Bonanza Farms of the Red River Valley

Large tracts of fertile, cheap land led to huge bonanza farms in the late 19th century
By Sam Moore
August 2010
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The blacksmith shop on the F.A. Bagg farm, a restored bonanza farm near Mooreton, N.D.
Photo by Sam Moore
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We hear a lot about factory farms these days but, as they say, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” In Day of the Bonanza, published in 1964, author Hiram M. Drache tells the fascinating story of the rise and fall of the huge bonanza farms in the Red River Valley during the last quarter of the 19th century.

The river forms the border between North Dakota and Minnesota, and flows north into Canada, where it empties into Lake Winnipeg. The valley is extremely fertile and, even in the 1870s, was ideal for the use of large farm machinery, being flat and treeless with no stones or rocks.

Railroad over-leveraged

Since the 1840s, Americans had dreamed of a railroad through the Northwest to the Pacific. In 1864, Congress chartered the Northern Pacific Railway Co., and gave the NP almost 39 million acres of public land along the proposed right of way. Three years of expensive construction followed, during which time the railroad officers borrowed and spent much more than they should have. During the Panic of 1873, the NP filed for bankruptcy, halting all construction.

To raise funds, the NP offered to sell its millions of acres at $5 per acre. However, public opinion sided with Minnesota Governor Henry Sibley, who described the Red River Valley as “fit only for Indians and the Devil.” The railway sold very little land, so it offered to exchange each of its outstanding bonds for $110 worth of land. Since the bankruptcy, the bonds were worth only about 10 or 20 cents on the dollar. Larger bondholders (mostly Northeastern businessmen) traded their bonds for large tracts of land, hoping to get their money back.

Managing massive farms

George Cass and George Cheny traded their bonds for several thousand acres. They hired Oliver Dalrymple, a wheat farmer broke from speculating in the grain trade, to manage their new holdings, which became the first of the bonanza farms. The average size of a bonanza ranged from 3,000 to 7,000 acres, with some much larger. The largest one, Grandin Farm, belonged to a Pennsylvania family. The farm consisted of 99 sections, including about 45,000 acres of wheat land.

The farms were so large they spawned no end of furrow stories. One told of the man who worked for “a Mr. Dalrymple, who had the biggest farm that ever lay out of doors.” One day Dalrymple set up stakes for the man “to strike out a land for breaking, and he started out with four horses on a walking breaking plow, and plowed a furrow that was over 40 miles long, and so straight you could snap a chalk line in it from one end to the other. They plowed straight for two days, and Dalrymple asked the man if he thought they had gone far enough. The man replied, ‘I hope you don’t go any farther, or we may never get back,’ and this is how the town of Hope got its name, it being near there that they turned back at the end of the furrow.”

Another story from the 1880s told an equally tall tale, with the speaker reporting, “I’ve seen a man on one of our big farms start out in the spring and plow a straight furrow until fall. Then he turned around and harvested back.”

A month to plow a section

In reality, the usual field size was a section, or one square mile, making the first round four miles long. These sections were commonly plowed by a group of 10 or 12 plows under a foreman. The plows would make two rounds on the morning of the first day and three in the afternoon. It would take about a month for the gang to plow a 640-acre section. Four-mile furrows are a lot less than 40, but still difficult for Eastern farmers to imagine.

Plowing the tough prairie sod was a tremendous job. The first breaking was done in June and July by a 12-inch walking plow pulled by four horses, turning over between one and two acres per day. During September and October, the land had to be back-set (or cross-plowed), so the ground was less lumpy for spring seeding. Subsequent plowing was done by a single-bottom, 14- or 16-inch sulky plow pulled by three good horses.

Later, sulkies were replaced by 2-gang, 16-inch plows pulled by 5-horse teams. These plows could do five acres per day; 10 could turn over a section in two weeks. On the Cass-Cheny farm, 32 gang plows covered 8,170 acres in 51 days in the fall of 1879. They had 158 mules on the property that year and an unknown number of horses, along with 100 men. A photo of a bonanza barnyard shows a row of these gang plows, each with a single handle extending to the rear and no seat, so the plowmen (and their teams) still had to walk all those weary miles.

Vast inventories of equipment

The bonanza farms must have been a machinery salesman’s dream. In 1878, the Cass-Cheny farm had 84 plows, 81 harrows, 67 wagons, 30 seeders, 45 binders and eight threshing rigs. That same year the Grandin farm boasted 79 plows, 55 harrows, 24 seeders, 28 binders, 40 wagons and six threshers. Only the more valuable implements, such as threshers and steam engines, were stored under cover. Plows, harrows, seeders and binders were used heavily and wore out quickly, making it uneconomical to house them.

As soon as the frost was out in the spring, the plowed ground was attacked with 4-section, wooden-framed, spike-toothed harrows measuring 20 feet wide and pulled by four horses. These harrows could cover 40 acres in a day, a big advantage when thousands of acres had to be harrowed twice before seeding, and three times after the wheat was sown (once to cover the seeds and twice to kill weeds). That’s why bonanzas owned so many harrows; Cass-Cheny had 81 in 1878 and 114 in 1880.

Until the late 1880s, when drills came into use, 8-foot broadcast seeders were used to plant an average of 18 acres each per day. The spring planting had to be completed quickly to take advantage of the best seeding time and avoid a big variation in the time the crop was ready to cut. Cass-Cheny sowed 8,170 acres in 1879 using 40 seeders and planting was completed by May 1.

Next month we’ll complete this look at the nation’s first “factory farms.” FC

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.


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