The challenges of farming
Initially, the preparation of fields into cropland entailed the hard work of deep plowing by both men and women. Most newcomers needed to adjust their way of life and method of farming to survive the Dakota environment. Subsistent vegetable gardens needed regular watering during the dry summers so it was advantageous to locate the dwelling near a natural depression or small stream tributary where spring melt waters collected. Those who could not adjust and face the challenges soon departed, selling out to new waves of newcomers.
By 1870 the Dakota economy of agriculture was heavily based on production of wheat and flaxseed in the eastern counties and cattle in the drier western areas of the state. However, the farming industry experienced several significant developments in a bust and boom cycle which impacted the farm community of Joliette when Robert Ferguson claimed his homestead. The emergence of “bonanza farms” from 1879 to 1886 was one such development.
Large-scale farming occurred in eastern North Dakota from about 1875 to 1890, during which investors from the eastern United States purchased huge tracts of rich Red River Valley land. Much of it was acquired from the Northern Pacific Railway and operated as large farms growing “No. 1 Hard” wheat. These farms ranged in size from 3,000 to 65,000 acres and earned such tremendous profits that they became known across the United States as “bonanza farms.”
The bonanza farm boom was short lived, lasting only from 1879 to 1886, during which cheap land, good weather, and a profitable grain market were experienced. It ended during a period of drought, low grain prices, and plagues of grasshoppers. Also, more people were immigrating into the state due to railroad and land company advertisements and the notoriety of the bonanza farms themselves. The new settlers were willing to buy quarter sections of land, and the bonanza owners sold rather than continue farming in a depressed economy. What appeared as opportunity to the small farmers soon diminished into mounting debt and falling grain prices.
As with the bonanza farms, farmers like the Robert Ferguson relied on wheat, continuing the precarious dependence on monoculture cropping and the inherent dangers of having no alternative crops to sell. During the severe winter of 1886/87 most of the large cattle ranches were ruined. Most lost 80-90% of their cattle herds in the western counties. The deep frost delayed the planting of spring wheat resulting in significantly lower yields of grain in the eastern counties like Pembina. The precarious production of wheat in a volatile market provided substantive reasons for many small farmers, like Robert, to consider relocating to areas where there was a better chance to diversify agricultural crops.
Raising a family
Homesteading, with a young and rapidly growing family, presented a variety of challenges for Robert and Margaret Ferguson. Like his father, Robert encouraged his young boys to become involved in the responsibilities of farming. Spring and fall were the most demanding times when the labour intensive activities of planting and harvesting were in demand. The death of ten year old Thomas in 1887, was a major blow to the family. Greater expectations fell to the next sons in line. In that same year young four year old George disappeared one day, and on his own, and walked a half mile to the farm of Louis La Rose to for the hand of his daughter, Minni, in marriage! Amused, Louis asked what possessions he had to ensure that Minnie could be cared for. George replied that he had a ten-acre field of his own, a colt, two pigs and a dog. No doubt the practical experiences of daily homesteading chores and expectations placed upon young children strengthened their sense of confidence at an early age.
The first one-room school in Joliette was open only in summer, between the planting and harvesting seasons. Many families could not send their children to school at a time labour was needed on the farm. The cost of hired labour during a protracted economic depression in the 1890’s would only add to debt. After a few years, the school term switched to a winter schedule of three months, which was more convenient for both boys and girls. By 1890, there were eight children living at home. Sons James (11), and George (7), were the eldest boys, and Emma (13), and Ida (9), the eldest girls, all of whom were attending school. George in particular did quite well, and developed good conversational skills. No doubt both his parents were influential in this regard. At the age of twelve he held his own in a debating society.
Unfortunately, in the winter of 1895 son George contracted diphtheria and nearly died. He was left with chronic laryngitis and a husky voice which tended to make him even more bashful than usual. As a result he stopped attending school and took on more duties running the farm. Three years later, in 1898, George finally returned to school for the Jan to March term. However ,that same year his older brother, Jim (19), left home to work in a store. At fifteen, George became his father’s right hand man, – a task to which he took a shining. In that same year George returned to school for the winter months and was inspired by his teacher, E. P. Roe, who taught him to work on his own. He responded well and borrowed books from his neighbours.
By the following year George was in full charge of the threshing crews hired to harvest the wheat crop. He attended to the maintenance of the machinery as well financial transactions. He worked well in a trusting relationship with his father, Robert, who looked after the farm and the hauling of grain. On occasions when a farm machinery salesman came to visit, Robert would defer purchase decisions to his son.