A Forgotten Legislator and a Big Constitutional Amendment

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John Tuma’s Capitol Update – The Fall Version

The third installment in a series about Minnesota’s role, now and in the past, in the local food movement. This week John traces the history of a little-known legislator’s efforts more than a century ago to protect the rights of farmers to sell their products.

“Alvin Rowe secured passage of his bill providing for a constitutional amendment allowing farmers to peddle their products without a license.” St. Paul Pioneer Press, April 13, 1905

As the environment and conservation community learned after a decade of challenging battles to secure passage and voter approval of the “Clean Water Land, and Legacy” constitutional amendment, when it comes to legislative accomplishments, it is big news when someone succeeds in passing a constitutional amendment. It took us several tries on the backs of two of the most powerful legislators as our chief authors to secure the approval from the Legislature of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. Therefore, as I was exploring the passage of the constitutional amendment giving farmers a right to sell their products without a license, it was an interesting curiosity how little fanfare proceeded and followed its adoption. It seemed almost shrouded in mystery.

The above quote announcing its passage in the Legislature was tucked away almost as a byline in a series of short notes from the end of session in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The big news was the raucous end the session, the first in the newly built Capitol building. There where even a couple legislators who required stitches after legislators vigorously threw books around in celebration of the end of the session on the closing gavel. The big policy news was Governor Johnson’s veto of a bill that would have licensed chiropractors. He did not buy into the “cult of the healing” as real medicine. So obscure was the adoption of the farmer’s constitutional amendment, that the above short note even misspelled the name of the chief author, a legislator from their own town.

Alwin Rowe’s accomplishment in the annals of legislative history is extremely impressive. He secured passage of a constitutional amendment by near unanimous vote in the Legislature as a freshman — a constitutional amendment that would pass by the second-most votes ever issued for a constitutional amendment at that time in history. His amendment was one of the first to be passed after the 1898 constitutional amendment making it more difficult to pass a constitutional amendment. Remember our message throughout the 2008 election about a person not voting being a “no vote” on a constitutional amendment?

Therefore, it is surprising that there is little known of this three term representative from District 37 of St. Paul. The very thorough Legislative Library archives on past members have very little on Rowe’s background. More questions than answers. He was elected as a Republican and his occupation was listed as a “Market Gardener.” It notes he was born in Germany and moved to Minnesota in 1878. These two facts are not surprising — the market gardening community which started to hit its stride in 1870s had a significant number of German immigrants actively farming. It was probably not a coincidence that in the summer of 1904, when he was first elected, the Supreme Court ruled that farmers who produce their own products and offer them for sale were still subject to all the requirements of obtaining a peddler’s license when selling in a community. The case of State v. Jensen also received little fanfare in the press, but certainly would have been the talk about town across the wagons of produce in the vibrant farmers markets in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Mr. Rowe’s occupation was one of very proud, hard-working small farmers who produced the necessary vegetables and produce on the fringes of major metropolitan cities at the turn of a century. They would truck in their products by horse-drawn wagon early in the morning to offer their wares for sale to restaurants, groceries, processors, shippers and just average consumers. When Peter Jensen was ticketed for not having a peddler’s license in 1903 for simply trying to sell a few extra melons on his return trip from the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market, it would have likely been taken as an insult. A proud market gardener would have never considered himself a lowly peddler. In addition, obtaining a license would be financially prohibitive for some gardeners who were simply trying to help out busy homemakers and servants on return trips by offering some of their excess produce at a good discount. The annual Minneapolis license fee for a “wagon peddler” was $125, a prince’s ransom at the turn of the century.

Therefore, it would not be surprising if the major motivation for Alwin Rowe seeking a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives was to overturn the case of State v. Jensen. Rowe was the sole author of HF 343, a bill entitled, “An act proposing an amendment to Article I of the Constitution the State of Minnesota allowing farmers and gardeners to sell and peddle the products grown upon their farms and gardens, anywhere in the state.”

As a freshman legislator, it was likely he received some guidance from the committee chair to get his bill moving forward. On March 30, with only two weeks left of the session, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee reported the bill out. Rep. William “Tall Pine of Minnesota” Anderson chaired the House Judiciary Committee. An attorney and former prosecutor from Winona it was apparent he and his committee had a role in the development of the report from the committee. The bill came out with the much more succinct and clear statement that appears to be the hand of a wise attorney. The new language simply stated any person could “sell their products from their farm or garden…without restriction.” This was a significant expansion and improvement on Rowe’s original bill. It was no longer a bill just about peddling, but the overall rights of farmers to sell directly to consumers.

The fact that “Tall Pine of Minnesota” Anderson would have been a help to Rowe would not be surprising. Anderson would move from Winona the following year to become a well-respected attorney in Minneapolis. He was elected to the Minnesota Senate in 1922 from Minneapolis where he served until his death in 1941. In a eulogy on the Senate floor he was remembered by colleagues as a patient and helpful counselor to fellow legislators. In remembering his service a colleague quoted Shakespeare, “his life was gentle and elements so mixed in him that nature might stand up and say to all the world: this was a man.” Therefore, it would not be surprising that this gentle giant of a legislator would have gladly helped out his freshman market gardener in his quest back in 1905.

Like most pieces of legislation as it moves through the process, it tends to get watered down. Unfortunately, when HF343 was taken up on the floor of the full House with only a few days left in the legislative session on April 10, it suffered that consequence. Whether a compromise was necessary or not to pass the bill, the fact is it did get watered down that fateful day on the House floor. The bill that came out of the House Judiciary Committee, which was a sweeping protection of all farmers’ rights to sell their products directly to consumers, was changed to read as follows:

“Any person may sell or peddle the products of the farm or garden occupied and cultivated by him, without restriction obtaining a license therefor.” (The underlined text represents language added to the bill during floor debate, while the strike-through text represents language deleted.)

This was language that eventually made it into our Constitution. The significance of this change for the rights of farmers and gardeners would not be fully realized until almost a century later when farmers Diane and Michael Hartmann tried to sell some of their custom processed meat to their friends and neighbors. More on that next week.

HF343 went on to pass nearly unanimously on the House and Senate floors. It was actually one of the last acts of the Legislature before they adjourned to the raucous ovation that resulted in a few stitches. The voters of Minnesota in 1906 approved the amendment overwhelmingly by 190,897 in support to 34,094 in opposition out of 284,366 votes cast.

Despite the bill being watered down, it truly was an amazing accomplishment for a freshman legislator even though it was not recognized at the time. This constitutional amendment has secured the rights of many small farming operations to sell directly to their consumers without being bothered by government regulation or the need to get city licensure. It has no doubt helped the growing “Locavore” movement. The progressive Locavore movement of small farmers and consumers should probably be naming farmers markets after Alvin Rowe, oops — I mean, Alwin.

Interestingly though, Alwin Rowe was not venerated by the growing progressive movement in Minnesota that was gaining strength during his six years of service in the House.
One of the most productive progressive tides in Minnesota history it would give us many improvements in our law from labor relations to women’s suffrage. By 1910 this progressive movement was trying to weed out politicians tied to special interests by aggressively exposing the activities going on at the state Capitol. One of the champions of this movement was Lynn Haines, who spent a great deal of time working with other progressives at the Capitol. He helped by producing voting records of legislators with a group known as the Minnesota Citizens’ League and publishing a session description for progressives. Probably the forerunner to what we call our legislative scorecards today.

One of the paragraphs in Haines’ session review describing the 1909 session stated: “a record of men and measures was collected by the Minnesota Citizens’ League and circulated as generally as limited means would allow. The publicity thus secured, together with other reform influences, resulted directly in the retirement or defeat of a large majority of the members of the old special interest-professional politician machine which had been intact for years in the legislature.”* Listed as one of the several “machine members” defeated in the primary election of 1910 was none other than Alwin Rowe.

Machine politician or not, Alwin Rowe did accomplish one impressive feat that most Minnesota legislators will ever be able to claim – securing the passage of a constitutional amendment. An amendment, interestingly enough, that may help in the ongoing development of a new progressive farmer to consumer marketplace movement emerging a century after his service in the Minnesota House.

*The Minnesota Legislature of 1911, Lynn Haines, 919 New York Life Building, Minneapolis, Minnesota, “to Progressives of Minnesota”. As bound by the Harvard Law Library May 13, 1930.

One Response to “A Forgotten Legislator and a Big Constitutional Amendment”

  1. Susan Springborn

    This information regarding Alvin Rowe is interesting to me because he was my husbands great grandfather. My mother-in-law, Lorna, is Alvins granddaughter. I know a little about him and I have pictures of him in his garden. I also know that their home is on the corner of Arlington and Mackubin(?sp)
    Thank you for the information above.
    Susan Springborn