10 September 2007

Hope & Opportunity: Homesteading in Montana 1909-1920

By Ken Robison

[Published in the Fort Benton River Press 11 July 2007. The article accompanied a Homestead Photography Exhibition at the entrance to the Museum of the Northern Great Plains during summer of 2007. This Exhibition will be in the Great Falls Public Library during May-June 2008.]

This continues the series of sketches by historians at the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton.

The men and women who came to claim free land in Montana through homesteading faced many trials and tribulations as they worked through the good and bad times. Visual insight into the experiences of these hearty men, women, and children will be on display throughout this summer at the entrance to our Museum of the Northern Plains. The exhibition is built from the broad collection of imagery and memorabilia held at the Overholser Historical Research Center and the River and Plains Society Museums. This community collection of photography belongs to the people of Fort Benton, and it will continue to grow through your generosity. If you have photographs of the towns, ranches, farms, rivers, and people, stop by our Overholser Center. If you can part with them, we will add them to the collection. If you can’t part with them, but are willing to share them with the community, we’ll scan them into our digital photographic archives. Meanwhile enjoy the exhibition this summer as you reminisce about our forefathers when you visit the Museum of the Northern Plains, the Montana State Agricultural Museum, and the Homestead Village.

When Abe Lincoln signed the original Homestead Act into law in 1862, he reportedly announced, “This will do something for the little fellow.” The Act allowed “the little fellow,” men and unmarried women, American citizens age 21 or over, to claim up to 160 acres of public land and make homes for themselves and their families. David Carpenter filed the first homestead entry in Montana by 1 August 1868 on a claim just north of Helena. The first woman to file a claim was Margaret Maccumber of the Gallatin on 8 September 1870. Five years were required to patent or receive title to the land in those early years.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that homesteading in Montana dramatically began to increase. Hardy Webster Campbell developed dry land farming techniques and the Great Northern Railroad promoted homestead settlements in Montana. In 1909 Campbell pronounced, “I believe of a truth that this region [including Montana] . . . is destined to be the last and best grain garden in the world. Good farming can be done here even better than in the humid region, but the work must be understood and carefully applied.”

Congress passed an Enlarged Homestead Act in 1909 allowing 320-acre claims and more flexibility for homesteaders to work at other jobs part of each year away from the claim. In 1912 the “prove-up” period was lowered from five to three years. With extensive advertising and promotion the homestead land rush to Montana was under way. Among the homesteaders pouring into Chouteau County during this period were my Robison grandparents, who with the related Applegate and Withrow families came by rail from Missouri to the Square Butte Bench area.

Many homesteaders came, but far fewer stayed. The wet years of the mid-1910s turned to dry years toward the end of this first decade, and the term “free land, no guarantee” became all too true. Our farmers of today are largely descended from the hardy first generation of homesteaders, who held down their debt in bad times, tenaciously worked hard and acquired more land in good times. We hope you enjoy our sampling of the images of these pioneer homesteaders as they arrived by Great Northern train, located their claims, built their claim shacks, established schools for their children, and carried out their daily work in the fields and in the homes.

Through the generosity of the McCardle family, you will see a model homestead, based on the A. J. McCardle homestead located near Flogan Coulee in the Hawarden area east of Geraldine. Built by son Leon McCardle, the model shows the 1912 sod claim shack build by his father. The other buildings are also built of sod, and the model provides an excellent example of an original homestead in Chouteau County.

Although many photographers took the photos in our collection of homesteading photography, two of them left an exceptional record of the own homesteading experience. Willard E. Barrows was an exceptional and prolific photographer. Barrows came from Nez Perce, Idaho, filing a homestead in the Pleasant Valley Community, February 7, 1910. Barrows lived and recorded nearly every aspect of the homestead period from 1910 to 1920. His interest in photography continued until the late 1940s. (Willard E. Barrows 1873-1951)

Using 4 by 5 inch dry-plate glass negative photography, Alexander DuBois recorded his adventures in Montana from 1914 to 1920. Alex came from the Midwest where he had taught high school and acquired the name “Professor.” Whether he was cutting timber and making ties for the Great Northern at Belton, visiting and recording the life of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph A. Baker at their Upper Highwood ranch, or working on his own homestead near Teton Ridge, Alex DuBois captured the action in a remarkable series of photographs. Alex and his wife Alma left their homestead and Montana by 1920, and moved to the Midwest where Alex worked as an electrical engineer in Chicago and Minnesota. (Alexander DuBois 1866-1966)

Among the photographs on display are several by Willard Barrows showing the arrival of the family in an emigrant car, loading their belongings on to wagons, moving on to the claim, breaking sod with a Case Steam Engine, a four-horse team pulling a bottom walking plow, three horses and two boys on a walking plow, celebrating Thanksgiving in 1912 inside the claim shack, building a sod claim shack, the LaBarre country school and the first Pleasant Valley school, wash day on the prairie using some clever “pedal power” techniques, children playing around the claim shack.

Photographs by Alexander DuBois show him building his claim shack, tents and claim shacks in winter, hauling and stacking hay, breaking sod and plowing with an eight horse team, a binder and team of horses cutting oats, stacked wheat in the fields, and a threshing outfit on the move complete with a cook house and milk cow.

Animals were important on the homestead. DuBois took many animal photographs including one striking photo of his wife Alma holding a young coyote pup in her arms inside the claim shack. Children are shown playing with toys inside and outside the house.

The chance for free land and opportunity proved irresistible to many. But homesteading was not a free lunch. It involved hardships that are difficult to imagine today. Setting off into an unknown, undeveloped area that to many appeared as a barren and harsh landscape was but the first of many challenges to face them. Some hoped for a second chance and a better life in an occupation for which they were ill prepared. Some were lured by the railroads with advertising for “a land of milk and honey.” Over time about 25% survived and succeeded in their homesteading experience. The other 75% failed, lost their land, and moved on. Those that persevered and prevailed paved the way for future generations. Descendants of these hearty homesteaders today live on the farms and ranches of Chouteau County.

(Sources: Montana’ Homestead Era by Daniel N. Vichorek; Homestead Days by T. Eugene Barrows)


(1) A Threshing Outfit on the Move. Photo by Alex DuBois [Overholser Historical Research Center]

(2) Sohn’s Binder & Team Cutting Oats. Photo by Alex DuBois [Overholser Historical Research Center]

(3) Young Coyote in Arms of Mrs. Alma DuBois. Photo by Alex DuBois [Overholser Historical Research Center]


Anonymous said...

this has helped in so many ways and i really appreciate your generosity for helpin young students as myself better undrestand the early days of MOntana

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