The Passing of the Promised Land
IF westbound just beyond the Mississippi on the second or fourth Tuesday of the month, or out in the Middle West the day following, you wonder at the tide of travel. From the newsboys’ corner in the smoking-car to the stateroom in the rear Pullman, every seat is taken, every berth engaged. Extra coaches are carried, yet there is an overflow of passengers.
Mostly they are men under forty years old, bronzed with the outdoor life of the farm, sturdy, talkative, eager. Each has a soiled, creased excursion ticket, reading from some little village in Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, or other of the older states, to a point away out in the Promised Land.
Each has in the pocket of his readymade coat advertising literature telling of immense profits in real estate, of crops that grow in startling abundance, of glowing prospects for the future. Each looks forward to a fortune which lies at the Edge of Things.
Eighty-seven carloads of such passengers passed through one Western city on this year’s first “ Home-seekers’ Day ” — a new expression added to the West’s vocabulary, a date as well known as the public holidays. Trains on some roads ran in eight sections. Were it not a common incident, it would be startling — an exodus of a nation’s farm population.
It is estimated by railroad managers that four hundred thousand persons annually go westward through three gateways — Minneapolis, Omaha, Kansas City. This approximates the number of fighting men who followed Moses to freedom—yet, because it is commonplace, it causes little comment. When half that number of emigrants crossed the plains in canvas-covered prairie schooners they were the talk of the world.
Where do they go ?
The Promised Land has no fixed latitude or longitude. Once it was Kansas and Nebraska, with the cry, “ Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm.” Then came years of depression, and a quarter of a million settlers moved out of those states, many of them going to Oklahoma, just opened to the white man. Next it pushed on into farther regions — the high plains with their seemingly endless level reaches, their clear skies, and their tireless winds.
So to-day these argonauts ride far out into the Panhandle of Texas, to a new, a very new station, before the train stops. This section appears in your old geography as ” The Staked Plains.” Five years ago it was a cattle ranch, not a home within ten miles, not a human being except the weary cowboy. A land syndicate bought it, divided it into farms, and sent agents east with the news. A town with frontier-style stores and half-built-up residence streets, one-story farm-houses dotting the prairies, furrows of brown across gray-grassed plains, — the beginnings of civilization, — greet the homeseekers. A dozen automobiles and as many teams are waiting; in an hour the party is scattered all about within a radius of twenty miles, land agents are extolling the virtues of the soil and climate and urging purchase “ before the price advances.”
Another portion of the stream flows northwest, spreading out on the prairies of the Dakotas, over into Wyoming, where “ dry farming ” conquers soil once thought perpetually barren; on to Montana and Idaho with their harnessed rivers transforming wide valleys.
When a bit of Indian reservation is opened to settlement thousands gather. The soil may be unfruitful and the location remote, but land-hunger draws the throng. Those who fail to secure an abiding-place hurry toward some other bright prospect.
The railroads no longer follow the emigrant— they precede him. Long before he has discovered the “ chance ” in unsettled areas, hastily built branch lines reach like fingers over the untilled plain. Towns are laid out at intervals as regular as the squares of a chess-board. In a week are open stores, a bank, and a lumber-yard; in a month comes the homeseekers’ train with its load of new residents, who will buy and improve the territory for miles around.
Nor is it new land alone that the exodus invades. Into the long-settled portions of the Middle West, where the experiment of agriculture has been tried, where landprices are high, other thousands of landbuyers go. No pioneering for them. They want a country whose toilet is made. They buy the farms already improved, while the former owners move on — to cheaper lands of the Southwest, to the irrigated sections of the Rocky Mountain foothills, to Canada, sometimes to Mexico. A recent excursion, twelve hundred miles into the semi-tropical republic, took three hundred men, representing twenty states. They bought or contracted for eight hundred thousand dollars’ worth of land, and paid more than half the purchase price in cash!
It is the story of emigrant days revived — with this difference: the frontiersman of early years had little but his bare hands and his courage — an ox-team, a homestead, a sod house, a few dollars in cash was all. The home-seeker of to-day has a theory of the limitations and possibilities of agriculture. He is a scientific crop-raiser. He takes with him enough money to buy a farm, and to stock it; then deposits a few thousand dollars in the local bank for emergencies. Greatest difference of all— he has succeeded, and moves because he seeks a larger field, instead of being forced to emigrate on account of his poverty.
This financial ability of the modern emigrant is one of the marvels of the modern movement of the land-seeker. It is the greatest evidence of the progress made by the American farmer in recent years. The men who went west in the seventies and early eighties were poor men. They had either been unsuccessful in their efforts to secure a competence in the East, or were unable to see an opening. Thousands of them had lost good years in the service of the army, and came out to find little chance for a start at home. They heard of the opportunities where land was cheap, where homesteads could be obtained for the asking, and they started on the long journey. When they arrived they had little with which to begin the making of a new home. That they succeeded as they did is a wonder; that they were able to conquer the untamed soil and, without the advantage of all that modern experiment and scientific study of soils and products have accomplished, could bridge over the years and finally attain wealth and standing, was a tribute to their courage and their inventiveness. They worked on a speculation.
The modern emigrant has before him a well-nigh undoubted certainty. He comes with his plans outlined, others having tried the experiments, and with the prospects written down as fixed ends toward which he may strive. He takes few chances — which when one breaks the ties of a lifetime is an important thing. It means a more substantial civilization, a peace of mind and a strength of purpose denied to the earlier army of homeseekers. It means that there are to be expected less volatile politics, less extravagant ideas, and altogether a steadier progress toward complete industrial permanence.
Because he is businesslike, because he has been successful as a farmer, he accomplishes things quickly. Newly settled portions of the West advance farther in twenty-four months than did the West of the seventies in ten years. Across the high plains of the Texas Panhandle for two hundred miles, one may see a house, a cattle-shed, and a windmill on nearly every quarter-section. Here and there is a steam engine pulling a gang of twentyfour ploughs; barbed-wire fences divide the fields; gardens and flower-pots add home-likeness to the very new settlements — and it is one hundred miles in any direction to a real hill! All the improvement has come from bare plain in twenty months. Land that went begging at one dollar an acre in 1900, is worth $15 to $30, and the settlers believe that they will double their money in five years more. Farther toward the foothills, where the magic of the mountain stream has worked transformation, orchard and vineyard land under irrigation brings $300 to $1500 an acre.
With these facts before him, is it any wonder that the farmer back in Illinois, pondering the probable profits, determines to venture into new fields; that he buys a home-seeker’s ticket and joins the excursion to the far West ?
The increase in land-values is the real basis of the exodus. The Western farmer has raised a good crop each year for ten years. At the same time, in the older settled portions he has seen the value of his farm rise from $3000 to $10,000, and that is enough to encourage any one. He has raised the price of his acres to a figure based on a crop every year. When he has money to invest, he cannot be interested in stocks; he knows little of bonds — except government two per cents; he buys land, always more land.
It is a curious fact that the men who went to the West with the ox-teams seldom have reaped the harvest from rising landvalues. They saw too much of the ups and downs, and became timid; the modern home-seekers, coming with cash in hand, able to buy with little mortgaging, have bought and sold, each time increasing their bank account. They are the real gainers from the land boom. They have told home-folks of profits to be gathered, thus adding to the interest in opportunities presented, and swelling the passenger traffic on Home-seekers’ Day.
Financiers have wondered at the swelling of bank clearings in Western cities during recent months. When the East was doing well to hold its own, the West was breaking records week after week, and astonishing business men by its expansion. The inpouring of money, the savings of hundreds of thousands of immigrants, accounts for much of it. Then these newcomers, as well as the earlier settlers, have been receiving prices for grain fifty per cent greater than two years ago. It requires larger checks, more capital, and better facilities, to deal with the Western farmer than ever before. As he hauled his load of wheat to market and received fifty dollars for it instead of twenty dollars as before, as he contemplated the added value of his land,— a fine salary from each year’s increase, — little wonder he did not feel the “ panic,” and good reason why his condition should look inviting to the dweller farther east.
Another phase: the Western farm is perhaps the only place in the country where during the past decade the increase in the expense of living has not kept pace with the advance in income. Of what clerk, of what business man, of what laborer in the town, can this be said ?
Take a concrete example: Franklin Mason, living on his farm on Rural Route No. 8, eight miles from a town of the Middle West. Ten years ago he bought one suit of clothing a year, purchasing of the merchant in the county-seat village. He paid $15 for it, a good, wearable suit that could be used for church and visiting several months, and then for everyday wear. Each year he bought about the same sort of suit, and to-day he does not buy one more expensive. It may be that he does not get so good quality now for the same money as he did then, but whether or not that be the case, he pays about the same price. He furnished his house many years ago, and that furniture is changed little. Perhaps, as the family grew up, he has added a piano or organ; he has a sideboard and a plush-covered lounge — but these things have been bought one by one and they do not change with every new vogue. It may be that he has invested in a furnace and installed a bath-room and its fixtures, but these have added to the value of his property more than their cost to him. His family dresses better than of old, but not expensively. The sewing is not done at a fashionable dressmaker’s, and trips to Europe are not common. If he has of late purchased an automobile, he did it for cash, and figured that he could afford it because of the advantages it would give him in travel and in pleasure. His luxuries are of the most practical sort, and neither costly nor perishable. His table is supplied from the poultry-house, the dairy, the garden, the orchard, and the field. The increased cost of meats and groceries touches him least of all. The farm supplies so large a part of his menu that he can laugh at the figures of economists as the man on the fixed salary cannot. If the market does not suit him, he places his products in a granary and waits. You drive into his yard and see cribs holding thousands of bushels of corn, and a look over his fields reveals stacks of alfalfa ready to be turned into cash when he is minded to sell. He has no rent to pay. If he has mortgaged his farm in order to buy more land, or to improve to greater productiveness that which he owns, — about the only reasons for the borrowing of money on realty these days, —he gets it at a rate of interest one fourth less than he formerly paid, a rate that enables him to handle borrowed money at a profit. Instead of seeking a lender, he is sought by investors who are eager for the splendid security he can offer. His position as a property-owner, and his independence, tend toward a peace of mind and a clear view of things that make him contented and able to choose his course.
All this time everything he has to sell has brought higher prices than ever before. From the cans of milk at the creamery to the load of grain at the elevator and the cattle at the stock-yards, he has received prices that ten years ago would have been considered extravagant. So he has won at both ends; and whatever may be thought of his lack of the touch of the higher life, he has prospered in material things.
Because this is understood, because of the freemasonry of the farm which spreads the news of any unusual good fortune, has come the steady influx of buyers for his land, men who have heard of his happy condition and seek to share it with him. The furnaces, the bath-tubs, the automobiles, and the other evidences of his prosperity, are incidents. The basis of the West’s attraction for the homeseeker is the combination of circumstances — a series of good crop years, high prices for products, with cheap land upon which to grow them, and concrete evidence of the financial advancement of the Western farmer.
Added to this is the widespread feeling among farmers of the East that the plains have proved a permanency of development, coupled with a growing conviction that soon the chance of securing such locations at bargain prices will be gone. This it is that crowds the westbound trains, that peoples the ranch pastures, that underlies the “ land craze ” — which is not a " craze ” at all, but a natural outcome of a condition.
From it go many influences — changing the value of railway stocks, affecting the bank reserves of the metropolis, modifying the plans of boards of trade, and altering the action of wholesalers.
A few weeks later, after the prospectors have made their hurried trip, freight trains creep toward the sunset, carrying cargoes of household goods, of implements and horses and cattle. Wife and children come; and the impedimenta, the lares et penates, being loaded in heavy wagons, the family takes its slow way to the new home. Whether it be to the plains of the Dakotas, to the well-tilled and wellimproved sections of Kansas, to the wide reaches of the Panhandle, or close to the mountains, it means both heartache and hopefulness to transport a family from its accustomed dwelling-place to a new location. The new home-seekers have an easier trip than did their predecessors, but it is doubtful if they mourn its necessary partings less.
This moving of the farmer’s wife and family with him to the new home adds much to the picture. A plain, motherly woman, watching the reloading of her household goods at a prairie station, aptly described it: “ Yes, we were sorry to leave, for John and I were born there. But the young folks lacked room and prospects. They needed something bigger and broader than that little Indiana village. Besides, we talked it over and decided that if we did n’t come now it would soon be too late, and the money we could get for our old farm would n’t buy any more land than that anywhere. So we started — and here we are.”
That story is the story of thousands of households whose gods have been set up anew beyond the Missouri River.
Not long will the Promised Land beckon the American farmer. When the Nebraska farm costs as much as one in Illinois, why should the Illinois farmer leave relatives and home-ties to travel a thousand miles and establish another dwelling-place; why submit one’s family to discomfort, if there be no profit in the transaction ?
Always there is before one class of dwellers in new lands the fear that there will be too rapid development, that the towns will be overbuilt, that the farms will undertake too much. The merchant of twenty years ago drew his trade for forty miles. Customers made a two-days’ journey for shopping. They took back with them great bundles of goods that filled the boxes of the wagons. The profits were high, because competition was limited. That business opportunity is rare to-day. In the older settled portions of the Middle West the towns are seldom more than ten miles apart. Here and there are creamery stations, with a little general store furnishing the everyday needs of a considerable constituency. The wagon has been succeeded by the buggy, and at times by the motor car; trips to town are easy. So has competition increased, with the result that the farmer gains advantage where the merchant loses. It all works to the betterment of the agricultural community, if not to that of the individual merchant. It is no uncommon thing to find a dozen banks in a county of 20,000 population, two hundred miles west of the Missouri River. Some of these are in hamlets off the railroad, and the growth of their deposits is a constant surprise to students of finance.
Five years ago it was freely predicted that land-values had reached their height, but they are twenty to forty per cent higher now than then. This has led to the division of farms. The families of the first-comers are grown to manhood. The second generation have come to the fore, and are taking part in the business of the communities. They have grown up with the country and know what it can produce, and just how valuable it is for the purpose of production and for a home.
Here and there is one who declares that the expansion of prices and incoming of immigration is beyond the limits of business safety. It is pointed out that land is selling in places for prices in excess of any possibility of paying interest from the products of the fields. But there are other things that make land valuable and desirable besides wheat and corn. Conveniences of life, health, and neighborliness add to the value of the farm. When the buyer comes to even newer lands he finds schools established, rural telephone lines, and free rural delivery. He discovers that churches are many, and social organizations of a pleasant sort numerous. In short, he finds that the communities out on the high plains are not very different from those in the Ohio valley, except that some vacation delights are impossible unless a five-hundred-mile journey is taken. For the lake and the river he must find compensation in the sunshine and the prairies, with the probability that he will make a larger income, proportionately, on his capital than he could have done farther east.
That he can do this is certain if there be a regular succession of crops. That he is in danger of undertaking farming on lands hopelessly semi-arid, or that he may settle on lands irrigated, but where the water-supply becomes insufficient through the excessive demands made upon it, is always true. Thousands of buyers are going to territory that was once declared unfit for agriculture, but by present-day methods of mixed farming are succeeding. The irrigation problems are being worked out with greater system than of old, and under far stricter regulation by state and federal authorities. Consequently, the chance of the immigrant is improved, and his prosperity can be predicted with far greater confidence than could that of the pioneers who made the first trials and faced an unknown condition.
Already they have reached the desert — the gray plains where mesquite and sagebrush alone relieve the monotony. The government has sixteen thousand men at work redeeming it wherever rivers can be turned upon the surface. It has dug canals that, placed end to end, would reach from Denver to New York — eighteen hundred miles. Not satisfied with this, the mountain stream has been chained to store up energy in a dynamo; this power is carried far out on the level land to drive moisture-lifting pumps, making fruitful orchards, productive fields, and happy homes out of an unpromising expanse of sand. It is the West’s alchemy of reclamation, the apotheosis of second-generation pioneering.
Uncle Sam has a few more million acres yet to give away, but most of it is rugged mountain-peaks or irreclaimable, treeless plain. Here and there is a great ranch that may be broken into farms — and doubtless several promoters are endeavoring to secure options on every tract thus remaining. Occasionally is found a valley that yet can be irrigated, but those in which the process is cheap and easy are scarce. The time is nearly at hand when the seeker for a home must find a home-owner who is willing to sell for a price. That price increases every year, and will continue so to do until the measure of value and the measure of crop-income balance.
When it is over — which will be when land is worth on the market all that it can possibly return in profits with a good crop every year — the West will lose its attraction for the speculator in real estate, and it will offer to the home-seeker small opportunity for the financial gain that is the real inspiration of the exodus of to-day.
The West has had two immigrating hosts — one of toilers, with neither wealth nor definite plan; the other of small capitalists, possessing both. The former for a time was a burden; the latter is an asset, both socially and financially. The first sowed wheat or corn, and when there came no harvest, was discouraged and struggled against mortgage foreclosure; the other has little indebtedness, and if the wheat or corn fail, has for dependence alfalfa and fruit and garden, not to mention the herds and dairies with their unending stream of income.
Strange will it seem to have no cheap soil offered as a haven of ease and plenty, to dream of no startling profits in Western realty, to hear of no sudden riches waiting where mountain water is harnessed for the field. When that time comes — and it is not far distant — the American farmer will have no Promised Land.