Bonanza

by

Lois Armstrong

Snow 100 feet deep. Winds up to 80 mph tearing up greatcrusts of earth. And the life! There were private railroad cars, accompaniedby retinues of guests, servants, and imported foods and liquors. Dinnerscost from fifty to one hundred dollars a plate. Gambling was the main sportby night and horse racing by day. Fortunes in money or sections of landwere won or lost on the turn of a card or the nose of a horse. Was thislife on the frontier, the no-man's land? Not completely, but this was apart of the life in the Red River Valley. The initiation of this so calledfrivolous" life was one of many effects bonanza farming had on theRed River Valley.

Westward movement across the North American continent didnot happen overnight. It took place in many distinct phases. The first frontiersmaninto this area was the fur trader. He came to find wealth in the form ofskins. The area was abundant, but he eventually moved on and actually didlittle to change the wilderness. Next followed the cattleman. He too stayedfor a short while, but had no lasting influence on the wilderness. The minerwas the logical choice to follow next. But conditions in the Valley werenot favorable to mining and he also left the area much like he found it.The first real influence on life in the Red River Valley was the pioneerfarmer. He refused to let nature rule him. He settled on the land that appealedmost to him, broke it, erected a house, and then settled back to wait forthe rush of farmers to follow him. This rush brought the equipped farmer.He initiated new machinery and practices to develop the area even more.In a sense he brought with him Eastern civilization which in turn broughtanother dweller - the city people. This naturally meant the end of the frontier.But it was the equipped farmer who really developed the country. In theRed River Valley the equipped farmer was the bonanza farmer.

Many factors were involved in the establishment of bonanzafarms. A large amount of land was made available to holders of NorthernPacific securities after the Panic of 1873. The Northern Pacific Railwayhad met with financial failure and thus one of the largest land grants inAmerican history took place. Some of this land grant was in the fertileRed River Valley, which not only meant productive land, but also relativelytreeless, stoneless, and flat. This made it ideal for farming with largescale machinery which was beginning to be introduced around this time. Easterncapitalists who had lost large sums of money due to the railway failure,now saw investments in land as their only hope of recovering their money.They thus applied Eastern business practices to farming and secured hugeblocks of land, professional managers, and large scale machinery to createthe bonanza farms of the late l800's. Although the reasons for these specificagricultural trends in the Red River Valley were varied two basic causesremained: free land was the great motivating force and the farmers werethe true settlers.

The Dakota and Minnesota territories were sparsely populatedwith people and industry before 1870. However the trend changed due to theeffects of a single man. That man was James B. Power. He came to this areain 1873 as a clerk in the railroad business. After years of hard work hewas promoted to land commissioner in North Dakota. He was well aware thatthis area was very productive, but as of yet, still undeveloped. The saleof these lands to holders of railway securities that had failed providedthe outlet for this development. This not only gave Eastern stockholdersback their money, but encouraged the first real development of the territory.

Bonanza farms clearly demonstrated the real opportunitiesin the Red River Valley. They introduced a new style of agriculture uniqueto this area. But as Power and Northern Pacific officials had hoped, thesebonanza farms served as a great advertisement to show the world the potentialof this area.

The size of a bonanza farm has never really been definitelyestablished. At the beginning of the era the figure was 1,000 acres. Butthis soon became much too small or common. In 1897, the figure which wasconsidered appropriate was 7,000 acres. With such large acreage the numberof bonanza farms in the Valley was under 100.(1)

Bonanza's were very often a one-crop operation. All theother products needed on the farms, such as butter, meat, eggs, etc. werepurchased. Because the usual crop was wheat, some managers even purchasedoats to feed their horses because they did not want to bother with two crops.They did not want this bother because they found diversification tendedto reduce the bonanza's efficiency. Their source of income came from twoplaces: crops and livestock. Wheat proved to be the most profitable cropso it was raised extensively. Walter R. Reed, a bonanza owner, made thisstatement concerning the crops, "These farms are almost invariablystraight wheat farms. They do not even raise oats for their horses, figuringthat they can buy oats cheaper than they can raise them." (2)

Besides wheat there seemed to be a general aversion toother crops. Even when wheat had worn down the soil the farmers turned tofallowing instead of rotation with other crops. But this hard use of thesoil could not continue forever. The yields dropped from year to year andsoon this promoted a gradual shift to other crops. Other grains were grown,but because of the livestock many feed crops were initiated.

The large animal supply, needed to furnish labor for thefarms, actually forced diversification of crops. Because of the number ofanimals needed, shipping in feed became very expensive. So the farms grewdifferent crops to meet the demand. All the labor used in the farm workwas provided by horses and mules. The expense of feeding, housing, and keepingthe animals in good shape ranked second only to the wages and board giventhe men. The large bonanza farms often used 400 work animals in a year,while some smaller ones only needed 50-100. Whatever the number, it is clearthat animals played a major part in the farming operation.

Around 1878, some farmers became interested in raisinganimals for market. Many found the venture successful to a degree, but stilldid not develop livestock raising to such a great extent that it formeda major part of their income.

The bonanza farms were run by professional management.Often times the owner of the land never saw it much less work it. He simplyhired a man with a business background who often times also had farm experience.These managers were paid well- sometimes up to $6,000 a year. But still,they faced problems. They had no one to ask for advice, for they were thetrue pioneers. The southern planter gave some help, but his farming wasof such a different nature that he really did not offer a lot of help. Thebonanza manager was truly the first man to direct farming on such a large-scalebasis.

The first problem was breaking the land. He found thisa slow and expensive process. It was either broken by hired "sod busters"or else by one's own men and horses. During the first year of operationperhaps only two or three sections of land were broken because of the expense.The next problem was the task of establishing a farmstead. This often involvedtransporting lumber and supplies a distance of 50 miles. Some were. morefortunate, however, because the Northern Pacific Railway line ran near theirreal estate which eliminated the problem.

The overall farm was usually broken down into smaller allotmentsto insure smoother operations. Divisions had about 5,000 acres, which inturn were divided into subdivisions of 1,500 acres. Each division had asuperintendent and each subdivision a foreman. These all insured the ultimatein organization needed for such a large enterprise.

The labor force itself was large.. There were several thrashingcrews, made up of about 35 men each, who had year around employment. Inaddition, other workers were hired on a daily basis in time of acute need.There were also men hired to care for the livestock, cook, keep house andthe books. Their salaries ranged from a lowly $.61 a day for a field handto $800 a year for the bookkeeper Besides wages, the owner had the expenseof housing and feeding his workers. All in all, labor was a big dent inthe owner's pocketbook. An average farm in 1881 had 800 workers and needed$9,000 a year to keep them. (3)

The bonanza farms were instrumental in introducing machineryto American agriculture. Before 1870, machinery was practically obsoleteto agriculture. However after this date bonanzas and even small farmersbegan to use machinery extensively. Animals still played a role but it wasone of lessening importance.

Buildings were another facet of the bonanza farm. Theywere a necessary part of the operation - usually being constructed beforethe farming operations started. Along with machinery, they meant a tremendousinvestment to the owner.

Each bonanza farm had one or more elevators which housed40,000-60,000 bushels of grain. There was also the central office and supplybuilding where business was transacted. Other buildings included: homesfor the bookkeeper and manager, a dining hall, dormitories for the laborforce, machine sheds, and stables. All these buildings were costly to buildbecause lumber had to be shipped in. But still because of the magnitudeof the farm these buildings did not prove to be an unreasonable investment.

The bonanza farms were created for specific purposes, andthey served these purposes well. But the factors which had aided their rise,reversed and also contributed to their decline.

The initiator of bonanza farms, James B. Power, also realizedtheir temporary nature. A young North Dakota student, Alva Benton, realizedthis fact when he said, "Men who were familiar with the farming situationrecognized their (bonanza's) temporary character." (4) Five main reasonscan be cited for the bonanzas fall.

Diversification was unknown in 1870, but became importantin the 1890's. This variety of crops greatly reduced efficiency of the operationof the bonanzas. Outside capital presented another drawback. Often timesthe money was present but good management wasn't. This also reduced theprofit of the farms. In the late l880's the farms experienced crop failureafter failure. First no rain fell for weeks; then it finally came and drenchedthe crops. During profitable years, an excess amount of wheat was raisedand the price fell sharply. Once again the bonanza was losing money. Thebonanza also experienced labor problems during this period. Finally manyowners felt that everyone's purpose would be better served if the big unitsof land were broken down into smaller portions. With this action the "bonanzadream" of the 1800's had come to an end.

The bonanza farm era made exciting differences in the UnitedStates in general, and specifically in the Red River Valley. The contributionsof the era were obviously limited because of the small amount of time, butstill they did make an influence on our history.

The farms thoroughly advertised the area, which broughtin people and money. This encouraged settlement of the area in a much shortertime than a usual territory was settled.

The era also effected the factory system of farming. Itintroduced not only the use of large scale machinery but also uniform partsand equipment so that standard repairs and settings could be manufactured.

The idea of a single crop was also introduced during thisera. While neglecting all other crops and planting only wheat, the farmersdeveloped a highly specialized system of production. However, this in timegave only difficulties but it was very effective at first.

Bonanza farming gave some families wealth as they had neverknown it before. These families stayed on their homestead and often timeshelped with the organization of the state using their money where it wasbenefiting themselves as well as others.

The history of the United States has seen many varied andrevolutionary eras. One of the most complex and exciting ones was the bonanzadays. They initiated a new trend in American agriculture and helped makeit what it is today.

 

(1) Drache, The Day of the Bonanza. pp. 72.

 

(2) Fargo Forum. January 18, 1927.

 

(3) Drache, The Day of the Bonanza. pp. 112.

 

(4) Denton, Cash and Share Renting. pp. 33.1>(2) Fargo Forum. January 18, 1927.

 

(3) Drache, The Day of the Bonanza. pp. 112.

 

(4) Denton, Cash and Share Renting. pp. 33.