Reuben Francis Kolb Sr. (1839-1918) was one of Alabama's leading agricultural spokesmen and planters. He commanded a Confederate artillery unit during the Civil War but is perhaps best known as the voice of populism in the bitterly contested gubernatorial elections of 1890, 1892, and 1894.
Reuben Francis Kolb Sr. was born in Eufaula, Barbour County, on April 15, 1839. He was the only child of David Cameron and Emily Francis (Shorter) Kolb, of the prominent Shorter family of Eufaula. Kolb's mother died during his infancy, and his father, owner of a general store and cotton commission, died during his childhood. Kolb was raised by his maternal grandfather, Reuben C. Shorter, and later by his uncle, Gov. John G. Shorter (1861-1863). Kolb received a public education and later attended the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, graduating in June 1859. He married Sallie Cargile (also referred to as Mary Caledonia Cargile), the daughter of Thomas and Louisa Ann Cargile also of Eufaula, on January 30, 1860. The couple would have three children; Reuben F. Kolb Jr., William H. Kolb, and Emily F. Kolb.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Kolb joined the Confederate Army, enlisting in Company B of the First Alabama Regiment at the rank of sergeant. In 1862, he joined the Barbour Light Artillery, also referred to as the Eufaula Rifles. This unit was reorganized upon its arrival in Montgomery as the artillery battalion of Hilliard's Legion. However, Kolb's Battery, as the group became known, was the only unit of Hilliard's Legion equipped for artillery. Kolb's Battery served in Kentucky, Georgia, and Tennessee.
Following the Civil War, Kolb returned to Eufaula and farmed full-time, adhering to the tenets of scientific agriculture and crop diversification. Kolb raised a variety of crops, mostly fruit. He made great progress in the cultivation of peaches and pears, but he is more widely recognized for his watermelon crops, specifically "Kolb's Gem," which was noted for its hardiness. Kolb initially devoted 20 acres of land to watermelon cultivation but eventually expanded to 200 acres given the breed's success.
Dedicated to agriculture, Kolb became active in his local Grange (an organization devoted to furthering agricultural pursuits through education and economic development) and in the Barbour County Agricultural Association, eventually serving as the organization's secretary. Kolb also was instrumental in creating a department of agriculture and industries in Alabama in 1883, making it the last state to create such an office. He was one of the leading candidates for the position of commissioner, but Gov. Thomas Seay (1886-1890) gave the job to Edward Chamber Betts. In 1886, however, Kolb was appointed by Seay to the Board of Trustees for the Agricultural and Mechanical College at Auburn (present-day Auburn University), in Lee County, and as commissioner of agriculture and industries. The following year, Kolb was elected president of the National Farmer's Congress and re-elected in 1889.
An active member of the Democratic Party, Kolb announced his candidacy for governor of Alabama in 1890, moved by the amount of poverty he witnessed in rural areas. Genuinely an advocate of the "little man," he supported political rights for blacks and better conditions for workers and opposed the convict-lease system. Kolb, however, was isolated by Bourbon control and was thus defeated at the Alabama state nominating convention held in May of that year, despite strong support from the Alabama Farmer's Alliance. In consequence, Thomas Goode Jones became the state's Democratic gubernatorial candidate; Kolb resolutely stood behind him in the 1890 election.
Kolb announced his gubernatorial candidacy for the 1892 election, running on a similar platform that challenged Bourbon control and offered blacks greater political participation. According to some historians, farm alliance members held a large number of Alabama congressional seats, thereby providing Kolb with a significant source of support. Traditionally in Alabama, governors were re-nominated for a second term, but Kolb's candidacy challenged this custom. Bourbon Democrats who controlled the state nomination convention refused to seat Kolb's delegates, however. Boldly, Kolb and his "Kolbites" (or pro-Kolb supporters) defected from the Democratic Party, and Kolb announced his nomination as a Jeffersonian Democrat. What followed was one of Alabama's most corrupt gubernatorial elections. With the aid of ballot tampering and fraud, Jones was re-elected by fewer than 11,000 votes.
Kolb ran for governor again in 1894, more formally as a Populist, on the same platform as in previous campaigns. This time, he was defeated by William C. Oates (1894-1896), receiving 83,292 votes to Oates's 111,875. Again, Kolb and the Kolbites suspected voting fraud. Historians believe that Democrats were able to disfranchise many potential voters under the recently enacted Sayre Law of 1893, which enabled poll workers to fill out the ballots of illiterate voters. Kolb and the Kolbites protested the results, holding an inauguration ceremony within a few blocks of the Capitol.
Following Kolb's last unsuccessful bid for governor, he returned to farming. He also became involved in land development projects in the Birmingham area. In 1911, Gov. Braxton Bragg Comer (1907-1911) appointed Kolb commissioner of agriculture. Kolb served in that position until 1915 while remaining on the Board of Trustees for the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Auburn until his death on March 23, 1918; he is buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Montgomery.
Despite Kolb's historic campaigns on behalf of workers and poor farmers—both black and white—and his efforts to provide African
Americans greater political freedom, his most lasting contributions to Alabama may have been in agriculture. He was instrumental
in developing the Department of Agriculture and Industries and pushed for crop diversification, moving the state away from
dependence on cotton and in educating farmers in new agricultural techniques. Kolb's activism in promoting agriculture and
giving a voice to the rural populace greatly influenced state politics, and thus, the state of Alabama.
Hackney, Sheldon. Populism to Progressivism in Alabama. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969.
Rodabaugh, Karl. The Farmers' Revolt in Alabama, 1890-1896. Greenville, N.C.: East Carolina University, 1977.
Rogers, William Warren. The One Gallused Rebellion: Agrarianism in Alabama, 1865-1896. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1970.
———. "Reuben Kolb: Agricultural Leader of the New South." Agricultural History 32 (April 1958): 109-19.
Danielle N. Warren
Published January 22, 2010
Last updated December 18, 2012