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Feature Story
Prairie Crossroads
Page 3

A Nation of Farmers

Photo of the plainsAlthough the cattle boom went bust on an epic scale, the next agricultural disaster was worse still -- the greatest ever to afflict the northern plains. It, too, has left a visible mark on the land. Popular history identifies the railroad man James Hill as the villain of the piece, a classic robber baron like many of his fellow railroad builders. True, Jim Hill did lure a string of settlers to the Breaks as he extended his Great Northern Railway west from St. Paul across the Rockies. He did so with a "scientific" notion called dry farming, his big plan for the land. Its proponents believed it was possible to grow wheat on as little as 10 inches of rain a year, using a mixture of fallow fields and deep plowing. Hill's minions went as far afield as Russia to spread this gospel to prospective immigrants. Hill, however, was not out to bilk settlers. Unlike all the other continental railroads, his Great Northern was not financed by federal land grants, and Hill therefore had no land to sell. He needed settlers, true enough, but could turn a profit on shipping their wheat only if they succeeded.

Whatever the motivation, the settlers -- plowers, not grazers -- did arrive in the Missouri Breaks by the thousands, beginning in 1909. Between 1913 and 1915, some 5,000 people moved into Phillips County, where Malta is located. Today the county has a population of just over 4,000.

As the most arid part of the interior West, the Missouri Breaks was the last land to be settled. Yet at the time, its settlement was viewed as the final, triumphant flourish of a march of farmers across the continent, the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny and of the Jeffersonian ideal of a democracy built not by robber barons but by independent farmers occupying a grant of good land. The motor force of this settlement had been the Homestead Act of 1862 and its various derivatives and amendments, which gave public land to anyone willing to settle it and tame it with the plow.

But the yeomen who settled the Breaks in 1909 were mostly destitute or gone by 1919. Their failure taught the lesson that the rest of the nation would learn during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The settlers plowed the protective cover of grass -- an act of folly, since one cubic yard of an intact short-grass prairie contains 20 miles of root hairs, which hold the whole business together. This disregard for nature's design brought quick retribution, with environmental disaster leading to economic disaster. The drought-induced crop failures in north-central Montana during the teens and early twenties left the soil bare and led to the dust storms of the late twenties, prefiguring the plague that would sweep through Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico over the next decade. This, as much as any crash of the stock market, is what caused the Great Depression.

Empty Nest Syndrome
Alaska's Meltdown
Father Nature Says...
Come to the Laissez Fair

Click to enlarge

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Photo: Vern Evans
Map: Small World Maps

OnEarth. Summer 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council