Despite a concerted campaign claiming otherwise, homesteading life in Montana and the rest of the West wasn’t easy a musician and storyteller told the crowd gathered Monday night at the Madison Valley Public Library.
Dryland farming in Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas was a much tougher proposition than many would-be farmers from back east were led to believe, said Bill Rossiter.
Rossiter mixed his history lesson with musical performances of traditional songs about homesteading life. His performance Monday night was sponsored by the Friends of the Madison Valley Public Library and Montana Humanities.
Rossiter is a former professor from Flathead Community College in Kalispell and is touring around Montana this month sharing his performance entitled “Home, Home on the Ranch.”
One of the primary sources of misinformation about farming in eastern Montana came from “Campbells’ 1907 Soil Culture Manual,” Rossiter said. The book, which was written by H.W. Campbell, maintained that farming the northern plains was simple.
“Looking far into the future one may see this region dotted with fine farms, with countless herds of blooded animals grazing, with school houses in every township, with branch lines of railroads, with electric interurban trolley lines running in a thousand directions, with telephone systems innumerable, with rural mail routes reaching every door. It’s coming just as sure as the coming of another century. The key has been found and the door to the riches has been unlocked,” wrote Campbell.
It was this kind of writing that convinced people to try their hand out West, Rossiter said.
“Nowadays we call it public relations, back then they just called it lying,” he said.
At the dawn of the 20th Century, life was good for farmers in Montana. The government was giving out homesteads and across the state areas were seeing more than average rainfall amounts, he said. The problem was that the newcomers figured it would always be that way.
Montana’s population had climbed to 600,000 people by 1917. By 1920 that number had already dropped to 549,000. Ten years later it was down to 537,000. It took until 1960 before the state’s population exceeded the 1917 level.
This drop in population coincided with drought, grasshopper plagues, the Great Depression and a post World War I drop in grain prices, Rossiter said.
“The 1920s were terrible,” he said.
Homesteads failed at an alarming rate and their failure was followed by the failure of many Montana banks.
“In some areas of the state, like the Boulder Valley which isn’t a bad place for water, the (homestead) failure rate was about 60 percent,” Rossiter said.
The songs and stories that came from the homesteaders of those days tell the story, Rossiter said. These songs invariably focus on hardships – droughts, famine, disease and storms.
In researching and learning these old songs, one thing was consistent; the songs were sung about nearly every one of the plains states, he said.
Rossiter sang several of the old tunes, alternating between playing a banjo, autoharp and guitar.
He also interspersed his history lessons with humor and a few jokes.
For instance, in 1870, the first year the census was done in Montana, there were seven men for every woman. On the surface this seemed like good news for perspective female pioneers, he said.
“However, they found out the odds were good, but the goods were odd,” Rossiter quipped to a round of laughter.
Rossiter’s performance was paid for by a $350 grant from Montana Humanities, said Lucy Ennis, with Friends of the Madison Valley Public Library.
Presentations, like Rossiter’s, are important to the library and the community, Ennis said. It gives people a chance to get together and learn a little something while being entertained.
“We need to have something exciting and little different to do,” she said.
Next Monday evening, the friends of the library will be hosting a presentation by part-time Madison Valley resident, Bill Morton concerning his book “The Story of Georgia’s Boundaries.” The presentation will begin at 7 p.m. at the Madison Valley Public Library.