Homestead Act Launches a New Era in Montana (Part 3 of 3)

Pioneer town in Scobey, a gathering of many otherwise doomed homestead-era buildings, is a must-see in northeast Montana

Pioneer town in Scobey, a gathering of many otherwise doomed homestead-era buildings, is a must-see in northeast Montana. (Photo by Rick and Susie Graetz)

The future seemed especially promising – so much so, in fact, that most Montana homesteaders readily heeded the calls by government officials and bankers to “do their patriotic duty” and reinvest their profits in more land and machinery. “Food will Win the War!” the era’s propaganda posters proclaimed, and with readily available credit, Montana’s homesteaders mortgaged virtually everything in hopes of cashing in on the soaring economy.

By Armistice Day in 1918, the state’s population had climbed to an astounding 769,590, according to one governmental publication. Remarkably, Montana’s population had more than tripled in less than 20 years, and with this wave of settlement, hundreds of new towns and no less than 28 new counties had been created.

The growth that occurred during Montana’s homestead boom was so pronounced and so astounding that when it all came crashing down, the enormity of the tragedy was almost incomprehensible. The bust’s beginnings were hardly noticeable. The rain stopped falling in the spring of 1917 in isolated places in northern Montana. Heat waves baked the brown earth black. Then the grasshoppers came in great dark clouds that settled on the landscape like a writhing blanket. Cutworms, wireworms and grass fires followed. The Havre Plaindealer called the catastrophe “the worst in the history of the state.”

By the following spring, the drought spread over all of eastern and central Montana, where temperatures hovered between 100 and 110 degrees. Hot, brutal winds blew the soil the homesteaders so laboriously plowed. Ominous brown-grey clouds rolled across the vast horizon, denuding 2,000,000 acres and partially destroying millions more. By the fall of 1918 – just as the War in Europe was coming to an end – the haunting face of depression appeared everywhere. And there was no end in sight.

Lacking food, seed, land and savings, and with little or no help from state relief agencies, homesteaders left Montana even more quickly than they came. The exodus started in the fall of 1917, and by 1919, when the post-war drop in wheat prices created an even more impossible situation, they left in droves – one with a poetic sign on his wagon: “Twenty miles from water, 40 miles from wood. We’re leaving old Montana, and we’re leaving for good.”

An estimated 60,000 people left Montana during the 1920s – many of them moving to Washington, Oregon and especially California. Other would likely have followed, but they simply didn’t possess the means. Montana was the only state that lost population during the “roaring” 1920s.

The extent of the disaster was staggering, and grim statistics tell the story. Between 1919 and 1925, roughly 2 million acres passed out of production, and 11,000 farms – about 20 percent of the state’s total – were vacated. Farmland prices fell by 50 percent, 20,000 mortgages were foreclosed, and half of Montana’s farmers lost their land.

A generation of reckless lending practices also wrought havoc on the state’s financial institutions. Between 1920 and 1926, more than half of Montana’s commercial banks failed. Of these, 214 closed their doors never to reopen again. Montana’s bankruptcy rate became the highest in the United States.

The collapse of the Montana homestead movement marked the end of the frontier era in the Treasure State. An era of pronounced economic growth and unrivaled optimism was replaced by an unparalleled time of economic stagnation and tragic loss. The terrible 1920s were followed, of course, by the Great Depression of the 1930s, and Montana’s painful ordeal only continued when the rest of the nation’s economic rollercoaster plummeted headlong into its greatest economic crisis.

If Montana’s history has been shaped by one telltale pattern, it is the cycle of boom-bust development so clearly embodied in our homesteading and mining experiences. It is this factor – more than any other – that has shaped our character and cultivated our resiliency. Without hope and hardship, we simply would not be.

By Derek Strahn

Derek Strahn is a Bozeman historian, teacher, historic preservationist, radio show personality and folk/blues musician. He is the author of several works related to local and Montana history, including “The Montana Medicine Show’s Genuine Montana History” – a work the Great Falls Tribune called “one of the classic books every Montanan should read.” In 2010, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History named him Montana’s Preserve America History Teacher of the Year, and in 2015 he was a runner-up for Montana Teacher of the Year.