“My heart beats with admiration for the sturdy farmers of Montana and neighbor states as I recognize that here the war has touched the souls of the people. Here we have the mental and spiritual attitude toward the needs of our nation and our allies and the cry of stricken humanity and regard sacrifice as a privilege and the opportunity to give real joy.
“The farmers’ patriotism is not only of lip service. With them there has been no hysteria in the sacred name of patriotism. Their feelings are too real: they run too deep.They have given their sons until Montana, according to population, stands first in the union in the number of boys who have volunteered for service. And the great majority of these boys come from Montana farms. They seek no easy jobs. They ask to be assigned to duty where the hardships are the most severe and where the dangers are the greatest. From the trenches and the firing lines and the training camps comes back the word that no state is furnishing better soldiers.” — Fergus County rancher Carl W. Riddick, in a letter published in The Joplin Times July 4, 1918
When the U.S. entered The Great War in 1917, fighting patriots and working patriots alike responded to the call to action. That spring, emergency agricultural agents were placed in as many counties possible to help rally field soldiers to raise the food that could win the war. By the start of 1918, they were gaining significant ground in organizing the farmers for the task at hand.
“…the whole world is crying for food. The work of the nurses is fruitless without proper nourishment for their patients. The munitions will be of no use to our armies unless they have plenty of wheat and meat, for an army is aptly said to march ‘on its stomach.’ … All the responsibility for abundant food and clothing dissolves upon the farmer. He will have to make every foot of available ground productive this year.” (Lewis, 1918)
With that in mind, Uncle Sam Hampton – my favorite farmer-orator who passionately wielded both plow and pen – was marching across the state with the fervor of a fiery revivalist. He preached the good news of unity, cooperation and agricultural brotherhood from Missoula to his home Dawson County, submitting weekly reports to the Montana Farmer with details of all who “were ready to grasp the gospel of the farm bureau. … though many have lost their crops from the long-continued drought, they gladly volunteered in the farmers’ industrial army.”
While Uncle Sam spoke with a revivalists’ zeal, the issues of the day were sobering and real.
In northern Montana, the summer of 1918 was the second-driest year on record for nearly 30 years. Many of the homesteaders had arrived and initially thrived in an atypically wet weather cycle. They were unprepared to face the harsh realities of a drought, much less a sustained one.
Farmers were struggling under new marketing dynamics created by industrialization and the growing use of mechanized labor, too. While their new threshers and tractors allowed the farmers to grow more, efficiently – their sworn patriotic duty – manufacturing mechanization also began to separate the farmers from their customers. The emerging ‘middle man’ became a targeted enemy on the home front.
“The farmers’ output bulks stupendously each year as the most valuable national asset. Why does so much wealth coming from his own hands not leave him wealthy? Simply this: The amount of products the farmers raises has nothing to do with what he retains, because he specializes on certain crops and cannot live on what he produces, but has to sell it in order to live. Therefore, he is wholly dependent on the price of what he sells and the price of what he buys. … the farmer let the other fellow attend to the matter of prices and confined his efforts to producing. … The individual farmer is just where he was fifty years ago – a hard-hand toiler struggling for a bare existence.” – The Joplin Times, July 4, 1918.
The average price for Montana wheat in August 1918 was $2/bushel. The farmers' breakeven point was estimated to be $2.40. Yet still, the farmers marched on. The American personification of “Uncle Sam” continued the call for more wheat and meat to win the war, and the soldiers of the soil were nothing if not patriotic.
July 1918 saw the first gathering of the grassroots for a unified cause beyond their county borders. The presidents of the Hill, Toole, Teton, Chouteau, Blaine, Phillips, and Valley County Farm Bureaus met in Havre to determine a course of action.
They pledged to use their ranks to go farm-to-farm, farmer-to-farmer, and gather the facts about the drought and crop progress for the year. They would hand-deliver the realities of the field to Washington, D.C., with a request to deploy backup.
Meanwhile, our Montanan “Uncle Sam” Hampton continued to usher in unanimous support of new Farm Bureau communities across the state. Unity, he preached, was the only way to fulfil the nation’s needs, weather the drought, and to fight for fairer markets and a stable economy for families to reunite in after the war.
Four days after the war officially ended, his weekly column titled, “Training for New Farm Leadership,” looked ahead to the work the now 23 established Farm Bureaus had laid out.
“Both as a war program and as an aid to reconstruction after peace has been assured, agricultural legislation by Congress in the various states legislatures is and will be a problem of serious consideration, and will require the concentrated thought and organized action of American farmers.
“The war has awakened a new thought in the minds of farseeing economist and social reformers, and for once the farmers are recognized as the most indispensable producers in the world on whom rest the existence of civilization and government.
“Let us make the business of farming so good that we will be glad to see our boys and girls engage in farming, the calling which was honored with the approval of Almighty God in the beginning." (Hampton, 1918)
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- Riddick, Carl W. "Patriotism of the Montana Farmers." The Joplin Times (Joplin, Montana), July 4, 1918, page 1.
- Lewis, Theotistle. "Volunteer Women Workers." The Montana Farmer (Great Falls, Montana), Feb. 1, 1918, page 5.
- The Joplin Times (Joplin, Montana). "Farmers can increase income three-fold by market control." July 4, 1918, page 4.
- The Montana Farmer (Great Falls, Montana). "Farmers will ask for Government Aid." July 15, 1918, page 4.
- Hill County Democrat (Havre, Montana). "Farm Bureau is at Work." July 13, 1918, page 1.
- Hampton, Sam. "Training for New Farm Leadership." The Montana Farmer (Great Falls, Montana). Nov. 15, 1918, page 14.
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