Mont. historians seek to recognize 100-year farms

AP News
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Posted: Dec 01, 2009 9:03 AM

Henry Armstrong's family has farmed the same patch of central Montana land for 100 years, hanging on through the Depression, low wheat prices and the ever-present risk that the next generation would move on.

Armstrong, 82, lives in the same house near Geraldine that his grandfather built and lived in as a homesteader. It's a little bigger now, but lonelier since his wife, Norma, died about six years ago.

"As long as I live, I've got rights to live here," he said. "The one thing about this that I've been especially proud of is we were able to make it these 100 years on relatively small acreage."

Historians say tales like Armstrong's are becoming increasingly rare.

As employment pressures and the lure of faraway opportunities split apart agricultural families, many farms and ranches have been consolidated, sliced into subdivisions or converted into oversized estates for the wealthy.

But in a bid to capture and preserve a slice of the state's past, the Montana Historical Society has started a drive to identify families that have farmed or ranched the same land for a century or more.

The Centennial Farm and Ranch Program was created under a bill passed by the 2009 Legislature. The intent is to honor Montana's heritage while compiling family histories to be archived and eventually compiled for the society's Web site.

Ellen Baumler, an interpretive historian who is helping lead the effort, said it's unknown how many of the state's farms and ranches fit the bill.

The number of agriculture operations in the state peaked in 1920, at about 57,000. It's now fallen to about half that number and industry representatives say the chances of a rebound are slim.

Despite the nationwide decline in property values, prices in Montana remain relatively high due to wealthy outsiders willing to pay a premium on acreage for their vacation or retirement homes.

Throw in the huge capital costs of starting a farm from scratch _ a new grain combine can cost $200,000 or more _ and "it's almost impossible to get started in agriculture these days," said Scott Kulbeck, director of membership development for the Montana Farm Bureau.

Agriculture was booming in Montana when Henry Armstrong's ancestors arrived from Iowa in October 1909. His father and grandparents were intent on eking out a living on government land that would become theirs if they were willing to stay for at least five years.

Since their arrival, Montana's average farm has increased from about 500 acres to more than 2,000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Armstrong's family farm has also grown, from the combined 640 acres acquired by his grandfather and father through the Homestead Act, to roughly 1,400 acres today.

Still, Armstrong said he never felt the need to turn it into an industrial-sized operation, even if that meant taking on work as a crop insurance adjuster to make ends meet.

His ancestors and offspring have done the same. His grandfather was a county commissioner and his son's wife worked for 30 years as a schoolteacher.

Armstrong kept working the farm until last year, when he finally sold it to his son, Stuart, now 61 years old. Whether the next generation will maintain the family farm is unclear. Henry Armstrong's two daughters both moved to Oregon and have no inclination to return. Stuart Armstrong's daughter lives in Seattle.

The best chance at carrying on the family legacy is Henry Armstrong's 20-year-old grandson, Alan.

At a recent Montana Farmer's Union convention, the Armstrong family was honored for its many years farming in the state. Armstrong brought Alan and later said the event had piqued his grandson's interest.

"But right now he's searching around. He's started school," he said.

Armstrong recalled his own urge to strike out and build a different life, when he was still a teenager. It came after World War II when he had served stateside as a Marine in San Diego and North Carolina.

"When I came home the farming didn't look all that great to me. I really wasn't a farmer to start with," he said. "But I decided, my dad's getting older and it looked like the thing to do. I finally learned to like it."