For the week of Nov. 7, 2016
Welcome to the land of opportunity
By John Schlageck
Nowhere on earth can you invest your money more safely or profitably than western Kansas. That was the marketing pitch back in 1905 from Wise & Stern dealers in farms, grazing lands and stock ranches.
Wise & Stern, located at 806 Grand Ave. in Kansas City, Mo., had already been selling land in western Kansas for several years; in addition to making money, this company was convinced western Kansas was the new heaven on earth and destined for greatness.
Crops that year were excellent and a feeling of prosperity prevailed across the western third to half of Kansas. Reports of wheat yields of more than 25 bushels per acre in the region of Lane, Finney, Kearney, Wichita, Greely, Hamilton and Scott counties were heralded as average with many farmers reporting even “better” yields. Wheat sold for a whopping 80 cents per bushel.
A decided change for the better in rainfall during the last few years steamrolled the excitement among those like Wise & Stern who marketed a 28-page pamphlet touting Western Kansas as the land of opportunity. They also provided rail trips to show off their holdings to anyone wishing to invest in land.
“The breaking up and cultivating of these prairies south of western Kansas (in Oklahoma and Texas) has changed these prairies and has changed these winds to more moisture-laden breezes, so that there is an appreciable increase in the rainfall on the plains of Western Kansas over the average of ten years ago,” according to Wise & Stern’s pamphlet.
A story in the Kansas City Journal, a western Kansan was quoted as saying, “we have found out how to farm Western Kansas now and the rainfall has changed. It used to rain all at once, and then stay dry – now we have gentle, soaking rains all over Western Kansas. Cloudbursts and floods no longer trouble us.”
Blessed with well-watered, fertile soil – rich, black loam ranging from two to four feet deep and a “mild” climate with short winters, cool nights in the summer and almost always a gentle breeze, western Kansas was touted as “God’s Country” at the beginning of the 20th Century.
During the nine-year period between 1897 and 1905, western Kansas averaged more than 20 inches of rainfall per year in Finney County, according to B.F. Stocks, a local observer with the U.S. Weather Bureau. Such a rosy rainfall record provided even more reason to invest in western Kansas land.
Another attribute that boded well for buying farm and ranch land in western Kansas 108 years ago was the cheap price.
Land in this region of Kansas could be purchased from $2.50 to $15 per acre. Individuals interested in buying land were encouraged to look around at the rich farmer neighbors from Illinois, Indiana and Iowa. They all became wealthy because they bought land when it was cheap, so the sales pitch went.
“The same opportunity is open to you, providing you choose to take advantage of it,” according to Wise & Stern. “This is probably your last opportunity for good, smooth and productive lands at $3 to $15 an acre.”
Yes, western Kansas was indeed the Promised Land back in 1905. Visions of this rich, smooth, fertile prairie becoming the breadbasket of the world were being heralded throughout the land.
Fields producing 20 to 45 bushels per acres with a test weight of 60 to 66 pounds per bushel were commonplace with never a thought given to extended periods of drought, blowing winds and soil. More than 100 years ago, western Kansas was indeed the new, undeveloped region where opportunities and advantages were limitless.
Examples of production costs including interest and taxes – but no mention of labor, toil and trial – totaled $874 to put in a wheat crop and harvest it on 160 acres. With a yield of 20 bushels per acre, at 60 cents per bushel, a farmer could gross $1,920. Net profit on 160 acres for one year and one wheat crop totaled $1,046. Quite a return in 1905.
This formula for success was sound. No need for argument. All that was required was for the farmer to till the soil properly and the elements would do the rest. However, no man should expect nature to do it all.
Welcome to the land of opportunity.
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.