History of Agriculture in Minnesota
From: Minnesota in three Centuries 1655-1908
Editors: Licius F. Hubbard, James H. Baker,
William P. Murray and Warren Upham
The Publishing Society of Minnesotam 1908


AGRICULTURE and its allied industries are the foundation of Minnesota's greatness. The days when Norris and Haskell demonstrated at Cottage Grove, the adaptability of Minnesota's soil for the production of wheat are but a little over a half a century removed. Since that time, Minnesota has become known throughout the World as the "Bread and Butter State," and annually raises a bushel of wheat and a pound of butter for every individual in the United States.

This rapid development in the agricultural interests of the State is due to several causes, the most important of which being the great improvements made in agricultural machinery. The name most prominent in the early inventions of these improvements was Cyrus H. McCormick, a native of Virginia, who in 1834 perfected his father's invention of a reaping machine, on which he received a patent. This reaper had a sickle edge sectional knife, reciprocating by a crank movement with the bearing and drive wheels; a reel and a divider were used on each end of the platform. A seat for a driver was placed behind the platform. The machine was placed on the market in 1840, and was perfected in several ways by Mr. McCormick, who in 1851 received a medal at the World's Fair in London.

On the first reaping machine a man was stationed on the platform, who forked the grain to the ground as it was cut, an improvement was afterwards made by attaching a dumping arrangement so it could be operated by the driver. In 1851, W. H. Seymour, of New York, invented a quadrant shaped platform, directly behind the cutters, a reel to gather the grain, and a rake moving over the platform in the arc of a circle deposited the sheaves on the ground. In 1856, Owen Dorsey of Maryland, combined the reel and rake, and in 1865, another inventor named Johnston, so improved the rake that the size of the sheaves could be regulated at the will of the driver, thus perfecting in every detail the self rake.

At the commencement of the harvest season, in the latter part of June, in Southern Illinois and Eastern Missouri, a large number of men were employed in binding the sheaves of grain as they came from the reapers. As the season progressed, these laborers journeyed northward, and at different points were met by the farmers eager to secure their services. This continued for several seasons, but when the time came for harvest one year, the laborers on arriving at different points, where they expected to find work, found there was no demand for their labor. The reaper had been further improved by the addition of a self binder, and the sheaves were placed on the ground ready to he gathered and carted from the fields. This so incensed the laborers that in many cases they marched in a body to the fields, unharnessed the horses from the reapers, and would not allow the farmers to operate them; in some instances they went so far as to destroy the machines.

The improved reaper and the sulky plow, turning two furrows at once, and on which the operator rode instead of the old way of following the plow, made it possible for a farmer to cultivate with the same amount of help, over four times as much land as under the old system.

Another cause for the rapid advancement of Minnesota, as an agricultural State, was the attractive features it presented to immigrants from the United States and European countries. Also the pioneer movement of railroad corporations in interlacing the State's surface with railroads in every direction, bringing every portion in touch with both domestic and foreign markets. In many cases the country was opened up for settlement by these advance agents of civilization, thereby encouraging home seekers, and immigrants to locate farms as they were thus assured a market for their surplus productions.

In 1850, Minnesota had 5,035 acres of improved land, of which 1,900 acres were tilled, and in that year she produced 71,709 bushels of grain and potatoes. During the next decade her improved lands were increased to 546,951 acres, of which 133,267 were tilled.

According to J. A. Wheelock, Commissioner of Statistics' report in 1860, the cash value of farms was estimated at $19,070,737, while in 1850 their value had been placed at $161,948. In the latter year $15,981 was invested in farming implements; ten years later they were estimated to be worth $1,044,009. The value of the live stock in 1850 was $92,859, which had increased in 1860 to $3,655,366. Minnesota's 734 swine during the same period had increased to 101,252; her eighty sheep to flocks numbering 13,123. From 1850 to 1860 her 607 mulch cows increased to 40,386; her 655 working oxen to 27,574, and her 860 horses to 17,122.

In her agriculturad products during the decade from 1850 to 1860, the State showed marvelous growth, as seen by the following statement:








1,401 bushels

2,195,812 bushels


125 bushels

125,257 bushels

Indian Corn

16,725 bushels

2,987,570 bushels


30,582 bushels

2,202,050 bushels


21,145 bushels

2,027,948 bushels

Peas and Beans

10,002 bushels

18,802 bushels


12,116 bushels

125,130 bushels


515 bushels

27,677 bushels

Market Garden Products

150 bushels

94,681 bushels


1,100 lbs.

2,961,598 lbs.


20,119 tons

274,952 tons

Maple Sugar

2,019 lbs.

37,949 lbs.

There were also raised in the State in 1860, 38,570 pounds of tobacco, and 198,904 pounds of cheese were manufactured; the orchard products amounted to $298, and 14,974 gallons of sorghum molasses, and 21,829 gallons of maple molasses were manufactured.

In 1870, the total acreage in farms had increased to 6,483,828 acres, of which 2,322,162 acres were improved. The percentage of unimproved farm lands had decreased from. 19.5 per cent in 1860 to 64.2 per cent in 1870. The farm property was estimated to be worth $97,847,422, and there were $6,721,120 invested in farming implements and machinery. The value of farm products, improvements and addition to stock aggregated $33,446,400.

The spring wheat crop in 1870 was 18,789,188 bushels, and was exceeded only by Iowa and Wisconsin. The winter wheat crop amounted to 76,885 bushels. The average wheat crops for eleven years ending 1869 was seventeen bushels to the acre. In 1868 the banner wheat counties were Dakota, Fillmore, Goodhue and Olmsted.

According to the census of 1870, there were raised the preceding year in the State 4,743,117 bushels of Indian corn; 10,678,261 bushels of oats; 1,032,024 bushels of barley; 78,088 bushels of rye; 52,438 bushels of buckwheat; 1,943,063 bushels of potatoes; 122,571 pounds of flax; 695,093 tons of hay; and 222,065 pounds of hops. There were 9,522,010 pounds of butter manufactured. The market garden products amounted in value to $115,324, while the orchard products were estimated at $15,818. There had been since 1869 a decrease in the cultivation of tobacco; the crop of 1869 amounted to only 8,247 pounds. The production of maple sugar and the manufacture of sorghum and maple molasses, also showed a decrease.

The 132,343 sheep in the State in 1860 produced 401,185 pounds of wool. The number of horses was 102,678, while the neat cattle amounted to 365,241 head.

In 1866, capitalists began to turn their attention to farming in Minnesota; in that year the pioneer bonanza farmer, Oliver Dalrymple, a lawyer, of St. Paul, purchased in Washington County, three large farms located about fifteen miles south of St. Paul between the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers. These farms were named after the three generals of the War of the Rebellion, Grant, Sherman and Sheridan. In 1867, he had 1,700 acres in wheat, which yielded 35,700 bushels; the next year he raised 39,000 bushels, and in 1869, on 2,000 acres, in the neighborhood of 50,000 bushels. During the harvest season he employed one hundred men and one hundred horses. These farming operations paid a handsome profit on the investment. Among the other large farmers at this period were J. W. Paxton, formerly of St. Paul, who purchased upwards of 15,000 acres in Redwood County, and Clark W. Thompson, who had a farm of 9,000 acres in one body near Wells, in Faribault County.

In the late sixties, Minnesota attracted the favorable notice of the citizens of her sister States, as being well adapted for agricultural purposes. The noted editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, who in the early existence of the State was not prepossessed in her favor, wrote in 1868 as follows:

I find her soil better than I hoped; warm, fertile, and just about rolling enough to secure proper drainage at little or no expense. Her Indian corn was not luxuriant, but of fair growth; her grass had plainly been ample; her wheat and oats better (in the average) than I ever before knew. Her vegetables (as exhibited at the State Fair) I had seen surpassed only in California alone. In fruit alone did she seem deficient; her butter, cheese and honey would justify any praise.

General Le Duc, to demonstrate, at the World's Fair in New York, that Minnesota was an agricultural State, was able to secure a few ears of corn from Cottage Grove, Sauk Rapids and the Fort garden at Fort Ripley. It is claimed that to make his exhibit more attractive on his journey to New York through Illinois, he made several purchases of the products of that State. Thus only fifteen years from the time when he attempted to demonstrate that Minnesota was not an utterly barren waste, limited to the raising of a few cranberries and some muskrat skins, not only was the noted editor of the New York Tribune lavishing praises of the agricultural values of the State, but these encomiums were expressed throughout the country.

The first wheat exported from the State was raised in 1857 on the Le Sueur prairie, and it was not until 1864 that any wheat was, shipped north of the Minnesota River. Rochester was the first champion wheat market of the State; later on it traveled eastward to Red Wing, but finally Minneapolis became, and is today, the World's primary wheat market. The cause of this change in the location of the State's wheat market was due mainly to the opening up of the Red River Valley and the production of spring wheat in that location.

Prior to 1878 there were no settlements away from the Red, Red Lake and Pembina Rivers. While wheat had been raised in that region since the time the Selkirk colonists had demonstrated the adaptability of the soil for its cultivation; it had been produced on small acreages - from ten to twenty five acres. The completion of the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba railroad (now the Great Northern) to St. Vincent encouraged immigration; and settlers at the various stations established by the company commenced to break ground and sow wheat. Without the advent of railroads; the country today would be practically unpopulated and undeveloped.

Another leading factor, in settling this country was the so called bonanza farmers demonstrating on a large scale the practicability of producing wheat at a profit on the flat lands of the valley. The first pioneer in the Red River Valley in this line of industry was Oliver Dalrymple, who in the spring of 1875, after an examination, became convinced of the value of lands for wheat growing. He entered into a contract with large holders of Northern Pacific bonds, who had exchanged their holdings, for a great block of the company's lands. The owners were to furnish Mr. Dalrymple with stock, implements and seed to cultivate the land, he agreeing to return to them seven per cent interest on their investment, also to have the option of paying hack the principal and interest, when he was to be granted one third of the land.

In 1875, 1,280 acres were broken and the first harvest yielded 32,000 bushels, an average of little over twenty three bushels to the acre. As soon as the results of Mr. Dalrymple's experiment became known; capital began seeking the depreciated Northern Pacific bonds, and exchanging them for lands, and labor flocked from adjoining States to pre-empt Government lands. In the summer of 1879, the sales of Government land amounted to nearly 700,000 acres and during the year 1,500,000 acres were taken as homestead, pre-emptions, and tree claims in Dakota.

The Dalrymple holdings comprised some 100,000 acres, and in 1878, the wheat acreage had been increased to 13,000 acres. It was increased from year to year until in 1895, there were some 65,000 acres under cultivation. The following year, a settlement was effected between the owners and Mr. Dalrymple and the great farm was subdivided.

The impetus thus given to wheat raising in the Red River Valley produced a development, unparalleled in the history of the country. In the twelve counties located in the valley, six of which are in Minnesota and six in North Dakota, the population, which in 1870, was about 1,000, by the census of 1900 was 221,758. The assessed value of the property is estimated to be $100,000,000. In 1898 there were under cultivation in Wilkin, Clay, Norman, Polk, Marshall and Kittson Counties 1,180,154 acres, 'which produced 17,178,840 bushels of wheat. In the North Dakota counties of Richland, Cass, Traill, Grand Forks, Walsh and Pembina there were 1,839,335 acres under cultivation; which produced 30,938,916 bushels, wheat at sixty cents a. bushel made the total value of the crop to the producers amount to $28,870,653.

All the factors of geographical position, topography, soil, climate, rainfall and genesis of its population have combined to make Minnesota a great agricultural State. In few, if any of the States of the Union is so large a proportion of the area capable of profitable cultivation. Exclusive of lakes this proportion is estimated to reach ninety per cent. The geological processes were so ordered, as to endow the State with remarkable wealth of prairie area covered with a productive soil. Eminent geologists have pointed out that the soil is derived from a mantle of glacial drift, and made by the intermingling of many rock species. This shows a remarkable variety of chemical components, and induces a diversity of crop possibilities rarely equalled, and nowhere excelled within the United States.

Minnesota's climate is bright, sunny and invigorating; the average annual temperature is about forty two degrees. There is with the exception of in the immediate vicinity of Lake Superior, a noticeable absence of humidity, which in many States makes the summer warmth less pleasant, and intensifies the cold. of winter. The average number of sunny days is one hundred and fifty a year; in some section two hundred a year. The rain fall for many years has averaged thirty inches, while the snow fall has averaged forty nine inches.

The peculiarities of the atmosphere seem especially favorable to the growth of wheat, which Minnesota for many years produced the largest crop of any State in the Union. That for several seasons, she has relinquished this position to one or two other States; is owing simply to the former exclusive wheat growers having found diversified farming more profitable.

The State is divided into two distinct agricultural districts; the northern and northeastern portions are known as the "Big Woods Country." The soil through this region is as a whole of a red, yellow or black clay variety mixed with sand, and this makes a combination very fertile, which is quick and warm, and gives forth beautiful crops, particularly of the root and grass variety. The northeasterly country along the iron ranges, and the north slope of Lake Superior, the surface in some places is very rough and rocky, while in its immediate neighborhood there are large tracts as level as a board, with rich black soil suitable for any kind of agricultural purposes.

In the southern and southwestern portion of the State, there is a gentle rolling prairie, the soil is a rich black loam, which is adapted to the production of abundant crops of anything that can be raised in this section of the United States. This portion of the State is particularly adapted to stock raising, as both tame and wild grass grow abundantly.

In the middle and western portions of the State, the soil is from two to six feet in depth of a heavy black loam, and is best adapted to the raising of any kinds of cereals. Dairying is also followed to a great extent, and large orchards of hardy fruits bring handsome returns for capital invested.

There is room in Minnesota for 625,000 farms of eighty acres each. The number actually cultivated, according to the census of 1900, was 154,649 farms containing 26,248,498 acres, of this 18,442,585 acres were improved lands. Of these farms 82.7 per cent were farmed by the owners, 14 per cent by share tenants and 3.3 per cent by tenants paying cash rentals.

In cereal production Minnesota ranks fourth in the Union, and of the total acres under cultivation in 1899, seventy four per cent was in cereals. The value of all farm crops in that year was $113,096,602, and of this cereals represented $85,817,555, or seventy five per cent of the total value of all crops. In 1879, the State raised 23,314,240 bushels of oats, in 1899, the crop was increased to 74,054.500 bushels, having a marketable value of $15;829,804, making the State rank fourth in production amongst her sisters States. In barley production, Minnesota ranks second, having increased her crop of 3,000,000 bushels in 1879, to 24,314,240 bushels in 1899. In production of rye, she ranks fifth, her crop in 1899 being nearly 2,000,000 bushels. In flax seed the crop in 1899 of 5,895,497 bushels placed the State as second in production of this seed. To show the importance of the grain products, there were on August 31, 1906, 1,763 public local warehouses; or county elevators and warehouses in the State.

Corn raising is rapidly becoming an important branch of agriculture in the State, particularly in the southern and western portions. Once the State, except the southern tier of countries, was deemed "north of the corn belt." Now, many of the counties produce crops of corn equal to, or excelling those of Iowa counties. Through a careful selection of varieties, and the increasing self adaption of these to the peculiarities of the climate, corn is making for itself a prosperous habitant even in the northern counties.

In 1889, Minnesota raised 24,696,466 bushels of corn, ten years latter her crop amuonted to 47,266,900 bushels, an increase of about fifty per cent. At the present time the State produces close to 90,000,000 bushels of corn annually. There were sixteen counties in 1899 that produced nearly 23,000,000 bushels, or almost as much as the entire State produced in 1889. These counties were Fillmore, Blue Earth, Martin, Nobles, Faribault, Freeborn, Rock, Olmsted, Mower, Houston, Jackson, Redwood, Renville, Le Sueur, Wright and Murray. The largest yield was Fillmore with 2,530,050 bushels, the smallest, Murray with 1,002,550 bushels.

The great potato belt of the State extends north and northwest from the Twin Cities into Anoka, Isanti, Chisago, Sherburne, Wright, and southern Mille Lacs, and Pine Counties; also to the extreme northern counties, in fact all of the State is good for potato production. The crop amounts to over 20,000,000 bushels annually, and is valued from $5,000,000 to $10,000,000 according to the price received for the product. The soil is so peculiarly suited to their production that along with rutabagoes, turnips, mangles and carrots; they are fed to live stock to supplement hay, as fodder. The raising of sugar beets is yet in its infancy in the State, though it has advanced beyond the experimental stage. In Carver County there is a factory, now manufacturing its second year's run amounting to the product from 3,000 acres.

While Minnesota's farmers can successfully raise any kind of farm products, in tame and wild grass both in quality and quantity of production, she stands foremost amongst her sister States. Grasses thrive in every part of the State, particularly in the extreme northeastern portions, though at the present writing the former is practically undeveloped.

Market gardening for exportation is mainly confined to the vicinity of the Twin Cities, though cabbages, onions, squash, besides other vegetables are successfully raised in various parts of the state.

In fruit production in the decade from 1890 to 1900, Minnesota made the greatest progress of any State in the Union. In 1903 her crop of apples was valued at $550,000. In crab apples, plums, grapes and berries the yield is profilic. Wild fruits grow luxuriantly. In the northern portion of the State cranberries grow quite extensively in many places.

The creamery industry in the State dates back only thirty years. In 1878, there were a few scattering creameries in the southern portion of the State; six years later at the Cotton Exposition at New Orleans, exhibitors of her creamery products took twenty of the class premiums. However, in 1886, there were only 142 creameries and cheese factories, and one half of these failed in the next few years on account of improper organization and the sale of oleomargarine. Rigid State laws creating a dairy and food. commission, and the birth of co-operative creameries soon placed the industry on a firm footing.

In 1900, the first co-operative creamery was organized in Freeborn County, and today, there are 700 such creameries, while 185 are conducted under private or independent ownership. There are also seventy six cheese factories in the State. In 1886 the total production was almost 7,000,000 pounds of butter, while in 1906, 85,000,000 were made. In 1860, the mulch cows of the State were worth $40,000, today they are worth $25,000,000. In 1870 the mulch cows numbered 121,000 while, now there are a round million or more. This marvelous growth has been due to the fine grass and grain producing soil, a great abundance of pure water, and an ideal atmosphere, all of which are so essential to rich cream production. This has caused the creamery zone to move from Ilinois north to Northern Iowa into Southern Minnesota, as it moves farther north the region seems to have still greater possibilities. Minnesota was the first State to establish a fully equipped dairy school in connection with the State Agricultural College.

The advantages of the State's grass and grain crops are natural adjuncts for the raising of live stock, which profitably produced is the best test for agricultural development. In 1860, the live stock of the State was worth a little over $3,500,000 and in 1907 its value approximated closed to $100,000,000. In 1906, 191,562 cows and calves, 660,392 hogs, and 88,798 sheep were sold by Minnesota farmers to the South St. Paul stock yards, having a marketable value of $12,000,000. The State is particularly adapted for sheep raising, but owing to the value of her farms this industry has largely gone to the prairies of the West. Over seventy five per cent of the area of the State is undulating land adapted to the raising of sheep; the industry is, however, gaining importance as an important and profitable business. Swine and poultry raising are also gaining prominence and the Minnesota horse is an important factor, some of her studs having achieved highest honors at the most famous horse shows of America.

The economic interests of the State being so largely agricultural it is natural that its perferment should be the object of much legislative solicitude. This had manifested itself in the encouragement of agricultureal education. Not only in the establishment of the College of Agriculture, and its experimental stations, but by maintaining for the past eighteen years a system of farmer's institutes, or traveling farmer's schools, which hold scores of meetings annually, and in which specialists, instruct men and women seeking information for better conduct of the farm and farm home. The State has also given elementary instructions in agriculture in the common schools, and has made the Minnesota Agricultural Society a part of the State educational machinery, investing hundreds of thousands of dollars of State funds in its buildings and grounds. It has also made liberal annual appropriations to the State Horticultural Society; and through its dairy commissioner does much to promote the dairy interests of the State.

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