MATTERS AT HAND: The Bonanza Era and the Bakken Boom

The end of the year always is a time for reflection -- and this year I've concluded that North Dakota is in a better place, economically at least, than it probably has ever been.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs

The end of the year always is a time for reflection -- and this year I've concluded that North Dakota is in a better place, economically at least, than it probably has ever been.

Except, perhaps, during the Bonanza farming period.

It's appropriate, therefore, that the state's governor is named Dalrymple, the same name as the fellow who established the state's first large-scale farm, Oliver Dalrymple.

Yes, Gov. Jack Dalrymple is a direct descendent.

At first, Oliver Dalrymple was a manager employed by investors. But his contract provided a path to proprietorship, and when the investment partners broke up, Dalrymple acquired about 30,000 acres of land. Much of it was sold in 1918.


Dalrymple harvested his first crop in 1876 -- the year of the Battle of Little Big Horn and 13 years before North Dakota statehood.

The Bonanza farming period resembles today's oil boom in several significant ways.

For one thing, it applied the latest technology both to producing grain and to communicating across a vast network of fields and a huge number of employees.

One of the first applications of the telephone occurred on the Dalrymple farm.

New technology has made the Bakken oil boom possible. This is especially true of hydraulic fracturing, which essentially forces the tight shale formations lying two miles below ground to yield their oil.

The bonanza farms specialized in wheat, not bothering with lower profit crops. Similarly, the Bakken specializes in oil, largely overlooking low-value natural gas.

The Bonanza Era brought huge investment into Dakota Territory from outside the area, tying the fortunes of the area directly to Wall Street. This had its advantages. Capital was readily available. But it also put the region at the mercy of outside forces.

Like the Bakken boom, the Bonanza farms brought favorable attention. Journalists came from the East Coast and from Europe, and they pretty much raved about the fertility of the soil and the efficiency of farming operations.


Artists were among visitors to the Dalrymple operation. Gov. Dalrymple displays some of these in his office at the state Capitol.

Such publicity helped fuel another similarity between the Bonanza and the Bakken eras.

Bonanza farming brought a boom in population. Agricultural production was labor-intensive in those days, and the Bonanza farms employed a lot of people.

Of course, many were transients, coming to Dakota Territory for planting and harvest and moving elsewhere in winter. Many probably came for just one season, and some probably supported families elsewhere.

The Dalrymple farm provided lodging for its work force -- barracks-like buildings that slept 50 men and kitchens that could feed 100.

All of this is like the labor force in the Bakken boom, with its "man camps" or "lodges" and their dining facilities.

But the Bonanza workers didn't stay, necessarily.

Here's what Elwyn Robinson has to say in his "History of North Dakota:"


"The big farms, though adapted to the country, could not, with their transient labor, contribute much to the development of community life. There were few women and children on them."

It was the advent of individual homesteading that brought a permanent increase in the region's population and led directly to statehood in 1889. Publicity about the Bonanza farms helped drive the homesteading boom, of course, just as publicity about the Bakken has brought an increase in the state's population, which is now larger than it has ever been before.

And the Bonanza farms contributed jobs for homesteaders, just as the Bakken boom has provided employment for North Dakotans who had been short of opportunities.

The Bonanza Era lasted about 20 years.

North Dakota history has treated the Bonanza Era pretty harshly. Antipathy toward large, out-of-state ownership helped fuel the progressive movement in the state and later the Nonpartisan League. Both put their stamps on the state.

It's too soon to know what the long-term impact of the Bakken Boom might be, both how long it will last and how it will shape the state.

That the change will be thoroughgoing, we can say for sure. The Bonanza Era changed the state forever, breaking up the prairie and shaping a grain-growing economy. For more than a century, there has been little to challenge agriculture's pre-eminence in the economy and its dominance of North Dakota's political culture -- until now.

Related Topics: MIKE JACOBS
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