When Dad Came Out Here

Stephen Fender

  • Bad Land: An American Romance by Jonathan Raban
    Picador, 325 pp, £15.99, October 1996, ISBN 0 330 34621 0

‘I am not a travel writer,’ Jonathan Raban said in a recent interview. ‘For me, “travel writer” means someone who samples other people’s holidays – you talk about the food, the hotel, throw in a bit of local colour. If I thought that was the business I was in, I’d slit my throat.’ Bad Land, Raban’s new book about Montana, examines the present remains and historical origins of the last great wave of American western settlement, the migration of homesteaders to eastern Montana in the first decade of this century. Once flourishing, their farms are now in ruins: ‘fenceposts, trailing a few whiskers of wire – the body of a Studebaker ... stripped of its wheels and engine ... a harrow deep in the grass ... houses, cars, machinery ... fading rapidly off the land’. In one collapsing house Raban found a sheaf of manuscript pages showing debts mounting from a few dollars payable to the Bureau of Land Management, Sears Roebuck and Kyle’s Radiator Shop, to horrific arrears on bank loans – the debts totalled well over $5000. When they pulled out, the failed homesteaders simply left their household goods behind – the Frigidaire, the parlour furniture, the ironing-board – but they took great pains to make a bonfire of their family photographs.

What attracted these people to the semi-arid climate of eastern Montana? What did they grow and raise? What kind of community did they form? Why did they fail? What kind of bitterness could have moved them to burn the visual keepsakes of their venture? The outline of their story is clear enough. By 1909 building of the Milwaukee Road had progressed as far as Montana on its way to the Pacific North-West, and like other railroads before it, it needed settlements along the way to produce raw materials to ship to markets further east. So the Milwaukee lobbied the Federal Government to pass the Enlarged Homestead Act to finance the settlement of arable farms along its route – against the opposition of cattle ranchers already using the land as open range. Effusive promotional pamphlets were sent out to the American East and to Europe, setting out the generous terms of the Act under a glowing image of a happy farmer working his new claim. For $25 a ‘locator’ would find and stake out a half-section (320-acre) spread of public land. A further $22 to the US Land Office entitled the claimants to start building their houses (just shacks or dugouts at first), stringing fences and working the land. After five years the settlers ‘proved up’ the homestead for a further $16, to pay for an inspector’s report confirming that the claim had been kept under cultivation. After that, the land was theirs to keep.

Eastern Montana wasn’t part of the Great American Desert, but with an average annual rainfall of under 20" it was certainly dryish. On the other hand, Professor Alexander Agassiz (son of the more illustrious Louis) had suggested that rainfall increases as cultivation and building disturb the electrical currents in the surrounding atmosphere, while Hardy W. Campbell, billed in the Milwaukee Road pamphlets as ‘the noted farming expert and inventor of the Campbell system of scientific farming for semi-arid lands’, had shown how to make dry soil fertile: compact the soil at root level, then break up the topsoil into a fine tilth; the top level would collect the rain, and the moisture would accumulate in the compacted layer beneath. After that ‘capillary attraction’ would do the job even in dry seasons, the water rising in defiance of gravity to irrigate the crop.

For a while everything seemed to work. Virgin soil watered by heavier than average rainfall at first produced prodigious results: fat, well-nourished cattle, waving fields of grain, turnips weighing in at twenty pounds. Spacious houses began to replace the claim shacks, schools and meeting-houses were built, and communites began to take shape. When the Germans blocked the Dardanelles corridor at the outbreak of the First World War, thereby cutting off the supply of Russian grain to Europe, the price of American wheat at the local elevator nearly doubled. Beef cattle rose from $20 to $33 a head. The average eastern Montana homestead, the capital outlay of which could be measured in a few dollars, was now worth upwards of $4800: both farmer and family could feel that their labour had been well rewarded.

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