They Settled in Montana: The Homesteaders
On March 10, 1913 Charlie Russell, the famous cowboy artist from Great Falls, wrote to his friend: Bob you wouldent know the town or the country either it's all grass side down now. Wher once you rode circle and I night wrangled, a gopher couldn't graze now. The boosters say it's a better country than it ever was but it looks like hell to me I liked it better when it belonged to God it sure was his country when we knew it.
So why did Charlie Russell think the land was in such bad shape and just who these "boosters" were anyway? Russell must have foreseen what was to become of the high plains. The Desert Land Act opened the way for ranchers to claim and fence vast tracts of land where once there had been open free range. Montana's native Bluebunch Wheatgrass is very nutritious and naturally resilient to disease and drought. The ranchers were simply overdoing it. The land couldn't support overgrazing for long. There just isn't enough, even though it had once seemed endless. At the end of WWI the government was urging farmers to buy more machinery, more land, and to plant more crops. European farmlands had been used as battlegrounds during the war and so recovering European nations were going to need food and lots of it. Jim Hill, the "Empire Builder" had finished putting together the Great Northern Railroad and he wanted to ship people and crops between the eastern and western United States.
Problem was, the end of World War I coincided with the beginning of the drought years, the cropless 1920's. Farmers planted big but harvested little. Ranchers began losing head of cattle by the thousands. Meanwhile, Jim Hill had been holding contests. He'd offered $1,000 for the best exhibits of grain and corn grown on dry land within 25 miles of his railroad line. He then took these displays east in order to convince people that good grain could be grown in Montana. Hill offered one-way "settlers fares" of $12.50 from St. Paul and Minneapolis to Bainville, Culbertson, and other points in eastern Montana. He was able to convince many folks to come to Montana and invest their savings in farming or ranching. Once they made it to the railway station platform, settlers had a big surprise waiting for them.
"Locators" waited at train stations to show the new settlers or "honyockers" a good piece of land nearby. Usually, for around 20 to 50 dollars (quite a lot of money back then), some locator would gladly load a family into his wagon and drive them out of town to a place with public land available for homesteaders. Some of these locators were honest and others were not. Sometimes they really recommended good productive land and even helped people to file on it. Other times they worked with real estate agents and banks pointing out bad places to farm and suggesting to the settlers that all the good land was gone. They might then try to convince these honyockers to buy some land from a rancher, bank, or real estate broker. In many cases, settlers were pushed to take out large loans from the bank in order to buy land and equipment. Banks were willing to loan money to almost anyone because if they couldn't make their payments, then the bank would just take back their land and sell it to someone else. Either way, the locator was one more obstacle for the settlers to overcome before finding their new home.
By all accounts, life on the homestead was hard. Imagine yourself coming to Montana around 1870 or 1880. First of all, you'd have to get here. That was not easy and many people just didn't ever make it. Next, you'd have to find yourself some good acreage for your 'stead. Again, not easy. There was fierce competition for land with access to water. And on the high plains, land without water was not much good. Once you'd staked out a claim, you had to build a house. If timber was scarce you might have to build it from sod (earth). Now, if you were lucky you might be able to find family, friends, or neighbors to help out. Otherwise, you were on your own.
The men and women who settled the West worked all day long all year round planting crops, chopping wood, making candles, building furniture, hunting game, and doing anything else they could to feed, clothe, and house themselves. They rose with the sun and slept with the moon. Women might spend evenings twisting clumps of grass so that they would burn longer in the hearth fire and at the same time rock their baby with "one foot in the crib." They would fetch milk and churn butter in the morning, supposing they had a few milk cows. Almost from the time they could walk and talk the children worked hard too, feeding chickens or doing other chores. Putting up a home was just the beginning. There were schools and churches to build. There were prairie fires to fight. And remember, these homesteaders were living on stolen property. Sometimes there were hostile Indians to defend against.
From 1919 to 1920, crop yields dropped from 25 bushels of grain per acre to around 2.4 bushels per acre. The native grasses dried up. Starved dying livestock littered the open range. Banks collapsed and many people were destitute or homeless. In those days, Welfare and Medicare did not exist. The only help available came from the Salvation Army and they just couldn't help everyone. 60,000 people left the state and began to wander, living from hand to mouth. What's more, the land had been devastated and is still not restored. At this same time, workers on a dam project near the Yellowstone River reported finding scorpions in the gravel; the first scorpions ever seen in Montana.
Finally, people began to realize that the arid ecosystem of eastern Montana is extremely fragile and must be treated with great respect. All the distress of the 1920's was blamed on "unusual climactic conditions." But there was nothing unusual at all about the climactic conditions. The only unusual things on the plains were hundreds of thousands of beef cattle and out-of-place farming techniques which robbed the soil of its nutrient balance.
Today, farmers and ranchers are working with ecologists, not in spite of them. There are still more cattle than people in the state; almost three times as many according to the last count. Agriculture is Montana's largest basic industry. Sixty-four percent of the state's 93,000,000 acres are used for farming and ranching. In 1920 there were 57,700 farms in Montana. As of 1996 there are only 22,000 of them. It is interesting to note that the average farm size in Montana now is 2,714 acres. That's just a little larger than the 2,560 acres suggested by John Wesley Powell way back in the 19th century.
As people settled into the West and less land was available, homesteading acts were replaced with new ones or repealed altogether. Acts allowing shared access to public lands slowly took the place of acts which gave the land away. In 1928 Congress created the first cooperative grazing association in the country. The Mizpah-Pumpkin Creek Grazing Association, in Montana, was meant to reduce overgrazing by pooling public lands together and distributing access equally. By opening a large section of range, cattle were no longer forced to graze within small confined areas.
The Mizpah-Pumpkin Creek Association was just an experiment. Six years later, Congress enacted the Taylor Grazing Act. This act created a more fair system of leasing public lands to ranchers all across the West. Again, the idea was to end the range wars and prevent overgrazing while allowing all interested ranchers to use public lands.
Science and a lot of cooperation are helping Montanans to implement more sustainable agricultural techniques than have been used in the past. Researchers at Montana State University's Northern Agricultural Research Center are now testing radio collars to track the grazing patterns of cattle. They want to know how and why cows move around the way they do. One question is whether hill climbing cows or cows that tend to feed in gully bottoms forage more evenly across the land. If a herd could be bred to cover most of a rancher's land rather than just feeding in one spot, then the grasslands wouldn't become so overstressed.
Last year, researchers used a cooked molasses supplement to draw cattle onto unused range. The experiment seemed to work. Instead of trying to use fence to control their grazing patterns, ranchers and researchers are trying to learn what types of land and grass different cows prefer so that they can guide the cattle naturally. Another old trick I've seen used is to place a salt-lick somewhere to keep cattle in that area.
Farmers are also working with researchers to determine what crops and crop rotations will keep the soil healthy and still provide the farmer with a solid income. Certain combinations of crops, when grown together, can help keep soil nutrients balanced, reduce saline-seep, and even fight off pests. Wind-strip planting patterns can reduce soil blowing. Between 1982 and 1992, Montana's Conservation Reserve Program saved about 25,000,000 tons of soil per year. That's more than a pick-up truck full of soil saved each week for every man, woman, and child in the state. These researchers are also looking at ways that intelligent agricultural practices can protect Montana's water quality. Over the years, both pesticide use and grazing livestock near watersheds have contributed to a decrease in water quality throughout much of the state. Many of John Wesley Powell's old predictions turned out to be accurate. Despite the legacy of the Free Homestead Act and the acts which followed, Montana continues to produce some of the best livestock, wheat, and other crops in the world. Hopefully newer, safer, and more creative agricultural practices will help to make a better Montana for everyone.