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Looking Back: Bonanza farms instrumental in state development

Plows on the Amenia and Sharon Land Company break sod on a bonanza farm in1888. This photograph was exhibited at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and was made into a two cent postage stamp entitled "Farming in the West." Submitted Photo

Working as a curator at the Cass County Historical Society at Bonanzaville, the most common question I receive is, "what is a bonanza farm?" It is easy to understand why this would be such a common question as bonanza farms were located in a relatively small geographic area surrounding the Red River Valley of the North and there is little written about the subject. So, why then were these farms so important? Along with the railroad, bonanza farms were instrumental in the settlement and development of North Dakota.

Bonanza farms were large-scale wheat farms that developed as a result of a monetary panic in 1873. As shares of the Northern Pacific Railway plummeted, investors were given the option of trading their bonds for railroad owned land in Dakota Territory. Hundreds of investors traded their railroad bonds for thousands of acres of virgin prairie in the northern part of Dakota and hired professional managers to run their farming operations. Techniques recently introduced in American factories were applied to these farms in order to make each farm extremely efficient through the use of large-scale machinery and cheap migrant labor to provide maximum profit for the farm owners.

Immigrants arriving from Europe were rushed west on the railroad to work on bonanza farms. A massive amount of wheat produced on the farms was carried east by the railroad to cities like Minneapolis, which was now booming due in-part to the mills that were being constructed along the Mississippi River to process all the Red River Valley's wheat. Farm owners were prospering, mills were struggling to keep up with production and the Northern Pacific Railway became financially viable enough to continue building west.

However, after twenty years of bonanza farming, the market became inundated with an overabundance of wheat resulting in plummeting prices of the once valuable commodity. Meanwhile, the value of land in North Dakota was skyrocketing. This combined with decreasing soil conditions, due in-part to two decades of single crop production, made selling the land appealing to farm owners. By 1920, the giant farms in excess of 3,000 acres had been sold off into smaller, usually family-run, operations.

Bonanza farms, while short lived, helped develop the idea of mechanized farming and proved that farming could be profitable in an area that was once referred to as the Great American Desert. The most enduring legacy of bonanza farms however, was the enormous influx of immigrants who came to North Dakota as farm workers and stayed to make the state what it is today.