Isaac Newton (Newt) Gresham, agrarian spokesman and founder of the Farmers' Union, was born near Florence, Alabama, on February 20, 1858. Shortly after the Civil War his family moved to Kaufman County, Texas, where they became tenant farmers. Both of Gresham's parents died in 1868, and he was raised by an older brother. He moved in 1877 to Hood County, where he worked as a laborer and attended Add-Ran College (see TEXAS CHRISTIAN UNIVERSITY) for a year. He married Ida May Peters of Granbury on January 13, 1881, and again took up tenant farming. They had three children.
Gresham joined the fledgling Southern Farmers' Alliance in 1881 and quickly became one of its best organizers. In 1886 he accepted a commission to organize his native state and thus to supervise the alliance's first thrust beyond the boundaries of Texas. Gresham and his family spent the next four years organizing suballiances in Alabama and Tennessee. They returned to Hood County, Texas, and farm life in 1890.
Gresham was active in the Texas Populist movement in the 1890s and became editor of the Granbury Graphic-Truth, a farmers' newspaper, in 1897. He purchased the paper in 1898 but sold it the next year to buy the Hunt County Observer in Greenville. He moved to Rains County in early 1902 and took over the Point Times. None of his newspaper ventures was financially successful. Gresham served on the platform committee of the Allied People's (Populist) party (see PEOPLE'S PARTY) at its 1902 state convention.
As the Populist revolt began to subside, Gresham came up with the idea of starting a new farm organization. He confided his intentions to Owen Pinkney Pyle, a fellow journalist, as early as 1900. On August 28, 1902, Gresham and nine other men founded the Farmers Educational and Cooperative Union of America, today known as the National Farmers' Union, at the Smyrna schoolhouse. Gresham wanted to emphasize economic cooperation and avoid the involvement in partisan politics that he believed had destroyed earlier farm organizations. In essence, the Farmers' Union was a resurrection of the Farmers' Alliance, but it would go no further than lobbying to secure legislation protecting farmers' interests. Gresham was named general organizer at the first meeting of the union.
In 1903 he moved to Emory, where he founded the Farmers' Union Password, the organization's official mouthpiece. He moved to Greenville the next year. When the Farmers' Union held its first state convention in February 1904, Gresham was named to the post of lecturer, and in February 1905 he became secretary-treasurer. He showed little aptitude as a financial officer and carelessly accepted dues and dispersed funds for union business without keeping adequate records. When the Farmers' Union authorized an audit in August 1905 the assigned committee found Gresham's books inadequate, but it endorsed him as "undoubtedly honest and sincere." Delegates purged Gresham, along with all other nonfarmer officers, from leadership at the union's August 1905 convention.
When the Farmers' Union held its first national convention in December 1905, Gresham was named national organizer. His work for the order took him throughout the South. Shortly after presiding at the founding convention of the organization in Tennessee, he fell ill with appendicitis and died on April 10, 1906. On October 9, 1907, the Farmers' Union unveiled a monument to him at Point, Texas, the birthplace of the Farmers' Union. Gresham was a member of the Disciples of Christ.