Worthy Master of the State and National Grange, Israel Putnam “Put” Darden was born in Jefferson County, the son of John Pendleton Darden and Martha Fleming Darden. His grandfather, David Darden, and other family members had emigrated from Georgia to the Mississippi Territory in April 1798, and John Darden was a well-to-do planter who had settled near the Red Lick community in northeastern Jefferson County. Put Darden earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Mississippi in 1856, winning acclaim for his skills in public speaking. He acquired a share of his father’s land and purchased an adjoining farm several years later. By 1860 he owned a cotton plantation of more than seven hundred acres and twenty-eight slaves. At the beginning of the Civil War, he enlisted as a lieutenant in the Jefferson Flying Artillery and assumed command of the battery during the Battle of Shiloh. Promoted to captain, he led his battery in fighting in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.
Returning to Jefferson County in May 1865, Darden sought to regain his financial stability. He was elected to the legislature in 1866, but his term ended with the beginning of military rule in 1867. To encourage agriculture, horticulture, and manufacturers of all kinds in the local area, he played an important role in the founding of the Jefferson County Planters,’ Mechanics,’ and Manufacturers’ Association in 1868 and served on its board of directors for twenty years. After the Grange movement swept the state in the early 1870s, Darden spent most of his time promoting its goal of protecting the rights and interests of farmers. A national fraternal organization that encouraged sectional reconciliation, stressed the importance of education, and welcomed white men and women of all ages with agricultural interests, the Grange (formally the Patrons of Husbandry) had widespread appeal at a time when farmers were struggling to survive in a depressed agricultural economy. Darden spearheaded the move to establish the Phoenix Grange in his neighborhood and subsequently served as its head. In 1873 and 1874, as many farmers lost their land in delinquent tax sales, he and other Grangers played a decisive role in organizing Taxpayer Leagues, which urged white voters of all parties to unite and overthrow the “carpetbagger regime.”
Put Darden took over the reins of the state Grange in 1876 and served as its leader until his death twelve years later. Over that time, membership declined, but the organization’s political influence increased. Darden visited almost every county annually to reactivate, encourage, and establish Granges. Although many of the earlier Grange cooperatives had failed, Darden achieved limited success in the early 1880s by promoting cooperative stores on the Rochdale plan, which allocated stock and dividends to consumers based on their patronage. Largely because of Darden’s leadership, the state Grange recorded its greatest achievement—the 1878 creation of the Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College. Grangers also initiated the 1884 move to establish the Industrial Institute and College for white females at Columbus.
Darden fought for state and national legislation to regulate railroads and advocated changes in Mississippi’s lien law to ensure that property in foreclosure sales would bring at least three-fourths of its market value. Although Grange bylaws prohibited the discussion of politics, Darden told Grangers to vote only for men who promised to support their interests. In contrast to Wool Hat spokesman Frank Burkitt, who criticized the president of the agricultural college, Gen. Stephen D. Lee, and opposed his requests for legislative appropriations, Darden cooperated with Lee, praised his work at the school, and called for funding to expand its services.
Grangers backed Darden for governor at the 1885 state Democratic convention, but he received only 42 votes to Gov. Robert Lowry’s 193. Despite having rejected an independent candidacy, the Grange leader received more than 800 votes in the general election. Later that year, at the meeting of the National Grange in Boston, Darden was elected its Worthy Master, the second southerner to hold that post. In his first annual address, Darden noted the group’s declining membership and maintained that farmers wanted an organization that would use its influence to secure favorable legislation. He thus urged Grange leaders to play an active role in state and national politics.
A longtime member of the Christian Church, Darden endured many personal tragedies and hardships during his years of public service. His first wife died in 1860, when their son was only nine months old. Darden married again in the fall of 1865, but his second wife died about a year later. He remarried again and had four children with his third wife before she, too, died. His fourth and final marriage took place in November 1885 and resulted in three more children, one of whom was born after his death. A fire destroyed Darden’s country home in 1882, and he lost all of his papers, books, and war relics.
Put Darden died at his home after a brief illness. Grangers across the state and nation held memorial services for their deceased leader. In 1891 the National Grange placed a monument honoring Darden on the grounds of the Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College at Starkville (now Mississippi State University). Without Darden’s leadership, Grange membership in the state declined, and the organization ceased to exist in Mississippi after its 1898 meeting.
- Darden Family Papers, Special Collections, Mitchell Memorial Library, Mississippi State University;
- Jefferson County Mississippi, Chancery Clerk Records
- General Stephen D. Lee, “The Agricultural and Mechanical College of Mississippi: Its Origin, Object, Management and Results,” Special Collections, Mitchell Memorial Library, Mississippi State University
- D. Sven Nordin, Rich Harvest: A History of the Grange, 1867–1900 (1974)
- “The State Grange and A & M College,” Special Collections, Mitchell Memorial Library, Mississippi State University