Bonanza farms brought attention and wealth to northern Dakota Territory in the 1870s. George Cass, president of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company, and Benjamin Cheney, a railroad director, established the first bonanza farm in the Red River Valley near Casselton, with 13,440 acres of Northern Pacific land.
They hired Oliver Dalrymple, a graduate of Yale Law School, to manage it. Dalrymple had recently sold his large wheat farm near St. Paul and quickly signed a contract to manage the Cass-Cheney farm for a share of the profits and a title to part of the land.
Another large purchaser was the Grandin brothers from Pennsylvania. They bought 26,000 acres near Mayville in 1875 at only $.41 an acre, eventually owning 63,000 acres. Dalrymple, along with his brother, John, managed 40,000 acres for the Grandins.
Twelve years later, Oliver was managing nearly 100,000 acres of farm land with large-scale machinery. In 1876, he purchased a complete telephone system for his farm divisions and hundreds of new twine binders in 1878.
The size of the bonanza farm operation was well-suited to northern Dakota, where rainfall and yields were relatively low. In 1879, Dalrymple was using 400 horses and mules, 100 broadcast seeders, 50 harrows and 115 self-binding harvesters.
He employed 1,000 men during the harvest who worked in crews of 15 to 20, watched by a foreman on horseback and were paid $15 to $18 a month, plus board. They were mainly transient workers from the lumber camps of Minnesota and Wisconsin, college students and Scandinavian and German homesteaders who needed cash to keep their own farms going.
The men plowed new land and put up hay. During harvest, a dozen or so twine binders headed for the fields, along with a foreman on horseback, a wagon carrying twine and water and a mechanic with spare parts. A threshing crew included 23 men, 10 teams of horses, a separator and a steam engine that could thresh 160 acres in a week.
Dalrymple’s operation served as a model. Each land tracts of 5,000 acres was connected by telephone and had a superintendent and foreman, two or more sets of buildings and its own set of books. The main homestead of each division had a barracks where 50 men could sleep and a kitchen that could feed 100.
August 1876 brought the first bonanza harvest in the Red River Valley. Dalrymple’s first harvest brought 32,000 bushels of wheat or about 23 bushels per acre, which he sold for $.95 per bushel. The news spread throughout the U.S. and Europe and, by 1886, railroad freight rates fell to about $.15 a bushel.
By the late 1880s, a single wheat crop exceeded that gathered in all the pre-boom years together and, in terms of wealth, northern Dakota was definitely gaining attention.
Important in settling northern Dakota, especially the Red River Valley, only a few survived through the 1920s.
Best known of the bonanza farmers, Dalrymple became a wealthy man, owning 30,000 acres and the Cheney-Cass bonanza farm by 1896. He died of heart disease on September 3, 1908.
By Cathy A. Langemo, WritePlus Inc.