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Fighting for Montana's wheat farmers, rural community centers

Fighting for Montana's wheat farmers, rural community centers

In 1922, Farm Bureau delegates elected a Gallatin Valley wheat farmer,  A.H. Stafford, as their the next state president. Fittingly, the prime issue of the day was addressing the black stem rust problem in wheat. Between 1916 and 1920, the Bureau of Plant Industry estimated stem rust destroyed 2,525,000 bushels of wheat, 3,400,000 bushels of oats and 1,667,000 bushels of barley in Montana. The black stem rust was caused by fungus spores that grew on barberry bushes.

Barberry Campaign

In November 1922, Stafford represented Montana at the Conference for the Prevention of Grain Rust in St. Paul, where he joined with the twelve other spring wheat growing states to devise a plan to eradicate the rust issue. The contingency of governors, farm bureau presidents and other representatives urged congress to appropriate $500,000 to aid in the eradication of the barberry bush. Here, their federation with the American Farm Bureau proved fruitful.

This year’s federal appropriation of $350,000 is the largest amount ever allowed by congress for a single activity of the bureau of plant industry of the Department of Agriculture. It came as the result of the demands of the farmers themselves, expressed through the American Farm Bureau federation and the anti-rust conference. Of this amount, $4,500 has been allotted for use in Montana. (Billings Gazette, 1922).

According to the Billings Gazette, the stem rust spores were hardy and easily spread. The prime solution would be the complete eradication of the barberry bush.  

“Black stem rust is a fungus growth which is spread by means of spores, seeds of microscopic size which travel readily through the air. After the cold of winter, rust spores can take root only on the common barberry bush. The parasitic growth which results on the leaves of the bush gives off millions of spores which in turn attack grains and grasses. Once started in grain, the rust spreads rapidly in favorable weather from one grain plant to the next and the volume of destruction depends only upon conditions favorable to rust growth. Where there are no barberry bushes, there can be no rust.”

By the beginning of the 1922 nearly 8,671 bushes had already been removed. The eradication began largely as a war measure in 1918, but a lack of public funds and education on the subject slowed progress. 

With new funding available, W.N. Christopher, the state leader of barberry eradication, took charge. Like extension and farm bureau efforts before, he knew the best way to address the issue was face-to-face, farm-to-farm. A team of two men would visit farms, locating the bushes and warn farmers of their threat. Later, they would revisit to make sure the bushes were removed properly. 

Uncle Sam HamptonWhile the state and federal farm bureaus waged war on stem rust, Uncle Sam Hampton stayed true to his battle for better rural communities. Late in 1922, he took up an interest  for a constitutional amendment to reduce the number of required county officials.

With the money saved in bureaucracy, he argued, more tax dollars could be dedicated to build rural community centers. He believed more county community buildings would help bring farmers together. 

The great savings so effected, he declares, would go far towards releasing money needed for making the country a better place to live in and in helping to keep farm boys and girls in the wholesome environment of rural life. 

“We are cheating ourselves and our children if we don’t remove these constitutional obstacles which are keeping us from getting many benefits that our hard earned taxes don’t bring us now.”
(Billings Gazette, Nov. 1922)

The amendment passed the November 1922 ballot vote, and Montana was hailed to have "set the standard for the entire nation in creating efficient forms of county government under the recently adopted constitutional amendment providing for county home rule," according to expert civic administrator Dr. R.A. Hatton (Billings Gazette, Dec. 1922).

By then, Hampton estimated at least 150 farm bureau neighborhoods in Montana had already built their own community houses.

"They are the meeting places for the women's egg clubs, where farmers' extension lectures and many other groups, including the boys' pig clubs, the girls' canning clubs, but best of all the social gatherings where country folks have learned to know and appreciate the meaning of the word "neighbor" better than people in the crowded cities can ever hope to, he explained."  

Was your rural area one that benefited from these early campaigns to build community centers? This would be a great question to ask and research for the County History Initiative! Subscribe below for weekly updates and more Montana Farm Bureau history notes, leading up to our Centennial Celebration in 2019. Interested in helping research and write your county Farm Bureau's history? Contact lauran@mfbf.org.  

RESOURCES:

  • The Butte Miner, Jan. 12, 1922, page 2: “Stafford President Montana Farm Bureau”
  • Great Falls Tribune, Mar. 7, 1922, page 9: “Dixon Names Davis and Stafford to Attend Rust Meet”
  • Great Falls Tribune, Nov. 23, 1922, page 9: “Ask Congress to Aid Fight on Grain Rust”
  • Billings Gazette, Jun. 11, 1922, page 10: “Campaign against Barberry Bush and Grain Rust is On”
  • Billings Gazette, Nov. 2, 1922, page 3: “Farm Bureau Man Has Wide Acquaintance”
  • Billings Gazette, Dec. 17, 1922, page 12: "Says Montana Has Set Pace."
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