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Dakota Datebook

When the Horse Was King


The first farm tractors, developed in the late 1800s, were steam engines. In 1892, an Iowa man received a patent for a gasoline powered tractor. That manufacturer went out of business, but there was no turning back. In 1893 two men also from Iowa built fifteen gas tractors and sold them all.

As practical tractors were produced, farmers slowly moved towards mechanized agriculture. The farmer didn’t have to feed the tractor when it wasn’t working. The number of horses and mules in the country had reached a high in 1920 with over twenty-five million animals, but that number dropped dramatically over the next forty years. By 1960 there were only three million.


But, in 1909, horses were still an important asset. On this date that year, the Nichols and Britt Ranch of Billings County announced an upcoming sale of one hundred horses. The ranch was known for the high quality of its Shire and Percheron breeds. Earlier in the year their horses brought the highest prices at an auction in Dickinson. 


In a bit of a twist, the ranch owners decided not to transport their animals to an auction. Instead, they would hold the sale right at the ranch. Buyers were told that the ranch offered food and rooms to accommodate those traveling from out of town. Horses would be sold at lower prices since the ranch saved money on transportation.


The horses being were advertised as the pick of the ranch’s six hundred head. They were fine work horses, ranging from twelve hundred to two thousand pounds. Many were mares with colts. Some were unbroken. Those that were advertised as broken were guaranteed to work. All horses were guaranteed to be sound.


On August 6th, the ranch announced that the sale had been an enormous success. The auction had started at two p.m. and all the horses were sold by six. The highest priced team sold for three hundred ninety dollars. The event was such a success that the ranch owners planned on holding their own auctions in the future.


The tractor would eventually win out. But in 1909 the horse was still king.


Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher



Golden Valley Chronicle. “Big Horse Sale Next Thursday.” Beach ND. 7/16/1909. Page 1.

Golden Valley Chronicle. Nichols and Britt Ad. Beach ND 7/16/1909. Page 5.

Golden Valley Chronicle. “Nichols and Britt Horse Sale is Big Success” Beach ND. 8/16/1909. Page 6.

The Cowboy Way. “Horse and Mule Population in the USA.” http://www.cowboyway.com/What/HorsePopulation.htm  Accessed 6/18/2020.

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