One chapter of American history that has always fascinated me is the homesteading years of the great west.
Imagine what it would have been like to have been a homesteading family at about the turn of the century. The Department of Agriculture encouraged it, and railroad companies urged people to go west by printing pamphlets that made the West look like wide-open paradise.
Free land! Imagine the drive to get there and claim a place for good! All it took was the desire to leave what one knew for what the pamphlets proclaimed as “the best crop-growing farm country there is to be found.”
People studied these pamphlets, and even bought a book or two that was cranked out, complete with pictures, urging people to go west.
A new Montana farmer in the early 1900s, J. A. Brockway, issued crop figures for one of these publications from his homestead near Miles City. “He produced last year $361 worth of onions from seven-eighths of an acre with $60 spent on labor. He made on potatoes as high as $100 per acre net profit and raised thirty barrels of pickling cucumbers from five-eighths of an acre.”
Author Jonathan Raban shares this information in Bad Land – An American Romance, and he adds, “That Mr. Brockway had to hire labor to harvest the produce of less than an acre was a nugget of information to which one’s imagination would return in the sleepless hours.”
Rain dance. The pamphlets and books did not totally ignore the fact that the western plains had a bit of a dryness problem. In fact, one book by Hardy W. Campbell, who became famous for his writing, carried a camel on the cover, and carried the banner, “the Campbell method for the American desert.”
The total annual rainfall in Miles City, Mont., averaged around 14.5 inches of rain. But, it was pointed out that most of what rain did fall seemed to come during the growing season, when it was most useful. The sunny, bright days made for a wonderful “rapid and satisfactory plant growth,” so a farmer could hardly go wrong.
Also, the promise of rain following the hale and hearty was implied. “It seems to be a matter of common observation that rainfall in a new country increases with settlement, cultivation and tree planting… Professor Agassiz, in 1867, predicted that this increase in moisture would come about by the disturbance of electrical currents caused by the building of the railroads and the settlement of the country,” the book told potential homesteaders.
Unimaginable bounty. Those who were brave enough to set out could claim 320 acres as their own. For those in the cities, even imagining the scope and size of one acre must have been difficult to do.
Raban says, “In such a space, one could imagine a dozen big fields, filled with rippling crops of wheat, oats, barley; ample pastureland for sheep and cattle to wander; a tree-shaded house, a red barn, a walled kitchen garden for vegetables. There would be poultry scratching in the yard… beehives in the clover… a winding gravel drive… It wouldn’t be a farm, it would be an estate.”
(Next week: Driving desire to head West.)