Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Burl Noggle


Encouraged by the Enlarged Homestead Act, higher than average rainfall, and various boosters, thousands of Americans homesteaded in Montana and the northern Great Plains during the 1910s. The agricultural economy boomed during World War I, but the post-war contraction during the 1920s, coupled with drought, caused serious economic problems for farmers. In response to the problems in the agricultural economy, a Land Utilization movement emerged, led by agricultural economists such as Lewis C. Gray. Land utilizationists believed that a readjustment of land use would correct the problems in the agricultural economy. Toward that end they sought changes in federal land policy, especially on the Great Plains, because of the problems caused by cultivating submarginal land--land that could not consistently raise crops. Federal land laws, including the Homestead Act, had all but guaranteed that land on the plains would not be put to its best use. The situation worsened during the Great Depression and subsequently, under the New Deal, many of the ideas of the Land Utilization movement came to fruition. During the mid-1930s, the federal government made dramatic changes to land policy, ending the homestead movement and initiating a Land Utilization Program that repurchased failed submarginal farmland and created a new public domain. The program purchased more than 11 million acres, including nearly 100,000 acres in Fergus County, Montana. Through the purchase of submarginal agricultural land and the conversion of that land to grazing, the Land Utilization Program contributed to the stabilization of the agricultural economy in Fergus County. In part because of the implementation of the ideas of the Land Utilization movement, grazing increased, wheat farming decreased, and farms got larger and more diversified. The influence of the movement is also reflected in land classification and planning efforts. Ultimately, the new policies signified a deeper shift in the role of government as the government relinquished its trust of individual landowners to protect and maintain the country's land resources.