F.S. Cooley's writing is full paternal wisdom. “Uncle Sam” Hampton’s words progress with a contagious enthusiasm. Even business letters penned by former Montana Farm Bureau President A.H. Stafford feel like they came from a warm, comfortable friend.
These voices have brought life to many of my favorite parts of the Montana Farm Bureau’s early history. I'll introduce you to them and other legendary leaders in this new weekly blog series preparing for our 2019 Centennial Celebration. Here's the first:
George E. Piper wrote with precision.
His reports recorded specific details about his work as Dawson County’s agricultural agent. He documented numbers, responded to open questions with bulleted lists and, unless a narrative was specifically requested, rarely elaborated beyond “yes” or “no.”
“The year 1915 was one of the most favorable agricultural years on record. The precipitation was 2.19 inches above normal. A period of unusually warm dry weather extended from January to May 25th. This was followed by a period of three months during which the weather was abnormally cool and wet … Late frosts on June 15th and 16th on the bench lands above the Yellowstone River bottom in eastern Dawson County cut back the corn to the ground and injured grain slightly.”
(George E. Piper, Report of County Agent Work in
Dawson County Montana From April 1 to December 31, 1915)
His numbered list of principal agricultural problems of his county included reclaiming washed soils, selecting grain varieties better adapted to their climate, introducing better sires and finally:
“In relation to people and farmstead:
- Upbuilding community social life & spirit
- Arranging farmers’ clubs
- Stimulating cooperative marketing
- Road building and buying.
Several more questions in his June 30, 1915 semi-annual report pressed for details on the organization of farmers in his county, and his only response was: “There is one live farmers’ club, two dead ones and one just born.”
Two years earlier, M.L. Wilson was assigned to be the first county agricultural agent in Montana. He was to serve Custer and Dawson Counties, a territory that spanned roughly 40,000 square miles or 25 million acres of land at that time. Today, this area encompasses Custer, Carter, Fallon, Prairie, Powder River, Dawson, McCone, Garfield, Richland, and Wibaux Counties.
That spring, F. S. Cooley, the Montana State College’s Director of Extension Services, wrote to Wilson to explain his duties as a new agricultural agent. Neither office hours nor a formal office would be necessary yet.
“Probably for the present your office will be chiefly under your hat,” Cooley wrote.
And also: “Make arrangements for about four cooperators from among the best and most interested farmers in each of about 10 or 12 townships. Study comparative cost and crop yields between engine and horse tillage. Promote boy’s corn contests. In an unobtrusive way use your influence in favor of agriculture in the rural schools. Keep a list of farmer’s wants and things for sale. Observe degree of success of alfalfa, corn, peas. Be on lookout for good seed. Promote use of good sires. Visit cooperators each 14 to 20 days. Cultivate farmers’ organization for education and social benefits. Have a few most useful bulletins with you for distribution on your travels. Make out daily reports.”
(Cooley, F. S. A History of the Montana Extension Service.
Bozeman, MT: Montana Extension Service, 1933.)
By the time George E. Piper took the reins in Dawson County in 1915, three new counties had been created from its original boundaries, and his territory now covered just under six million acres. Glendive was the sole town with more than 100 inhabitants, and just 60 miles of railroad traversed the county. “No strong local markets,” he wrote in his 1915 annual report.
In his “1915 Analysis of County Agricultural Situation,” his precision cut through any romantic notions eastern Montana homesteaders may have been sold in the previous decade:
“Railroad and market facilities are poor, necessitating long hauls and wide margins on grains and miscellaneous farm products.
“Development in diversity of agriculture, which is necessary for agricultural prosperity, is limited by: lack of capital, lack of production of feed for livestock, lack of equipment, high interest rates on farm loans, and the newness of the agriculture of the county.
“Development in social life, schools, churches, and graded roads has been limited by the newness of the county, distances between communities and in communities, and lack of community cooperative spirit.”
But, he later noted with a touch of warmth, Dawson County “is populated with intelligent, progressive farmers, who are prospering well under adverse conditions.”
These were just the types he needed to give grassroots traction to the Extension Service movement.
The 1914 Smith-Lever Act had established funding to bring land-grant university research and education in “closest cooperation possible with the people of the land” through the local agricultural agents. And then:
"The States Relations Service of the USDA, in general charge of implementing the Smith-Lever Act, recommended in 1914-1915 that a new organization, the Farm Bureau, be built up in each county to support Extension Service activities."
(Burlingame, Merrill G., and Edward J. Bell. The Montana Cooperative Extension
Service: A History, 1893-1974. Bozeman, MT: Montana State University, 1984.
George E. Piper didn’t waste words, and he didn’t waste time getting the instructed work done.
“An effort was made to get in touch with all the communities in the county, and make arrangements for future work. The social problem is a very serious one. Meetings were held in communities which had never gotten together before… .”
By his December 1915 report, he elaborated on his mid-summer, “one live, two dead and one just born” description of farmers’ organizations:
“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 is where our Montana Farm Bureau story begins.
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