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Agriculture, In Our Valley, Through the Years


Shane Stewart

Senior High Division

When any of us local people think about or hear anyone of us talk of the Red River Valley, we are inclined to think of only our area, perhaps from Grand Forks up to the Canadian border. The Red River Valley is about 320 miles long and varies from forty to fifty miles wide. The river only drops about 250 feet from the south to the north and rises only two or three feet a mile for the first ten to fifteen miles on either the east or west side of the river. The Red River is formed at the south end by the joining of two small rivers, the Bois de Sioux and Otter Tail rivers. The Red River, flowing north empties into Lake Winnipeg. It is bordered on the east side by mostly forested lake country and on the west by prairie land.

The valley was formed thousands of years ago by ice masses moving from the north to south. The ice sheets or glaciers kept leveling the ground as it went south pushing and carrying vast amounts of silt, gravel, and clay and depositing this layer of fine soil under it in depths from fifty to three hundred feet. This accounts for the alluvium soil we have in the valley. After the glaciers melted, it formed Lake Agassiz which flowed northward into Hudson Bay leaving the Red River Valley more level and the soil more fertile. In the process of Lake Agassiz draining, it left small streams or rivers draining into the Red River at different points along the way, thus accounting for all the rivers that now flow into the Red from both the east and the west side. These rivers also carried fertile soil into the valley basin depositing in depths from five to fifty feet deep and from five to ten miles on each side of the Red River. The Red River is sometimes called the "American Nile."

The Red River Valley is almost the same size as Lake Agassiz was. The Pembina Mountains, a long rock formation, which rises in places from three to four hundred feet high and runs about eighty miles on the west side and forms the western side of the valley. The northern end on the west side is formed by large sand hills from twenty to one hundred feet high. The southern end of the valley on the west side has a border of a gradual rising grassland. The eastern side of the valley on the north end gives way to sandy and a forested area and as you go southward the gradual rising and forested lake area gives way to open and gradual rising prairie grassland.

The valley consisted of different types of topsoil growth. The northern end from about Park River north, consisted of forest and slough areas. The southern end was mostly wild grass and slough grass that grew in the lower or undrained areas.

History states that different groups of Indians occupied the valley from about the year 1600 to about 1850. The Cree and the Assiniboine Indians inhabited mostly the northern end of the valley up to about the year of 1700. The Cheyenne Indians lived in the southern end of the valley along with the Sioux Indians.

The valley served the Indians very well for many years. They had plenty buffalo on the prairie and elk, deer, and bear abounded in the forest. The river contained many fish, such as, catfish, whitefish, pickerel, crappies, and also sturgeon that weighed as much as 150 pounds and were said to be so numerous at times that they were sometimes an obstacle for the navigation of canoes by the fur trappers. Wild fruit was abundant to the Indians also. It consisted of strawberries, plums, cherries, cranberries, raspberries, grapes and many more. The valley served the Indians very well as they had plenty of food to eat, plenty hides for their clothing and homes, bone materials for their hunting weapons. The fur bearing animals, such as, fisher, mink, raccoon, wolverine were very numerous.

The Indians existed in this way of life for centuries before their way of life was vastly changed. It happened on the arrival of more fur traders into the valley. The introduction of firearms and liquor to the Indians brought this change. The Indians became more nomadic giving up growing food and depending more on the buffalo hunts alone for their living by trading hides and skins to the traders for their living. This is what could be called the bonanza years for the Indians in this area until about 1840. The fur trading at Pembina was at its best about 1790 to 1880. The draught that came to the valley about 1830 ended this bonanza for the Indian and it was too late for them to go back to the old way of life. Liquor and smallpox infested the Indians about 1830 so badly that they were forced to give the land to the United States and to Canada and move on to reservations.

During this time, the Hudson Bay Company started agriculture at the northern end of the valley by granting a large tract of the northern valley to Lord Selkirk to settle farmers on it so that they could supply food to the fur traders. These settlers or farmers came mostly from Scotland to start with. Settlers began coming into the valley at about the same time by way of Fort Snelling which had just been established.

The first steamboat to sail the Red River was hauled by sled 150 miles and then put into the river at Georgetown, Minnesota. This was the year of 1859. This speeded up the fur trading business very much and the settlers began to see that they had a good way of transporting their agricultural products. The half breed people of Manitoba who had made a living in the fur trade business began to turn to agriculture about this time too. Most of these people already had settled along the river so this was quite a start in agriculture in Manitoba. Wheat was the major crop north of the border to begin with. The seed was from England. This early variety of wheat was called "Red Fife" and was the main and best variety grown for many years both north and south of Pembina.

Around 1850, Mr. James J. Hill, a man that I think all of us have heard about, came into the agriculture picture. He had been connected with steamboats along the river at first. He then went into the implement business as he foresaw that agriculture needed machinery if it were to grow in the valley. He sold as many reapers, threshers and other machinery to the Selkirk farmers in Manitoba as he sold to the valley farmers in the states. The threshers that were sold around 1850 could handle about fifty to one hundred bushels a day. The implement company that was popular then was the Manny Company of Rockford, Illinois.

The implement companies did not start producing many tractors until the first World War. Some names were: Ford, Case, Allis Chalmers, Bull, Minneapolis Steel & Machinery. You see many of these names yet on tractors and farm equipment.

Despite the fact that the land in the valley was very fertile, agriculture did not take hold very fast. Settlers tried raising livestock up and down the valley but the quality of the cattle and hogs were very poor. The Selkirk settlers in Manitoba tried to raise sheep but wolves and dogs ruined this. The Hudson Bay Company had even started about three experimental farms up to this time but all of them more or less failed. One of the major reasons the valley was not attracting settlers was the fact that there were such poor ways of marketing any produce that was raised.

This situation brought the beginning of the railroads into the valley. The majority of the railroad building came in the years from 1870 to 1879. We have to give a lot of credit again to Mr. James J. Hill for the railroad building. Mr. Hill hauled freight from St. Cloud to Georgetown by ox cart, then loaded it on boats on the Red River and sent it up the river as far as Winnipeg. He first used a railroad built to Moorhead, Minnesota and later extended it to Crookston. He then built a short spur to Fisher's Landing on his own which was the first step for the building of the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railroad Co. of 1879. Government grants to the railroad companies gave much of the valley land to them for building railroads and so by about 1870 about one-third of the valley was owned by the railroad companies.

Settlers began coming into the valley in larger groups, especially in the southern part and the Dakota side. Many of them settled in river towns such as: Georgetown, Moorhead, Frog Point, Drayton, and Pembina. They started up trading stores and other businesses. The farms on the Dakota side of the valley became larger and more numerous than on the Minnesota side. This was accomplished by some men seeking outside money from men in New York or elsewhere and expanding their landholdings. Land could be bought for about five dollars an acre so many of the Dakota farms grew to 2,00 or 3,000 acres.

The bonanza boom did not hit the valley until about 1880. Railroads were quite responsible for this as it provided transportation for the grain, mostly wheat, that was raised. Our own area, Kittson County, was now being farmed quite extensively. Mr. H. W. Donaldson operated a 33,000 acre at Kennedy, Minnesota. He had 25 teams of horses and mules, 100 plows, 45 seeders, and 47 harvesters. He raised 250,000 bushels of wheat on 11,000 acres in 1885. (1)

Mr. James J. Hill began large scale operations at both Northcote and Humboldt in Kittson County during the early 1880's, and the size of the combined farms has been estimated at more than 20,000 acres. (2) A man by the name of Valentine was Hill's first resident foreman but he was soon replaced by Captain Donaldson, who directed the Humboldt operation from his own farm and retained a resident foreman at the Northcote farm. There were very few buildings put on the Northcote farm until after 1900 but the Humboldt farm had all the equipment of any of the large scale operations. Incidentally, my grandfather worked on the Humboldt farm when he was a very young man in about the year of 1914, the farm was then being managed by a Mr. John Loer.

There were many more large bonanza farms going in the valley but I though these may be of more interest, they being right here where we live. There were many more smaller farms than the bonanza size farms, some of which failed and some proved to be very successful. Wheat was selling for approximately $1.20 a bushel in the year of 1880.

In spite of these bonanza boom years, there was still only about half the valley land that was being farmed. The Government did many things to encourage the people to settle on the land. There was the Homestead Act, the Pre-emption Purchase Act, and the Timber Culture Act. I think our part of the valley was as slow to be completely settled as any of the valley was. This was probably due to the fact that there was much of the valley here that was poorly drained and remained just about too wet to be settled. Besides being too wet to be farmed, the fact that there were no roads that could be built when the land was so wet. The North Dakota side of the valley was in a general rule better, at least 80 percent of the land was being farmed there by this time. A lot of this wetter land was being encouraged to be settled on by these Government land grants. The Homestead Act entitled a settler to 160 acres if he built a house on the land and then broke a certain percent of the land for crop. This act was also helped by the Commutation Act, which entitled the homesteader to buy this land for $1.25 an acre if he had lived on it for six months. The Timber Culture Act entitled a man to another 160 acres of land if he would plant and tend ten acres of trees on the land. We still hear of different land in our country being referred to as "The Tree Claim Quarter." The Pre-emption Act was another help to the homesteader. He could what they call "prove up" by making improvements on his homestead quarter by fencing or plowing, then he could borrow from $500 to $600 which was three or four hundred dollars more than the $1.25 an acre paid under the Commution Act.

In spite of all this, farming did not go so well in many places in the valley. Prices of grain fell after the bonanza years, weeds became a major problem and drainage another one. The settlers found out that wheat could not be raised year after year on the same ground. Livestock became a part of nearly every farm, thus encouraging the farmers to raise more barley and oats. The Government allotted $100,000 to help improve water drainage in the valley where it was needed in 1893 and again Mr. J. J. Hill added $25,000 to this as he knew that drainage would help the railroad if the farmer had better drainage and better roads to the railroad. A very wet period set in in about 1900, thus increasing the need for better drainage and for more livestock all the more. The Government sponsored much more help for drainage after 1900 in the valley, we have good examples of it in the large drainage ditches leading to the Red River just west of Humboldt.

From 1900 and on, the government also did very much to help the farmer by establishing Agriculture Laboratories which later grew into colleges such as Crookston and Fargo in the U.S. and Winnipeg and Mordan in Canada. These wheat varieties had begun to do poorly and there was a need for the development of new and better kinds. Two men that worked very hard on this side of the border for agriculture was a Mr. Sheppard and a Mr. Bolley. These men worked out of the school at Fargo and also worked closely with the Crookston and Manitoba college. They and other men brought into use better breeding practices in the raising of livestock, control of many diseases, a new alfalfa "Grimm," a new rust resistant wheat for a time, "Marquis" was developed by them through the school.

Farming in the valley became much more stabilized after 1900. The price of grain increased and cattle were becoming of a better quality throughout the valley. The government had granted more money for the Agriculture Colleges to work with which created more extension agents through the valley so the farmers were better informed. The farmers at the Southern end of the valley were turning more to dairy products better and as a result created a much larger market for the dairy products. Today, we still have some nice dairy farms mostly at the southern end and very north end of the valley by Winnipeg. Potatoes became a big agricultural practice throughout the entire valley. The North Dakota side of the valley became quite an area for the raising and fattening of cattle and hogs. Corn became a very important crop in the southern part of the valley with the raising of hogs. About 1925, sugar beets became a cash crop in the southern part of the valley and today is one of the most important crops throughout the entire valley. About the time of World War II, truck gardening became a very important part of agriculture in the valley from the south end clean to Winnipeg, and is still a very large part of the economy today.

Agriculture in the valley learned a very hard lesson during the 1930's and we still see the results today. Farmers had been cropping land year after year thus depleting the soil very much. The weather turned to a dry cycle and much of their topsoil turned into a dust storm for many days. Many farmers on the west side of the river left their farms after those dry years in search of land that had not blown. Farmers learned then that legumes were the best possible thing to be returning to their land. Most farmers today are very concerned or disappointed when they are unable to get a good legume crop to plow into their land every three years.

Horses, mules, and oxen had always played a most important part for power on the farms from the beginning. Tractors were always being introduced and many of the large bonanza farms had used them but always the most reliable power had been from the animals.

The trend toward mechanical power took much more of a trend in the late 30's. Horses on nearly every farm were being traded for tractors. The hired men that had been on these farms driving these horses were no longer needed as the farmer and his family could now generally do the work with a tractor or two. This was the end of the peak of the population of people on farms in the valley and we have seen a yearly decline in the population since. Farmers, themselves, began selling their farms after World War II and the trend toward fewer and larger farms became a very definite trend until a couple of years ago. It has now leveled off to where there are a small number of people farming. Where at one time there was a family on every quarter, one may farm many quarters. Most of these people moved to larger cities where they think there is a more secure standard of living.

Agriculture in the valley has gone through many changes since the Indians first grew a little corn here many centuries ago. Prices of farm commodities have always been changing, either shifting up or down, generally according to the law of supply and demand. The period through World War II and after brought quite high prices but more land was quickly put into production of grain so prices soon fell with the huge surplus. the government tried helping the farmers by the introduction of the "Soil Bank Program." Here many acres of crop land was seeded to grass for a specified number of years for a certain price per acre. This again saw a lot of valley farmers leaving the farm for the larger cities, a majority that never did resume farming when this program ended.

The years between 1960 and 1970 were not easy ones for most farms throughout the valley. They still had the century old trouble with the weather at times, too wet or too dry, sometimes both in one year. There have been several years of severe spring flooding all along the valley, such as the years of 1940 and 1950 for an example. Many of the remaining farmers up and down the valley moved from their farms along the river or diked their whole farms. We all know of the many auction sales up and down the valley that started about 1950 and kept increasing up to the year of 1972 when it reached it's peak with very little demand for machinery.

I am old enough now to see the change that has again come into the agriculture economy through the valley the last couple of years. Mother nature has helped agriculture in the valley with a very good crop and a good price in general for grain crops due to world demand but quite opposite for cattle. Land has increased in value in the entire valley the last few years.

We have seen quite a shift from individual farming to the incorporation of the family farm the last few years. I understand there are some advantages to this type of farming. Farmers that are now engaged in agriculture have an enormous amount of capital involved in raising a crop of grain. I might say that the expense of farming 2,000 acres today is nearly as much as it cost Mr. Hill to farm the 20,000 acres he farmed in 1885 due to the large increase in the price of land, fertilizer, machinery, etc. I think most farmers all up and down the valley are quite unsure of what the agriculture picture will be like in the valley in a few years but most will continue to work there and always hope for the best.

I think agriculture in the valley owes a lot of gratitude to our agriculture colleges on both sides of the valley and to the ones in Manitoba. they have consistently worked for better strains of grain, better insecticides, fungicides, and many more things. We have extension agents in every county that spend many hours helping agriculture. I have only briefly tried to tell the picture of agriculture in the Red River Valley since the Indians first grew corn in a few short rows along the river bank many years ago. Agriculture has become really the backbone of the economy here, and I think we can all agree that we really have "The American Nile" at our door.

(1) Stanley Norman Murray, Valley Comes of Age, Laud Press, Inc. 1967, p. 133

(2) Ibid.


Murray, Stanley Norman, Valley Comes of Age, c 1967

"Power to Produce", Yearbook of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture 1960, U.S. Government Printing Office

"Red River Valley", Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 19, William Benton Publisher, c 1966, p 29

Stewart, Hilson, Humboldt, Minnesota, Interview, January 3, 1975

Wilson, Howard, St. Vincent, Minnesota, Interview, January 4, 1975