The word “bonanza” in Spanish means either “A rich mine, vein or pocket of ore” or “a source of great wealth or prosperity.” From the original Latin, bonanza means “calm sea” which might conjure up a large grain field tranquilly flowing with a gentle breeze. However, after watching 14 seasons of the famous TV series “Bonanza,” we usually envision the Cartwright family on their sprawling Ponderosa ranch in Nevada. Sadly few know much about the Red River Valley’s bonanza farms back in the late 1800s. In my last article of this series, I believe we need to be better informed about what happened in the Red River Valley concerning bonanza farms and their ultimate demise.
I’m glad the late Michael Landon (“Little Joe” Cartwright) enjoyed success with his own TV series, “Little House on the Prairie.” That program showed more of our great grandparents’ realities of what they lived day in and day out as homesteaders. As I peruse the Crookston Daily Times headlines dating back to the 1880s, there is plenty of material for script that could be used for a possible mini-series, titled “Bonanza House on the Prairie.” Regrettably, one sightseer wrote in the 1880s that the Red River Valley was “small in population, large in hope and abundant in prairie chickens.”
How does one go about writing a movie or play manuscript about “hope and the changes” that occurred from open, boundless prairie to bonanza farm, then to small-scale, diversified farmer back to present day corporate family farm? The Red River Valley’s ebb and flow of trends are filled with intrigue and romance, hard work and bad luck which forced families to move out during the Depression years. But there are those who continued to till the soil through good times and bad. Some have family members reading my words, who share ancestors that came from the Old Country to settle as brave pioneers. Those stayed for good in Crookston and surrounding farm communities.
I think of my maternal grandfather who was born in the late 1890s to Norwegian parents in the rolling hills of the Sheyenne river valley in eastern North Dakota. As a young man, my grandpa adventured across the wide prairie to eastern Montana to work on a bonanza farm. Could it have been the Campbell bonanza farm of over 100,000 acres of wheat lands? Wheat was king and profits were to be made. In the early days of bonanza farms, I pondered how much area Campbell’s bonanza farm actually comprised in terms of land mass. It would have been as many as five townships north of Crookston, like Parnell, Fanny, Nesbit, Keystone and Euclid all combined.
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I’m thankful to the able pen of Huber D. McLellan who wrote a thorough description of Polk County in his doctoral dissertation at Northwestern University in 1928. He described Crookston in 1879 having a population of 987 people but six years later on, it had 4,063 inhabitants!!! Fifteen years later, in 1900, there were 5,359 and by 1910 another 2,000 souls were added to total 7,559 people. Soon after that census, my paternal grandparents had relocated from southern Minnesota with promise of good farmland to be bought in 1914 from an old homesteader named Ole Teigen.
However, before these small time farmers bought into this territory, there were large, absentee landlords that handled the rich soil of the Red River Valley from afar. One historian who knows a great deal about this phenomenon is Hiram M. Drache who wrote the book “The Day of the Bonanza” in 1964. As a Concordia professor of history, he continued his research with examples of bonanza farms close by him in the Fargo-Moorhead area. One bonanza farm that readily comes to mind for which there are many archived photos at NDSU is the Oliver Dalrymple farm. Also, in the southeast corner of North Dakota was the Frederick and Sophia Bagg bonanza farm which has been preserved as it existed over a century ago and open for tours even today.
One thing Professor Drache noted was the successful farmers rolled with the changing trends and learned to adopt newer technology. They not only “maximized on the government programs” but they were willing to take risks. As entrepreneurs, according to Drache “they had accepted the tenets of the capitalistic free-enterprise system.” Their hope for the future was wedded to understanding that changes in American agriculture came fast and could not to be ignored. Changes in agriculture were happening throughout the U.S. almost as swiftly as an unabated prairie fire!
Wherever I teach composition classes, I ask my students to write down their grandparents’ stories. I have amassed some remarkable accounts about what the old timers went through, both in the Red River Valley and abroad. I have one such example from a Northland student, David Nelson, who wrote about his grandfather, born on January 1, 1937. He had seen many changes over 50-60 years of farming. David’s grandfather went from having a small farming operation of only 240 acres, to one with his sons operating 4,300 acres today.
David’s grandfather said the following in an interview: “I have seen fields being worked by teams of horses to fields being worked by 500 horsepower tractors that steer themselves. I bought my first tractor brand new for $1,300, which today is the cost of one tractor tire. Today, the biggest Case IH tractor has a sticker price of $275,000. When I was young, the biggest tractor my father had on the farm was 60 horsepower. Today the biggest tractor on our farm is 425 horsepower.”
Page 3 of 4 - The grandfather went on to explain about sugar beet harvests: “In my beet operation, we used an eight man crew. One man lifted the beets with the one row lifter, and then a crew of five workers followed behind while topping and piling the beets all by hand. The other would drive truck. This was a big improvement to when my father hauled beets to the train with a team of horses. My father’s crew could harvest 16 tons of beets per day. Today, the biggest truck on our farm hauls 25 tons per load, averaging 3,200 tons per day.”
David’s grandfather further explained the great changes in grain harvesting: “My threshing crew consisted of 22 men. Eight men would go into a field and hand cut and bundle wheat for the threshing machine. It would also take six men to run the threshing machine, men would have to grab these bundles which would weigh up to 150 pounds and toss them into the machine. The remaining eight men rode teams of horses hauling 70 bushels of wheat. I stored most of my harvest crop in two 2,000 bushel granaries. In our family operation today, we are capable of storing 160,000 bushels on our farm. In a full day of threshing, we could thresh up to 40 acres. Today, our family owned operation combines up to 250 acres per day.”
What the student’s assignment highlights is what the erudite Hiram Drache already noted: “The homesteaders succeeded where the bonanza farmers failed, because they relied on the unpaid labor of family members to survive. The bonanza farms were far better managed than most of the homesteaded farms, but they had to pay their workers and could not compete in what was still a very labor-intensive industry.”
With this as background, I want to describe the Keystone Farm, which was west and southwest of the town of Euclid in Nesbitt and Keystone townships. The actual Keystone Manor had a grand opening on September 1, 1881 and it hosted on June 5, 1884 a wedding held for the young couple Chalmers (think tractor) and Cheeny. Another wedding happened at the Keystone big house on April 6, 1895 between Walker and Geddes. Would this be a relative to the lumber baron T.B. Walker? I’d have to read deeper into the archives to find out. But I noted a headline dated in April 7, 1894 that “Bonanza Farms no longer profitable.”
What happened to bonanza farms like Buffington and Keystone farm in Polk County or Lockhart farm in Norman country? Or in Grand Forks county of Elk Valley, Emery and McCanna bonanza farms? Drought, bank crisis? Apparently, the bonanza farms did not use crop rotation to replenish the soil’s nutrients and misused the coal black soil by repeatedly sowing only the golden crop of wheat. Yes, some of these bonanza farmers may have had 80 plows that turned over the rich, black soil of a 7,500-acre farm. One of these bonanza farms may have had 200 horses and 100 men to employ according to the “Polk County Journal” in 1883. But these bonanza hired hands needed to be paid after such long, grueling hours of work.
Page 4 of 4 - The hypothesis is that family farms took wages in farm equity. These small farms had fewer workers to pay and less money invested in equipment. The family farms could ride out the boom-and-bust cycles better than the much larger bonanza farms. Thus, by the 1890s most bonanza farms had broken up into smaller farms. By the 1920s, any remnants of the bonanza phase were entirely gone. Ironically, where the once fancy, big house at Keystone Farm once stood is now a piling area for sugar beets.
What I discovered was that the absentee landlords for Keystone Farm near Euclid were investors from “Keystone state” of Pennsylvania. Thus, the name “Keystone” was used for the township and the bonanza farm. As I researched for this article, I read Crookston Times headlines from 1880s to early 1900s and learned about Keystone lawsuits, change of ownership to an Illinois syndicate, farmhands wanting their just pay, manager suicides, difficulty of finding teachers to teach in Keystone, a team of horses being stolen by a bigamist (!), grain thieves captured, on and on. I believe there’s ample enough material for a mini-series about the high drama that took place at Keystone Farm.
One headline from The Saint Paul Globe on March 25, 1903 reported how the largest real estate deal ever closed in the state of Minnesota happened when Keystone Farm was sold to Kenneth Clark, president of Merchants’ National Bank of St. Paul. He purchased it from Charles Lockhart of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. The total sale was $208,520 for 9,104 acres, formerly touted as one of the largest bonanza farms in the Red River Valley. The article went on to explain: “The land was acquired by Charles Lockhart many years ago and a large percentage of the property is under cultivation, a good sized area being employed as a range for cattle, while there are some portions thickly covered with good timber. The property has always been considered valuable and a source of profit to its owner, who is advanced in years and is consolidating his landed interests.”
If anyone is interested in pursuing more about Keystone Farm, a good place to start, besides reading Hiram Drache’s book, would be the Crookston Daily Times article of January 29, 1938 where the “Pioneer Teacher (H. Davies) Tells of Keystone Bonanza Farm.”