Lecturer: Homestead dreams fulfilled in southeastern Montana

Hal Stearns is a descendant of immigrants. People, he said, “who somehow knew they could have a better life here.”

His family, like the families of many people who attended his talk at Miles Community College (MCC) on Thursday, were homesteaders. His presentation, made possible by the Humanities Montana program, was titled “Homestead Dreams: From High Hopes to Lingering Legacy.”

Stearns explained the gradual movement west from the original colonies and how the transcontinental railroads had a major effect on the settling of the West. Because railroads needed regular stops to refuel and take on water, they created “towns” every few miles, then advertised them both in the eastern U.S. and Europe to encourage settlers.

His program included photos of advertising produced by those railroads, including the famous poster of a farmer plowing a field and turning up gold coins.

He also has actual photos of people standing in wheat fields surrounded by shoulder-high wheat. During the 1910s, when war was raging in Europe, wheat was selling for the then-astronomical price of $1 a bushel, eventually reaching $2 a bushel.

Just by “proving up” on a homestead, an ambitious person could get 320 acres — expanded in 1916 to 640 acres in Montana and other western states — for free. With wheat prices high and the weather cooperating, the homesteaders poured into Montana. 

In the 1910s, said Stearns, “Montana had the largest in-migration of any state.” 

However, a number of factors, natural and man-made, soon changed the rosy picture. The heavy rains of the early teens faded away. An influenza epidemic ravaged populations. The war ended and European farmers could farm again.

The pictures were now of of people standing on baked earth with only few pitiful stalks of wheat standing a few inches high. And in the 1920s, Montana had the largest out-migration of any state.

The “lingering legacy” of the homestead era are the towns that don’t exist anymore. The empty grain elevators and abandoned farm houses and crumbling hotels that once marked a place where optimistic people planned to start a new life mark the Montana landscape.

“But you are the descendants of the ones that stayed,” Stearns told the crowd. 

So is Stearns. Growing up in Harlowton, the son of a well-known newspaper man and a school teacher, Stearns learned to respect and love the Upper Musselshell Valley, surrounded by the Crazy, Little Belt and Big Snowy mountains and full of hard-working farmers and ranchers.

He learned about some of that history in unusual ways. The golf course in Harlowton is bordered by the town cemetery. His father, ordinarily an excellent golfer, mis-hit a ball into the graveyard.

While looking for the ball, Stearns father pointed out to him the number of graves dated late 1918 and early 1919. The golf game became a lesson in the Spanish influenza epidemic.

When Stearns went to get his master’s degree at the University of Montana, K. Ross Toole, one of Montana’s best-known historians, was his adviser. Stearns said he didn’t have any idea of what to write for his thesis.

Toole asked him where he grew up and did he like growing up there? When Stearns responded that he loved his childhood home and told him in detail why, Toole told him to write about that.

So Stearns did. And he has continued to study the history of Montana and the opening of the West to white settlement.

Stearns, a 34-year educator, taught high school students in Montana and Germany and graduate students at the University of Montana in Missoula. He was honored as Montana’s Teacher of the Year and Outstanding United States History Teacher, and has received other awards and honors.

He has served his nation, as well as his community. Stearns was a member of the Montana National Guard for 35 years, retiring as a brigadier general. And he has served on boards including Humanities Montana, and the Montana Coal Board.

Today, Stearns is an instructor for UM’s Lifelong Learning Institute and Humanities Montana. He shares his passion for Montana, the West and education with community members, students, teachers and administrators through programs like the one conducted at MCC.

Many of the people attending the program were there because the topic was about their history as well. “I grew up on a homestead,” said Mary Margaret Singleton. 

Doug Melton, a BLM archaeologist who spends his time documenting the early days in Montana, said he enjoyed Stearns’ program “because of his perspectives” on history, tying many different influences together. And, Melton was a student when Stearns was a first-year history teacher.