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It's personal

Lewis and Clark County, 1915 report

We left off last week with George E. Piper’s notes in his December 1915 Dawson County Extension Agent annual report: 

“The rural organizations in the county are as follows: Dawson County Livestock and Farm Bureau, which was organized to assist the county agriculturist, publish an exchange list, and to represent the various agriculture and livestock interests.”

This — the first mention of an official Farm Bureau organization in Montana — was the keystone quote I’d been seeking for weeks in my Centennial research. Being an eternal optimist, I eagerly pulled out Piper’s 1916 report. I was anxious to learn how the budding organization had flourished in its first year. But, like a heavy foot of snow dumped in the first week of April, that spring-like cheer quickly drifted away and melted into a not-always-sunny history.

“A farm bureau was organized the first year, but under the plan of organization it was not workable in such a large territory. It is possible that this might be recognized another year under some different plan. A need of a strong County wide organization to support the work is recognized,” Piper wrote in 1916.

Dawson County Agriculture Agent Report, 1915The year before, Piper noted the difficulty of unifying voices spread over the vast eastern Montana territory. Shaking hands and building personal relationships was fundamental to organizing the farmers. Try as he may in 1915 – the extension agent hosted 21 community picnics, each with an average attendance of 150 – it wasn’t enough. The most effective way to share information was to hold meetings at their farms, he noted, but, “It is impossible to visit every farm in a county of 5,000,000 acres.”

Fortunately, the winds of change didn’t reach Lewis and Clark County in time to dampen F.B. Carpenter’s ambition. This undated letter was tucked in the Lewis and Clark County agent’s 1915 annual report files, presumably distributed in December of that year or January 1916:

Shall we have a Farm Bureau in Lewis and Clark County? A Farm Bureau is an organization of the farmers of the county, organized for the purpose of:
     1. Uniting all of the agricultural interest of a county,
     2. To assist and direct the County Agriculturalist in his work among the farmers in the interest of better agriculture in the county,
     3. By going over the projects or plans of the County Agriculturalist at least once a year and perhaps rejecting portions, approving portions, and making suggestions to be incorporated in work.

In Lewis and Clark County there are four organizations of the Farmers’ Society of Equity located at Helena, Canyon Creek, Wolf Creek, and Craig; one of the American Society of Equity at Reibling; two live stock associations; a lodge composed entirely of farmers; and several other organizations are located in different parts of the county. All of these interest should be pulling together. Would it not be possible for each and every farmer organization in the county to send a delegate to a meeting to be held in the near future at some central point, say Wolf Creek. Localities which have no farmer organization such as Lincoln, Dearborn Canyon, etc. should send at least one delegate. With 25 farmers representing every part of the county, gathered together, a Farm Bureau could undoubtedly be organized.

Farm Bureaus are numerous in the eastern states. South Dakota and Kansas will not place a county agent in a county until a Farm Bureau is formed. Already Dawson County of this state has formed a strong Farm Bureau. Shall the Lewis and Clark County Farm Bureau be next? When you have pulled your shoes in the evening and stuck your feet in the oven, take your pen and write your opinion of this thing to the county agriculturalist.

The responses must have blown into his Helena office like chinook winds, because the next month – February 1916 – Montana's second county Farm Bureau was organized. The membership was 45 strong, made up primarily of ranchers from the Prickley Pear Valley. The new Executive Board split the county into five areas with a selected leader from each.

Their slogan sowed purpose in the organization: “Better Homes – Crops – Markets.”  

Somewhere in the transition to spring in 1916, Paul Carpenter had replaced F.B. Carpenter as the Lewis and Clark County agricultural agent. The new agent came face-to-face with the same challenges Piper had in the east. The work of the county agriculturist – and therefore, the development of the county farm bureau – had to be personal; it was work built on a reputation and a lot of firm handshakes.

Extension Director F.S. Cooley illuminated those early agents' challenge in his 1933 “A History of the Montana Extension Service:"   

“His first need was to become acquainted with his constituents. They must know and like him. He must bring something of use to them that would make farming for successful and country life richer. The first appeal must be through the pocketbook. Farming must be more profitable because of the county agent. So he began to help farmers individually.”

Lewis and Clark County Agriculture Agent Report, 1916Lewis and Clark County covered 2.2 million acres (less than half of Piper’s Dawson County territory). Even on this grand scale, they were making progress toward helping the farmer individually, as Cooley instructed. They had established the Farm Bureau Bulletin, a monthly publication with a free exchange list of livestock, farm produce and equipment to buy, sell or exchange. A free farm bureau employment agency placed 249 “carefully hand-picked” men into useful labor on county farms and ranches in its first six months of operation. The ‘gopher campaign’ would become a foundation program for many early farm bureaus, and their plans were in place at the end of 1916 to move it forward.

Still, the forces of nature were working against them.

“During the spring and summer the Farm Bureau was growing and doing well, but it was slow; it was stable but not developing as fast as it should with conditions so favorable, seemingly.
“The county is unfortunate in shape, 107 miles from north to south; awkward in topography with the continental divide and other mountains and with the Missouri River cutting it sharply into sections; sparsely settled in parts; some communities isolated; some remnant yet of the ill feeling that once obtained between the cattlemen on one side and the sheep men on the other, not always the most friendly relations between stockman and homesteader. But one-third of the land is agricultural. One-third is grazing and one-third is mountainous.
“While the county was divided into five districts with an executive board member from each district, the districts were too large. Each board member could not begin to reach his constituency, scores of his people he had never seen, many he had not even heard of.” — Paul Carpenter's 1916 annual report. 

With that, he noted, October and November 1916 were devoted exclusively to the re-organization and development of the farm bureau. When he and the guiding members emerged that winter, the new county organization was carefully divided into 17 districts, each with local committees and more grassroots voices to grow their district’s program of work.    

“The object was to provide means to bring the society, with its extension and improvement work, right to the door of every rancher, and do it in person,” Carpenter wrote.

This urge to unify the voices of the country while meeting the needs of the individual would bloom into a farmland battle cry the following year. Subscribe below to get an email notification when 1917 — the year that "food would win the war" — publishes next week.