The roots of the successes of the Progressive Movement in the 20th Century can be found in the 1870s, ’80s, and ’90s. Even as new settlers were still moving into the state, others were beginning to organize around political and social issues.
Whether women should be allowed to vote became a big issue during the last part of the 1800s. In 1871, voters — who, of course, were all men at the time — were asked whether or not they approved of votes for women as part of a new constitution for the state. Only 22% said yes, but the suffragettes kept organizing. A newspaper in Hebron, the Hebron Journal, was owned by a strong proponent of suffrage, Erasmus Correll and his wife, Lucy. They wrote regular columns supporting feminist causes, and brought the founding mothers of feminism to speak in Hebron in 1877 and 1879.
Other reformers saw alcohol and the saloons as the root of much that was evil in society. Many believed that drinking caused many men to lose their jobs, leave their families and turn to a life of crime. As early as 1886, a political party, the Prohibition Party, was organized in Nebraska and nominated candidates for governor and other statewide offices. In this early phase of the struggle, their candidate only got 4.5 percent of the vote, but they continued to organize and agitate.
There was a lot of discontent among farmers and ranchers as well. Despite the rosy predictions of prosperity that had lured new settlers to the plains, the reality was more difficult. Periods of drought made growing good crops hard. Price for agricultural products would dip below what it cost farmers to produce them. Shipping crops and livestock to market on the railroads was expensive. And, even if the land was free through the Homestead Act, farmers and ranchers had to borrow a lot of money to buy their seed, machinery, windmills and buildings. Agricultural discontent developed into a series of more and more radical organizations. The culmination of this activism was the populist revolt and election of a Populist governor of Nebraska in 1894.