Marshalling Manpower on the Bonanza Farms of the Red River Valley

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A McCormick grain binder of the bonanza era. Thousands of these machines, plus those made by Milwaukee, Deering and others, were used on the plains.
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Eight binders, eight shockers and the field foreman on a Dakota wheat field.
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A restored wooden thresher of the type used on the bonanza farms in action at the 2006 Le Sueur, Minn., show.

This month, we return to the operations of the huge bonanza farms in the Red River Valley between Minnesota and North Dakota.
After seeding and final harrowing, there was a lull until harvest began in late July. During that time, wild hay was cut and stacked, and binders and threshers were made ready for the big rush that was soon to come. Enough self-tying binders had to be available to cut the whole crop in 10 to 15 days or heavy losses could result from bad weather or over-ripe grain. One binder could harvest 10 to 12 acres per day and each machine cut 250 acres per year. On the Cass-Cheny farm, 45 binders cut 5,130 acres in 11 days in 1878. In 1879, 55 machines finished 8,170 acres in 13 days.

Huge need for manpower
As one might imagine, lots of seasonal help had to be hired. In 1881 it was reported that farm manager Oliver Dalrymple had 800 men on the Cass-Cheny-Grandin operation at harvest time. During the crop season, those men were paid $16 to $25 a month, along with room, board and washing (winter wages dropped to $10 to $12). The separator operator got $2 to $2.50 per day and often slept under his machine for fear of losing his job. During harvest, day laborers – shockers, spike pitchers and bundle wagon drivers – commonly got $1.50 per day.
This army of itinerant workers arrived on freight trains and moved from city labor to logging camp to construction job to the harvest. Many of the best cooks and field workers came from the northern timber camps where they logged all winter. After getting the spring log drive to the sawmill and going on a glorious spree, they migrated to the harvest fields until it was time to trek back north in the late fall.
These large armies of men, many untrained in farm work, had to be strictly controlled so that horses and machines were operated properly. The larger farms were divided into divisions of 3,500 to 5,000 acres, each under a superintendent who reported to the general manager. Divisions were broken into 640-acre units, each managed by a foreman who supervised 10 to 25 men. The men were forbidden to make any adjustments or repairs to the machines, or even to carry a wrench or pliers in their pockets. The binder boss rode around the field in a buggy and made all adjustments or repairs, even down to knotting bailing twine balls together and rethreading knotter needles.
There were usually two shockers for every binder. The shocker boss used a buggy so he could make sure there was no loafing. He also used the buggy to haul a water barrel so the men could get a drink.
Threshing started as soon as the grain was cut and shocked. A threshing foreman’s normal crew was about 30 men, and six to 10 teams and bundle wagons to haul the shocks to the thresher. Five or six spike pitchers stayed in the field to help load the bundle wagons. The steam engine was tended by an engineer and a fireman who fed straw into the firebox. A separator man adjusted and greased the threshing machine, and a man with a team and bucking pole bucked the straw away from the separator. Two band cutters cut the tied bundles and fed the separator. Three men measured and sacked the threshed grain, while a couple of men with teams hauled the grain to storage. A water wagon hauled water for the engine and crew, and also hauled meals to the field.

Long days in the field
Most bonanzas worked their men hard and fed them well. Harvest workdays lasted 13 hours, starting at 6 a.m. after a 5 a.m. breakfast. The machines ran until 7 p.m. and supper was served at 7:30 p.m. Two lunches (9 a.m. and 4 p.m.) and dinner (noon to 1 p.m.) were served in the field. One midday meal on the Grandin farm consisted of corned beef and salt pork, boiled potatoes and baked beans, stewed turnips and pickles, coffee, tea, milk and white sugar, hot or cold bread with syrup, cookies, doughnuts and two kinds of pie. In 1878, Grandin ran six threshers, which meant that all the food for more than 180 men had to be prepared, hauled and served in the field, a staggering task.
Although set in Kansas, the following poem by Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931), who worked the wheat harvest in that state, could apply to any of these itinerant laborers:

“We feasted high in Kansas,
and had much milk and meat.
The tables groaned to give us power,
wherewith to save the wheat.
And we felt free in Kansas
from any sort of fear,
For thirty thousand tramps like us
there harvest every year.”

From bonanza to boom
Yields in those days were terrible by present day standards. In 1879, Cass-Cheny got 18.6 bushels per acre, while Grandin had a 22.2-bushel yield. That year, the price at the railroad was 95 cents per bushel. The bonanzas raised nothing but wheat, except for enough oats and barley to feed the livestock, and most continued this one-crop practice year after year. Chemical fertilizers weren’t used, there wasn’t enough manure to replenish the soil and the straw was burned, so the ground naturally became less fertile. In 1885, after nine straight years of wheat, Dalrymple’s yield dropped to 16 bushels per acre.
Publicity surrounding the bonanza boom convinced many Americans, Canadians and Europeans that big money could be made in western Minnesota and the Dakotas, setting off a homesteader and immigration boom. Small farmers arrived in large numbers and land values skyrocketed. With shrinking yields and rising land prices, many bonanza owners took advantage of the situation by incorporating as land companies and selling off their acres for small farms.
Because of the strict management practices and extensive record keeping necessary to keep the bonanzas profitable for their owners, these farms could be considered the nation’s first factory farms.
By the early 1900s, most of the bonanza farms were only a memory. Cass, Cheny, the Grandins, Dalrymple and others got rich, demonstrated what could be done with massed farm machinery and opened up the Red River Valley, which remains wheat country yet today. 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

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