The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Reno, Milo
(January 5, 1866–May 5, 1936)

—farmer, insurance executive, and populist farm leader—was born near Agency in Wapello County, Iowa, the 12th of 13 children born to John and Elizabeth (Barrice) Reno. He attended Oskaloosa College and studied for the ministry. He married Christine Good of Batavia, Iowa, and had three children; only Ann lived to adulthood.

    Reno's family members were Populists who supported Iowan James Baird Weaver for president in 1880 and Ben Butler in 1884. In 1888 Reno campaigned for the Union Labor presidential candidate, and he supported William Jennings Bryan in 1896.

    In the 1880s Reno was an organizer for the farmer's Alliance. In 1918 he joined the Iowa farmer Union (IFU) and was elected Wapello County president in 1920. At the 1920 IFU convention, Reno was elected state secretary-treasurer and led the fight to amend the IFU constitution "to secure for the farming industry cost of production plus a reasonable profit."

    In 1921 Reno defeated IFU president T. A. Haugas after denouncing him for a lack of militancy in opposing the Farm Bureau. As IFU president during the 1920s, Reno worked to secure "the cost of production" for farmer, demanded the printing of currency to fund public works, opposed mandatory farm programs, and railed against the required military training at Iowa's state university and college.

    In 1922 Reno founded the Iowa farmer Union Mutual Life Insurance Company, serving as its president until his death. He also purchased the Livestock Commission in St. Paul, Minnesota, and started the IFU's cooperative store and credit union.

    Reno was a member of the Corn Belt Committee and campaigned hard for the McNary—Haugen farm bill passed twice by Congress but vetoed by President Coolidge. In 1928 Reno campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith, and after the election he was bitterly critical of President Herbert Hoover and his Federal Farm Board. Reno retired as IFU president in 1930, but remained head of the insurance company and as de facto leader of the IFU.

    In March 1931 Reno formed the farmer Protective Association of Iowa to oppose tuberculosis testing of cattle by state veterinarians. After farmer and state officials clashed that spring, Reno worked out a short truce. But in September 1931 unruly farmer again drove off state testers in Cedar County. In the ensuing "Cow War," Governor Dan Turner mobilized 1,800 National Guardsmen and declared martial law in Cedar County and then in five nearby counties. After several arrests, things quieted down. Reno and his followers claimed that they did not oppose the idea of tuberculin testing, only the mandatory procedures by state veterinarians.

    In the 1932 presidential election, Reno supported the Democratic candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt. At the same time, he organized direct action to improve prices. In May 1932 he started the National farmer' Holiday Association (NFHA) and was elected its first president. He was already head of the Iowa farmer' Holiday Association. Both groups agitated for a "holiday" from buying or selling farm products in order to force prices above the cost of production.

    The national farm holiday planned for July 4, 1932, was postponed until August. Strike actions across Iowa and the Midwest were sporadic, but dramatic. Farmer barricaded roads in Woodbury County, Iowa, and dumped milk outside Le Mars. Reno presented Holiday demands to farm-state governors in Sioux City in September 1932. The governors refused to stop farm foreclosures, and the strike began to fade. Reno, who gained notoriety as a "radical" farm leader, was pleased with the publicity, despite the failure to raise prices and the unpopular violence the Holiday generated.

    In the winter of 1932-1933 Reno and the Iowa farmer' Holiday Association had some success in halting farm foreclosures. Early in 1933 Governor Clyde Herring asked Iowa courts to stop sales until the legislature acted, and Iowa's superintendent of banking stopped banks from holding farm auctions. At the same time, the farmer' Holiday Association and the more radical United farmer held penny auctions and intimidated local officials. The kidnapping and mock lynching of Judge C. C. Bradley of Le Mars by farmer shocked public opinion and forced Reno to denounce such measures, though he believed that the courts had failed to protect farm debtors.

    In May 1933 the NFHA canceled a planned strike when the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) was passed. The first AAA lacked a "cost of production" provision, had no National Recovery Administration-type codes for farmer, and provided for the destruction of farm products in an effort to reduce the surpluses thought to be keeping farm prices low. NFHA leaders met after the IFU convention in August 1933 and published a National Recovery Administration—style agricultural code with collective bargaining for farm workers, an end to the destruction of farm produce to raise prices, and farmer-set minimum prices to be approved by Roosevelt.

    Roosevelt listened to the proposal but did nothing. Reno then called another national farm strike for October 20, 1933. As before, strike efforts were irregular, but they had political impact. In November 1933 midwestern governors endorsed the NFHA's demands for prices that met the costs of production and a moratorium on farm foreclosures. The strike wound down in late fall, but Reno had again focused public and government attention on farmer

    Reno was a spellbinding speaker and a colorful writer who quoted the Bible frequently. He fiddled at square dances, wore a large cowboy hat, and favored red ties. He lectured, wrote articles for the radical farm papers, and spoke on the radio. From 1933 on, his speeches decried Roosevelt, Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace, and the New Deal, and warned that they threatened American individualism and constitutional government. At the 1934 NFHA convention, Reno hosted Father Coughlin, a fierce Roosevelt critic. In 1935 Huey Long, a prospective anti-Roosevelt presidential candidate, spoke to the same group.

    Reno's critics labeled him a semifascist malcontent. He even appeared as the ambassador to France in Sinclair Lewis's novel It Can't Happen Here about an America controlled by a Huey Long-style dictator. Reno did champion the seemingly conflicting ideas of individualism, collective action, and government regulation to aid farmer However, those beliefs and his lifelong fight against the "money power" came directly from the Populist tradition he grew up in.

    Reno died at age 70 in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, of a heart attack. His body was taken to Des Moines and cremated.
Sources Reno's papers are in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. Roland White wrote an uncritical biography, Milo Reno: Farmers Union Pioneer (1941). More scholarly accounts include Howard Lawrence, "The farmer' Holiday Association in Iowa, 1932–1933" (master's thesis, State University of Iowa, 1952); and George Rinehart, "The Iowa Farmers Union: An Histori cal Survey" (master's thesis, Iowa State College, 1955). Jean Choate includes an informative chapter on Reno in Disputed Ground: Farm Groups That Opposed the New Deal Agricultural Program (2002).
Contributor: Duncan Stewart