Are Big Farms or Small Farms Better? The Case of the Bonanza Farms

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Wednesday, September 17, 1913:  

September 16 – 17 – 18 – 19:  Nothing much of importance happened during these days. I have to help Pa some and get put at rolling for one thing. Of course I had my mishaps even to going off of the roller. That work is all done by this time.


The Book of Wheat (1908) by Peter Tracy Dondlinger

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

This was the second of four days where Grandma wrote a single diary entry. Yesterday I described how Grandma rolled the fields in preparation for planting winter wheat. Since Grandma didn’t write anything specific for this date, I’m going to share something I learned when I was doing research for this series of posts that surprised me.

Did you know that there were some huge, highly-mechanized, wheat farms in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s?

There were 91 large “Bonanza Farms” ranging in size from 3,000 to more than 30,000 acres in North Dakota and Minnesota.

In 1864 the US government gave a group of investors millions of acres of land to finance the building of the Northern Pacific Railroad from Minnesota to the west coast. During the Panic of 1873, the investors got into financial difficulty and needed to raise funds to complete building the railroad so they let stockholders buy large tracts of land in the Red River Valley at low rates.


The farms had professional managers and migrant labor did much of the work. (During the winter months many of the farm laborers worked in logging camps in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.)

By the early 1900s wheat prices were low, labor costs were rising, and the Bonanza Farms weren’t very profitable.

There also was a lot of concern that the Bonanza Farms weren’t good stewards of the land. For example, the opening paragraph in a bulletin published by the US Government in 1908 said:

Experience has shown that when excessively large companies farm great tracts of land the tendency is to exploit the land for the greatest immediate profit at the expense of the permanent value of the soil. Proper soil-cultural methods are not observed: rotations for the preservation of soil fertility are neglected; the main crop, wheat, is grown continuously, and the seed is allowed to degenerate through careless methods. Undoubtedly there are exceptions to this rule. It is not the writer’s wish to intimate that rational dry farming is impossible when carried on by large companies, but the general rule has been as stated here. It is evident that the homesteader, having in mind the value of his home and the welfare of his posterity, is more likely to perpetuate and increase the value of his land.

Dry-land Grains (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Plant Industry, Circular No. 12, 1908)

These concerns led, in part, to changes in tax codes that discriminated against Bonanza Farms which made them even less profitable.

At the same time more people wanted to farm in the upper Midwest and the land was becoming more valuable, so many of the Bonanza Farms were divided into smaller plots and sold to family farmers.

Here’s links to several sites that have additional information about Bonanza Farms:

Bonanza Farming (Encyclopedia of the Great Plains)

The Bonanza Farms of North Dakota (Teaching with Historic Places, National Park Service)

The Bagg Bonanza Farm


Cakewalk Games at Festivals

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Saturday, August 23, 1913:  Ruth and I went to a festival up at McEwensville this evening.

DSC04287The festival probably was held in the small park next to the McEwensville Community Hall.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

What fun! I love small town festivals. There’s so much excitement and energy—good friends, great food, fun exhibits, and fun games.

I bet that Grandma and her sister Ruth played the Cakewalk game.  It used to be a popular fund-raiser game at festivals, but I haven’t seen it in years.

People would donate homemade cakes to be used as game prizes.

The game is kind of like musical chairs. Numbered squares are laid out on a circular path. Music is played while the participants walk around the path. The music then stops, and a number is called out. The individual standing on the square with that number wins a cake.

Tickets are sold to participants. The number of squares in the path equals to the number of tickets sold. For example there might be 20 squares. The game is run multiple times until all the cakes are gone—with 20 people participating in each game.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

An aside–when I was preparing this post I googled the term cakewalk  and was surprised to discover that the game that I remember isn’t what the word generally means.  Cakewalk had it originals on slave  plantations in the South in the 1800s. According to The Free Dictionary cakewalk is “A 19th-century public entertainment among African Americans in which walkers performing the most accomplished or amusing steps won cakes as prizes.”

When the Wind Blows Over the Wheat Stubble

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Friday, August 2, 1913:  I don’t remember exactly.

Photo Source: Farm Journal (July, 1913)

Photo Source: Farm Journal (July, 1913)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

It almost sounds like Grandma didn’t write this entry until the following day since she can’t remember what she did on August 2. Since she didn’t write much a hundred years ago today–—I’m going to go back to her diary entry on the 1st.

It was a relatively long entry and included her monthly poem for August:

The month of August with skies serene

Smiles upon this world again.

Let us welcome her with open arms,

For sweet summer cannot always reign.

I also can sense that sweet summer will end too soon. The days are getting shorter. . . and the wind is blowing over the wheat stubble.

A question—Does anyone know the poem that has a line that says something like: When the wind blows over the wheat stubble, Fall can’t be far away.

My father used to always say a poem with those lines on late summer days when there was just a hint of fall in the air. I think that he memorized it when he was in elementary school—but I can’t find it when I search online.

Girls and Women Fishing a Hundred Years Ago

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Monday, July 28, 1913 – Thursday, July 31, 1913:  Nothing very much doing for these days. It’s so terrible hot and I have a hard time of it just doing nothing. I’d hate to go anyplace such weather as this is.

women fishing a hundred years agoPicture caption: Who said girls couldn’t—and shouldn’t—fish down on the old dock or under the sycamore? Who gave the outdoors to their brothers anyway?  Source: Good Housekeeping (July, 1913)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

There’s no new diary entry to post  today since Grandma apparently didn’t write anything for four days—and then summarized what she was thinking  at the end of the time period.

But, I wonder if Grandma ever did any fun activities on hot summer days. Did she ever go fishing, either in the creek that flowed along the edge of the farm or in the West Branch of the Susquehanna River which flows through the nearby town of Watsontown?

The text of the short article beside the picture seems a bit odd to me, but it probably made perfect sense a hundred years ago. It says:


There’s no doubt whatever about it, men have all the best of it in this world, and women have to put up with ‘most anything. Why, just take that one example of the way the men go rooting in the back of the closet on the top floor after that old fishing-rod, the one with the black thread all wrapped about the part of it that split once when—everyone in the neighborhood knows it was five pounds. And there’s the fuss they make over the disgraceful old clothes that are fit for only the rag-bag, and goodness knows hardly that, , and the disreputable hat that you were planning to give to Mandy Brown’s husband the very next time he came after the ashes, and—

Good Housekeeping (July, 1913)

Warrior Run Creek near the Muffly farm

Warrior Run Creek near the Muffly farm

Recent photo of the bridge at Watsontown. This is the second bridge that was built a this site. It's hard to believe that a hundred years ago the first bridge had not yet been built.

Recent photo of the river at Watsontown.

Blue Hydrangeas and Other Questions

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Friday, July 25, 1913:  Not worth writing about.

Photo Source: Wikipedia

Photo Source: Wikipedia

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Since I knew my grandmother when she was much older than the teen in the diary, I’m constantly trying to reconcile how the young Helena in the diary evolved into the grandma I knew.

Since it was a slow day a hundred years ago today, I’m going to share a memory that I have of Grandma as an older woman—when she actually was my grandmother.

Every year when the hydrangeas bloom I think of Grandma.  I can remember playing with my cousins—and seeing Grandma  “watering” her hydrangeas with a can filled with something that wasn’t water.

I ran over and asked  what she was doing . She explained how she needed to add aluminum sulfate to the soil to make the hydrangeas blue.

I couldn’t understand how a flower could possibly change colors depending upon what was put on the soil—so I asked a zillion questions. And, I remember Grandma carefully and patiently answering each one.

In many ways this story is very typical of many of my memories of Grandma. When I was a small child Grandma always welcomed questions and treated each question with respect.

When I was a youngster, she treated me like an older person than almost anyone else I knew—but I always understood her answers and really liked that she knew that I was big enough to understand what she was saying when she explained complex things to me.

Which Name? Ruth, Ruther, Rufus, or Ruthie

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Sunday, July 20, 1913:  Went to Sunday School this morning. Ruther and I went up to church this evening.

Ruth Muffly

Ruth Muffly

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Hmm. . . Ruther.  . . That’s a new nickname for Ruth.

Was Grandma annoyed with her sister Ruth. . . or feeling kindly toward her? Throughout the diary Grandma called her Rufus when she was annoyed with her.  When the sisters were getting along well, Grandma generally called her Ruth. . . though she occasionally referred to her as Ruthie.

Visitors on a Summer Evening

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Friday, July 18, 1913:  We had company this evening.

Source:  Ladies Home Journal

Source: Ladies Home Journal (July, 1912)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Sometimes it’s nice not to have too much detail—because it allows me to create my own mind pictures.

If I squint my eyes I can almost see Grandma, her sister Ruth,  and their parents sitting on the porch entertaining guests on a hot summer evening—and maybe serving cookies and iced tea—while her little brother Jimmie chases fireflies as dusk falls over the farm.


Source: Ladies Home Journal (July, 1912)


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