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

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    Homesteaders got title to 320 acres if they built a cabin and stayed three years. The British photographer Evelyn Cameron came across these homesteaders in Marsh, Montana, in 1911.

    - Evelyn Cameron/Montana Historical Society Research Center Photograph Archives, Helena, MT

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    Farmhouses abandoned by failed homesteaders now dot the eastern Montana prairie.

    - Sarah Gardner/Marketplace

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    Homesteaders borrowed heavily to buy the latest farm machinery for growing wheat. Banks lent freely. Some say recklessly.

    - Evelyn Cameron/Montana Historical Society Research Center Photograph Archives, Helena, MT

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    The vast majority of homesteaders in eastern Montana failed.  You can still find broken-down plows and wagons in fields.

    - Mary Dooe/Marketplace

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    The railroads put out glossy brochures that made eastern Montana look like lush English countryside.  This is eastern Montana in April.

    - Sarah Gardner/Marketplace

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    The railroads' deceptive publicity about eastern Montana farmland worked. Tens of thousands flocked here in the 1910's.

    - Mary Dooe/Marketplace

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    Edward Gaub's grandfather was one of thousands of German-Russians encouraged to homestead in eastern Montana.  Gaub shows reporter Sarah Gardner the spot.

    - Mary Dooe/Marketplace

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    320 acres of land wasn't enough to support a family. Dale Brown's grandfather homesteaded, and stayed. Today the family ranches more than 14,000 acres. Dale and his wife Joan are retired in Terry, Montana.

    - Sarah Gardner/Marketplace

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    Many homesteaders left Montana with just the clothes on their backs, leaving behind furniture and other possessions. Near Marsh, Montana.

    - Mary Dooe/Marketplace

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.

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk.


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