"Dry Farm Homesteaders"
A selection from the Mennonite History:
Seventy Five Years at
Aberdeen 1907-1982

By Eldon B Harder and Helen Klempel Harder 

[A discussion of the history of the settling, 
farming and irrigation of the Aberdeen area]

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T he Homestead Act of 1862, which had provided the means for settling vast areas of the plains states, was revised in 1909. In that year, in an attempt to compensate for the lower crop yields on the semiarid lands in nine western states, the United States Congress increased the number of acres one person could homestead from 160 to 320 acres. While there had been dry farm homesteading taking place in Idaho even before this change in the law, there was a renewed interest as a result of the change. This was true again in 1912 after the congress reduced the length of time required to prove up on a homestead from five years to three years. The federal government then made large areas of semiarid land throughout the western states available for homesteading. The lands opened for settlement included extensive parts of southern Idaho.

Arid lands are those lands which have insufficient rainfall to support agriculture. Semiarid lands are lands which receive from ten to twenty inches of precipitation annually. Our area of Idaho, with an average annual precipitation of from eight to eleven inches barely qualifies for semiarid classification. These lands now became the last frontier. Lured by the prospect of free land, of owning their own farm, settlers converged on Idaho from many parts of America.

After the settlers arrived in the area, the first undertaking would be finding land suitable for farming. This was not always easy since the land was covered with stands of sagebrush and the sagebrush obscured the lava rock outcroppings which were a feature of the land available for homesteading.

The land which was made available for homesteading had been surveyed by the United States Land Office in 1911, and sections of 640 acres had been laid out and identified with metal markers. These markers were stamped with the numbers of the four sections which converged on a particular corner and the range and township in which they were located. In colonial America, in the region from New York in the north to Georgia in the south, the land surveys were mostly unregulated and usually irregular. Known as metes and bounds surveys, these surveys used the lay of the land and other natural features as boundaries between different properties. Features such as certain trees or rocks, springs, streams, ridges or valleys were used to mark boundaries. This sometimes caused overlapping claims which led to boundary disputes. In those areas where they did use rectangular surveys, there was no uniformity of size.

After America gained its independence, the new federal government established what is known as a rectangular or grid survey. After establishing a baseline running east and west and after determining the principal meridian to be used in the survey, the land was surveyed and laid out in townships. In surveys of government lands, a township is an area six miles square, thus containing thirty-six sections, each one mile square. These are numbered, beginning with the northeast section in a township being number one, then counting to the left, with section number seven being directly to the south of section six, then counting right again with section number thirteen being directly to the south of section number twelve and continuing in that manner with section thirty-six being in the southeast corner of the township. In the same surveys, a range is one of the north-south rows of townships that are numbered consecutively being either east or west of the principal meridian. Hence in our area the ranges are classified as being east of the Boise Meridian. Townships are designated as being either north or south of the baseline and numbered consecutively starting at the baseline. Through Idaho the baseline runs along the north edge of the section in which our camp at Palisades is located. Thus, when we cross Baseline Road on I-15 between Blackfoot and Idaho Falls, we are at a point directly west of our camp. According to the legal description, our camp is in the northwest quarter (NW 1/a) of Section 4, Township 1 South (of the baseline), Range 45 East of the Boise Meridian.

There is a problem in laying out square townships on a round world. In order to adjust for the curvature of the earth and to correct errors in surveying, there is a 'correction' along the line where one township borders another. Along these roads the section lines do not meet exactly but are offset. A good example where such a correction may be observed is on Desert Road going west from the southwest corner of the Aberdeen town site.

After the claim had been properly filed in the land office in the county seat of the county in which it was located, the next order of business would very likely have been the building of a home. These were mostly small houses ranging in size from one-room shacks, if the homesteader was single or was married with small children, to larger two-room houses with additional sleeping quarters in a loft. These were usually built of lumber, although some of the homesteaders built more permanent structures out of lava rock, using mud mixed with straw for mortar. Seventy years later, parts of the walls of a few of these rock houses are still standing.

Sagebrush removal was the next really big job and after that, preparing the soil for seeding and hoping for a harvest.
A wheat header with the header barge in position under the elevator. In the prairie states, by the late 1870's, the self-tying grain binder had eliminated the laborious task of cutting the standing grain with a hand scythe and tying it into bundles with a band of twisted straw. The original binders had used wire to tie the bundles but this idea was soon discarded and sisal or hemp twine was used. In the more arid lands of the west, the grain ripened more evenly and it was not necessary to bind the grain into bundles for further ripening. Here, where stands of grain were more sparse, the wheat header replaced the grain binder. This ground-driven machine was pushed through the fields by six head of horses or mules. It clipped the heads of wheat and elevated them into a wagon known as a header barge, which was driven alongside the header while it was in operation. These heads of wheat were sometimes hauled to the threshing machine and threshed immediately or they were stacked to be threshed during the fall and winter. Threshing was usually done by custom operators who moved their threshing machines powered by steam tractors from one farm to another.

Life on the homesteads was not easy. The searing heat makes the desert very inhospitable during the summer. The frigid cold of Idaho winters made heating the uninsulated houses very difficult.

Rattlesnakes were encountered frequently. Sometimes these poisonous reptiles would find their way into homes where they would terrify the women and children. In some areas ground squirrels became a problem by eating the wheat plants. Flying ants were a nuisance. The only winged ants in a colony are the queens and the males or drones. As if on signal, all of the winged ants in all of the colonies in a given area are expelled from the den at the same time, usually in late afternoon of a hot summer day. After the queen ants emerge from the colony and begin their nuptial flight, only one drone mates with each queen. After mating, the queen falls to the ground and attempts to begin a new colony. The drones congregate and fly along in swarms looking for a place to alight. They seem to prefer the highest point in sight, invariably the top of a stove pipe or chimney. If there is no fire in the stove, these flying ants drop down the chimney into the stove or fireplace and then crawl all over the house. These flying ants do not bite and are destined to die within a few hours, but to have hundreds or perhaps thousands of these crawling all over everything is disconcerting to say the least!

The sagebrush desert provides a nearly ideal environment for the jackrabbit. A cyclical build-up of numbers produced large numbers of these rodents. When the green vegetation of the desert matured and became dry and unpalatable, the jackrabbits ate the wheat plants while they were green and tender. When the grain was ripening, they clipped the stalks to get the last little bit of green from the plant, leaving the stems and heads lying on the ground. The settlers organized rabbit drives in which long lines of people would attempt to drive the rabbits into catch pens where they were clubbed to death. They killed thousands of rabbits but it was not enough; it didn't seem to make a difference.

In most cases, the dry farm homesteaders had to supplement their meager income by working at various jobs in town or for irrigation farmers. One of the requirements for homesteading was that the farmer was to occupy or live on the homestead. Since the distance to and from work was too great to be traveled daily, the dry farmers would come home only for Sunday. This meant that, in order to fulfill the occupancy requirements, the wives and children would have to remain out on the homestead while the farmer was away. In some cases where the homesteader was a bachelor and would have to leave the homestead to work elsewhere, he would make arrangements with a neighbor to go to his shack in the evening and place a lighted kerosene lantern in a window to give the appearance that the house was occupied!

As late as the early 1940's dry farmers from the Pleasant Valley area, with their teams of horses and their wagons, would work on the haying and threshing crews on the irrigated farms in the Aberdeen area.

Most of the homesteaders did not drill wells but bought the water needed for domestic use and for the livestock from those few neighbors who had wells or, in the summertime, hauled it from the Aberdeen-Springfield high line canal which was the boundary between the irrigated lands below the canal and the dry farms. Some of the farmers used wooden stave barrels set in the back of the farm wagons, or if they could afford it, they used galvanized steel tanks also set in the box of their farm wagon. They built cisterns by digging a hole in the ground, lining it with lava rock and then plastering the lava rock so the cistern would hold water. If they could afford it, they also built cisterns out of concrete. The water was usually stored in the cisterns and pumped out as needed.

After a few years of near adequate rainfall, the dry years came and the farms produced no crops. One by one at first, and then in large numbers, the settlers left their homesteads and moved away. By the early 1920's most of the homesteaders had abandoned their farms. People wanted to sell their farms but no one was buying. Loan companies which had loaned money on some of the farms went broke.

In some cases farmers who had proved up on their homesteads and who had anticipated the failure of the dry farm venture early enough had borrowed the maximum amount they could get from the loan companies and had then moved away without ever intending to repay the loan. In any event, loan companies were left with a valueless lien and were doomed to failure.

The homesteaders had come to stay. They built schoolhouses to educate their children. They built churches in which they could worship God. The fact that they had to move away was no fault of theirs.

As one drives west and north of Aberdeen, beyond the farmland that is now being irrigated by sprinklers with water pumped from wells, one can still see the remains of the homesteads which once dotted the area. Here and there one can find the rock foundations of the small houses and shacks or the broken-down walls of the houses built out of rock.

Occasionally a more careful search will reveal a water cistern. Rusted strands of old barbed wire are sometimes visible in the sagebrush. Most noticeable are the rocks which the settlers gathered off their fields and heaped in piles. These take on added significance when one realizes that many of these rocks were picked up by the wives and children. Also, one should remember that there were no dump trucks in use by farmers in those days. Each rock on these piles was handled at least twice: once when it was loaded by hand onto the stone boat, slip or wagon, and again when it was unloaded and tossed or placed on the pile. In a sense, the rock piles stand as a monument to the hard work and industry, and also to the failure, of the dry farm homesteaders.

Scars of the old wagon roads used by the homesteaders still remain in various places. We who did not experience what they experienced can only imagine with what high hopes and great expectations these hardy pioneers ventured out on these roads to claim their newly acquired homesteads and to tame the desert. Nor can we understand with what great discouragement a few years later they loaded their meager belongings into their farm wagons and traveled down these rocky rutted trails for the last time, leaving behind them their shattered dreams and leaving the desert still untamed. For some, these trails led to the irrigated farms in the Snake River Valley. Some may have found employment in surrounding cities. Others may have returned to their homes from which they had come just a few years earlier. There they would very likely face the patronizing pity of those who had advised them against making the move to Idaho. For some, these trails led on farther west to Washington, Oregon and California.

The failure of the dry farm homesteaders on the Snake River Plains of Idaho, as well as in other western states, is a commentary on the land disposition policies of the federal government. In spite of the voices that were raised in warning, the federal government, or more likely, the cheap land or free land advocates within the government continued to make arid and semiarid lands available for homesteading throughout the western states. Even with the increased size of the homesteads, it still was not enough. It is doubtful whether there ever was any real potential for farmers of that era, who homesteaded north and west of Aberdeen, to earn a livelihood on a farm of any size. A negative impact of these policies was that land that should have been left in its natural state, was plowed up and put into crop production.

While the dry farm homesteaders involved many people who were not Mennonite, there was nevertheless a sizable group of Mennonites who settled near Aberdeen as well as in the Du bois area and in the Minidoka area. Had there been men sent out to investigate this project as was the practice among Mennonites? My grandfather, John Harder Sr., used to tell about a trip to Montana where he and others had gone to investigate the possibility of a Mennonite settlement in some areas of that state. In a saloon in Montana he met a cattle rancher from Idaho who was familiar with the Mennonite dry farm settlement near Dubois. This rancher told him that the dry farmers might have a few good years, but in the long run, they would not survive. Perhaps those who investigated and those who settled here did not listen to the right people. Or as Henry Lehrman used to say, "Our elation at the prospect of getting free land caused us to disregard any warnings which we may have received."

Some of the abandoned houses were moved away. Some were dismantled and the lumber re-used elsewhere. Some fell prey to vandals and thieves; others were very likely destroyed by range fires.

The abandoned desert became a gigantic dumping ground. People who had things to discard or throw away simply hauled these things to the nearest sagebrush and dumped them. Along every road into the desert one could see old car bodies, old tree stumps and tree trunks, dead animals, rotten potatoes, and other trash and refuse.

Some of the dry farm homesteaders in the Pleasant Valley area survived while those in the Aberdeen area did not. This may have been due to several factors. The soil in the Pleasant Valley area is generally a deeper soil than the soil west and northwest of Aberdeen. The lava rock outcroppings that form a feature of the land in this area are an indication of a shallow soil. Since these areas could not be plowed, the sagebrush remaining on them provided habitat for the jackrabbits which foraged on the grain crops. Also, the Pleasant Valley area generally has more rainfall since it is closer to the Snake River and summer storms tend to follow the river valley and the mountains beyond it.

The second phase of the development of the desert to the west and north of Aberdeen began in the early 1940's. Most of the homesteaders who abandoned their farms did not pay the real estate taxes on this land after they left and the counties took possession of the land in lieu of the unpaid taxes. During the 1940's, the counties began selling this land at public auction for prices that began at about twenty-five cents an acre. Some individuals bought a sizeable acreage of this land and began farming it. The intervening years had seen the improvement of farm tractors which made it possible for one person to farm many more acres. The production of new tillage equipment and the discovery of new farming techniques which included summer fallowing and planting the soil to crops every other year made dry farming more successful.

The third phase of the development of the desert and dry farm area also began in the 1940's. People living on the edge of the irrigated tract had begun to install pumps to lift the water to the higher ground located above the high line canal. Others drilled wells and installed turbine pumps and began irrigating the farms with water pumped from the aquifer. At first they built ditches and used furrow irrigation in the same way it was done on the Aberdeen-Springfield tract. The invention of the siphon tubes had made furrow irrigation from newly built ditches easier.

With the evolvement of sprinkler irrigation systems the development of the desert went into high gear. Thousands of additional acres were put under irrigation and farmers began building farmsteads on some of the original dry farm homesteads. Under furrow irrigation, the amount of land that one person could irrigate was greatly limited. This limit was removed by sprinkler irrigation. This influenced many irrigation farmers on the Aberdeen-Springfield tract to abandon furrow irrigation and install sprinkler systems, still using the canal water. Farms became larger and farmers with smaller acreages on the Aberdeen tract either rented or sold their land to larger operators who then installed sprinklers, in most cases still utilizing the water from the canal system. It is estimated that eighty-five percent of the original  Aberdeen-Springfield tract is now irrigated with sprinklers.

Many farm families in our church farm land that was originally a part of the dry farm homesteads.

Has the desert finally been tamed? Probably not. It has simply been pushed back. Those of us who live and farm out on the frontier know only too well how the desert still exacts its toll in the form of invasions by grasshoppers, jackrabbits, and pronghorn antelope and by untimely frosts and heavy winter snow.