Lure of the northwest, that was so strong in 1910, appealed to us. Gaylord Worstell

I will never forget coming to Big Sandy in June of 1910. Richard Worstell

It was a major campaign carried on by multiple promoters that launched the great Montana homestead boom. The industrial revolution had already provided the farmer with steel plows, grain drills, discs, harrows and more recently the steam powered threshers and tractors. However, two other factors were necessary before this campaign could expect to have a major effect in Montana, cheap land and “dry farming.”

The homestead act of 1862 allowed a settler to acquire 160 acres of land. This was much too little land for successful farming in the Great Plains. One of the supplementary laws passed by Congress was the Desert Land Act of 1877. This act allowed for the sale of a full section (640 acres) of land for $1.25 per acre, provided the buyer “proved up.” To “prove up,” the buyer needed to live on the land and improve it. That is, within three years he needed to build a structure, plant crops and irrigate them. This offered little hope to real farmers, who could seldom bear the costs of irrigation. It did help ranchers, who somehow met the requirements, to gain large tracts of grazing lands. It was the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 that ushered in the Montana homestead boom. This Act offered a 320-acre half-section of land free to those who could prove up in five years. The five years was soon reduced to three, and permitted the settler to be absent from his homestead five months of each year.

Though the major impetus to settlement was the Homestead Act, the second factor was “dry farming” methods, newly introduced to agriculture, and without which the promoters could not have been nearly so successful. Dry farming is agriculture without irrigation in regions of scanty precipitation. By the early 20th century, experienced farmers in semi-arid states had worked out various methods of moisture-conserving tillage. They allowed their lands to lie in summer fallow during alternate years, and they learned to work the ground intensively in order to retain soil moisture. Hardy Webster Campbell, a South Dakota farmer, maintained that by applying scientific principles the dry prairies could produce just as abundantly as the well-watered east. Campbell preached deep plowing and intensive cultivation in order to retain the precious moisture in the earth. He used a subsurface packer to tamp the subsoil while loosening the topsoil. Constant disking and harrowing were done to maintain a fine surface mulch that would hold down evaporation, especially after each rain. This was music to the ears of the western promoters. What they didn’t hear him say was what Hardy Campbell hesitated to admit — dry farming required large tracts of land, units that were big enough to allow for summer fallowing and for smaller crop yields per acre.

The “great promotion” began in 1908. Paris Gibson, founder of Great Falls, had a dry farming operation of his own and was a strong advocate. Chambers of commerce, bankers’ groups, and newspaper editors helped their towns and cities promote the method. So did organized cattle ranchers who platted their range lands for sale to the farmers. Montana Agricultural Experiment Station at first exhibited reservations about all the hype, but finally lent its full support. Of course there were land speculators who purchased land from the Northern Pacific Railroad and hoped to sell to farmers who might have a little capital.

However, it was the railroads that had the advertising resources and the largest financial stake in building up the regions they served. Prior to 1906 the Northern Pacific, Great Northern and Burlington all ran advertising campaigns, but the one by the Milwaukee Road in 1908 surpassed them all. Land served by the Milwaukee in the Musselshell Valley and Judith Basin was advertised in such glowing terms that an Iowa immigrant ventured the opinion that the Judith was the most heavily advertised area in North America.

Not to be outdone, James Hill of the Great Northern launched his largest campaign yet. He started by asking the Dry Farming Congress meeting in Billings to drop the term “dry farming,” as he believed it was “unflattering.” On that issue he didn’t succeed. The campaign moved ahead with advertising leaflets and brochures mailed throughout the United States and Europe. Along with the other railroads, the Great Northern encouraged the Europeans from Germany and Scandinavia to migrate and offered them easy trans-Atlantic rates. For the domestic home-seekers, they gave cheap rail fares in boxcars. For as little as $22.50, a homesteader could buy space in a freight car to bring his family, all his belongings, even seed grains and livestock from St. Paul to eastern Montana. Then the railroads offered prizes for crops and livestock, sponsored farm exhibits, and ran agricultural display trains around the country.

Immigrants filled the cars going west and James Hill needed to fill the cars returning east. Montana provided a lot of agricultural products, for example, sheep, wool and cattle. By the time the railroad was built, Big Sandy claimed to be the biggest cattle shipper in the nation. Montana had a lot of other raw materials, as well, but it was James Hill who was the first to recognize the value of the buffalo remains at the jump now called Wahkpa Chu’gn, next to the Great Northern tracks in Havre. “Buying buffalo bones from Indians and Metis and shipping them to eastern fertilizer plants” became a “lucrative business,” wrote Gary A. Wilson in Tall in the Saddle. The railroad also bought bones from individuals for $5 a wagonload, and the bones were also purchased by the sugar refineries in Minneapolis.

Immigrants were not the only people James Hill had in mind to travel on his train. Railroads were taking tourists to the newly created national parks: Northern Pacific Railway to Yellowstone National Park, and a spur of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway to the Grand Canyon. Glacier National Park, on the Great Northern route, was established in 1910, thanks in part to the efforts of James J. Hill.

There is no doubt the promoters, James Hill and others, were successful. More people filed for homestead claims in Montana than in any other state; more than 32 million acres were claimed. The Great Falls land offices, which served north-central Montana, processed between 1,000 and 1,500 homestead filings a month during the year of 1910. During the first quarter of that year, the Great Northern moved over a thousand emigrant cars into northern Montana. On one spring evening, the Great Northern detrained 250 homesteaders at Havre alone.

It would be generous to say that half of the people who filed claims were farmers. Even many of those who claimed to be “previous farmers” did not come from farm families or have farm experience. They were instead as diverse a group of people as you find in any town. One mixed group included school teachers, physicians, “maiden ladies,” musicians, and wrestlers, as well as the farmers, but that doesn’t mean that lawyers, accountants, and sophisticated businessmen didn’t show up in other groups. Some couldn’t speak English and the literate often relied on USDA and Agricultural Experiment Station publications for their farm instructions. Most were in the prime of their life — men and women in their twenties and early thirties.

Living in St. Paul, the home office of James Hill and his Great Northern, the Worstells would have had to be deaf and illiterate not to have seen and read the promotional material churned out by the campaigners for western settlement. Some family members believe that a small town was Gaylord’s goal for the settlement of his family. He wanted to be a full service health care provider. He liked chemistry and wanted to handle pharmaceuticals and fit glasses. He was a good surgeon and a specialist in the eye, ear, nose and throat. Maybe even then he thought of opening a hospital. We already know that he was enthusiastic about the west, having heard tales of California, and spending time in Kansas, Texas, and South Dakota. Gaylord was a visionary who recognized the Homestead Act as an opportunity to acquire land, and to prosper in business or the professions in the growing agricultural communities. As a frequent letter writer, there must have been times that he wrote glowingly about these opportunities to nearly all of his brothers, and maybe cousins, too, because more than a few of them joined with the tidal wave of farm families that moved into northern Montana in 1910.

May 18th, 1910, three Worstell brothers, Dr. Gaylord Worstell, physician, 47, married, four children, Dr. Everett Worstell, 38, unmarried, and Mr. Dias Worstell, 31, married, added their names to the growing list of people who, together, made up the demographics of that diverse group just described. Under Great Falls Serial Number 19196, Dr. Gaylord Worstell filed application for a homestead of 160 acres in the newly opened land west of Big Sandy, an established community 80 miles northwest of Great Falls. The land, in an “L” shape, was partly in Section 5 and partly in Section 8 of Township 27. Everett Worstell filed immediately after, with serial number 19197 in neighboring Section 4. The application of Dias is Serial Number 19203. His land lay directly between his brothers, all three being contiguous. The short-lived community of Verona, yet to be, was located in Section 4, but the brothers gave their address as Big Sandy, about five miles to the north.

Dias and his wife Bertha Marie Dietrich of Cincinnati, Ohio, were married in 1908, the year of “the great Promotion.” Dias left his wife at home and possibly was the first to arrive in Montana, maybe as early as 1908. He may have acted as the locator for the sites for his own and his brothers’ homesteads. He “squatted” on his land April 22, 1910, in a temporary dwelling he had erected. One of the early pioneers, Ida Panchot, tells of her uncle John Hagen when he came to homestead. “People lined up at a given point and at a given time rushed in to drive the stakes in the corner of their chosen land, therefore ‘claiming’ it. As John drove the last stake, [they] pulled a shed at once onto the property.”

In 1907 or earlier, homesteaders could settle on “Squatters Rights” before the land was surveyed. Lou Lawrence describes a common method of finding a site in Pioneer Days at Big Sandy, Montana:

Most of the land was unsurveyed and a common method of determining the 160 acre tracts was to do the measuring with a wagon. A section line was found, a white rag was tied to a wheel, it was determined how many revolutions were required to mark off a rod, and the boundary of a new homestead was staked out. When surveyors did come in to plat out the land, it was surprising how many of the boundaries had been laid out quite accurate with the wheel and rag method.

Squatter’s rights could be sold to “prove up” for as much as $1000 or more. In less than a month of each other, Dias’s brothers Everett and Gaylord arrived and all three filed homestead entry applications. Everett’s and Dias’s applications were accepted or “allowed” on June 20 and June 21. Gaylord’s, on the other hand, was “suspended — pending action” on an earlier application. No information other than that statement is available to indicate whether Gaylord did indeed arrive earlier and file on a different site.

Mary J. Dale, Elsie’s mother, wrote Gaylord and told him to get a homestead for her son Oak and herself; thus, Gaylord took an active part in locating them. Oak made application for a homestead claim, Serial Number 19981, on June 3; the claim was just a mile or two from Gaylord’s and his brothers’. Considering Gaylord’s Serial Number was 19196, Oak’s number would indicate that the Great Falls Montana Land District had received 785 applications in 16 days, more, even, than the high estimated average noted earlier. Oak’s signature on the application showed a hand with a definite tremor. On September 12, 1910, Oak built his shack and established residence. He contracted a fatal illness while building the shack and died on September 19. The story of the life of Oak Dale, age 37 when he died, is not known, but, as will be seen, the account of his homestead claim lives on in the archives of the United States government. No action was taken toward a homestead for Mary until after the first of the year, 1911.

Gaylord’s family came to Montana sometime during the summer of 1910. His son Richard remembered the trip when he wrote to the Homecoming Chairman in 1965:

In recalling my school experience I will never forget coming to Big Sandy in June of 1910. The train arrived at the depot one mile from Big Sandy. It was a wooden coach with hanging kerosene lanterns and a pot-bellied stove in one end to keep us warm. Father had all our earthly possessions shipped in a box car....

Frank Worstell arrived from the east and made his homestead entry on September 4th. When Frank’s wife, Bess, came out, she stepped off the train, looked around at Big Sandy, and, so the story goes, climbed back on the train to return home. She had a millinery shop and felt she could easily be self supporting. Frank later testified that, “She came with me but refused to take up her residence with me on the homestead and that since that time she has supported herself without any contribution on my part.” Years later Frank and Bess divorced. Frank did not establish residence until the following spring.

Dias, on the other hand, built his 14' x 14' homestead shack, valued at $100, and on the same day, September 4, 1910, established his residence. To establish residence on a claim required a shelter and evidence of the settler’s personal presence on the land. He would need witnesses to testify that he was seen occupying the shack on that day, and he would also need witnesses to verify that he was on the claim on additional days during the subsequent years. To “settle upon the homestead” and to “establish actual residence thereon” are two different things to which witnesses are asked to attest. When the dates are different, the earlier date seems to be the date to “settle upon.”

The homesteader experienced many inconveniences at first. Water and fuel were often scarce. Wells were expensive and unpredictable. One farmer, Stanislav Pleninger, who lived with his family 37 miles from Big Sandy, dug nine wells by hand before finding potable water. Water was hauled in tank wagons or “stone boats” from reliable wells or rivers. The tank wagons were large wooden cylinders on a wagon frame. A stone boat was a “skid,” or low platform with a pair of runners used in place of wheels that could be hand made by the farmer himself and pulled by horses. It was probably named for its use in hauling away stones from the field. Water was reused, first for bathing or dishes, then for scrubbing floors, finally for plants and animals. The prairie does not support trees but the Bear Paw Mountains to the east provided wood, and coal came from only six miles away. An early resident described a wintertime trip to the mine: “They started from home in the morning, long before daylight, with two teams on the bob sled. They had to wait their turn so never made it home before the next day, and if there should happen to be a ‘Montana Chinook’ it was what they called ‘tough sledding.’” However, the homesteader was permitted to be absent from his homestead for five months at a time, per year. This absence was usually taken to find employment for cash to pay expenses, make improvements on the place, and buy the essentials for living — or to avoid spending a Montana winter in a shack.

In January, concerning his homestead, Gaylord received “Notice by registered mail of Rejection.” Frank did not erect a shack until 1911. None of them broke the land the first year. Everett went back to Chicago to carry on his dental practice there. It would be his custom to spend about five months doing dentistry in Chicago and about seven months in Big Sandy. The following little quotation printed by Montana Magazine and taken from the Altyn Montana Swift Current Courier, September 1, 1910, might explain the professional advantages of this:

Altyn was visited by a dentist recently. But, as only infants and hens were minus teeth and nobody needed fixing, he quickly departed. As the infants are in the business themselves and the roosters hold the fort, the field for a dentist does not at present seem very inviting.

By fall the Worstells had set about making a living for themselves and providing the necessities of life. Gaylord made himself available for doctoring: he was the only doctor in town at the time. Frank and Dias opened a business. Gaylord and Dias purchased a restaurant building and Gaylord and his family occupied the upstairs for their living quarters. The furnishings were scant. Fern remembered that when she was five there were chairs for the boys to hang their pants on at night but none for the girls. Richard remembered there was no fresh milk, and butter came three pounds in a can from St. Paul.

Gaylord and Elsie’s older children were enrolled in school; Grace was in eighth grade. Richard was in fifth grade, but the twins, Fern and Ben, were still at home. A school picture shows the children well dressed: Grace in a nice dress with a very large ribbon bow on the back of her head and Richard in a jacket, white shirt and tie. Among the other children, there were two or three other little boys in jacket and tie. The school they attended was the third school the community had built: the old ones were of split log or hand-hewn lumber construction. The new one had a bell tower and is further described by Richard:

I attended school for the first time in a very small one-room school. It was located across the street from the C. J. McNamara residence. I recall it had a semicircular black board over the front door with the following inscription in white letters “Public School, School District No. 11.” The Elementary School, made up of all eight grades, numbered about twenty-five. Alexander Christy, a Civil War Veteran, and a man who had spent much time in Alaska, was the teacher. He was sixty-five years old. He had a gray beard and his teaching program was very informal. Reading and Mathematics were the chief subjects. Mr. Christy went into great lengths to tell about his experiences in Alaska. Mr. Christy was the only teacher I ever had who smoked a pipe in school, but at the salary he received his job seemed quite secure.