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Reading 2: The Bonanza Farms of North Dakota

Huge farms in the valley of the Red River of the North provided much of the wheat needed for the new flour mills in Minneapolis. Wheat farming in that region was stimulated by a serious financial problem affecting the Northern Pacific Railroad, which ran from St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, through Fargo, North Dakota, and then westward. Northern Pacific stock lost its value in the Panic of 1873. Stockholders agreed to exchange their worthless stock for some of the land the railroad had received from the Federal Government, but soon found that no one would buy the land in Dakota Territory, described on most maps as the "Great American Desert."

George W. Cass, president of the Northern Pacific, and George Cheney, a board member, needed to prove to potential buyers that the land was fertile and productive. They thought that "bonanza" farms, huge acreages growing only wheat, might make their point. The Northern Pacific investors hired wheat expert Oliver Dalrymple to develop and manage their demonstration farm. The Cass-Cheney farm (always called the Dalrymple farm by locals) was located about 20 miles west of Fargo. It grew from 5,000 acres in 1877 to 32,000 acres by 1885, and yielded as much as 600,000 bushels of wheat per year. This massive enterprise required 600 men at seed time and 800 at harvest, 200 plows, 200 self-binding reapers, 30 steam threshers, 400 teams of horses or mules, and several managers for each of the 2,500-acre tracts included in the property.

Other huge farms, ranging from 3,000 to over 30,000 acres, soon appeared in the Red River Valley. The soil, topography, and climate were ideal for large scale farming. An influx of Northern European immigrants brought good farmers who were not deterred by the cold winters. Off-season loggers from Minnesota's timber industry provided the seasonal manpower that the bonanza farms required.

Mary Dodge Woodward helped her son manage a farm near Fargo in the 1880s. Although the 1500-acre farm was too small to be officially classified as a bonanza farm, the diary she kept is the best description we have of what life was like on these farms:

(May 7, 1884) The grass begins to grow, and soon the whole prairie will look beautiful. . . .We have fifty acres for a dooryard. All the rest is sowed with grain and now looks like green velvet.

(September 19, 1884) The first frost. Looking from the granary steps with the telescope I could see twenty threshing machines running. The weather is perfect and they will thresh an average of 1,500 bushels each.

(April 11, 1885) I am glad that we can have the same men that were here last year. They planted eighty acres yesterday which was a big day's work, as seeding is the hardest part of farming in Dakota. The men walk between eighteen and twenty miles a day besides lifting sacks, filling seeders, and managing horses; moreover it is frequently either muddy or dusty in the spring.

(May 23, 1885) The wind blows all the time, so hard that one can scarcely stand before it. . . . About four o'clock the sky looked fearful, we heard a distant roar, and soon the storm was upon us. The hailstones were as large as nutmegs and oh, how they did kill things! . . . Our wheat that looked so green has disappeared and the fields are bare.

(August 11, 1885) Harvest has started. Now there will be no rest for man, woman, or beast until frost which comes, thank heaven, early here. I was nearly beside myself getting dinner for thirteen men besides carpenters and tinners. . . . I baked seventeen loaves of bread today, making seventy-four loaves since last Sunday, not to mention twenty-one pies, and puddings, cakes, and doughnuts.

The men cut one hundred acres today. All four of our harvesters are being used as well as three which were hired to cut by the acre. Things look like business with seven self-binders at work on this home section. The twine to bind our grain will cost three hundred dollars this year.

(October 2, 1885) The house is filled with smoke this morning. The air is heavy and it is three weeks since we had rain. The burning straw and prairie fires together fill the whole country with smoke. . . . If the fire should get inside, we would all burn out. Nothing could save us. The fire ran along the Northern Pacific tracks last night so the train did not dare pass the slough bridge. . . . At times the smoke is perfectly suffocating.

(August 6, 1886) A beautiful day. The men are all harvesting. Not even a chore man is left on the place. They have been cutting sixty acres a day with all five harvesters running. . . . Some of the men are shocking [stacking sheaves of grain upright in a field for drying]. . . . The reapers are flying all about us, stretching out their long white arms and grasping the grain. They remind me of sea gulls as they glisten in the sunshine.

(August 13, 1887) Our family has increased until there are thirty-two. We have put the cook stove in the blacksmith shop. The men have taken all the machinery from the machine house and put in tables with bunks overhead, making a fine new living quarter. We have a man cook and he has taken sixteen at his table out there.

The yard is full of threshers. They have been running the new machine to try it. . . . It looks very queer indeed to see an engine running around the yard with no horses attached to it. They whistle and toot and frighten the chickens and some of the horses. At present there is about a mile square covered with buildings and machinery.¹

By the early 20th century, the day of the bonanza farm had passed. Run as a large-scale business, the farms operated on a very narrow profit margin. The price of land began to rise after 1900, as did corporate taxes. Costs of labor and equipment rose as wheat prices fell. The huge farms were gradually broken up, but the geography of the valley dictated that the new farms still would encompass thousands of acres.

The bonanza farms had been a useful experiment. They demonstrated the fertility of the Red River Valley and brought in many settlers. The investors in the Northern Pacific Railroad made good their losses. The railroads profited from their share of wheat-hauling, as well as from the shipments of goods purchased by the wheat farmers. As a model and an ideal, the bonanza farms helped transform agriculture from a family-based, animal-powered effort in the 19th century to a technologically-oriented business in the 20th century.

Questions for Reading 2

1. Look up the word "bonanza" in the dictionary. Most bonanzas on the American frontier were in mining or ranching. What do you think the word might mean applied to a farm?

2. Why do you think it took so long for farmers to settle here?

3. Why did the Northern Pacific Railroad want to encourage large wheat-growing businesses?

4. What conditions in the Red River Valley favored large-scale wheat cultivation?

5. Go over the excerpts from Mrs. Woodward's diary and make a list of kinds of work, types of machines, effects of weather, things she liked, and things she didn't like. What threats to the wheat crop can you identify? Do you think such a business was a practical venture? What other generalizations can you draw? Would you have liked to live and work on a bonanza farm?

6. How do you think the introduction of steam-powered machinery would have affected wheat farming generally, and bonanza farms in particular?

Reading 2 was compiled from Lauren McCroskey, "Bonanza Farming in North Dakota" National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Submission, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1990; Marty Perry, "Bagg Bonanza Farm District" (Richland County, North Dakota) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1985; Harold Briggs, "Early Farming in the Red River Valley of the North" (a paper presented at the joint session of the Agricultural History Society with the American Historical Association, Minneapolis, December 28, 1931), 27-28; and Merrie Sue Holtan, "The Bonanza Farms," North Dakota Rural Electric Cooperative Magazine (January 1989), 42-44; and Mary Dodge Woodward, The Checkered Years, Mary Boynton Cowdrey, ed., Caldwell, ID: The Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1937, (reprint edition, St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1989), 40-184, used by permission.

¹Mary Dodge Woodward, The Checkered Years, Mary Boynton Cowdrey, ed., Caldwell, ID: The Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1937, (reprint edition, St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1989), 40-184, used by permission.


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