January 10, 1957

 

The Prairie

by Mrs. Porterville

Griggs County. What was it like when the first settlers came? Grass! Grass everywhere! Ungrazed since the buffalo left, there grew on the hills the short and hardy "buffalo" grass, in low places taller grass up to two feet in height, and on the level places more buffalo grass and "needle" grass that made good hay in a damp season but was too short for cutting in dry years. This grass, which cured when ripe into a hay covered prairie, was not to be found in the wooded, sandy, or rocky soils of the east nor the sage covered states farther west. Wonderful! The soil must be rich and have plenty of moisture to produce such grass. And on this grassy prairie there grew not one tree.

Among the grasses grew a succession of perennial flowering plants — from the wooly first pasque flower of spring, the flaming lily and the delicate orchid colored prairie clover of midsummer, to the goldenrod and prairie asters of fall. Look around the edges of the sloughs in June and July and find the largest and most flavorful of wild strawberries.

Overgrown by the grasses are the old trails in the sod. They had been made by Governor Steven's train, by Fiske's gold seekers' expedition, by Sibley's military wagons, by the Red River hunters, by the Indians, by the Fort Totten to Fort Abercrombie mail carrier, and by the buffaloes. If a prairie fire had recently passed over the land, the trails appeared in the sod, and the whitened buffalo bones would be seen everywhere on the blackened ground.

Follow any one of these trails, and almost without warning the prairie seems to end, and the Sheyenne Valley lies before the traveler — three hundred to four hundred feet below the level of the prairie and from one to four miles wide. Here is sweet running water, timber for homes, fuel and protection, and wild fruits for food. This was like home, and here the first pioneers settled.

"Bonanza" Farming

The reason for farming on a large scale seems to have no one simple answer to "Why?" The 1870's saw a severe depression in the Eastern states. Interest rates were low, with few chances for profitable investment there. The rapid movement westward of the population, and the increased immigration from Europe added to the need for wheat. It was over $1.00 a bushel — high for the times. The harvester and binder had reduced the need for manpower, and had made practical an increased acreage per farm. Wheat raising became a profitable business.

Congress encouraged settlement to the west. Its Homestead Laws of 1862 had been amended and liberalized to help settle the prairies. "Additional Homesteads" were granted to Civil War veterans who had been unable to get the full one hundred sixty acres the homestead laws had allowed. "Timber Culture" (tree claims) claims of one hundred sixty acres were added, and a "pre-emption" for another one hundred sixty acres allowed any settler to buy it at $2.50 per acre. He could get one, or all three.

Another reason for the "land boom" was the Congressional land grant to the Northern Pacific Railroad. This included all the odd numbered sections of land extending for forty miles on each side of its right-of-way.

By the late 1870's, this railroad had crossed the Red River Valley and was building westward towards the Pacific Coast. Crews of surveyors opened land for settlement, as they worked on yet another township, working northward from the right-of-way — often finding houses and breaking on the settler's chosen land. The Cooper Brothers bought many section of this railroad land to use — to farm. Others only bought to sell again.

This new land was different from the stoney farm land of the East that had to be cleared of rock and fertilized for good returns. The wooded sections of Michigan, Wisconsin, or Minnesota had to be cleared of trees and stumps, and then had left a sandy soil. In the Colorado country the land was dry, had sage brush and little grass except in favored valleys and raised little grain.

But eastern Dakota was often likened to the Nile River Valley. Its land was level. Its rich black loam needed no fertilizer. It had no stumps to be pulled, no rock to dig and pile. The breaking, plow could turn over a ribbon of prairie sod. Many acres could be prepared for a crop in one year.

Elements of all these conditions seem to have influenced the Cooper Brothers. There was Thomas J. Cooper of Chicago, with his Colorado mining profits to invest, not in the East with its low interest rates, nor again in the uncertainty of new mines. Why not try the great new wheat county as a partner of Rollin C. Cooper, his much younger brother, who had experience and genial skill in working with many men? And so it was planned. About five years of careful investigating, planning and organizing seem to have gone before Rollin C. Cooper's first trip to Griggs County in 1880.

 

Rollin C. Cooper, for whom Cooperstown was named. This photograph was probably made sometime after 1890, according to Mrs. Myrtle Porterville. When Mr. Cooper first came to this area in 1880 he wore a full beard. The photograph was given Mrs. Porterville by Mrs. James Hazard, whose father, Charles Houghton, was for many years Cooper's ranch foreman.

 

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