This story appears in the January 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The earnest saga of farming and ranching in northern Montana began with a misconception that verged on a lie: free land, enough to feed your family! But the land wasn't quite free, and it was far from enough.
A law had been passed by Congress back in 1862, codifying the misconception as a national promise. In exchange for building a house on a chosen site, planting a crop, and maintaining five years of residence, you could "prove up" on 160 acres. That is, you would be granted a title. The offer applied to all unclaimed federal land, much of it west of the Mississippi River, including what we now call Montana. The northern third of the eventual state, stretching roughly a hundred miles down from the Canadian border and westward as far as the front of the Rockies, comprised about 26 million acres of landscape, mostly semiarid plains upholstered with shortgrass prairie and sagebrush. The government wanted those acres occupied by white settlers whose presence would gradually erase the thought of land claims by Blackfeet, Gros Ventre, Sioux, Crow, and other native peoples. James J. Hill, founder of the Great Northern Railway, wanted those acres occupied by customers whose material needs (farm implements, horse tack, household goods, seed grain) and whose produce (mainly wheat) would fill his boxcars outbound and back. People came from Minnesota, from Illinois, from Scotland, from Norway, and from points in between to accept the dare, tossing down their labor, their youth, and their hopes onto a craps table with long, empty horizons that were green in springtime, brown in summer, brown in autumn, and then implacably white. This was called homesteading.
Settlers arrived late to northern Montana, after the more easily farmable places had already been claimed. They followed the railroad, which Jim Hill's crews had completed in 1893. That rail line, in turn, had traced an old wagon trail across Indian lands. Congress updated the original Homestead Act in 1909, 1912, and 1916, shortening the residence requirement to three years and raising the allotted acreage to 320, or 640 for a cattle operation. Those changes, plus advertising hype from the railroad and misleading encouragement from the crackpot mavens of something called dry farming, brought plenty of aspirants into the region, though time would show that the acreages were still far too small. Between 1909 and 1923, settlers filed 114,620 homestead claims in Montana, many of those within a day's wagon ride of the Great Northern line, which crossed the state at about 48 degrees north latitude. Population and service businesses, if not rain, followed the plow.
And so towns grew along that line, some named for faraway places and things: Glasgow, Malta, Harlem, Havre, Inverness, Dunkirk, Kremlin. Some were named for people, such as Culbertson (a fur trader) and Shelby (a minion of Jim Hill). A few were more locally evocative: Cut Bank, Chinook, Poplar, Wolf Point. Eventually pavement as well as rails linked those communities, forming a portion of U.S. Highway 2, America's northernmost cross-country ribbon of blacktop. Within Montana, this stretch of road and railway and towns and surrounding landscape became known as the Hi-Line.
It's a part of the state that never appears in the Marlboro ads or the ski brochures. Its beauties are severe and subtle and horizontal, rather than soaring and picturesque. It's not for everybody. But the Hi-Line contains scenes, lives, and voices with dramatic force all their own. One of those voices belongs to Lloyd Kanning, a sturdy 76-year-old with a full head of white hair and pale blue eyes, who has been driving a tractor since the age of ten. "Farming," Kanning told me, as we sat in his living room in Shelby, "is like fighting a war."
He listed the categories of enemy. "You're fighting the weather to start with." You wait for the right moment, you put your seed in the ground—but if your tractor and other crucial pieces of machinery are old, you're fighting to keep them functional. Then diseases. Then bugs. Defeat all those, get a good stand of wheat grown and turning amber in the fall, "and along comes a hailstorm and beats it to the ground." Or if the hail doesn't find you, the wind does, whipping through your grain to cause "shelling" (kernels falling out of the heads) so bad you lose half your crop before you can cut it. But no, maybe it ripens fine, the hail and the wind spare you, the grasshoppers miss you, and you're ready to cut it—then comes a wet stretch of autumn days, sogging your harvest, forcing you to put damp wheat into the bin. Now you must aerate that bin and dry the grain, or at least keep it cool. "And then you've got to fight the price." If your wheat has low protein content, the buyer at the local elevator may discount you as much as a buck forty per bushel for every percentage point below scale. Say that high-protein wheat is selling at six dollars, and you're two points below; your crop might as well disappear.
"It does sound like war," I said.
"It is a war."
But these terms of engagement weren't apparent at first. Hopes ran high. A pamphlet issued in 1912 by the Great Northern Railway, titled "Montana Free Homestead Land," bragged that the state's climate was healthful, the winters "not severe because of the dry air," ha-ha, and the yields of winter wheat "phenomenal." Act now, urged the pamphlet. If you want a piece of this bounteous giveaway, it said, "you had better start for Montana at once."
Those good early years and dreamy expectations lasted through 1916. Then came a bad seven-year drought—not an extraordinary event, just a downward swing amid long-term cycles that the homestead promoters hadn't taken into account. The rains failed, and the formerly generous fields turned stingy. Lloyd Kanning remembers hearing of a wheat crop that his father planted in 1919. No rain fell that year, none, not to speak of, and the seed just lay unawakened in its rows. It sprouted in 1920, too late, adding insult to injury.
Elsewhere across the Hi-Line, conditions were equally grim. People did what was necessary to survive the hard times, scraping together some income from other sources, or else they just up and disappeared.
A young fellow from Minnesota named Henry Luken, who had homesteaded near Rudyard, which was a blip on the line, saw his wheat crop fail completely during one of the drought years. That winter he left the place, taking his only movable assets—four horses—and found work at a coal mine in the Bears Paw Mountains, about 50 miles away. With his saved wages, Luken bought feed for the horses, seed for another crop, and a summer's worth of supplies, then went back to his farm. Grasshoppers ate the second year's crop. He took his precious horses and returned to the coal mine for a second winter, worked hard again, saved, put all his wages once more into the farm. He also arranged a bank loan, for which his collateral was the horses. The third year, Luken grew a crop. He paid his debts and eventually bought more land—from other homesteaders, as they dried out and gave up—thereby enlarging his place enough to thrive in the good years and endure the next stretch of bad. That turned out to be one of the secrets of Hi-Line survival: Buy when you can, grow your place bigger, take the risks of expansion, not the risks of caution. I heard Luken's story from his grandnephew, Bob Toner, who owns a Tire Rama in Rudyard and still works that farm. Toner himself heard the tale many times from his father, who in 1934 came out from Minnesota to be Uncle Henry's hired man. The only reason Henry Luken managed to do what he did, he told Bob Toner's father, who told Bob, who told me, was that he had owned the four horses. What was the secret ingredient of character that allowed some folk to prosper—or anyway, to continue—while others failed and gave up? Was it intelligence? Was it daring? Was it prescience, or some sort of ineffable green thumb?
"Tenacity," Lloyd Kanning said.
Others agreed. Dana Darlington's grandfather, born in 1906, lived in a sod homesteader's house with his widowed mother in southern Chouteau County and, when he got old enough, earned some cash rounding up abandoned livestock for the local bank. "It was pretty harsh. Lot of people were leaving," Darlington said, as his own mother served us hot chocolate and peanut butter cookies at her place, 20 miles southeast of Big Sandy. "When people left, they just up and left their livestock, just let 'em go." His grandfather's job was to bring in those cattle and horses and mules before they starved or were eaten by cougars or wolves—collateral gone to waste. "It was pretty tough times, even before the Dust Bowl. The hoppers. The climate, dry. I think a lot of 'em that ended up staying just had a lot of luck on their side—and a lot of determination." Darlington himself, a solid, mid-fortyish man in a white-and-red flannel shirt and a blue silk neckerchief below his oval, browned face, exuded determination of his own. This was a cold day in November, with snow blowing like a grumbled warning, and he had just come in from feeding cows; the silk neckerchief, worn threadbare, was for warmth more than style. Four generations of family tradition will not end on his watch.
It wasn't just man against the elements. Quite a few of those original homesteaders were women, single or widowed, who made their way west and filed alone.
One among them was Vicki Olson's maternal grandmother, from Pennsylvania, who proved up on a place south of Malta in 1920, despite the drought. Meanwhile her brother and the man who would soon become her husband also filed and made good on their own homesteads nearby. During the late 1920s came some years of good rain, green rangeland for livestock, and high yields of wheat, which allowed some families to enlarge their holdings as vacated places became cheaply available. For Olson's paternal grandparents, sheep paid the bills, but it took much more than 640 acres to support a big flock. "Homestead days didn't work," she told me one afternoon at a Malta café, over the clink of spoons and forks against truck stop china. "This was hatched back East. Where they had all this fertile land. They didn't have a clue what the land was like here."
But some meliorating measures, too, were enacted back East, one of those being the Taylor Grazing Act, passed by Congress in 1934, which initiated the practice of leasing federal land to stock growers. Twelve years later, just after World War II, the U.S. Grazing Service became part of a newly created Bureau of Land Management, which nowadays continues to make western ranching possible by leasing public prairie for use by private cows. The terms and consequences of BLM leases can be debated heatedly for hours, but one result is that family cow-calf operations—at least some of them, the lucky and stalwart and adaptable few—have survived. The Double O Ranch, which Vicki Olson runs with her sister and their two husbands, encompasses acreage that their grandparents put together, partly by purchasing failed homesteads, partly by acquiring 10,000 acres of BLM leases. If you think that sounds like a scenario for cattle grandees in the vein of Ben Cartwright on his Ponderosa, you mistake the proud parsimony by which such family ranchers make ends meet.
Dick Iversen's grandmother was another independent woman who filed on a place of her own. She came from Sweden via Minnesota and California, working in restaurants along the way, and arrived in Montana as a single mother with a young daughter. She homesteaded on a 160 just up the road from here, Iversen told me as we sat in the kitchen of his neat, modern ranch house amid the rolling hills south of Culbertson. Marie Youngstrom was the grandmother's name. She met his grandfather—another Swede, who drove the stagecoach—and they married, but not before each filed a claim (one homestead per head of a household, said the law). "They had adjoining farms," Iversen said. "And to the day she died, it was his farm and her farm." She never ceased being head of a household.
I had left Wolf Point at 5:45 that morning, driving through the remnants of a blizzard at 18 below zero to be prompt for my 7:30 a.m. appointment. Ranchers rise early, and Dick Iversen had already finished spreading hay for the cows. His wife, Connie, had baked cinnamon cake, steaming and aromatic, which we ate as he talked about Grandma Marie. "She was kind of a matriarch-type person," he said. Marie's son eventually bought the father's farm, but she clung to hers. She and the son then shared a yard, and there was tension. "That's part of family farms that makes it difficult. The old farts don't quit."
He was speaking wryly, aware that he'll soon be an old fart himself, but Iversen had touched on a key issue, one that arose often during my talks with people up there: succession. How do you transfer your place to the next generation? How do you retire? It's not as easy as it sounds. Given that scale is crucial to economic viability, ranches and farms that have been patched together by tenacious parents and grandparents can't be broken into pieces for all the grown children. Nor can every son and daughter come home, with spouses and kids of their own, and rejoin the operation. There just isn't enough income to support multiple generations of an extended family. One reason the old farts don't quit is that they can't afford to.
"Other kids had skateboards," Buster Brown told me. "I had horses."
Buster and his wife, Helen, run a cattle ranch and quarter horse operation in the Sweet Grass Hills, just short of the Canadian border northeast of Shelby, in a wrinkle of landscape too rippled, steep, and gully-cut for planting grain. Black Angus beef is their main product; well-bred and well-broken quarter horses are a sideline, with its origins deep in Buster's childhood. When he was three, while his two older sisters attended a country school down at the corner of the section, his mother would send him out to hitch up his pony to a small wagon, ride down to the schoolhouse, and fetch his sisters home. The Browns' current line of equine stock goes back to cherished studs and mares with names such as Our Country Buck and Driftwood Doc. Buster and Helen's pair of strapping sons, B. J. and Jack, each inherited the equestrian talent and the passion. Both are rodeo athletes, riders and ropers, away at college during my visit but expected home for the holidays.
It was another chilly morning, ten below zero at dawn when I left Shelby, and now Helen's biscuits and gravy filled a place in my belly that the carryout latte and biscotti hadn't touched. As I sat at their kitchen bar, drinking black coffee, Buster spoke about his great-grandpa, John Brown, a blacksmith who worked on the trolley lines in Great Falls and then came up here to the Sweet Grass Hills and filed on a homestead around 1898. Elmer Brown was John's son, another blacksmith, who filed an adjacent claim of his own. John built a log house, Elmer built one of frame, and eventually Elmer put them together, driving his frame house to the site like a horse-drawn wagon, holding his reins from one of the bedroom windows. He covered the frame and logs with stucco. That's the house Buster was raised in.
From those beginnings, his family had gradually grown the place, from 320 acres to roughly 10,000. After four generations, despite that growth or because of it, the ranch still wasn't paid for, not quite. How can that be? he asked himself, and then answered: "There just ain't that much cash flow."
"You're asset rich," Helen added, "and very, very cash poor."
The assets include not just acreage but also intangibles—such things as liberty, family continuity, texture of daily life, and a sense of the landscape. A nosy visitor might ask these good folks, as I have: "How has your family managed to stick it out? And why?" The first of those questions—the how?—starts a long conversation about weather, hard times, deep values, ingenuity, luck, adaptability, concern for the land, sheer stubbornness, government policies (the hated ones and the depended-upon ones), global markets, and the protein content of wheat. The second question—the why?—is a conundrum to which responses tend to be poetic and terse.
Lloyd Kanning had mentioned tenacity. Bob Toner said, "It's an excellent way to raise kids." Craig French, from another old family, stood at the big windows of the house he has built on a rise 20 miles south of Malta, facing out over undulant prairie toward Beaver Creek. With his spotting scope on a tripod beside him, two pairs of binoculars nearby on end tables, he said: "I like getting up and looking at what I get to look at every morning." He meant the land, the elk, the mule deer, the pronghorn, and the golden eagles, not his own cows.
Karen and Murray Taylor, 20 miles north of Devon, took my two questions deeply to heart. Murray, a lean man in a Glacier Motors cap, touched his wife amiably on the arm as she spoke. Her grandfather, from Norway, had homesteaded here in 1909. Now she and Murray would like to retire. But they have no pension, no "investments" except their sweat equity in the farm. They call it the Circle 7, "because we have five kids, and we were a circle of seven, and we all built this place." They could struggle for the rest of their lives, she said, or sell out and retire in ease. She showed me the album of photos from their harvest last year, a family event with 18 people, sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren gathered and grinning amid the combines, the lunch wagon, the grain trucks full of golden wheat. "We want to see it succeed as a legacy," Karen said. Any family farmers must feel the same way, she guessed, "or they wouldn't still be here." It's not just something you do, with or without a good reason. It becomes "a part of who you are," she said, then added simply: "Your identity." I thought about that as I drove back to Shelby in the dark and the cold.