Flathead Reservation in 1910

The homesteaders, as a group, were optimists. The Reservation was opened to homesteading through a series of three lotteries held in 1910. Applicants from all over the country sent their applications to the Superintendent of the Flathead Project. These were mixed in a large container, then beginning on May 2, 1910, fifty names were drawn. After the initial drawing, 100 names per day were drawn, six days a week. Each week, the site of the drawing alternated between the land offices in Missoula and Kalispell. This process went on until 3,000 applications had been drawn.



Land-seekers gather in St. Ignatius, 1910.

Beginning on September 1, 1910, another round of the lottery began and another 3,000 applications were drawn. On Halloween night at midnight, all the tracts of land still available were thrown open to the public, and a land rush followed. By December 9, the Lake Shore Sentinel reported that 1,400 settlers were living on the Flathead Reservation. 

Tribal leaders opposed opening the reservation to non tribal members. Rep. Joseph Dixon pushed legislation through Congress opening reservations to white settlers, twisting the words of the 1855 Hell Gate Treaty and, as he put it, "trading my hope of heaven" in the bargain. 

A 1909 "pocket manual" of the Flathead Country offered the prospect of wealth to those who got a chance at the rich lands being offered. "Now comes the opportunity for thousands to make good. There are 4,000 allotments of good land. For a paltry sum which even the poorest man can raise should he draw within the 4,000, one can secure land all the way from $50 to $500 per acre."

Waldo Phillips, whose father was looking for land at the time and followed the proceedings carefully, said that "the Federal Government did a lot of false advertising, calling it the 'former Flathead Reservation' and falsifying the quality of the land offered for the drawing."

In 1909, about 200 people lived in Polson. This number grew to 1,500 in the next year.


1908 McCarthy Homestead Cabin located in the North Fork area at the South end of Big Prairie of Glacier National Park, Montana. Photo courtesy Glacier National Park.

The open land had been broken into lots ranging from 40 to 160 acres, and hopeful pioneers were settling in, living in tents, shacks, log cabins, and whatever make-do shelters they could create. Throughout the valley, other camps of Pend D'Oreille and Selish teepees also existed, along with cabins built by Indians who had taken to farming. Change was in the air. It had been just over a hundred years since Lewis and Clark had spent the winter with the Bitterroot Selish on their westward exploration, and the pace of change had been accelerating all that time.

A. M. Sterling drove the first car into the Mission Valley in 1910, carrying produce from Missoula to his store in Ronan. At the time there were no good roads into or through the Flathead Reservation. Most travel was on horses over ancient trails used by Indians, some of which had been widened to dirt roads with a few bridges. The most important road was the 37-mile stageline connecting Polson to Ravalli (along much the same route followed by Highway 93 today). This line connected the Northern Pacific railroad station in Ravalli with Polson, which was connected by steamboats on Flathead Lake to the Great Northern railroad spur road at Dayton. 


Frank Latimer ran a seven-passenger Stevens-Duryea auto stage on the main line between Ravalli and Polson.

In the summer, this distance could be covered in two hours in the auto stage while the horse stage took almost six hours.  On August 14, 19ll, Stanley Scarce made the trip in his privately owned Pierce Arrow from Ravalli to Polson in one hour and twenty minutes.

But in the spring and winter, the road was often impassable for automobiles.Photo: 1913 Stevens-Duryea seven-passenger touring automobile.

 In 1910 the G.W. Williams Transportation got the mail contract for the Mission Valley, and ran a stagecoach from Ravalli to Polson. On a good road, their 14 passenger Concord stagecoach could be pulled by 4 horses. But in bad weather, it took 6 horses. An auto stage began running this main route in 1911, but snows made the road impassible for an automobile, and when the snow melted some sections became too boggy to pass. In the winter and the spring, only horses could get through. 

S. R. Logan, the Superintendent of Schools for District 28 described what automobile travel was like in 1915. "I invested in a Ford, worth about $700. I don't know that it saved much time for I was always repairing tires, or getting out of mudholes, or scrounging a tanful of kerosene when gasoline was not available or driving with a lantern hung over the radiator cap, or walking from nowhere when it quit entirely, perhaps in the middle of a blizzard."

Year around automobile traffic on the reservation wasn't possible until this main road was paved in 1933. 

 It was the coming of farmers during and after 1910, and their desire to get Rural Mail Delivery, that led to efforts to get better roads built. They weren't particularly successful, though. Without county or state money, many farmers built market roads to get their produce to town but the network of crude, undrained short roads that resulted didn't develop into anything we would recognize as a road system. Without gravel and adequate grading, the roads filled with muddy holes and bogs during wet weather. Much of the year they were impassible except for horses or horse-drawn buggies, carts, and wagons.

Several stores had been established in the Mission Valley before the land was opened to homesteading, including the Beckwith Mercantile in St. Ignatius. George H. Beckwith had opened this store with the help of C. H. McLeod of the Missoula Mercantile before 1910.

In 1910, four sawmills were operating in the Mission Valley. The arrival of the homesteaders created a growing market for lumber and fence posts, and by 1920 the valley had over 20 sawmills. These were small mills aiming at a local market. Larger and older mills in Missoula lack of capital. . . The first lumberyard in Polson was established at the end of 1908 and by the end of 1910, there were six.

The rains came regularly in the years just before World War I, and the future appeared bright. "It rained 29 days in June of 1916, and the prices were good." said Waldo Phillips. St. Ignatius was booming:

"The town had grown to include four grocery stores, two hotels, and two butcher shops, with the Buckhouse brothers, George and Joe, and the Stewart brothers, George and Bob, as owners of Quality Meats, and Chris Feucht with City Meat. Chris Hoshun built a fairly large Mortuary building where the Post Office is now, The Royal Order of Masonry formed a local chapter and built the Masonic Temple. John Dishman, Elliot, W.H. Megglason and a Mr. Bennett put up a large building on Front and Mains Streets, housing an auto dealership, garage and gas station, with a movie theatre, a general merchandise store, and a bar and pool hall all facing Front Street (the highway) and the drug store facing Main Street. This large structure was all connected, and fairly well built, all at the same time. The drug store was owned by the Bennett family who had a very beautiful daughter named Cordelia. She later married Dr. Tom Matthews. The Duguay's built a building on the corner of Front and 3rd Streets, housing the St. Ignatius Post, a boarding house, and City Meat Market on the north side and their living quarters on the east. . .

"The farmers in the area banded together and formed The Farmers Equity, and built a fine building on lots given to them by George Beckwith. It had a 16 foot high wainscoat, suspended ceiling, beautiful hardwood floor with an elevated stage at the east and a large screen for showing movies. . ."

Much of the land had not yet been claimed when the Great Northern Railroad in 1917 completed its spur line through the Reservation, connecting to the Northern Pacific line that had been built to Ravalli in 1883. The Great Northern advertised the Flathead Reservation lands heavily throughout the Midwest and Northeast, and even arranged tours of the Reservation. By 1935, over 80 percent of the 732 families they had placed in the valley were still there.

It was true that the land was rich. It was also true that it was dry. The lack of water led people to grow mostly wheat, which was the most successful dryland crop. By 1912, 92 percent of the agricultural income in the valley came from wheat.

But making a reasonable living from dryland farming required over 300 acres, and the homestead lots were much smaller than that, ranging from 40 to 160 acres, depending on the land's expected access to water. People thought the land would soon be under irrigation. In fact, a federal irrigation project had been started in 1904, and the Jesuits had dug canals long before that. The lobbying of Indian agents had led to a federal commitment to an irrigation project on the reservation before white settlement began. 

"The only irrigation on the Flathead was done by those with a private ditch, filed on by an Indian, many of which were filed on as early as the 1880s, when the Federal Government told them they would issue them allotments and would build them an irrigation system," said Waldo Phillips, whose father settled in the valley in 1910. Homesteaders were "given nothing but the poorest of land, with only the promise of water for irrigation if there was a surplus of water over and above the needs for the Indian Allotments." But "there never has been enough water, in the entire history of the Reservation, for all the land." According to Phillips, "Most of those who didn't come here with a fair amount of money fell by the wayside without irrigation. . . The ones, however, who had private streams, were doing well." The irrigation project was not completed until 1938.

So from the beginning, farming was a tenuous affair in the Mission Valley. And then beginning in 1917, the droughts came. With World War I already underway in Europe, farmers planted large crops expecting increased demands. But when the rains didn't come, their yields plummeted from 30 or 40 bushels per acre to 10 or 12. People thought it was just a bad year, and got by borrowing money.

There were plenty of banks in the Mission Valley that were eager to loan money. The earliest, the First National Bank of Polson, had started on June 16, 1909. Montana was at the beginning of a banking boom, with more banks being started than could be staffed by experienced bankers. Between 1910 and 1919, the state and federal governments issued 374 charters to new banks. By 1918 there were eight banks operating in the Mission Valley, though they had meager deposits and few depositors. All eight banks combined had fewer assets (about $1.5 million) than the American Bank and Trust Company of Missoula had by itself. They averaged about 800 depositors at a time when the Montana average was over 1,300 and the national average was more than 3,500. Some of the new bankers didn't have a complete understanding of the banking business, and they were competing intensely intensely with one another. This led to many high risk loans. They did not diversify their loans much. They were gambling heavily on loans to homesteaders.

Farmers weren't diversified either. Their farms too small and too dry for that, and they were unaware that they were beginning their farms during a wet cycle that wouldn't last. After studying the failures of dryland farmers, M. L. Wilson, Montana's first county extension agent and later head of agricultural economics at Montana State University in Bozeman published an Extension Service bulletin in the early 1920s urging farmers to diversify into milk cows, chickens and pigs to help out when the wheat crop was poor, to use more efficient tillage so one farmer could farm more land, and to work out systems to use flood and waste water to get some irrigation. 

His ideas were incorporated into the resettlement, domestic allotment and agricultural adjustment programs of the New Deal, but they did not come in time to help the early farmers on the Flathead Reservation. The homesteaders were gambling heavily on one main crop: wheat.

Together, the farmers and bankers lost their gamble. Rains didn't come in 1918. They didn't come in 1919. Then in 1920, the price of wheat dropped dramatically, and grasshopper infected the valley, destroying what meager crops were growing in the dusty soil. Farmers had virtually no crop to sell. As if that weren't bad enough, many needed to import $50 per ton hay from such places as Minnesota to keep their horses and cattle alive. Farm after farm went bankrupt, unable to repay their loans. In 1921, the ratio of loans to deposits in Mission Valley banks was over 133 percent. Five of the eight banks in the valley had failed by 1924. People lost the money they had deposited in these banks, farmers and business lost access to capital, and their mortgages were foreclosed.

There were hundreds of stories like that Waldo Phillips told of his father: "The economy lasted for a while after World War I was over and then the bottom dropped out. We had a real severe winter and hay went up to $60.00 a ton. Dad had 600 tons on hand to sell, while cattle prices dropped to almost nothing. He couldn't see feeding $60 hay to $10 to $20 cattle, so he shipped most of them to Omaha, thinking he'd get better prices there. The receipts hardly paid the freight. On the way home from Omaha, Dad was thinking 'I am still well off. I still have most of my hay to sell, and I have my new scales to weigh it over.' The bank in Missoula had already repossessed several hundred head of livestock, so they bought all of Dad's hay and agreed to pay him extra for feeding it to their cattle. Dad put up signs along the road 'NO MORE HAY FOR SALE - PLEASE DON'T BOTHER'. When they came to get their cattle in the spring, they told Dad to come in the following week and they would pay him what they owed him. When Dad went in to get paid, their doors were locked, with a sign on them 'UNDER LIQUIDATION'. The bank had gone broke. Dad had just shipped a carload of oats and a carload of spuds, and had instructed the buyers to mail their checks to that same bank, which they had already done, so that money was lost, too. Instead of Dad being worth about $100,000.00, he was $24,000.00 in debt. It almost knocked the props out from under Dad. It took him 20 years to recover." 

"The experts had been wrong," said farmer and school superintendent S. R. Logan. "They had laid out the project in 40 to 80 acre units to be farmed with horses and small inexpensive equipment. Mute testimony that they were wrong were the abandoned houses, many no more than shacks, that dotted the reservation."

As farms failed, a process of consolidation began. Smaller holdings were bought by larger operations, and as the size of the farms increased, diversification and investment in modern machinery made them better able to survive.

 

Lake County Newspapers

Polson Courier Republican 1910 C. P. Cowman C. P. Cowman (Flathead County)
Ronan Pioneer Independent 1910 E. H. Rathbone E. H. Rathbone (Missoula County)
St. Ignatius Post Independent 1912 A. W. Nelson Post Pub. Co. (Missoula County)

 


Waldo Phillips, "This is the history of my father, John Gideon Phillips." unpublished manucript.

Cited by Driscoll. S. R. Logan, "These Things Shall Be: Memories of a Nonconformist," unpublished autobiography of S. R. Logan. Retained by his wife at Charlo, Montana.

S. R. Logan, "Memoirs"

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