Dakota Datebook

Charley Talbott and the Farmers’ Union

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

The 1930s were hard on North Dakota farmers. About the only thing that survived the dust storms and grasshoppers were Russian thistles. Cattle starved or fell dead with bellies full of dirt, and farm foreclosures became more and more frequent. An elevator man in Sanish thought the price of wheat hit rock bottom at 56 cents a bushel and wrote on his market chalkboard, “Don’t faint when you read these prices.” Little did anyone realize that within the next several years, wheat would go as low as 17 cents in Montrail County.

Penny auctions hit the state. An article published by the Associated Press reported, “Two thousand neighbors who jingled their pennies and shouted, ‘Sell it, sell it,’ today bought a farmer’s livestock and implements for $2.17 at an auction held to satisfy a $400 mortgage. They not only refused to take away their bargains – 25-cent horses and 6-cent implements – but arranged to give the property back on a 99-year lease and added a $5 ‘pot’ to it.”

During the summer of 1932, embittered farmers attended meetings to organize a North Dakota Division of the Farmers’ Holiday Association – FHA. At a statewide meeting in Bismarck the following winter, it was resolved by farmers to “band ourselves together to prevent foreclosures, and any attempt to dispossess those against whom foreclosure procedures are pending or started; and to retire to our farms and there barricade ourselves to see the battle through, until we either receive cost of production or relief from the unfair and unjust conditions existing at the present; and we do hereby state our intention to pay no existing debts, except for taxes and the necessities of life, unless satisfactory reductions in accordance with prevailing farm prices are made on such debts.”

One of the people who led the farmers to the brink of this strike was Charles C. Talbott, a large square-jawed farmer from Dickey County. Charley possibly inherited his gift for speaking from his father, an heir to a Kentucky tobacco plantation, which included a hundred slaves; the senior Talbott rejected the inheritance in favor of becoming a Methodist pastor in Iowa.

Charley bought his farm outside of Forbes in 1908. There, he experimented with diversification, became involved in co-ops and studied reports on wheat protein. He joined the Northwest Producers’ Alliance, which, along with the Equity Exchange, merged with the National Farmers’ Union during a meeting in Fargo in January 1926.

The Union appointed Charley and two other men to organize farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana. They were given $500, and Talbott hit the road in his Model T to speak in rural schoolhouses. When the money ran out, he asked his wife to sell his purebred Hereford bull, so that he could keep going. When the Union held its first state convention in Jamestown the following year, it’s reported that it had grown to 13,000 members. Talbott was named the first president of the North Dakota division, a post he held until 1937, when he was fatally injured in a car accident.

In reporting on Talbott’s death, the Bismarck Tribune wrote, “Like other strong men, Mr. Talbott sometimes engaged in heated controversies, but no one ever challenged his sincerity nor his whole-hearted interest in bringing a better deal to agricultural America.”

Today is his birthday. He was born in 1876.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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