The town of Mildred, Montana, is there on the map — some 200 miles east of Billings along the old Milwaukee Road rail line. But the town itself is no more. A recent traveler described it as one of the most intact ghost towns he had ever seen. Mildred is the vestige of one of the most profound migrations the Rocky Mountain West has experienced since the arrival of white settlers. It is part of the emptying of the east.
Driven largely by decades of struggle in the agriculture sector, the population of eastern Montana, like other states along the eastern front of the Rocky Mountains, has been in steady decline. Many counties today have the same number of people they did at the turn of the 20th century.
People flocked to the region at the turn of the last century with the passage of the Enlarged Homestead Act by Congress in 1909, according to Josh Slotnick, a University of Montana environmental studies lecturer.
The act offered settlers 320 acres of land where they could attempt farming or ranching. It was an act meant to build the population along the web of railroads that crisscrossed the center of the country; these same railroads worked in concert with the federal government to tout the opportunities.
Railroads told prospective settlers that in Montana and Colorado, they would find green fields, prosperity, the opportunity to send their kids to college and the chance to own their property in a few short years.
Settlers made their way to the northern plains in droves.
“Between 1910 and 1920, 70,000 people moved to eastern Montana,” Slotnick said. “Peak population in eastern Montana … was like 1920.”
Further south, Colorado agriculture also thrived throughout the 1920s in large part due to the sugar-beet crop.
Even the weather helped sell the place. Rain was unusually plentiful during this decade of expansion, fueling several years of record harvests. But by 1920, things began to unravel and the easy life promised to the new settlers came to an abrupt end. Events on the horizon would initiate the lengthy and slow decline of the north plains.
The unseasonable rains ended and drought descended. The same brutal weather that created the Dust Bowl further south finished what the 1920s drought started, and eastern Montana never again would be the same agriculturally.
But it was not simply a function of climate that changed this region. The crop economies that had fueled the growth were changed by globalization and industrialization.
In Colorado, the beet farmers there struggled to compete with the increased importation of cane sugar from Hawaii and Latin America. Both beet and grain prices dropped with the influx of international competition.
The World War II military technologies suddenly found new uses on the American farm. The Haber-Bosch process, used during the war to extract nitrogen from the atmosphere in order to build bombs, was now used to create fertilizer, making marginal farmland far more productive. Other technologies led to the development of herbicides and pesticides that kept crops healthier.
Slotnick said this mix of technologies now made it possible for one person or family to farm more land, more effectively than ever before.
And even these developments in agricultural chemistry paled in comparison to the effects of mechanization. Modern combines could cut and thresh crops quickly in wide, effective swaths. The farms simply no longer needed as many workers. Farms got bigger, but needed fewer people, which helped send more and more people out of the region.
University of Montana Geography Professor Christiane von Reichert agrees mechanization decreased labor needs, but added many farmers lost the ability to make a living as their parents had. The cost of farming (i. e. machinery, fertilizer, land) went up while prices did not keep pace.
The economy and the changing methods of agriculture were pushing people out of eastern farming communities along the Rocky Mountain front, but for some time, the population appeared steady since families that remained continued to have children, masking the beginning of a fundamental population shift, von Reichert said.
Many also left eastern Colorado in recent decades, moving to the Front Range, which runs from Pueblo, Colorado, to Cheyenne, Wyoming. There they found an economy booming with high-tech companies like HP, Kodak, Verizon and IBM: an economy that could absorb workers leaving the farm.
Eastern Montana, far from the urban centers that were driving growth further south, simply continued to dry up. Still dependent on agriculture, both Slotnick and von Reichert said the region lost much of its diversity, becoming known almost exclusively for large-scale wheat and other grain production.
UC Denver History Professor Tom Noel said, unlike the reliance on one or two crops in Montana, in eastern Colorado a new agricultural strategy has evolved.
“There are some new products like sunflowers and … turning corn into fuel to give farmers hope,” Noel said. These new strategies haven’t been the only bright spot for agriculture in Colorado.
Noel said the oil boom of the past 30 years has been one salvation for farmers and ranchers in the east. He believes oil has brought some stability to the region as farmers can count on that income, as opposed to more risky commodities.
There are plans for other energy development projects in the northern plains that might offer economic development to eastern Montana, including wind farms and some coal development. But prospects there are not as bright as in Colorado.
Slotnick said it will take a major effort to grow the windswept prairies of the east, to bring life back to towns like Mildred.
He has his doubts that this will happen.
“I don’t think it will change. I don’t think we’re going to make that effort. My guess,” he said, ” is, 20 years from now, it’ll be even emptier.”
ABOUT THIS SERIES: This week, New West is proud to run stories reported and written by University of Montana School of Journalism students who, with the help of American Public Media’s Public Insight Network, looked into the local food movement and agricultural shifts shaping the West. Journalism student Heidi Groover served as lead editor for this series. The project originated as part of the Green Thread initiative at UM.