The federal government’s strategy for populating a newly claimed territory and limiting land use by Native Americans led to a series of Homestead Acts passed between 1862 and 1912. Under these acts the government promised hundreds of acres of free land per homesteader if a settler could “prove up” a homestead claim within a certain time period. Thousands of people took advantage of this opportunity and many formed creative partnerships to acquire even more land.
Railroad companies recognized the opportunities to expand their market and soon joined the homesteading frenzy. The Northern Pacific Railroad sold thousands of acres of land to eager buyers while the Milwaukee Road aggressively marketed its properties in the “Treasure State.”
Homesteaders cobbled together barns, cabins, and shacks using readily available materials such as wood, stone, and sod. If their agricultural efforts were successful they built more permanent structures. Farmhouses and agricultural boomtowns boasted buildings not only in utilitarian folk styles but also in the Neoclassical Revival, Queen Anne, and Rustic styles.
Some farms prospered despite the difficulties of dry-land farming; however, prosperity was short-lived. A major 1920s drought and post-WWI economic disaster ultimately signaled the end of the Homestead Boom. To this day homesteads pepper Montana’s rural landscape, reminders of a time filled with optimism and bravery.