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Moving to Montana from North Dakota in the 1920s

Electronic mail message from Dr. Roland Wagner, Albuquerque, New Mexico, August 2010


Concerning the settlement in various parts of Montana by German-Russians, several of our families from the Beresan colonies settled initially around Richardton and Dickinson, N.D., then moved westward into Montana, lured by the availability of railroad lands. This is some material I dug up, from various sources:

Large numbers of Germans from Russia had initially settled near Richardton and Dickinson, where the soil is fertile and where many of their descendants remain to this day. Their numbers were considerably smaller in the western edge of the state, in the area known as the "Badlands," where the soil is very sandy and not well-suited to agriculture. The 1910 census for Bowman County shows Norwegians, Anglos, and a few Germans, but virtually no Germans from Russia -- there were none within the townships adjoining the Landeis sheep ranch. Many of the German-Russian homesteaders in those areas moved on, looking for better opportunity elsewhere.

As the railroads expanded in Montana in the first two decades of the Twentieth century, the fertile river valley lands became available for purchase. The U.S. government was eager to develop the Midwest and to improve communication, so in many states it made generous land-grants to the railroad companies. In some cases they were given ownership of the land extending out 20 miles on either side of the tracks. The railroad companies sold these lands for about $2.50 to $7.50 per acre to land companies and to private farmers. This was an important means for financing the extension of the railroads throughout the country.

The German-Russians were attracted by the new opportunities to the west. They settled in large numbers in the eastern part of Montana, in an area forming a triangle between Miles City, Baker and Glendive, encompassing four different counties -- Custer, Fallon, Prairie and Dawson. Many found employment in the rapidly growing railroad towns (Glendive, Miles City, Billings, Laurel, Missoula). Others also found seasonal employment with the Great Western Sugar Beet Factory in Billings. The sugar beet industry became an important specialized economic niche for many German-Russians in Montana, as it also was in other states as well, such as Kansas, Colorado, as far east as Michigan, and up into Canada.

The valley of the Musselshell river in Montana(just north of Billings) opened for farming about 1909. Before this date, the Musselshell valley had been used primarily for ranching. There were several very large spreads in the area, such as the 79 Ranch, established in 1879 at Big Coulee, and Two Dot near Harlowton to the west.

A new era dawned when the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul railroad (usually shortened to "the Milwaukee") extended a track through the Musselshell valley in 1907-1908, following the shore of the river. The C.M.& S.P. railroad did not own all the land, since it received only the direct right of way for its track (the government granted them land in other states as compensation). Soon after the C.M.& S.P. railroad came through the Lavina and Ryegate area, the land companies began purchasing lots and launching a vigorous sales campaign. The railroad and the land companies placed ads in local newspapers trumpeting exaggerated claims about the Musselshell valley -- for example, that it was so fertile that "the soil could be bagged and sold as fertilizer." The railroad offered special low-fares on certain days to entice settlers. Small groups of scouts began exploring the area, and they sent word back to their families that the situation looked favorable. Clusters of families moved west from North Dakota and Minnesota, quickly taking advantage of the homestead availability. The railroad was quite busy during these years. Four major trains went through Ryegate each day, and several smaller freight trains in addition.

My mother's Landeis family (from Neu-Karlsruhe) homesteaded initially near Richardton N.D. in 1889, then by 1910 they moved down toward Bowman N.D., but the land there wasn't favorable for farming, they mainly raised sheep. Victor Shaff from Speier, a relative of the Landeis family, moved to the the Musselshell valley (north of Billings, MT) in 1910, and my grandparents followed him there. In my families there was a clear step-wise pattern of movement westward -- the first generation (my grandparents, the immigrants from the Beresan) were all homesteader-farmers in North Dakota; most of the second generation (my parents, aunts and uncles) moved off the farms and followed the railroads westward into Montana, taking jobs on the railroads, canneries, sugar-beets, meat-packing, etc., whatever was available in bustling towns like Billings. There was another shift westward during the Great Depression years, especially during the W.W.II when many relocated to the West Coast to get defense industry jobs in the ship-yards (Seattle, Portland, San Diego).

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