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Parent Category: Kansas State History Articles
Category: Kansas Agriculture

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His name was usually Nester or Little Fellow. It was the old story of the tortoise and the hare. The Little Fellow was from the first destined to win. His steady advance, now on this flank, now on that, just back of the vanguard pushing westward, had marked the end of all our earlier frontiers. The same story now was being written on the frontier of the Plains.

But in the passing of this last frontier the type of the land-seeking man, the type of the American, began to alter distinctly. The million dead of our cruel Civil War left a great gap in the American population which otherwise would have occupied the West and Northwest after the clearing away of the Indians. For three decades we had been receiving a strong and valuable immigration from the north of Europe. It was in great part this continuous immigration which occupied the farming lands of upper Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. Thus the population of the Northwest became largely foreign. Each German or Scandinavian who found himself prospering in this rich new country was himself an immigration agency. He sent back word to his friends and relatives in the Old World and these came to swell the steadily thickening population of the New.

We have seen that the enterprising cattlemen had not been slow to reach out for such resources as they might. Perhaps at one time between 1885 and 1890 there were over ten million acres of land illegally fenced in on the upper range by large cattle companies. This had been done without any color of law whatever; a man simply threw out his fences as far as he liked, and took in range enough to pasture all the cattle that he owned. His only pretext was "I saw it first." For the Nester who wanted a way through these fences out into the open public lands, he cherished a bitter resentment. And yet the Nester must in time win through, must eventually find the little piece of land which he was seeking.

The government at Washington was finally obliged to take action. In the summer of 1885, acting under authorization of Congress, President Cleveland ordered the removal of all illegal enclosures and forbade any person or association to prevent the peaceful occupation of the public land by homesteaders. The President had already cancelled the leases by which a great cattle company had occupied grazing lands in the Indian Territory. Yet, with even-handed justice he kept the land boomers also out of these coveted lands, until the Dawes Act of 1887 allotted the tribal lands to the Indians in severalty and threw open the remainder to the impatient homeseekers. Waiting thousands were ready at the Kansas line, eager for the starting gun which was to let loose a mad stampede of crazed human beings.

It always was contended by the cowman that these settlers coming in on the semi-arid range could not make a living there, that all they could do was legally to starve to death some good woman. True, many of them could not last out in the bitter combined fight with nature and the grasping conditions of commerce and transportation of that time. The western Canadian farmer of today is a cherished, almost a petted being. But no one ever showed any mercy to the American farmer who moved out West.

As always has been the case, a certain number of wagons might be seen passing back East, as well as the somewhat larger number steadily moving westward. There were lean years and dry years, hot years, yellow years here and there upon the range. The phrase written on one disheartened farmer's wagon top, "Going back to my wife's folks," became historic.

The railways were finding profit in carrying human beings out to the cow-range just as once they had in transporting cattle. Indeed, it did not take the wiser railroad men long to see that they could afford to set down a farmer, at almost no cost for transportation, in any part of the new West. He would after that be dependent upon the railroad in every way. The railroads deliberately devised the great land boom of 1886, which was more especially virulent in the State of Kansas. Many of the roads had lands of their own for sale, but what they wanted most was the traffic of the settlers. They knew the profit to be derived from the industry of a dense population raising products which must be shipped, and requiring imports which also must be shipped. One railroad even offered choice breeding-stock free on request. The same road, and others also, preached steadily the doctrine of diversified farming. In short, the railroads, in their own interests, did all they could to make prosperous the farms or ranches of the West. The usual Western homestead now was part ranch and part farm, although the term "ranch" continued for many years to cover all the meanings of the farm of whatever sort.

There appeared now in the new country yet another figure of the Western civilization, the land-boomer, with his irresponsible and unregulated statements in regard to the values of these Western lands. These men were not always desirable citizens, although of course no industry was more solid or more valuable than that of legitimate handling of the desirable lands. "Public spirit" became a phrase now well known in any one of scores of new towns springing up on the old cow-range, each of which laid claims to be the future metropolis of the world. In any one of these towns the main industry was that of selling lands or "real estate." During the Kansas boom of 1886 the land-boomers had their desks in the lobbies of banks, the windows of hardware stores--any place and every place offering room for a desk and chair.

Now also flourished apace the industry of mortgage loans. Eastern money began to flood the western Plains, attracted by the high rates of interest. In 1886 the customary banking interest in western Kansas was two per cent a month. It is easy to see that very soon such a state of affairs as this must collapse. The industry of selling town lots far out in the cornfields, and of buying unimproved subdivision property with borrowed money at usurious rates of interest, was one riding for its own fall.

None the less the Little Fellow kept on going out into the West. We did not change our land laws for his sake, and for a time he needed no sympathy. The homestead law in combination with the preemption act and the tree claim act would enable a family to get hold of a very sizable tract of land. The foundations of many comfortable fortunes were laid in precisely this way by thrifty men who were willing to work and willing to wait.

It was not until 1917 that the old homestead law limiting the settler to a hundred and sixty acres of land was modified for the benefit of the stock-raiser. The stockraising homestead law, as it is called, permits a man to make entry for not more than six hundred and forty acres of unappropriated land which shall have been designated by the Secretary of the Interior as "stockraising land." Cultivation of the land is not required, but the holder is required to make "permanent improvements" to the value of a dollar and twenty-five cents an acre, and at least one-half of these improvements must be made within three years after the date of entry. In the old times the question of proof in "proving up" was very leniently considered. A man would stroll down to the land office and swear solemnly that he had lived the legal length of time on his homestead, whereas perhaps he had never seen it or had no more than ridden across it. Today matters perhaps will be administered somewhat more strictly; for of all those millions of acres of open land once in the West there is almost none left worth the holding for farm purposes.

Such dishonest practices were, however, indignantly denied by those who fostered the irrigation and dryfarming booms which made the last phase of exploitation of the old range. A vast amount of disaster was worked by the failure of number less irrigation companies, each of them offering lands to the settlers through the medium of most alluring advertising. In almost every case the engineers underestimated the cost of getting water on the land. Very often the amount of water available was not sufficient to irrigate the land which had been sold to settlers. In countless cases the district irrigation bonds-which were offered broadcast by Eastern banks to their small investors--were hardly worth the paper on which they were written. One after another these wildcat irrigation schemes, purporting to assure sudden wealth in apples, pears, celery, garden truck, cherries, small fruits, alfalfa, pecans, eucalyptus or catalpa trees-anything you liked--went to the wall. Sometimes whole communities became straitened by the collapse of these overblown enterprises. The recovery was slow, though usually the result of that recovery was a far healthier and more stable condition of society.

This whole question of irrigation and dry farming, this or that phase of the last scrambling, feverish settling on the last lands, was sorely wasteful of human enterprise and human happiness. It was much like the spawning rush of the salmon from the sea. Many perish. A few survive. Certainly there never was more cruel injustice done than that to the sober-minded Eastern farmers, some of them young men in search of cheaper homes, who sold out all they had in the East and went out to the dry country to farm under the ditch, or to take up that still more hazardous occupation--successful sometimes, though always hard and always risky--dry farming on the benches which cannot be reached with irrigating waters.

Strangely changed was all the face of the cattle range by these successive and startling innovations. The smoke of many little homes rose now, scattered over all that tremendous country from the Rockies to the edge of the short grass country, from Texas to the Canadian line. The cattle were not banished from the range, for each little farmer would probably have a few cows of his own; and in some fashion the great cowmen were managing to get in fee tracts of land sufficient for their purposes. There were land leases of all sorts which enabled the thrifty Westerner who knew the inside and out of local politics to pick up permanently considerable tracts of land. Some of these ranches held together as late as 1916; indeed, there are some such oldtime holdings still existent in the West, although far more rare than formerly was the case.

Under all these conditions the price of land went up steadily. Land was taken eagerly which would have been refused with contempt a decade earlier. The parings and scraps and crumbs of the Old West now were fought for avidly.

The need of capital became more and more important in many of the great land operations. Even the government reclamation enterprises could not open lands to the settler on anything like the old homestead basis. The water right cost money--sometimes twenty-five or thirty dollars an acre; in some of the private reclamation enterprises, fifty dollars an acre, or even more. Very frequently when the Eastern farmer came out to settle on such a tract and to meet the hard, new, and expensive conditions of life in the semi-arid regions he found that he could not pay out on the land. Perhaps he brought two or three thousand dollars with him. It usually was the industrial mistake of the land-boomer to take from this intending settler practically all of his capital at the start. Naturally, when the new farmers were starved out and in one way or another had made other plans, the country itself went to pieces. That part of it was wisest which did not kill the goose of the golden egg. But be these things as they may be and as they were, the whole readjustment in agricultural values over the once measureless and valueless cow country was a stupendous and staggering thing.

Now appeared yet another agency of change. The high dry lands of many of the Rocky Mountain States had long been regarded covetously by an industry even more cordially disliked by the cattleman than the industry of farming. The sheepman began to raise his head and to plan certain things for himself in turn. Once the herder of sheep was a meek and lowly man, content to slink away when ordered. The writer himself in the dry Southwest once knew a flock of six thousand sheep to be rounded up and killed by the cattlemen of a range into which they had intruded. The herders went with the sheep. All over the range the feud between the sheepmen and the cowmen was bitter and implacable. The issues in those quarrels rarely got into the courts but were fought out on the ground. The old Wyoming deadline of the cowmen against intruding bands of Green River sheep made a considerable amount of history which was never recorded.

The sheepmen at length began to succeed in their plans. Themselves not paying many taxes, not supporting the civilization of the country, not building the schools or roads or bridges, they none the less claimed the earth and the fullness thereof.

After the establishment of the great forest reserves, the sheepmen coveted the range thus included. It has been the governmental policy to sell range privileges in the forest reserves for sheep, on a per capita basis. Like privileges have been extended to cattlemen in certain of the reserves. Always the contact and the contest between the two industries of sheep and cows have remained. Of course the issue even in this ancient contest is foregone--as the cowman has had to raise his cows under fence, so ultimately must the sheepman also buy his range in fee and raise his product under fence.

The wandering bands of sheep belong nowhere. They ruin a country. It is a pathetic spectacle to see parts of the Old West in which sheep steadily have been ranged. They utterly destroy all the game; they even drive the fish out of the streams and cut the grasses and weeds down to the surface of the earth. The denuded soil crumbles under their countless hoofs, becomes dust, and blows away. They leave a waste, a desert, an abomination.

There were yet other phases of change which followed hard upon the heels of our soldiers after they had completed their task of subjugating the tribes of the buffalo Indians. After the homesteads had been proved up in some of the Northwestern States, such as Montana and the Dakotas, large bodies of land were acquired by certain capitalistic farmers. All this new land had been proved to be exceedingly prolific of wheat, the great new-land crop. The farmers of the Northwest had not yet learned that no country long can thrive which depends upon a single crop. But the once familiar figures of the bonanza farms of the Northwest--the pictures of their long lines of reapers or selfbinders, twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty machines, one after the other, advancing through the golden grain--the pictures of their innumerable stacks of wheat--the figures of the vast mileage of their fencing--the yet more stupendous figures of the outlay required to operate these farms, and the splendid totals of the receipts from such operations--these at one time were familiar and proudly presented features of boom advertising in the upper portions of our black land belt, which day just at the eastern edge of the old Plains.

There was to be repeated in this country something of the history of California. In the great valleys, such as the San Joaquin, the first interests were pastoral, and the cowmen found a vast realm which seemed to be theirs forever. There came to them, however, the bonanza wheat farmers, who flourished there about 1875 and through the next decade. Their highly specialized industry boasted that it could bake a loaf of bread out of a wheat field between the hours of sunrise and sunset. The outlay in stock and machinery on some of these bonanza ranches ran into enormous figures. But here, as in all new wheat countries, the productive power of the soil soon began to decrease. Little by little the number of bushels per acre lessened, until the bonanza farmer found himself with not half the product to sell which he had owned the first few years of his operations. In one California town at one time a bonanza farmer came in and covered three city blocks with farm machinery which he had turned over to the bank owning the mortgages on his lands and plant. He turned in also all his mules and horses, and retired worse than broke from an industry in which he had once made his hundreds of thousands. Something of this same story was to follow in the Dakotas. Presently we heard no more of the bonanza wheat farms; and a little later they were not. The one-crop country is never one of sound investing values; and a land boom is something of which to beware--always and always to beware.

The prairie had passed; the range had passed; the illegal fences had passed; and presently the cattle themselves were to pass--that is to say, the great herds. As recently as five years ago (1912) it was my fortune to be in the town of Belle Fourche, near the Black Hills--a region long accustomed to vivid history, whether of Indians, mines, or cows--at the time when the last of the great herds of the old industry thereabouts were breaking up; and to see, coming down to the cattle chutes to be shipped to the Eastern stockyards, the last hundreds of the last great Belle Fourche herd, which was once numbered in thousands. They came down out of the blue-edged horizon, threading their way from upper benches down across the dusty valley. The dust of their travel rose as it had twenty years earlier on the same old trail. But these were not the same cattle. There was not a longhorn among them; there has not been a longhorn on the range for many years. They were sleek, fat, well-fed animals, heavy and stocky, even of type, all either whitefaces or shorthorns. With them were some old-time cowmen, men grown gray in range work. Alongside the herds, after the ancient fashion of trailing cattle, rode cowboys who handled their charges with the same old skill. But even the cowboys had changed. These were without exception men from the East who had learned their trade here in the West. Here indeed was one of the last acts of the great drama of the Plains. To many an observer there it was a tragic thing. I saw many a cowman there the gravity on whose face had nothing to do with commercial loss. It was the Old West he mourned. I mourned with him. Naturally the growth of the great stockyards of the Middle West had an effect upon all the cattle-producing country of the West, whether those cattle were bred in large or in small numbers. The dealers of the stockyards, let us say, gradually evolved a perfect understanding among themselves as to what cattle prices ought to be at the Eastern end of the rails. They have always pleaded poverty and explained the extremely small margin of profit under which they have operated. Of course, the repeated turn-over in their business has been an enormous thing; and their industry, since the invention of refrigerator cars and the shipment of dressed beef in tins, has been one which has extended to all the corners of the world. The great packers would rather talk of "by-products" than of these things. Always they have been poor, so very poor!

For a time the railroads east of the stockyard cities of Kansas City and Chicago divided up pro rata the dressed beef traffic. Investigation after investigation has been made of the methods of the stockyard firms, but thus far the law has not laid its hands successfully upon them. Naturally of late years the extremely high price of beef has made greater profit to the cattle raiser; but that man, receiving eight or ten cents a pound on the hoof, is not getting rich so fast as did his predecessor, who got half of it, because he is now obliged to feed hay and to enclose his range. Where once a half ton of hay might have been sufficient to tide a cow over the bad part of the winter, the Little Fellow who fences his own range of a few hundred acres is obliged to figure on two or three tons, for he must feed his herd on hay through the long months of the winter.

The ultimate consumer, of course, is the one who pays the freight and stands the cost of all this. Hence we have the swift growth of American discontent with living conditions. There is no longer land for free homes in America. This is no longer a land of opportunity. It is no longer a poor man's country. We have arrived all too swiftly upon the ways of the Old World. And today, in spite of our love of peace, we are in an Old World's war!

The insatiable demand of Americans for cheap lands assumed a certain international phase at the period lying between 1900 and 1913 or later--the years of the last great boom in Canadian lands. The Dominion Government, represented by shrewd and enterprising men able to handle large undertakings, saw with a certain satisfaction of its own the swift passing from the market of all the cheap lands of the United States. It was proved to the satisfaction of all that very large tracts of the Canadian plains also would raise wheat, quite as well as had the prairies of Montana or Dakota. The Canadian railroads, with lands to sell, began to advertise the wheat industry in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The Canadian Government went into the publicity business on its own part. To a certain extent European immigration was encouraged, but the United States really was the country most combed out for settlers for these Canadian lands. As by magic, millions of acres in western Canada were settled.

The young American farmers of our near Northwest were especially coveted as settlers, because they knew how to farm these upper lands far better than any Europeans, and because each of them was able to bring a little capital of ready money into Canada. The publicity campaign waged by Canadians in our Western States in one season took away more than a hundred and fifty thousand good young farmers, resolved to live under another flag. In one year the State of Iowa lost over fifteen million dollars of money withdrawn from bank deposits by farmers moving across the line into Canada.

The story of these land rushes was much the same there as it had been with us. Not all succeeded. The climatic conditions were far more severe than any which we had endured, and if the soil for a time in some regions seemed better than some of our poorest, at least there waited for the one-crop man the same future which had been discovered for similar methods within our own confines. But the great Canadian land booms, carefully fostered and well developed, offered a curious illustration of the tremendous pressure of all the populations of the world for land and yet more land.

In the year 1911 the writer saw, all through the Peace River Valley and even in the neighborhood of the Little Slave Lake, the advance-guard of wheat farmers crowding out even beyond the Canadian frontier in the covetous search for yet more cheap land. In 1912 I talked with a school teacher, who herself had homestead land in the Judith Basin of Montana--once sacred to cows--and who was calmly discussing the advisability of going up into the Peace River country to take up yet more homestead land under the regulations of the Dominion Government! In the year 1913 I saw an active business done in town lots at Fort McMurray, five hundred miles north of the last railroad of Alberta, on the ancient Athabasca waterway of the fur trade!

Who shall state the limit of all this expansion? The farmer has ever found more and more land on which he could make a living; he is always taking land which his predecessor has scornfully refused. If presently there shall come the news that the land boomer has reached the mouth of the Mackenzie River--as long ago he reached certain portions of the Yukon and Tanana country--if it shall be said that men are now selling town lots under the Midnight Sun--what then? We are building a government railroad of our own almost within shadow of Mount McKinley in Alaska. There are steamboats on all these great sub-Arctic rivers. Perhaps, some day, a power boat may take us easily where I have stood, somewhat wearied, at that spot on the Little Bell tributary of the Porcupine, where a slab on a post said, "Portage Road to Ft. McPherson"--a "road" which is not even a trail, but which crosses the most northerly of all the passes of the Rockies, within a hundred miles of the Arctic Ocean.

Land, land, more land! It is the cry of the ages, more imperative and clamorous now than ever in the history of the world and only arrested for the time by the cataclysm of the Great War. The earth is well-nigh occupied now. Australia, New Zealand, Canada, even Africa, are colonization grounds. What will be the story of the world at the end of the Great War none may predict. For the time there will be more land left in Europe; but, unbelievably soon, the Great War will have been forgotten; and then the march of the people will be resumed toward such frontiers of the world as yet may remain. Land, land, more land!

Always in America we have occupied the land as fast as it was feasible to do so. We have survived incredible hardships on the mining frontier, have lived through desperate social conditions in the cow country, have fought many of our bravest battles in the Indian country. Always it has been the frontier which has allured many of our boldest souls. And always, just back of the frontier, advancing, receding, crossing it this way and that, succeeding and failing, hoping and despairing--but steadily advancing in the net result--has come that portion of the population which builds homes and lives in them, and which is not content with a blanket for a bed and the sky for a roof above.

We had a frontier once. It was our most priceless possession. It has not been possible to eliminate from the blood of the American West, diluted though it has been by far less worthy strains, all the iron of the old home-bred frontiersmen. The frontier has been a lasting and ineradicable influence for the good of the United States. It was there we showed our fighting edge, our unconquerable resolution, our undying faith. There, for a time at least, we were Americans.

We had our frontier. We shall do ill indeed if we forget and abandon its strong lessons, its great hopes, its splendid human dreams.

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