Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


On a lonely stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway, in the heart of what local radio announcers call the "Wheat Belt," a large sign advises motorists that the next turn to the left will take them to the Great Plains Industrial Drive. The sign, on the flat, dusty, and seemingly empty Saskatchewan landscape, looks like a statement of hope rather than of economic developments already realized.

In the popular mind, the Great Plains of North America consists of vast open spaces inhabited by cowboys, wheat farmers, oil-patch wildcatters, and roughnecks. The huge smokebelching factories and blast furnaces of industrial America and the microchip valleys of modern technology are located elsewhere. The perception is that people living on the Plains produce only raw materials, mainly agricultural, that are shipped in a raw or semiprocessed state to major industrial, manufacturing, and processing centers outside the region.

There is, nonetheless, a great deal of industrial activity in the region if one considers not only the primary and secondary processing and manufacturing, whereby raw materials are converted into finished consumer products, but also the extraction, handling, and marketing of the region's resources and the numerous regional service industries. Developments in the various resource industries are similar in some respects, but there are also important differences, making it necessary to examine them separately.

The Fur Trade

The first major natural resources extracted and exported from large portions of the Canadian Prairies and Northern Great Plains were bison meat and the skins of fur-bearing animals. Furs and later bison robes were exported raw, with only basic processing being done by the Native producers or traders. Final processing and use of the resource occurred mainly outside the Great Plains, while most of the supplies were imported.

The fur and meat trade in the Great Plains began in the 1780s, when the Prairie Provinces became a scene of intense rivalry between the Hudson's Bay and North West Companies. Between 1780 and 1821 both companies established numerous trading posts along the North and South Saskatchewan, Souris, Qu'Appelle, and Red Rivers. These posts furnished sizable amounts of beaver, muskrat, marten, and other skins, but their main function was to procure provisions, primarily pemmican, for trading posts located to the north in the Canadian boreal forests. The traders at these northern posts used the pemmican during their long trips to the primary fur distribution centers on Hudson Bay and in Montreal.

This pattern changed dramatically in the 1820s and 1830s. In 1821 the two rival companies united, making it possible for the reorganized Hudson's Bay Company to establish a monopoly over the fur trade in the Canadian Prairies. The Hudson's Bay Company attempted to take advantage of its monopoly by reducing the number of trading posts and placing the fur production on a more sustained ecological basis. Unfortunately, the attempt came too late. By the 1820s, beaver, the primary hunted animal of the fur trade, had already become virtually extinct in many areas of the Canadian boreal forest and Prairie Provinces. The final blow to the beaver trade came in the 1830s, when European demand for beaver abruptly collapsed due to a change in fashion. To overcome these difficulties, the Hudson's Bay Company shifted its production in the Prairie Provinces from pelts to bison robes, which were in great demand in the rapidly growing industrial centers of eastern North America.

The 1830s also saw an expansion of the American fur trade onto the Northern Plains south of the forty-ninth parallel. American traders had attempted to advance onto the Northern Plains ever since Lewis and Clark had praised the region's rich animal resources, but it was not until after the introduction of steamboat transportation on the Missouri River in the early 1830s that a large-scale U.S. trade in the area became possible. The American fur trade on the Northern Plains was controlled from St. Louis, the artery of the trade was the Missouri, and its main product was bison robes. By the mid-1830s the American Fur Company had established a virtual monopoly over this trade, a position it and its direct successors held until the 1860s. The trade in furs was never a major economic activity on the Southern Plains, where the rivers did not provide reliable year-round navigation and there were fewer animals with rich and thick winter furs.


After the demise of the fur trade, a series of developments made possible the emergence of new economic undertakings that exploited other major resources of the region. The new developments making such initiatives possible included the earlier purchase by the United States of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, the drawing of the boundary between British and U.S. territory at the forty-ninth parallel in 1818, the acquisition through conquest of northern New Spain by the United States in 1848, the military resolution of the quarrel between the northern and southern states in 1865, the acquisition by Canada of Rupert's Land in 1869, and the military or negotiated subjugation of the Native peoples by 1890. These developments opened the Great Plains to whatever new economic initiatives U.S. and Canadian governments and businessmen thought appropriate.

When they first came into possession of the Plains neither Americans nor Canadians were quite sure what to make of the vast, semiarid lands. Many regarded the Plains, described by Edwin James, chronicler of Stephen Long's 1820 expedition, as the "Great American Desert," as little more than an impediment to national expansion and occupation of the more promising lands on the Pacific slope of the continent. Many early Plains settlers who tried to apply farming methods common in more humid areas failed or paid a very high price for limited success. As a result, the settlement frontier jumped across the Great Plains to the Pacific slope and then worked its way onto the Plains from both east and west. That was followed after the mid-1890s by a massive northward thrust from the United States, augmenting the settlement of the Canadian prairies.

The Plains were very rich in one important resource: there was an abundance of grass, which had sustained enormous buffalo herds for hundreds of years. The destruction of these great herds by the 1880s made possible the raising of domestic cattle on the great open ranges. While there is some disagreement, most historians trace the immediate origins of the Great Plains range cattle industry to the Nueces River valley of southern Texas. That valley is not part of the Great Plains, but, beginning in the 1860s, significant numbers of cattle were driven northward from the Nueces Valley onto the open plains. There the animals mingled with livestock brought in by early settlers and with some of the stock from former Spanish encomiendas, or estates. As demand for meat increased with the construction of numerous military posts, the opening up of mining developments in adjacent mountain regions, and the construction of railroads, the size of the herds also increased, and cattlemen extended their operations northward.

Transcontinental railways across the Plains also provided the means to take the cattle to eastern markets, and major cattle drives to rail towns became a much-celebrated aspect of regional life. There was rapid expansion throughout the 1860s and 1870s, and by 1885 some of the ranchers from the Powder River territory of Wyoming began to drive their cattle northward to the summer grazing grounds of the Cypress Hills and the foothills of the Canadian Rockies.

Open range ranching, in spite of the longevity of cowboy myths in Hollywood movies and at regional stampedes and rodeos, remained the primary industry of most of the Great Plains for only two or three decades. And the popular image of the stalwart individualism of the cowboy at one end of the business should not obscure the fact that at the other end ranching was dominated by a few large companies. Closed range ranching, of course, remains an important economic activity in many parts of the region.

Natural and human-made disasters and a growing demand that the cattle ranges be opened to farmers broke up the large operations. Serious overgrazing, combined with a harsh winter in 1885–86, destroyed the herds in Colorado, Kansas, and the Texas Panhandle, with some operators reporting losses of up to 85 percent of their animals. The next winter a similar disaster overtook the ranchers of Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas, accounting in part for the driving of cattle from Wyoming into the new ranching frontier of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. The industry prospered there for a time, but all the remaining large-scale operators in Canada and adjacent U.S. territories faced economic ruin in 1906–7, when an unusually severe winter destroyed their herds.

On some southern ranges sheep replaced the cattle herds, but all grazing operations came under increasing pressure with the arrival of the farmers. Homesteaders and settlers were eager to transform the open cattle ranges into an agricultural garden. In the United States they began to encroach on the grazing lands of the Plains as early as the 1860s, while in Canada the major influx of homesteaders only began in the mid-1890s.

In the contest between ranchers and farmers the operations of the former were relegated to the semiarid High Plains, hilly lands, and other tracts of land not well suited to the cultivation of cereal grains. Later disasters would show that farmers broke vast tracts of marginal land that had to be returned to grazing during the disastrous droughts that periodically aÄict the region. During the settlement booms, however, farmers usually had their way, sometimes causing terrible environmental damage that could have been minimized if land best suited for grazing had been left to the ranchers.

Cattle ranching promoted some related business undertakings, most notably meatpacking plants. In the United States the beefpacking industry in the late nineteenth century was dominated by the "Big Five": Swift and Company, Armour and Company, Wilson Packing Company, Morris Packing Company, and Cudahy Packing Company. Kansas City and Fort Worth were the main centers of the industry. In 1903 these companies joined to form the National Packing Company, which controlled the industry until it was dissolved in 1920. Thereafter, the location of packing plants became more diffuse throughout the Great Plains, but these five companies were still in control. Most of the equipment and supplies needed by ranchers and later by the packers and processors were shipped in from outside.

In Canada ranchers supplied meat in the 1880s to railway construction contractors and the federal Department of Indian Affairs. In the late 1890s the Yukon gold rush absorbed much of their produce, but surplus supplies were sent east, either to Toronto or Chicago, until Patrick Burns established meatpacking plants first in Calgary and then in Edmonton and Prince Albert. Burns, however, was more interested in ranching than in meatpacking. Together with fellow ranchers George Lane, A. E. Cross, and Archie McLean, Burns was one of the "Big Four" who created the worldfamous Calgary Stampede in 1912. The Burns meatpacking operations were sold in 1928 to the Toronto-based Dominion Securities Corporation. As is the case in the United States, the meatpacking industry in Canada has become more diverse, with strong local companies such as Olympic Meats in Saskatoon and Gainers in Edmonton competing with U.S.-based international companies.

Cattle were significant as a revenue-producing freight for the new railroads. Rail construction and operating crews consumed much of the meat produced by the ranchers, but the railroads, the men who built and financed them, and the construction supplies all came from outside the region. Cattle ranchers, like the fur traders before them and grain farmers later, sold an essentially unprocessed staple commodity in volatile outside markets over which they had little or no control.

On the High Plains, in the interior valleys of the mountain ranges, in the driest regions of the open Plains, and rough country such as the Flint Hills of Kansas, ranching has remained an important industry. Taken together, West Texas, Kansas, and Nebraska remain the largest cattle-producing region in the world, and the industry still exerts a powerful economic and political influence in many parts of the Plains. In most areas it has, nevertheless, yielded its place of economic primacy to cereal agriculture after only two or at most three decades during which the large cattle companies and their individualistic hired cowboys dominated not only the economy but also an entire way of life on the Plains.

Precious Metals

The Ellison shaft group, cyanide plants, and the open cut at the Homestake Mine, Lead, South Dakota, between 1940 and 1950

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Major mining developments on the Plains and in adjacent territories coincided with the expansion of ranching and provided important markets for the beef raised by the ranchers. The most important discoveries of precious metals in the second half of the nineteenth century, however, occurred in the Rocky Mountains to the west of the Great Plains. There was only one spectacular gold field on the Plains, and that was in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where old Indian legends of important gold deposits were confirmed in 1874. A discovery that year near present-day Custer and others at Deadwood Gulch and Gold Run Gulch in 1876 brought in swarms of prospectors. The Homestake Mine at Lead, South Dakota, employed as many as 500 men in the 1880s and remained until recently one of the most productive gold mines in the United States.

Placer mining was possible for individual prospectors, but the extraction of gold imbedded in rock required expensive crushing, smelting, and refining equipment that only wealthy individuals and large corporations could afford. As a result, gold prospecting, which at midcentury was undertaken by thousands of independent amateurs, became the preserve of large and wealthy corporations. Independents, however, were never entirely driven from the field.

The Great Plains yielded few other precious metals. The great silver discoveries in the mountain states and the contentious "Free Silver" campaigns of Great Plains politicians (which proposed the unlimited coinage of silver in the 1890s) gave that metal a prominence not matched by the actual silver-mining developments in the region. Some rich zinc and pumice deposits were discovered and developed in Kansas, while several Plains states have commercially viable bentonite and other clay product developments. Traces of other precious metals and minerals can be found in a few places, most notably in the Black Hills. The search for precious metals on the Plains resulted in few major discoveries, but it was important because it brought in many wouldbe miners who took up farming when their dreams of a new bonanza faded. Mining developments in adjacent mountain states also created lucrative markets for the agricultural products of the Plains.


Agriculture became the dominant industry of the American Great Plains and Canadian Prairies during the second half of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century. Farming operations had, of course, been carried on in some parts of the Plains for many years. The Indigenous people of the Central Plains, for example, had developed agriculture long before the coming of European settlers. Early European American settlers on the Plains often had difficulty making a living from the soil. Coming from more humid and temperate climates, they found it difficult to cope with the drought and heat in the South and with the short frost-free growing season in the North. As a result, subsistence agriculture was all but impossible for non-Native people, while lack of suitable products and the means to bring them to market militated against the development of any form of commercial agriculture, at least until military, mining, and railroad developments provided the needed markets and transportation facilities.

The transcontinental railroads were critically important in the development of Plains agriculture. The Union Pacific Railroad, completed in 1869, was the first to cross the region from east to west. Its construction crews provided lucrative but transitory markets for local farm products. Once built, the railroads provided the necessary means to carry grain grown on the Plains to eastern markets. Thanks to their land grants, the railroads also had a direct interest in bringing in as many new settlers as possible and to see them established so that more traffic could be generated. At least six additional transcontinental railroad lines were built across the Prairies and Plains between 1880 and 1915, while other major railroads provided branch-line facilities and important north-south linkages. The railroads provided the necessary transportation services that made possible the export of wheat from the region and the importation of the needed equipment and supplies that were not produced within the region.

Major grain-handling, milling, and marketing facilities were also needed. Most facilities were established by large corporate interests whose headquarters were located in large urban centers outside the region such as Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Chicago. Winnipeg was one Plains city that did provide more grain-marketing, wholesaling, and other intermediate economic services. Many of the large grain handling, milling, and marketing companies, whether located within or outside the region, had close financial links with the large and powerful railroad and financial corporations and were consequently often regarded as agents of outside interests.

Successful Plains farming depended on the production and export of wheat. The fortunes of Plains farmers fluctuated with the weather and the price of wheat delivered at Liverpool for distribution throughout the British Isles and northern Europe. Exceptionally strong demand during World War I gave wheat virtually complete dominance of the Plains farming economy. But the wartime bonanza was followed by great market instability in the 1920s, when, twice, the average price of wheat in one year fell to less than half that obtained the previous year. This was followed in the 1930s by the disastrous collapse of world markets when wheat prices fell to a 400-year low and to one-tenth of the record high prices paid in 1919.

These developments demonstrated that what happened beyond the farm gate was often far more important to the success and prosperity of the farm than anything done on the farm. Beyond the farm gate, large impersonal corporations, institutions, and interest groups manipulated market conditions in their own interest, making a mockery of the alleged independence of the individual producers and of the myth that rewards were directly linked to hard work and intelligent management.

The market instability of the 1920s and the disasters of the 1930s convinced many Plains farmers that they had become too dependent on a single export commodity and that they should diversify their economy. In areas where there was sufficient precipitation, most notably in the Red River Valley of the North, sugar beets, oilseeds, vegetables, animal fodder crops, and truck farming supplemented or replaced cereal grains. Irrigation, either through stream diversions, particularly in southern Alberta, or the pumping of groundwater in Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas, made the planting of vast areas of similar crops possible. Elsewhere, poultry, dairy, hog and beef operations, including large feedlot operations in which range cattle were prepared for market, sprang up. In Kansas and Nebraska the decline of wheat as the primary agricultural export commodity led to a revival of corn. Farther south in Texas and New Mexico irrigated cotton, which had gained a hold during World War I, became very important.

A second aspect of regional economic diversification involved the processing of agricultural products grown on the Plains. Instead of sending the produce out in its raw state, efforts were made to do more of the processing in the region. The big slaughterhouses in Chicago and Toronto faced increased competition as new packing plants were built in several of the larger Plains urban centers, often with provincial or state subsidies and tax concessions. Similarly, numerous sugar refineries were built to process locally grown sugar beets. Oilseed-crushing plants and refineries transformed the economies of several communities, and vegetable dehydration plants, particularly those specializing in the manufacture of potato chips, became the economic mainstay of Prairie and Plains towns such as Winkler and Steinbach in Manitoba and Clark in South Dakota. Specialized milling operations facilitated processing of cereal products, while new pelletizing technology created new markets, most notably in Japan, for hay and grass grown on the Plains. Discoveries of huge potash deposits in Saskatchewan and New Mexico provided a new staple export commodity but also facilitated the establishment of chemical fertilizer-manufacturing plants near the mines.

Economic diversification also extended to the establishment of numerous agricultural service industries. Transportation was probably the most important. The railroads provided a wide array of economic services, although their primacy as carriers of goods and products being shipped into or out of the region declined after World War II, when automotive forms of transportation, supported by massive government highway construction programs, became more important.

Wholesalers and jobbers of all kinds provided other vital economic services for people living on the Plains. These services related to both the assembling and handling of products destined for export and the making of all the arrangements necessary for the importation and distribution of the great variety of supplies needed but not produced by the region's residents. Winnipeg was, for many years, the most important regional wholesale, jobbing, grain-handling, and marketing center in the Prairie Provinces. Later, with the growth of other resource industries, businesses in other Prairie cities such as Calgary and Edmonton provided similar services. In the United States, by contrast, many of these intermediate economic services were provided by businesses in cities such as Denver, Dallas–Fort Worth, Minneapolis, and Chicago, all marginal to or outside of the Great Plains region. In that respect, then, the Canadian Prairie economy became more diversified than the adjoining Plains economy in the United States.

Another important agriculturally related industry is the manufacture and, more importantly, the modification and adaptation of assembly line–produced machines to meet local requirements. A few so-called full-line farm machinery manufacturers located their factories on the Plains, providing an industrial base for places such as Hesston, Kansas, Hastings, Nebraska, and Yorkton, Saskatchewan. Most of the big farm machinery factories remain outside the region. Many mass-produced farm machines, however, require modifications and adaptations to make them suitable for local conditions or specialty crops. As a result, short-line agricultural implement manufacturers have prospered on the Plains, as have small factories manufacturing or adapting other equipment and machinery needed by Plains farmers.

The modification of large assembly line– produced machines has also given a number of Plains industries a profitable niche in the automotive industry, where modifications of trucks and vans for specialized farm, recreational, and other domestic uses are needed. The major factories are located elsewhere, but shops adapting the products of those factories to meet local requirements or to take advantage of reliable and inexpensive regional labor resources have created employment and revenue for many Plains residents.

Agricultural diversification in its various forms has helped to stabilize the Plains economy, but the region remains heavily dependent on the export of agricultural products, and international marketing crises quickly engulf not only the primary producers but also those who serve those producers or process what has been produced. Diversification into nonagricultural products, most notably fossil fuels, has, however, reduced regional economic dependence on agriculture.

Fossil Fuels

The American Great Plains and the Canadian Prairies have exceptionally rich deposits of fossil fuels. The most abundant of these are the coal deposits along the entire eastern slope of the Rockies and in numerous large pockets farther east. Most of the coal found on the Plains, however, is lignite or brown wood coal that has been fossilized to some extent but retains its distinctly wooden texture. It is inferior to anthracite and bituminous coal for heating purposes. The fact that it expands when burning rather than simply burning down evenly increases the risk of explosions when such coal is used to fire steam engines and locomotives. Because of its high sulfur content, lignite coal also produces more pollution than the superior coals. As a result, although substantial income has been derived from the lignite coal mined on the Plains, the availability of superior coals elsewhere has prevented the exploitation of this resource to its full potential. Some of the lignite deposits are su.ciently close to the surface so that strip mining is possible, but there are also deep-seam lignite coal mines on the Plains. Some, most notably those in the Black Hills of South Dakota, produce a much higher quality coal than the stripmining operations on the Missouri Escarpment. The resource is abundant, but discoveries of huge oil and natural gas deposits, particularly at the northern and southern ends of the Great Plains, have limited the exploitation of the coal resources of the region.

The economies and cultures of Texas, Oklahoma, Alberta, and parts of other Plains states and provinces have been radically altered by the discovery and extraction of these fossil fuels. In the south, the Texas cities of Dallas and Houston, both outside the Great Plains region, have been major beneficiaries of oil developments, but several cities on the Southern Plains, most notably the Texas cities of Midland and Odessa as well as Tulsa and Oklahoma City, owe much of their growth to oil. The boom in Midland and Odessa began in the 1920s with numerous local oil discoveries. Odessa became one of the world's largest inland petrochemical centers during World War II, while Midland became a major administrative center, housing offices of more than 200 oil companies by the 1950s. Although both cities have suffered from fluctuations in the oil industry, they remain important oil centers.

In the north, Calgary and Edmonton, both clearly on the Prairies, became major oil capitals following discovery of the huge Leduc field near Edmonton in 1947. There had, however, been earlier natural gas and oil discoveries near Calgary, which became the site of major head or branch offices, while the major cracking plants and oil-related petrochemical industries (the blue-collar oil businesses) located in Edmonton. Oil has become the single most important source of revenue in Texas and Alberta and has spawned numerous related economic activities. Primary processing is done within the region. Efforts have been made to establish major petrochemical industries in the region, but most are still located elsewhere.


The discovery of massive deposits of potash, used mainly in the manufacture of fertilizers, has given several regions, most notably Saskatchewan and New Mexico, an important new source of economic activity. Technological difficulties, mainly in the sinking, stabilizing, and waterproofing of shafts through the water-bearing layers of gravel that overlie the potash deposits, created major difficulties in the industry immediately after the discovery of marketable quantities of the mineral. Then the industry was beset for a time in the 1960s and 1970s with serious problems of overcapacity in which the less-efficient New Mexico operators sought to protect domestic American markets from Canadian competition. These problems have, however, been largely resolved as international demand for fertilizer increased and trade barriers were lowered or removed. Most of the product undergoes only primary processing before being exported. There are, however, some attempts to promote further processing of potash and many other staple products of the Plains locally.

Health-Care and Service Industries

The relative isolation of most rural people living on the Plains and their remoteness from many essential services resulted in much unnecessary suffering. Nineteenth-century epidemics that decimated the Native peoples were attributable to diseases against which these peoples could offer little resistance. Later, among the homesteaders, lack of the best available health care made women, children, and the elderly particularly vulnerable, and many an old rural cemetery bears mute witness to these tragedies. It was, therefore, not surprising that Plains and Prairie people became particularly concerned about and demanded improved hospital and medical care.

The desperate conditions during the Great Depression of the 1930s gave a particularly strong impetus to the development of government- supported and -sponsored medical care facilities. The first socialist government elected anywhere in North America, the socialist Cooperative Commonwealth Federation government, which came to office in Saskatchewan in 1944, made improved medical care its most important and controversial priority. It, like other provincial and state governments, supported community-based hospital and healthcare organizations and facilities. Then in 1961 the Saskatchewan government introduced a comprehensive government-sponsored medical- care program. Socialized medicine became a very controversial issue in Canada, but before the end of the 1960s the federal government had adopted the main features of the Saskatchewan plan, giving Canada a medical-care system that differed sharply from the one previously in force everywhere in North America and continuing in force in the United States. But even where private medicine remained the norm, governments took measures to assist private and community initiatives and to provide basic health-care services for those most in need.

Health care, including medical research, has become a major industry in all parts of North America. In Canada it is the largest single expenditure in the budgets of both provincial and federal governments, while the privately operated systems in the United States absorb a higher percentage of the gross national product than anywhere else in the world.

Rapidly rising health-care costs associated with new and expensive technological and pharmaceutical developments and changing demographics as young people in large numbers migrate from rural to urban areas, together with growing concern about deficit spending by all levels of government, created a health-care crisis in the 1990s. In the ensuing debates tensions between sparsely settled parts of the country and the larger urban centers and between areas with an aging and declining population and new growth centers have become more intense. The health-care industry will certainly continue to expand, but its development on different sides of the forty-ninth parallel and in lightly settled rural areas compared to larger urban centers may well follow divergent patterns.


The Great Plains, with their windswept open spaces, have not benefited as much from the post.World War II development of tourism as have the adjacent mountain states and other regions of more conventional natural beauty. The scenic Black Hills of South Dakota, the rich heritage of Native peoples, the pioneer past, the splendid desert and winter resort country of the southwestern Plains, and the hunting and fishing opportunities of the northern parklands and other fish and game habitats have, however, contributed greatly to a growing Great Plains tourist industry. The great mountain parks and resorts, while outside the Plains region, attract millions of tourists every year, many of whom cross the Plains. And every major city, town, and village along the major freeways in the United States and the Trans-Canada and Yellowhead Highways in Canada offers basic services to tired, hungry, thirsty, or, alas, mechanically disabled tourists. Most of the major tourist routes run in an east-west direction, but Alberta has also become a beneficiary of a strong northward pull as tourists point their horseless carriages and truckers their burdened tractor-trailers toward the glories of that enormous wartime construction project–the Alaska Highway.

Defense Industries

Military activity supported large sectors of the Great Plains economy during the major U.S.– Native American wars. The subjugation of the Native peoples after about 1890 sharply reduced the need for a strong military presence during the mining and agricultural phase of Great Plains development. During and after World War II, however, the strategic location of the region resulted once again in a sharply increased military presence.

American military expenditures in the Pacific Northwest during the war created a major economic boom for Edmonton, the jumping off point for the North, and for major sectors of the Canadian agricultural community, which supplied much of the food required by the incoming American construction workers. The Canadian Prairies also became the primary training ground for the Commonwealth Air Training Program, under which thousands of British, Canadian, Australian, and other prospective military pilots obtained their basic training on the relatively flat terrain. During the cold war numerous electronic surveillance and antiballistic missile sites were built on the American Great Plains. Also in the United States, major defense contractors, often prompted by government incentives to create jobs in economically depressed areas, have established manufacturing, training, and testing facilities in the region. Boeing, for example, has established a major aircraft assembly plant and related facilities in Wichita, Kansas, serving both military and civilian markets.

The end of the cold war and political pressures to reduce government spending have resulted in cutbacks in the defense industry that have had a major impact on those towns and cities such as Lubbock, Texas, and Rapid City, South Dakota, with large military defense industries or nearby major military bases.

New Footloose Industries

Defense industries were only the most notable of many industries that were established wherever they could take advantage of the largest federal, state, provincial, or municipal grants, tax concessions, the provision at public expense of needed economic infrastructure, the availability of cheap or better-qualified workers, and lower costs of living. Modern computer and electronic technology help industries to overcome many of the disadvantages of geographical remoteness. Omaha, Nebraska, for example, is a major telemarketing center.

Efforts to attract major electronic industries, often in close cooperation with local university and research facilities, have given those Plains cities with large university graduate schools, research institutes, or research-oriented military and transportation industries an advantage over other centers lacking these facilities. Thus, for example, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, has overtaken its rival, Regina, thanks largely to its ability to attract new electronic industries whose research interests are enriched by work done at the well-established University of Saskatchewan and the large "Innovation Place" research park on the sprawling university campus. In Calgary, Alberta, by contrast, the presence of a rapidly increasing number of company head offices has lured key financial, legal, and taxation specialists to the city, which in turn makes the city more attractive to other industries contemplating a move. The premier of Alberta also places much stock in what he calls the "Alberta Advantage." Alberta is the only Canadian province that does not have a provincial sales tax. Neighboring Saskatchewan, where taxes are higher but the cost of living is lower, in part because of the wider array of services offered by the government, promotes those services in efforts to attract "footloose" industries.

The North American Free Trade Agreement has increased competition between Canadian and American states and provinces trying to attract new industries. The United States frequently cites the higher tax burdens in Canada. Canada promotes the public funding of services such as health care, which saves employers from having to provide expensive private health-insurance plans for their employees. Every state and province and most municipalities are eager to attract footloose industries, but the inducements differ widely. Some, for example, stress the better quality of life available because of low pollution levels; others regard the absence of effective environmental legislation as an advantage in the quest for economic diversification and industrialization.


Industrial activity in the Great Plains is mainly concentrated in the extraction, handling, partial processing, and export of a few staple products. Beginning with the fur trade in the North and on through ranching, grain farming, and gas, oil, and other natural resource developments, the region is an economic hinterland that sells its products in outside markets and is dependent on outside suppliers for most manufactured goods and centralized services.

There have been numerous attempts to diversify the regional economy and to establish a broader industrial base, as the numerous sites set aside for such economic development affirm. Those efforts have been most successful in the early processing of locally extracted natural resources and in a variety of businesses that, directly or indirectly, serve the needs of the basic commodity producers. In recent years, more broadly based service industries, most notably tourism and in some places defense, health-care, and electronics establishments, have contributed to regional economic diversification.

The region has a relatively small population. The extractive and primary processing industries, particularly farming, were at one time quite labor-intensive, but mechanization has reduced the number of people needed to sustain the basic regional industries. Regions with small populations tend to be politically weak in countries where political representation and influence are largely based on population. This has fostered periodic populist political protests and revolts against outside influences, particularly against the "big interests," almost all of which have their power bases outside the region. When William Jennings Bryan made his famous "Cross of Gold" speech in the difficult economic years of the 1890s and William Aberhart vehemently denounced the "Fifty Big Shots" during the worst years of the Great Depression, they provided few clear definitions of exactly who those big shots were. It was enough that they and their listeners believed that there were powerful interests that thwarted their region's economic aspirations.

Such sentiments were reinforced by important class differences. The major extractive industries were dependent on the economic services of large corporations, almost all of which had their headquarters outside the region. Local economic activities, however, were dominated by large numbers of small independent operators. Clashes between farmers and transcontinental railroads, between grain handlers, marketers, millers, and brewers, or between the wildcatters and the major oil companies were often a product of divergent interests of regionally based small independent operators and large international capitalist corporations. Small independent operators rarely think of themselves or their economic activities in terms of "class," but in their hostility and suspicion of big business, big government, and big labor they manifest not only regional but also class characteristics.

Industrial development and the attitudes associated with it evolved rather differently in Canada than in the United States. Seymour Lipset, in his book Continental Divide, argues that the values and institutions of the two countries are, in some respects, fundamentally different. Both countries, he argues, were products of the American Revolution, but one adopted classical liberal or Whig values and institutions, while the other adhered to classical conservative or Tory traditions. Other writers have challenged such neat dichotomies, but it must be admitted that government involvement in industrial policies, particularly in the promotion and ownership of key economic infrastructures, is more pronounced in Canada than in the United States.

Differences between the regional economies north and south of the forty-ninth parallel may also be due to the major urban centers that were established within the region in Canada but mainly beyond the peripheries of the region in the United States. Both regions depend on large eastern metropolitan centers to meet their major financial, trade, transportation, and manufacturing needs, but on the American Plains the intermediate economic services are provided by cities such as Minneapolis. St. Paul, Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, Dallas, Salt Lake City, and Denver, all of which are on the periphery or outside of the Great Plains. In Canada the areas surrounding the Prairies are not suitable for urban development. The Laurentian Shield to the east, boreal forests and tundra to the north, the Rocky Mountains to the west, and the international boundary to the south made it necessary to establish the major intermediate economic urban centers, notably Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, and Regina, on the Prairies. Consequently, Canadian Prairie cities have become an integral part of the regional economy and identity, while American cities on the periphery of the Plains seem to be more closely integrated into and responsive to national and international economies.

There are thus some differences between the economies of the two regions. These differences should not, however, obscure the important structural similarities in the regional economies. The most important of those similarities is the reliance on the extraction, partial processing, and export of natural resources and a dependence on outside sources for most manufactured goods. As a result, the motorist who is diverted onto a Great Plains Industrial Drive will find numerous farm and automotive service, machinery, and agricultural processing industries but few of the large factories normally associated with industrialization.

See also AGRICULTURE: Cattle Ranching; Wheat / IMAGES AND ICONS: Colony of the East / POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT: Bryan, William Jennings; Cooperative Commonwealth Federation / PROTEST AND DISSENT: Aberhart, William / TRANSPORTATION: Railroads, United States; Railways, Canada / WAR: British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.

Ted D. Regehr University of Saskatchewan and University of Calgary

Eagle, John A. The Canadian Pacific Railway and the Development of Western Canada, 1896-1914. Montreal: Mc- Gill-Queen's University Press, 1989.

Fowke, V. C. The National Policy and the Wheat Economy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957.

Lipset, Seymour Martin. Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Nash, Gerald D. The American West in the Twentieth Century. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1977.

Perloff, Harvey, et al. Regions, Resources, and Economic Growth. Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1960.

Richards, John, and Larry Pratt. Prairie Capitalism: Power and Influence in the New West. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1972.

Robbins, William G. Colony and Empire: The Capitalist Transformation of the American West. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994.

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