Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


In 1864 the U.S. Congress provided an extensive land grant to aid in financing the Northern Pacific Railway Company (NP). When the np encountered financial difficulty in the Panic of 1873, it sought to shed its indebtedness by exchanging land for its bonds and preferred stock. It encouraged large-scale agriculture in the Red River Valley of the North. There, the almost totally flat, treeless, fertile, stoneless prairie was ideal for establishing showcase farms called bonanzas. After 1875 these bonanzas became the subject of national farm periodicals and were visited by business and political leaders of the United States and Europe. A total of ninety-one farms, ranging from 3,000 to 100,000 acres, qualified as bonanzas. Nearly all of them were located within forty miles of the Red River.

The bonanzas relied on professional farm managers. To achieve maximum efficiency, they specialized in the continuous cropping of wheat, which was well suited to the area. By concentrating on one crop, a limited number of implements were needed–plows, harrows, seeders, binders, and threshing machines. The bonanzas were worked by migrant laborers, ranging from as few as 15 to as many as 1,000 per farm. They lacked experience in operating machinery, so they were divided into teams of five to twenty men under a supervisor who was referred to as the binder boss or plow boss, depending on the job.

For ease of management, the farms were broken down into divisions of 5,000 acres or less. A work unit consisted of one worker with a plow, a seeder, and a binder with at least five horses. Each worker generally was expected to handle 250 acres of crops. Extra workers and horses were employed for seeding and harvesting. Bunkhouses and dining halls were erected, for management knew that good food and facilities were sound economic practices that helped to retain the workforce. Young women did the domestic work and, like the men, often were newly arrived immigrants.

After harvest the migrant laborers moved to other areas, often to the forests of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin to spend the winter working in logging camps. The logging companies often rented the horses for use in the forest. In the off-season only a few laborers remained on the bonanzas to repair machinery, ship grain, care for horses, and keep records.

Virtually all the bonanza farms were located on the odd-numbered sections of the railroad grant lands. The government reserved the even-numbered sections for homesteaders. Homesteaders did not like the bonanza farmers because they did not do business locally and did not take part in the local schools or social institutions.

Changing world conditions and a surplus of wheat, which caused a decline in prices, made the bonanzas less profitable. New tax laws discriminated against them. Migrant seasonal labor became less plentiful and more costly. All of the above made it difficult for the business-operated bonanzas to compete with homesteaders. By 1920 the bonanza era had ended. Some bonanzas were subdivided and sold on contract-for-deed agreements or were rented to smaller scale farmers. Only a few of the bonanza holdings remain intact today, operating much differently than the originals.

Hiram M. Drache Concordia College

Drache, Hiram M. The Day of the Bonanza: A History of Bonanza Farming in the Red River Valley of the North. Fargo: North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, 1964.

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