Section 4: Bonanza Farms
In 1873, the Northern Pacific Railroad declared bankruptcy. All of its investors, the people who had put up the money to build the tracks and purchase the engines, were about to lose the money they had put into the company. They had one last chance to see some return on their investment.
Some of the investors decided to purchase railroad land at a very low price. Those who held railroad bonds simply exchanged their bonds for railroad lands. The Northern Pacific Railroad was a land-grant railway. The company had received 20 sections (640 acres per section) of land per mile of track. Much of this land, especially in the Red River Valley, had a deep layer of rich topsoil perfectly suited for growing wheat. The treeless, rock-free prairies of the Red River Valley gave men like Oliver Dalrymple the idea that farming on a grand scale could be very profitable.
These large farm operations of 3,000 to 10,000 acres became known as bonanza farms. (See Image 7.)These were not family farms; they were usually owned by one or two individuals who lived “in the East” or wherever home was. The farm work was overseen by a local manager. (See Document 1.)
Oliver Dalrymple (See Image 8.) was one of the first farmers to see the potential of bonanza farming. He managed the bonanza farms belonging to General George Cass, P. B. Cheney of Boston, and the Grandin Brothers of Pennsylvania.
The farms belonging to Dalrymple, Cass, and Cheney together amounted to 70,000 acres. Dalrymple was paid in land and also purchased land and became one of the state’s largest landowners. In 1874, the first year of cultivation, the farms raised wheat on 1,280 acres. Dalrymple’s men harvested 32,000 bushels, or 25 bushels per acre. News of this crop was “heard of ‘round the world' ” and created a lot of interest in North Dakota farm land. (See Image 9.)
Dalrymple developed a system of economy (See Document 2.) on the bonanza farms that made them very profitable. He purchased the newest most efficient machinery, he only employed men when he had work for them to do, and he managed his fields for maximum fertility. He also developed systems of feeding and housing his workers and livestock at the lowest possible cost.
Document 2: Oliver Dalrymple’s Rules for an Economical Bonanza Farm
Oliver Dalrymple managed 10,000 acres of Cass County wheat farms and hired dozens of men to do the work. The Rules cover all of the work including how the horses were to be fed, the weight of market pigs, and each man’s wages. In establishing the rules, Dalrymple let each manager know exactly how to make the decisions which made the farm profitable. Source: John S. Dalrymple, No. 1 Hard, Oliver Dalrymple, Bonanza Farmer, 1960.
“Watch small economies. Little leaks sink the ship”
- Farm of 70,000 acres – Oliver Dalrymple, Manager
- Division of 6000 acres - Division Manager
- Unit of 2000 acres – Foreman, Cook, Workers, Horses, Machinery, Blacksmith, Bookkeeper
- Division of 6000 acres - Division Manager
- During the spring seeding, good teamsters driving machinery get $1 per day
- One foreman oversees 6 men
- Drunks and gamblers must be fired
- Create rivalry among foremen to see who can do the most and do it best
Horses and other Livestock:
- Don’t let work horses eat grass in the pastures
- Horses work 6 days
- Horses rest on Sundays and rainy days and get ½ rations [feed]
- Horses plowing 2.5 inches deep walk 24 miles per day. Horses plowing 7 inches deep walk 18 miles per day
- Old horses should be sold every winter
- Replace dry cows [cows with no milk] with fresh cows often
- Pigs should be purchased in April and be fed from 3 to 5 times a day on milk and wet grain and turned in to corn field on or about August 15.
- Pigs should be sent to market in late December when they weigh 200 to 250 pounds each
- Hogs need a warm, dry house with a soft floor, preferably where hay has stood
- Pigs need fresh water, good feed, care and attention so they will become “mortgage lifters”
- Horse, cow, and hog pastures with fresh water should be enriched and seeded near each barn yard
- Corn fodder should be stacked on a dry straw bed and fed sparingly until next June
For the Land:
- One-fourth of the land should be fallow [not plowed] every summer
- Crops should be diversified [not just wheat] and rotated
- Non-wheat crops [barley and oats] should be harvested with the cheapest labor
- One-half section [320 acres] should be sown in oats for winter feed
- Corn should be grown on 80 acres and harvested by hogs and horses
- Wheat should not be sown later than April 30th
- Reserve the best and cleanest grain for seed for the next season
- For every 3200 acres:
→Seed 1000 acres with wheat
→Seed 600 acres with barley
→Seed 360 acres with oats
→Seed 400 acres with corn
→Seed 400 acres with flax
→Keep 40 acres in pasture
At one time, Dalrymple’s bonanza farms owned 115 reapers – the machines that cut the grain and bound the wheat into bundles. (See Image 10.) So important was Dalrymple’s business, that when Cyrus McCormick invented a binder that used twine instead of wire, he traveled to Cass County in his private railroad car to see the machines at work on Dalrymple’s farms.
The reapers and other equipment were drawn by horses and operated by men. (See Image 11.) Both man and animal had a set amount of work to complete in a day. For instance, a horse pulling a plow that cut 2 ½ inches deep was expected to cover 24 miles per day; a horse plowing 7 inches deep walked 18 miles per day. A threshing engine and its team of operators were expected to produce 600 to 700 bushels of grain per day. Oliver Dalrymple knew the efficiency of every man, horse, and machine on the farm.
Each man was assigned to a portion of the farm. That division had a dormitory for the men to sleep in, a kitchen and dining room, and a bookkeeper and foreman. Each division had a barn and work horses, milk cows, and pigs. The horses were fed only by the hostler (a manager of horses), not by their drivers. The men were not allowed to drink or play cards. Dalrymple believed that these forms of relaxation interfered with the worker’s efficiency during the work day. Usually about 10 men were employed year round. The other workers, perhaps 1,000 of them, worked only during the seasons of seeding and harvesting. Pay varied with the work to be done. (See Image 12.)
The Bonanza farms had a huge financial impact on eastern North Dakota. (See Document 3.) The farms employed hundreds of people who contributed to the growth of Red River Valley towns. However, Bonanza farms grew smaller by 1900. Because of the success of the big farms, the value of land had risen and it was no longer profitable to farm in such large parcels. (See Document 4.) The era of the bonanza farms had passed by 1910, but they left their mark on the Red River Valley and North Dakota.
Why is this important? The economic importance of the bonanza farms extended far beyond the pockets of their owners. Nearby towns and cities benefitted from a surging seasonal population. Machinery companies in Fargo were selling as much as $3,000,000 in machinery annually to the growing bonanza farms and smaller farms in the area. These large farms had an enormous financial impact on eastern North Dakota that cannot be seen in counties where there were no bonanza farms.
The bonanza farms drew national attention to North Dakota. Smaller farmers came to find their place in the state’s growing economy. Wheat was king, and it made North Dakota a magnet drawing farmers, businessmen, professionals, and families from other states and Europe.
The Amenia and Sharon Land Company
There were many bonanza farms in the Red River Valley. One of the largest was owned and managed by the Chaffees, Eben W. and his son Herbert Fuller Chaffee, who was born in Connecticut in 1824, was a farmer and surveyor. Chaffee and his wife, Amanda, had two children. Their son, Herbert Fuller Chaffee, was born in 1865.
Around 1870, Eben and many of his friends bought shares of the Northern Pacific Railroad. They expected to make a good return on their investment until the company entered bankruptcy in 1873. About the same time the Northern Pacific declared bankruptcy, an early Cass County settler brought 1600 bushels of Scotch Fife wheat into Fargo. He had raised the wheat on 60 acres which he then sold for $1.25 per acre. That profit of $2000 on 60 acres caught the attention of many farmers and railroad investors around the country.
Chaffee and his friends (about 40 people from the region of Amenia, New York and nearby Sharon, Connecticut) formed the Amenia and Sharon Land Company to purchase 27,831 acres of Cass County land. Eben Chaffee was the single largest stockholder in the company with 82 shares.
The company originally intended to sell the land quickly. However, Oliver Dalrymple’s management of the Cass-Cheney farm indicated that the soil was fertile and farming could be very profitable. Chaffee decided it was better to hold onto the land and turn it into a good wheat farm. Under the direction of Eben Chaffee, the Amenia and Sharon Land Company began raising hard red spring wheat in 1877. Soon, a town called Amenia, grew up around the company’s headquarters.
Though Eben Chaffee lived in Amenia, his family remained in Connecticut. Chaffee’s son Herbert, known as Bert, attended school in Connecticut and Massachusetts. He spent some summers in Amenia, Dakota Territory, and when he completed his schooling, he took an active part in the company’s business. At the age of 19, he demonstrated his business ability when he sold nine train carloads of wheat just before the wheat market dropped by three cents a bushel. With a strong start in the company, Bert married Carrie Toogood of Iowa, and brought her to Amenia. In 1888, Bert became the assistant treasurer of the company.
At the same time, the Amenia and Sharon Land Company was growing. It eventually included more than 42,000 acres, about 66 sections. (See Map 5.)
Eben Chaffee retired in March, 1892, and died a few months later. Without his good management, the other investors began to think of selling the land. By 1893, H. F. (Bert) Chaffee had acquired much of the Amenia and Sharon Land Company’s land and was general manager of the company.
H. F. Chaffee was, like Oliver Dalrymple, dedicated to efficiency in farming and utilizing all modern tools available. He bought a Cadillac automobile in 1903 and purchased new equipment for his farm. In 1892, he began to manage the land by a different method. Chaffee set up a lease system. Farmers could lease a 320 to 640 acres to farm on shares. The company would give a farmer the use of the land and the seed for planting. The farmer would work the land and provide the equipment and livestock. After harvest, the company and the farmer split the income fifty-fifty.
H. F. Chaffee was successful in managing the Amenia and Sharon Land Company. He added land, built an elevator and the Casselton Flour Mill, and brought railroad branch lines to Lynchburg and Chaffee. The Amenia and Sharon Land Company was in operation longer than most of the other bonanza farms because of H. F. Chaffee’s control of the company and management style.
In 1912, Chaffee and his wife Carrie traveled to England. (See Image 14.) They boarded the S. S. Titanic to sail home. On April 15, 1912, after the Titanic hit an iceberg, H. F. helped Carrie into a lifeboat. Herbert Fuller Chaffee remained on the ship as it sank into frigid waters. Carrie returned to her family in Amenia alone. When she died in 1931, she still owned 41 sections of good, fertile farmland.
African American Farmers
Small numbers of African Americans made their way to North Dakota to claim land for farms after the Civil War. By 1885, 13 African Americans had filed for Homestead land. They did not form rural black communities because the 13 were scattered over 10 different counties. Some of these farmers were never able to acquire more than 160 acres, but others found opportunities to become large landowners.
Isham Evans was a veteran of the Civil War. He most likely fought with the “colored troops.” Evans came to ND with A. F. Giddings who owned a 640 acre farm near Page in Cass County. Evans had been employed as Giddings’ servant, but In North Dakota, Giddings trusted the management of his farm to Evans. Evans with his wife and three children owned and farmed 160 acres which they later expanded to 320 acres. Evans spent the rest of his life on his Page farm.
Another African American Civil War veteran, William T. Montgomery put together a bonanza farm of more than 1,000 acres in Richland County. Montgomery had been born in slavery, but served in the Union Navy during the Civil War. After the war (during Reconstruction), he was elected constable and later treasurer of Warren County Missisippi. Montgomery was the first black man elected to public office in Mississippi. William’s father, Benjamin Montgomery, also a slave, had been encouraged to expand his education by his “owner,” Joseph Davis. He passed his illegal education on to his sons.
By 1884, Montgomery had moved to Dakota Territory where purchased 640 acres (one section) from the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway. The land was located in Eagle Township of Richland County. It was good land, two miles from Red River. Montgomery eventually increased his land holdings to 1,020 acres. He located his home near the northern boundary of his land holdings. He built a grain elevator nearby. (See Map 6. Lithia) A community grew up around his home and elevator which he named Lithia, after his mother. Montgomery’s substantial land holdings earned him notice from the territorial government as “commissioner for the colored department” representing Dakota at the 1884 New Orleans Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition.
By 1890, Montgomery was spending most of his time in Fargo, but continued to manage his Lithia farm. After losing money in some bad investments, Montgomery gave up his farm, but remained in North Dakota until at least 1897. He later returned to Mississippi which remained his home for the rest of his life.
Why is this important? Oliver Dalrymple was the first to see the potential in a huge, carefully managed wheat farm. Other bonanza farms, such as the Bagg Farm, the Grandin Brothers Farm, or the Amenia and Sharon Land Company were equally successful, though their management systems differed. All of these farms proved that modern industrial efficiency applied to fertile farm land could result in a very successful business. Ironically, as the bonanza farm era passed, North Dakota farmers made a personal and political commitment to family farms of about 500 to 1000 acres.