Highs and Lows
With Montana’s homestead boom came communities to support them. The Great Northern Railroad’s construction across the Northern Plains made it easy and (relatively) affordable for settlers to relocate, with the line reaching Montana in 1887 and the Pacific Ocean by 1891.
This “Hi-Line” through Montana moved thousands of farmers and ranchers into the area, and then shipped out the crops they raised. Numerous supply points sprang up along the railroad, with towns like Rudyard, Havre, Malta, Glasgow, and Wolf Point quickly developing into sustainable communities.
Yet, for all that Montana had to offer, it was far from the paradise that the railroad propogandists made it out to be.
Many of the early settlers erected cramped, one-room shanties from rough-cut lumber or sod. Tarpaper, newspapers, and rags served as poor insulation against the harsh sun, biting cold, and unrelenting wind of the Northern Plains. Additionally, resources were in short supply in some regions, forcing some homesteaders to travel upwards of twenty miles for firewood or coal.
One area homesteader wrote of her experiences: “I have stood in the doorway of our shack, with my heart full of sadness and loneliness and listened to the wind. It is an incessant, screeching, whining and screaming wind, and it seems to be heard nowhere except in Montana on the homestead.”
Crops of Gold
Rewards were great for the hardiest of Montana’s early homesteaders, as the largest boom in settlement coincided with well-timed, heavy rainfall. In 1909, Montana farmers produced nearly 11 million bushels of wheat. By 1910, agriculture surpassed mining as the state’s most lucrative industry. In 1915, “the miracle year,” wheat production reached more than 42 million bushels.
Montana’s high-protein wheat made it a desirable commodity, and the demand during the early Twentieth Century put Montana on the map internationally. The Great War’s spread across Europe in 1914 led to an overwhelming need for ag products. Artificially inflated prices ensured that Montana farmers were generously compensated for their years of hardship.
The Sheep King
Charles M. Bair arrived at Billings in 1883 at the age of 26. Through the 1877 Desert Land Act, he began to invest in property around Lavina and engage in various entrepreneurial activities that led to significant earned wealth. The sale of his ranch in 1881 enabled Bair and his family to move out of their two-room, sod-roofed cabin and into a more comfortable lifestyle at Billings.
Between 1895 and 1898, Bair built an immense sheep empire, running between 10,000 and 40,000 head at Lavina, Hardin, and Martinsdale. (In the 1890s, Montana’s sheep population stood at roughly six million, making it the number one wool-growing state.) That number might have been even larger, had Bair not decided to sell his sheep in 1898 to finance a trip to the Yukon Klondike in search of gold. He returned to Billings in the fall of that year a very wealthy man.
At the turn of the century, Bair leased property on the Crow Reservation near Hardin and stocked the range with as many as 300,000 sheep.
He was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in 1975.