Self-taught farmer

Oliver H. Kelley served as an advocate for agriculture throughout his career

Oxen are part of the Oliver Kelley Farm, a historic site in Elk River. Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Oxen are part of the Oliver Kelley Farm, a historic site in Elk River. Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

On Jan. 7, 1826, Oliver Hudson Kelley was born in Boston, the fifth child of a tailor.

By the end of his life at age 87 in 1913, Kelley had made agricultural history in Minnesota and far beyond.

At age 21, Kelley left New England and ventured West.

After stints in Illinois and Iowa, he arrived in St. Paul in the newly created Minnesota territory in June 1849.

He carried a letter of introduction to territorial Gov. Alexander Ramsey from a mutual friend, who noted that Kelley “possesses ample business capacity, with active mind, and is anxious for steady employment.”

Within a few months, Kelley was made a messenger of the territory’s House of Representatives and an aide to Gov. Ramsey.

A ‘book farmer’

After less than a year after Kelley arrived in St. Paul, word spread that the legislature was attempting to make the new town of Itasca, near present-day Elk River, the territory’s capital.

Speculators, including Kelley, rushed to stake a claim to land in Itasca. The town didn’t become the capital, but Kelley began to explore farming and agriculture there.

He was a “book farmer” and was eager to experiment with different methods and new technology and share information with his fellow farmers.

Over the years, he tried his hand at growing a wide range of crops from asparagus to melons. He was reported to be the first farmer in Minnesota to own a mechanical reaper and the first to sow Timothy hay.

Children bottle-feed a calf.
Children bottle-feed a calf.

Beyond agriculture

Kelley also helped found Minnesota’s first county agricultural society in Benton County in 1852. A year later, he was involved in forming the Minnesota Territorial Agricultural Society.

As corresponding secretary of the Benton County Agricultural Society, he wrote to farm journals about Minnesota’s agricultural progress and ran a regular column on agriculture in the Sauk Rapids Frontiersman.

Minnesota’s population was booming: Between 1855 and 1857, some 700 new towns were surveyed and platted.

Kelley and his brother, Charles, were eager to speculate during the boom, so in 1855, they bought 270 acres on the Mississippi in Wright County, formerly home to the Winnebago people, who the government had recently moved to a reservation.

The brothers founded the town of Northwood, and Kelley started a logging company and brickyard there.

A steamboat started making regular stops at Northwood on its way between St. Anthony and Sauk Rapids, connecting the area to major markets.

But the panic of 1857 devastated the Kelleys’ real estate speculation scheme, leaving them with virtually worthless land, and they defaulted on their mortgages.

Oliver H. Kelley helped create the country’s first nationwide farm organization known as The Grange in 1867.
Oliver H. Kelley helped create the country’s first nationwide farm organization known as The Grange in 1867.

A national post

In 1864, Kelley’s luck improved when the U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture Isaac Newton offered him a clerkship, thanks to a recommendation from Alexander Ramsey.

Kelley moved to Washington, D.C., and began working on agricultural issues, including touring the South in 1866 to aid immigration and agricultural reconstruction after the Civil War. Kelley, a Mason, noted how fellow Masons welcomed him in the South, despite post-Civil War tensions.

He began to imagine a similar brotherhood for farmers around the country.

In December 1867, Kelley and six other men created the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, the country’s first nationwide farm organization.

The Grange served as both a social and advocacy group for farmers, and within two years, Minnesota had 40 Grange chapters and a state organization.

By 1873, with farmers battling falling crop prices and rising railroad shipping costs, the U.S. had around 9,000 chapters with nearly 700,000 members.

The National Grange was the first national organization to require leadership roles for women: At least four of its 16 elected positions had to be held by women.

Over the years, members fought for many issues, such as railroad regulations, farm loans and universal suffrage.

The National Grange, which still exists today, will celebrate its 150th birthday in December 2017.


Lauren Peck is a media relations and social media associate for the Minnesota Historical Society.


Tour a local historic site

Today Oliver Kelley Farm in Elk River is a Minnesota Historical Society site and a National Historic Landmark.

Beginning in April 2017, the working 1860s farm will offer brand-new visitor experiences to illustrate farming and agricultural history, including a new visitor center, learning kitchen an outdoor exhibit trail and more.

Visit mnhs.org/kelleyfarm for more information.