lands.137 Rather than repaying the “special privileges” bestowed on them by “the people” and uplifting the South, the railroads were exploiting those privileges and pulling the region deeper into dependency.
The fight of Georgia's fruit growers gave Populist arguments tremendous weight. More important, their fight helps to better understand Populists' conception of the railroad, modernity, the economy, and the role of the government. It is important to note that fruit raisers were outliers among those who joined the People's Party. Unlike their majority brethren in cotton, fruit growers often owned their land, possessed expendable capital, could more easily access cheap credit, and tended to have better market connections. Similarly, the perishability of their crops made Populist remedies like the subtreasury plan meaningless to them. But it is nevertheless significant that many leaders in the agrarian revolt were fruit growers. Indeed, it was their privileged position in southern agriculture that allowed them to better see the larger problems in the economic system that belied the up-by-the-bootstraps approach to prosperity. And since their produce was perishable, it placed them completely at the mercy of the railroads. Growers had to ship when the fruit was ready, regardless of the rates. Contrary to the claims of conservatives and railroad executives, these Populists were not opposed to “progress,” and they certainly were not “anti-railroad.” Their whole existence was based on reaching newer markets and shrinking the distance between themselves and those markets. Railroads were the arteries through which their lifeblood flowed. Instead, insisted the Populists, it was these same conservatives and railroad executives who were the “mossbacks” refusing to acknowledge the problems of modernity. Wracked with debt, poorly managed, and possessing shoddy, outdated equipment, the railroads looked remarkably similar to the “stubborn” hayseeds they liked to blame for southern underdevelopment.
Railroads' precarious finances hindered their ability to serve the public effectively. Owners' and managers' greed did much to exacerbate this problem, but just like the hayseeds, railroads faced constraints from structures larger than themselves. When managers denounced accusations that they were trying to kill the fruit-growing industry, they were not lying. Their interests did not perfectly align with the growers', but they were nevertheless interested. In addition to improving facilities and offering faster schedules, they did much to boost the industry. At the same time the peach battle raged in the press, the Central published Fruits of Industry, a pictorial representation of the country along its lines. As the title demonstrates, fruit formed a key part of the Central's identity.138 But despite their intentions, southern railroads were trapped in a cycle of underdevelopment that kept the South on the periphery of the national economy. High debts and obsolete rolling stock raised operating costs, resulting in regional rate differentials that made southern industry less competitive. The combined unwillingness and inability of railroads to invest in their own refrigerator cars led to their dependence on private car companies like Armour & Co., which made southern growers even less competitive and further exacerbated the regional redistribution of wealth. Thus the problem with corporate ownership: railroads were meant to serve the public without discrimination, yet the inefficiencies of and the complex of competing interests within the transportation system made discrimination the rule rather than the exception. Railroads were public utilities, insisted the Populists, and incompatible with private ownership, making them the rightful responsibility of the government. “Then the people will be masters of transportation,” wrote Watson, “and thus masters of the situation.”139
In the minds of the Populists, the railroads were rotten in more ways than one, and the fruit rate fight brought this rot to light. Their problems arose from corporate greed and corruption but, more importantly, from the political economic system that facilitated and encouraged it. Unlike those of the cotton and wheat growers composing the vast majority of Populist ranks, fruit growers' complaints were not as easily written off as the results of overproduction, growing international competition, or “bad” farming and character flaws. Instead, their fight drew increasing attention to deeper failures in the system itself. Nearly all agreed that fruit growing represented the potential for great individual wealth as well as the salvation of the South, perhaps even the realization of an antimonopolist utopia. Yet high freight rates threatened this future. Hostility against the railroads was at an all-time high, and fruit-growing Populists insisted the way to ensure this future was through government ownership. In making their case, they exposed not only the rot of the railroads but also how that rot had spread throughout the republic and its institutions. Popular support of the growers' cause as well as an international trend toward state ownership of railways made the corporate order seem increasingly precarious. Populists envisioned an alternative “utopian capitalism” in which the interest of the individual was balanced with the interests of the public. For those who believed the public was best served by unshackled individualism, this alternative proved too dangerous. Recounting the frauds used to defeat the Populists, one Democrat later insisted, “We had to do it! Those d--- Populists would have ruined the country!”140
I would like to thank Scott Reynolds Nelson and Cindy Hahamovitch, as well as participants in the University of Georgia's Dirty History workshop, for invaluable comments and suggestions on this article.
“A Peculiar Change,” Atlanta Constitution, June 18, 1895. This was actually a change in the minimum carload weight, which virtually amounted to a rate increase.
Quoted in “Railroads and Fruit,” Atlanta Constitution, June 30, 1895.
To varying degrees, historians replicate narratives of “stubborn” resistance to “progressive” agriculture as well as those of overproduction, often at the same time attempting to reveal these same farmers' structural constraints. Among others, see Daniel, Breaking the Land; Fite, Cotton Fields No More; Giesen, Boll Weevil Blues. For a recent, non-southern, non-cotton study, see Fitzgerald, Every Farm a Factory.
“Melon and Berry,” Atlanta Constitution, May 2, 1883.
“Railroad Robbery,” People's Party Paper, June 21, 1895; “Hail Queen Peach,” Atlanta Constitution, July 7, 1895.
“Nesbitt Says Cotton Is Short 15%,” Atlanta Constitution, August 13, 1898; “Brandy Making,” Athens Weekly Banner, May 31, 1892; “Georgia and Florida,” Savannah Morning News, April 3, 1883.
Historians mention fruit raising's relation to Populism only briefly. Charles Postel devotes the most attention to fruit growing in relation to cooperative organizations as “Farmers' Trusts,” which complicates the anti-corporate sentiment of growers by showing that “corporate and cooperative enterprise blended in myriad ways.” See Postel, Populist Vision, 106–14; Shaw, Wool-Hat Boys, 42–43, 97; McMath, American Populism, 128–29. William Thomas Okie provides a phenomenal study of peach culture in Georgia but ultimately does not discuss more traditional politics, in Georgia Peach.
The question of Populist “modernity” has been a consistent point of debate. Oftentimes historians' positions have been heavily influenced by the political and economic turmoil of their own times. Among others, see Hicks, Populist Revolt; Hofstadter, Age of Reform; Woodward, Origins of the New South; Goodwyn, Populist Moment; Hahn, Roots of Southern Populism; Ayers, Promise of the New South. Postel offers an excellent summary of Populist historiography in Populist Vision, 3–22. Gregg Cantrell has recently argued that the Populists laid the groundwork for modern American liberalism and presents an argument similar to my own in People's Revolt, particularly chap. 3. Others have discussed Populist modernity to argue for the movement's conservatism. See Werner, “New South Creed.”
Postel's Populist Vision is crucial to my understanding, but also important is Thomas Frank's analysis of Populists' conceptions of railroads as public utilities and Leon Fink's recent analysis of Gilded Age protest and outlooks as unbounded by national borders. Frank, “Leviathan with Tentacles of Steel”; Fink, Long Gilded Age.
Okie, Georgia Peach, chaps. 1 and 2; Bonner, “Commercial Peach Industry”; Fair, “Georgia Peach.” For a broader discussion of antebellum southern reformers' efforts, see Majewski, Modernizing a Slave Economy. One important aspect of antebellum reform efforts was the ease with which reformers looked to the state to bring about change and profit, which was a persistent feature of American horticulture. See especially Hahamovitch, Fruits of Their Labor.
Stover, Railroads of the South, chap. 7.
Klein, Richmond Terminal. See also Stewart, “Survival of the Fittest,” 40. Scott Huffard discusses the mythologization of another type of “railroad wrecker” that often served railroad interests by diverting attention away from shoddy and deteriorating rail infrastructure toward real and imagined criminals. See Engines of Redemption, chap. 5.
This was achieved through a series of sketchy dealings involving considerable amounts of fraud. See Klein, Richmond Terminal, chaps. 6–9.
Atlanta Constitution, November 22, 1888.
See Ayers, Promise of the New South, chap. 4.
“Our Spare Truck,” Atlanta Constitution, August 11, 1881.
“Georgia vs. Florida as a Fruit Country,” Atlanta Constitution, February 15, 1878.
“Peaches Saved Him,” Atlanta Constitution, June 3, 1895.
Okie details the scientific outlook and entrepreneurship of growers and their organizations in Georgia Peach, chaps. 3–4.
Quoted in “Georgia Fruit,” Atlanta Constitution, July 4, 1882.
“Georgia vs. Florida as a Fruit Country,” Atlanta Constitution, February 15, 1878.
“The Luscious Peach,” Atlanta Constitution, February 18, 1882.
“The Fruit Men,” Atlanta Constitution, September 14, 1889; “The Melon Men,” Atlanta Constitution, May 1, 1890.
For more on the importance of railroads in building the fruit and truck industry, see McCorkle, “Moving Perishables to Market.”
Contrary to boosters' assertions, the two industries were more complementary than competitive. See Okie, Georgia Peach, chap. 7.
“The Peach Carrying Problem,” Atlanta Constitution, May 21, 1882.
“Truck and Truckers,” Atlanta Constitution, May 25, 1883.
“The Future of Melon-Growing,” Atlanta Constitution, August 14, 1883.
“A Blind Policy,” Atlanta Constitution, December 21, 1893.
“Robbery or What?,” Atlanta Constitution, July 22, 1888.
“A Blind Policy,” Atlanta Constitution, December 21, 1893.
“The Fruit Rates,” Atlanta Constitution, June 17, 1895.
“A Kick on Rates,” Atlanta Constitution, September 30, 1896.
“Agreement and Rules of the Southern Railway and Steamship Association,” in Circular Letters of the Southern Railway and Steamship Association 1, Hargrett Rare Books and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia; Hudson, “Southern Railway and Steamship Association”; Klein, Richmond Terminal, 20.
“Commissioner Stahlman on Rates,” Atlanta Constitution, June 30, 1895; US Interstate Commerce Commission, Interstate Commerce Reports: Decisions of the Interstate Commerce Commission of the United States, January, 1904, to April, 1905, vol. 10 (Rochester, NY: Lawyers' Co-operative Publishing Company, 1905), 265 (hereafter ICC Reports).
“The Melon Growers,” Atlanta Constitution, February 20, 1891.
“Fruit Growers Hold a Session,” Atlanta Constitution, May 25, 1900.
“Free Passes on Railroads,” People's Party Paper, January 6, 1893.
Holmes, “Southern Farmers' Alliance”; Shaw, Wool-Hat Boys, 26–44. Shaw explicitly connects fruit growing, the fight over the Richmond Terminal, and Populism. On John Gordon, the Georgia Pacific, and the Richmond Terminal, see Klein, Richmond Terminal, 92, 225.
Farmers' Friend, quoted in “Georgia Reform Press,” People's Party Paper, February 18, 1892.
“Official Infidelity,” People's Party Paper, January 7, 1891.
“The People's Party,” People's Party Paper, December 17, 1891.
“The Condition of the Alliance and the Cause of It,” People's Party Paper, December 3, 1891.
“The People's Party,” People's Party Paper, December 17, 1891.
Hudson, “Southern Railway and Steamship Association”; Potter, “Eastern-Southern Freight Rate,” 428–37.
Thompson, “Robert Toombs”; Maxwell Ferguson said the Georgia Commission's rate-setting power was “despotic” in State Regulation of Railroads in the South (New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1916), 44.
For a discussion about the “phantasmagoria” of railroad building and efforts to induce greater railroad competition, see Huffard, Engines of Redemption, chap. 2. For the viability of regional railroad systems based on “republican principles,” see Berk, Alternative Tracks. Indeed, the Central of Georgia had earlier attempted to maintain “local,” regional control, but the increasingly depressed and underdeveloped economy of the South—and the efforts to overcome these constraints—only fostered the ability of better-capitalized northern financiers to gain control. Stewart, “Survival of the Fittest.”
For a broader discussion of public bond issues and taxation, see Hyman, Anti-redeemers, chs. 3 and 5.
The People's Party Paper alluded to the diversity of opinion regarding “government control” and lamented that the alliance was “greatly injured” by its turn from unequivocal government ownership. Unlike ownership, “control” left “chance for honest difference of opinion.” “Government Ownership of Railroads,” People's Party Paper, March 17, 1892. This discussion also supports arguments that the Populist Party owed much to the Farmers Alliance but was ultimately distinct from and not reducible to it. Among others, see Hild, Greenbackers; Cantrell, People's Revolt.
Quoted in “The Georgia Peach,” Atlanta Constitution, June 5, 1895.
“The Fruit Rates,” Atlanta Constitution, June 17, 1895.
“Below the Belt,” Atlanta Constitution, June 18, 1895.
On unanimity, see Hudson, “Southern Railway and Steamship Association,” 73; “To Organize,” Atlanta Constitution, June 19, 1895 (quotation).
“To Fight Rates,” Atlanta Constitution, June 26, 1895.
“Rates on Peaches,” Atlanta Constitution, June 21, 1895.
“With the Commission,” Atlanta Constitution, June 29, 1895.
Twenty-Third Report of the Railroad Commission of Georgia (Atlanta: Franklin Printing and Publishing Company, 1895), 161–64. The Orange and Strawberry cases can be found, respectively, in ICC Reports, vol. 5, 13–43; and ICC Reports, vol. 6, 295–322.
“Commissioner Stahlman on Rates.”
“Fruit Rates Again,” Atlanta Constitution, June 30, 1895.
For the GFGA and Populist leadership, see “They Organize,” People's Party Paper, June 28, 1895; Shaw, Wool-Hat Boys, 97.
“Politics in the State,” Savannah Morning News, August 20, 1896.
Homer Sturgis to Thomas E. Watson, May 26, 1892. Thomas E. Watson Papers #755, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (hereafter TEW).
“The Kennesaw Nurseries,” People's Party Paper, October 12, 1894.
“Railroad Robbery,” People's Party Paper, June 21, 1895.
“The Georgia Fruit Growers,” People's Party Paper, June 28, 1895.
“Judge Fort's Good Work,” Atlanta Constitution, March 11; “Mr. Terrell's Work,” Atlanta Constitution, November 9, 1896; “Men and Matters,” Atlanta Constitution, May 9, 1897. The ICC decided another case on peach rates in 1904, which was mostly favorable to the railroads. ICC Reports, vol. 10, 255–80.
Thomas Frank argues that Populists in Kansas drew heavily on the notion of public utility and shared a theoretical understanding of railroads with “prominent economic thinkers.” See “Leviathan with Tentacles of Steel,” 39.
“Watson at Cedartown,” People's Party Paper, October 14, 1892.
Thomas E. Watson, “The Railroad Question,” 3–6, in scrapbook, 1896, reel M-755/34, TEW. Watson also frequently pointed to the postal service as a model; see “Railroad and Land,” People's Party Paper, August 12, 1892.
“The Georgia Fruit Growers,” People's Party Paper, June 28, 1895.
Watson, “Railroad Question,” 5–6.
“An Address,” Atlanta Constitution, September 6, 1896. The Supreme Court agreed with this in theory but considered the determination of “reasonable” rates that would prove remunerative to railroad investors an “embarrassing question” in Smyth v. Ames, 169 U.S. 466 (1898). See also Ely, Railroads and American Law, 96–99.
Quoted in “Mr. Watson's Views,” People's Party Paper, April 7, 1893.
Watson, “Railroad Question,” 11.
Potter, “Eastern-Southern Freight Rate.” Regarding the redistributive effects of the tariff, see Bensel, Political Economy of American Industrialization, chap. 7. Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal discuss the support for federal railroad regulation as an “economic conflict between the South and North” and the regional redistribution of wealth caused by the transportation system; “Enduring Nineteenth-Century Battle for Economic Regulation.”
ICC Reports, vol. 10, 264.
“Care of Railroad Stock,” People's Party Paper, March 31, 1893.
“Railroad Rates in Georgia,” People's Party Paper, April 7, 1893.
“Our Merchants,” People's Party Paper, December 23, 1892; “The Drift,” People's Party Paper, January 27, 1893.
“Commissioner Stahlman on Rates.”
“Georgia's Fruit Is Almost Ready,” Atlanta Constitution, June 11, 1898.
“Central to the Fruit Men,” Atlanta Constitution, June 15, 1898.
ICC Reports, vol. 9, 198.
ICC Reports, vol. 9, 194, 202–3. For southern refrigerator rates, see “Rates on Peaches,” Atlanta Constitution, July 4, 1895.
William B. Gester, “The Marketing of California Fresh Fruit in the East,” in “Transactions of the Twenty-fifth State Fruit-Growers' Convention,” December 4–7, 1900, in State Board of Horticulture of the State of California, Seventh Biennial Report for 1899–1900 (Sacramento: State Printing Office, 1901), 97–99.
Woeste, Farmer's Benevolent Trust. Woeste demonstrates how legal battles over agricultural cooperative corporations essentially produced a special legal classification of agriculture. So rather than eliminating “special privileges,” an increasingly concentrated agricultural industry became more incorporated (pun intended) into a highly discriminatory and privileged legal category.
Henderson, California and the Fictions of Capital, particularly chap. 2. Similarly, one early student of California Populism remarked that “California escaped the fate of colonialism and actually succeeded in placing the other western states in a colonial relation to her.” Walters, “Populism in California,” 2.
For a detailed study of the friendly, if fraught, relations between California citrus growers and the railroads, see Jenkins, “Octopus's Garden,” particularly chap. 2.
In addition to the works cited above, the following were valuable sources that informed my understanding of the California fruit industry and its economic position. Stoll, Fruits of Natural Advantage; Vaught, Cultivating California; Belknap, “Era of the Lemon”; Tobey and Wetherell, “Citrus Industry.”
“The People's Party,” People's Party Paper, December 17, 1891.
“Tom Watson's Speech at Lincoln Neb.,” People's Party Paper, October 9, 1896; “A Railroad Trust,” People's Party Paper, December 28, 1894.
“Railroad and Land,” People's Party Paper, August 12, 1892.
Watson, “Railroad Question,” 11–12; “Activity in Railroad Circles,” People's Party Paper, April 28, 1892.
Watson, “Railroad Question,” 25.
Watson, “Railroad Question,” 17–18.
“Tom Watson's Speech in Lincoln, Neb.”
Adams, Railroads, 80–216, quotes from 81 and 115.
“Railways,” People's Party Paper, May 13, 1892.
Watson, “Railroad Question,” 29–30.
Huffard, Engines of Redemption, chap. 5.
Quoted in “No Anti-railroad Laws Are Likely,” People's Party Paper, September 18, 1896.
Atlanta Journal quoted in “Railroad Passes in the Campaign,” People's Party Paper, October 2, 1896.
“Chairman Cunningham's Statement,” People's Party Paper, October 16, 1896. This was representative of the “rhetoric of corruption” common in southern “reform” politics that linked assertions of corruption with race. See Nelson, Iron Confederacies, chap. 5; Barnes, “Intimidation Was the Program.”
Atlanta Journal quoted in “Railroad Passes in the Campaign,” People's Party Paper, October 2, 1896. For more on the machinations of the Southern Railway against Populists in both Georgia and North Carolina, see Huffard, Engines of Redemption, chap. 7.
“Fruit Rates Again,” Atlanta Constitution, June 30, 1895.
“Railroad Robbery,” People's Party Paper, June 21, 1895.
Stovall, Fruits of Industry. Of the ninety-seven images, twenty-three are related to fruit and truck.
“The Railroad Question,” People's Party Paper, August 3, 1894.
Quoted in Arnett, Populist Movement in Georgia, 184.