by Arnold Hokanson
As the days of the gold rush waned in Montana Territory and boom towns began the transition to ghost towns, the era of food production began.
Where the early day prospectors turned to the mountain streams in search of gold dust that might lead to a great strike and would produce great fortunes, eastern investors viewed the free grass and western ranchlands (usually through information obtained through hearsay rather than personal inspection) as a source of wealth. Trail herds were brought in from Texas and beef production began in the territory.
But the eastern-based concerns were unfamiliar with the fickle swings of weather in this western land, and the hard winters of the late 1880s not only discouraged profits, but in some cases, wiped out operations completely due to death losses, thus resulting in a loss of enthusiasm by eastern investors.
There is an old saying that “one man’s loss is another man’s gain.” This proved to be true in the case of one young western entrepreneur who teamed up with a banker of the area to become established in the cattle business.
The story has long been circulated as to how the young entrepreneur bought one train load of cattle but shipped two loads into the area (implying that there may have been something improper about the whole deal).
I was told several years ago by a great grandson of the man in question as to how that situation developed.
An eastern based operation estimated their winter loss to be greater than it actually was. They estimated of the thousands of head of cattle they owned during the winter, only approximately one train load survived. They wanted to salvage what they could. The young entrepreneur offered to buy the brand which meant that any stock wearing the brand would be his.
The estimates were found to be very pessimistic. As the cowboys rounded up the surviving cattle wearing the purchased brand, they found there were two train loads of cattle rather than just the one that had been negotiated, consequently creating a bargain and questions of concern for many years.
More settlers began to drift in as Montana prepared to become a state. Most of the settlers of that era were immigrants from Europe and were more comfortable traveling by buggy or buckboard or even on foot rather than on a saddle horse, the result being that those who aspired to become involved in the livestock business became sheep men.
This development created trouble in some areas as the two different factions competed for grass and water. The cattlemen taking attitude (understandably) believed that the newcomers were infringing on their rights since they had controlled the range for a longer period of time.
In north central Montana, however, the area with which I am most familiar, about the closest thing to a confrontation was the act of cowboys occasionally scattering poisoned meat across sheep range to eliminate the sheepherders’ dogs, as it makes keeping the sheep under control more difficult without a dog.
One of the more humorous incidents to come out of this era is how a young man took up a claim on a spring located in a prime spot on a cattleman’s range. To the surprise of everyone, the cattleman took a “live and let live” attitude and did not bother the young squatter. The squatter pushed it a little farther and brought in a band of sheep. Still, the cattleman took it in stride as a sign of the changing times. But when the squatter became interested in the same young lady as the cowman, the cowman told the other that he would see him leave the country with nothing but the clothes on his back, which he proceeded to do.
As another generation began to grow into the ranching business, they were more used to the ways of the West and were more inclined to sit on a horse than to herd sheep. More people were coming in and taking up land, and as fences were constructed, it only seemed natural that most ranches turned to running cattle. But with the influx of people, the open range was disappearing.
The government, in its usual manner, goofed good by assuming that the western ranges held the same productive soil and ample moisture as did the Midwest, where a farmer could eke out a living on 160 acres. Across most of the West, 160 acres would not even support a team of horses and a milk cow. As a result, many of those who came west during the homestead days with high hopes of securing a future on the promise of free land not only had their hopes dashed, but lost what few funds they may have had previously.
Considering the mistake of issuing homesteads of 160 acres in the West, the government attempted to rectify the situation to some extent by purchasing what was known as an “additional” of 160 acres, and also creating a desert claim which – guess what – was a piece of dry land. The hitch was that the desert claim was to be irrigated, the result being that there were ditches everywhere from one dry coulee to another and the only time any water flowed through them was under a heavy runoff. But even the additionals and the desert claims did not give families enough acreage to make a living. Many sad stories came out of that era, such as people running up a debt and leaving their claim in the middle of the night and leaving what few possessions they had behind , not even bothering to take the dishes that sat on the table with them.
The Dirty Thirties were difficult for everyone. The years of drought and poor prices weeded out still more of the hopefuls. It was an era where anyone with an amount of money could have prospered greatly as land prices were dirt cheap and much land could have been acquired by paying the back taxes. But few were able to take advantage of the situation and most operations remained small. Any ranch operation that could boast of a 100 cow herd was considered to be larger than average.
Also during that era, much of a rancher’s or farmer’s time was spent on survival. Everyone milked cows and ate their own beef, unless a slick stray that no one claimed happened to show up in a herd. People worked at raising gardens. But unless there was water available for irrigation, most did not produce very well. Much time was also dedicated to providing fuel, chopping wood, and digging coal where available.
One year, a bachelor in the north central Montana area raised a crop of rutabagas which was his only source of survival, along with his single-shot .22 rifle and a box of shells. (It seems the good Lord always provides if a person has the initiative to take action.) Jack rabbits were plentiful at the time. The man in question shot rabbits, stewed them up with rutabagas, and survived the winter. When asked if such a diet didn’t get pretty tiresome, he answered that it did but if he just laid off it for a couple days, it tasted pretty good again.
Although it was a sad way to improve the economy, people in general became more prosperous during and after WWII. Ranches and farms began to increase in size, as less time was required for survival, and agriculture in general became more prosperous.
During the ensuing years, ranchers began to concentrate on improving the quality of their cattle. Many reputable herds developed around the state and the trend was especially evident in the Bear’s Paw Mountains, where I have spent most of my life. The trend continues today with such recognized purebred herds as the Clear Creek Angus, Don Weaver Herefords, and a number of commercial herds.
In the meantime, to the west of the Bear’s Paws, the farming country of Lonesome Prairie, which the early day ranchers and cowboys considered wasteland, has become known as the Golden Triangle, whether because of the great crops of golden wheat it produces each year or from the wealth those crops produced I am unsure.
At any rate, agriculture has played and still plays a major role in Montana’s economy. There have been good times and there have been bad times. What the future holds, no one knows. There is still a lot of optimism out there, but with a society that knows not how or where their food is produced, it leads one to wonder.
(My novels are available through Amazon and Authorhouse Bookstore. For more information, call (406) 265-2712.)