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100 years ago, a boom and bust fed by hope and greed

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If you drive through the badlands of eastern Montana, you can go for miles without seeing another car, a house or even a tree. Then, out of nowhere, on the side of the road, a broken-down plow appears, an abandoned farm house, an old water pump. Remnants of a time when this remote corner experienced one of the biggest real estate booms in American history.

Here’s a CliffsNotes version, just in case your high school textbook omitted this story:

In the 1910s, tens of thousands of people flocked to Montana, lured by the government’s seductive offer of 320 acres of free land, plus some pretty deceptive advertising by the railroads. Some “homesteaders” wanted to settle and make a new life for themselves. Others simply wanted to speculate on rising land prices. 

For a while things looked good, thanks to unusually wet years, cheap and easy bank loans and farmers’ belief in a new kind of “dry farming” science that promised bountiful wheat harvests, even on the semi-arid northern plains. Then disaster hit. The rains stopped. Wheat prices plunged at the end of World War I. Drought set in and the homestead boom turned into a bust.

Farms were foreclosed. Over half the state’s commercial banks went out of business. Most of the homesteaders walked away and left Montana for good.

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85-year-old Eddie Gaub, featured in the slideshow above, says his German-Russian grandparents immigrated to Montana to start a new life but ended up as poor as they had been in Russia. “When the drought came along they were wiped out,” Gaub says. “It was terrible.  Everybody was trying to find food.”

Listen to this early 20th century boom and bust tale. And check out our slideshow of eastern Montana, past and present.

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