Up from the Mudsills of Hell
The Farmers' Alliance, Populism, and Progressive Agriculture in Tennessee, 1870–1915

Connie L. Lester

The first book-length study of Tennessee’s agricultural history in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era


"Connie Lester’s Up from the Mudsills of Hell combines political and social history to explore the history of agrarian activism in Tennessee at the turn of the last century. Lester explains why Tennessee farmers organized on a 'class' basis to combat economic injustice, and describes how traditional community and religious ties both strengthened and limited farm-based reform movements. Lester makes it clear that farmers attempting to organize marketing and purchasing co-ops faced opposition at every level from the county seat to the state legislature. Her description of the forces rallied against agrarian reform in Tennessee is the best I have seen, bringing home to the reader the personal risks to life and property faced by would-be reformers. She documents the continuation of agrarian reform under different guises long after the Populist debacle of 1896, tracing continuities between the 19th century Wheel and Alliance and early 20th century Progressivism. This book will be essential for those seeking to understand the state’s tumultuous history from 1870 to 1915."
—Jeanette Keith, author of Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight: Race, Class, and Power in the Rural South during the First World War

"Interesting, informative, and original. Lester's work is impressively researched, well written, and carries an authoritative tone grounded in true expertise on its topic. Up from the Mudsills of Hell will undoubtedly join the short list of classic Southern state studies on the agrarian revolt of the Gilded Age, and should represent the last word on the subject in Tennessee for a long time."
Appalachian Journal

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Up from the Mudsills of Hell analyzes agrarian activism in Tennessee from the 1870s to 1915 within the context of farmers’ lives, community institutions, and familial and communal networks. Locating the origins of the agrarian movements in the state’s late antebellum and post-Civil War farm economy, Connie Lester traces the development of rural reform from the cooperative efforts of the Grange, the Agricultural Wheel, and the Farmers’ Alliance through the insurgency of the People’s Party and the emerging rural bureaucracy of the Cooperative Extension Service and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.

Lester ties together a rich and often contradictory history of cooperativism, prohibition, disfranchisement, labor conflicts, and third-party politics to show that Tennessee agrarianism was more complex and threatening to the established political and economic order than previously recognized. As farmers reached across gender, racial, and political boundaries to create a mass movement, they shifted the ground under the monoliths of southern life. Once the Democratic Party had destroyed the insurgency, farmers responded in both traditional and progressive ways. Some turned inward, focusing on a localism that promoted—sometimes through violence—rigid adherence to established social boundaries. Others, however, organized into the Farmers’ Union, whose membership infiltrated the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and the Cooperative Extension Service. Acting through these bureaucracies, Tennessee agrarian leaders exerted an important influence over the development of agricultural legislation for the twentieth century.

Up from the Mudsills of Hell not only provides an important reassessment of agrarian reform and radicalism in Tennessee, but also links this Upper South state into the broader sweep of southern and American farm movements emerging in the late nineteenth century.

Page count: 336 pp.
5 tables, 5 maps
Trim size: 6.125 x 9.25


List price: $46.95

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Connie L. Lester is an assistant professor of history at the University of Central Florida and editor of the Florida Historical Quarterly.