Favorable weather, expansion of Homestead Act a boon to homesteaders

By Derek Strahn EBS Contributor

Several short-term trends helped trigger Montana’s remarkable homestead boom. The most significant was the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909, which doubled the free land available to settlers to 320 acres. In 1912, Congress went even farther, lowering the required waiting period for land acquisition from five to three years, while also permitting homesteaders to be absent from their lands five months of each year. Together, these laws generated an eager response, ensuring that nearly 32 million acres of Montana land would pass from public to private hands.

Equally significant in attracting homesteaders were the aggressive promotional campaigns by area boosters. During the early 1900s, transcontinental railroads like the Northern Pacific, the Great Northern and the Milwaukee Road spent millions publicizing the region. With impressive agricultural display trains and a host of colorful leaflets and brochures, they encouraged immigrants—especially Germans and Scandinavians—to embrace a new life of farming in what some now evocatively billed as “the Treasure State.” For as little as $22.50, a homesteader could rent a freight car to bring his family and all their belongings from Saint Paul, Minnesota, to eastern Montana.

Hypnotized by the powerful sway of a well-financed propaganda machine, homesteaders flooded into Montana. Between 1900 and 1909, a veritable tsunami of settlement descended upon the state, rushing westward across the Hi-Line area north of the Missouri River and engulfing the broad valleys that fed the Yellowstone River. Dozens of new boomtowns like Wolf Point, Glasgow, Malta, Havre, Plentywood, Scobey, Jordan, Rudyard, Ryegate and Baker appeared out of thin, dry air like mirages on the rolling plains.

Homestead life was anything but easy. Many newcomers erected sod houses constructed from grassy slabs of topsoil. Others built cramped, one-room shanties out of rough-cut lumber, covering them in tarpaper and insulating them with dirty rags and discarded newspapers. Mice, snakes and grasshoppers were a constant torment. Some families traveled up to 25 miles to cut fence posts, find firewood or dig coal on the prairies of eastern Montana. With these crude accommodations, homesteaders faced the blistering heat, choking dust storms and subzero cold of Montana’s often inhospitable plains.

Isolation on this harsh and forlorn landscape often took its toll. “I have stood in the doorway of our shack, with my heart full of sadness and loneliness and listened to the wind,” wrote Sue Howells of Choteau County. “It is an incessant, screeching, whining and screaming wind, and it seems to be heard nowhere except in Montana on the homestead.”

Despite these hardships, many carved out a meaningful life during Montana’s homestead boom, and the effects of their commitment were readily apparent. The state’s population exploded from 243,329 to 376,053, and the aggregate number of farms doubled to 26,214 during the 20th century’s first decade. By 1910, the income generated by agriculture surpassed that of mining. But this was just the beginning.

In the years immediately following this initial burst of excitement, nature and global politics worked hand-in-hand to beguile even more homesteaders to the Big Sky Country. The period of greatest settlement during the homestead boom was also a time of generally ample and well-timed rainfall in typically drought-stricken northern and eastern Montana. Abundant wheat harvests were commonplace. In 1909, total wheat production reached almost 11 million bushels, but in the “miracle year” of 1915, it totaled more that 42 million bushels.

Making homestead life even more prosperous was the coming of the “War to End All Wars,” which ravaged Europe between 1914 and 1918. World War I dramatically increased European demands and artificially inflated grain prices to unprecedented levels. Montana’s high-protein hard spring and winter wheat “held top rank on the booming international markets,” according to historians Michael Malone and Richard Roeder.

Derek Strahn is a Bozeman historian, teacher, historic preservationist, radio show personality and folk/blues musician. He is the author of several works related to local and Montana history, including “The Montana Medicine Show’s Genuine Montana History.”