Ups and Downs: Only one major downturn in Lewistown's boom-and-bust history

By: 
JIM DULLENTY
Special to the News-Argus
Crowds gather for Circus Day in Lewistown.

Although there have been periodic ups and downs in the economies of Lewistown and Fergus County, records show that such booms and busts, for the most part, have not been as great as many imagine.  

Because Lewistown's downtown has an unusual number of vacant stores, there is worry this signifies an economic recession locally.  But history shows Lewistown has been there before and always came out of it.

Population is not the only bell-weather of prosperity, but it is one indication.  The latest U. S. Census figures show Lewistown's population at 5,874.  This compares with 6,051 in 1990, 7,104 in 1980, 6,437 in 1970, 5,874 in 1940, 6,120 in 1920 and 1,096 in 1900.

The Lewistown Democrat-News in 1927 claimed a population in Judith Basin of 40,000.  But that included Harlowton and Roundup.  And in 1930, the Census Bureau said Lewistown's population was at 5,358, so the newspaper's estimate may have been an exaggeration.

The Lewistown Daily News put the town's population at 10,750 in 1961, saying this was based, in part, on hookups to the energy and telephone companies.  But the Census Bureau put Lewistown's population at 7,408 in 1960, so the Daily News may have stretched things a bit.

The failure of population figures to show much of a boom or bust in Lewistown's 132-year history is explained by Ted Murray, who was born here and has lived here most of his 83 years.

“Lewistown is unique,” said Murray.  “When real hard times come they don't seem to hurt us much.  But then when there are real good times it doesn't seem to help us all that much.”

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, recessions were called “panics.”  The country experienced a panic in 1873, but since Lewistown got its start in 1884 – when the post office here was named “Lewistown” – the 1873 panic did not affect the town.

According to Robert Dissly's “History of Lewistown,” there were no financial institutions in or around Lewistown until 1887.  The nearest banks were at White Sulphur Springs and Fort Benton. In 1887, the Bank of Fergus County was chartered. It was destroyed by fire in 1904,  rebuilt and then, in 1917, moved into the Montana Building.  After this bank was started, other banks soon followed.

Crashing wheat prices were partially responsible for the Panic of 1893.  President Grover Cleveland, however, felt the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was to blame.  The impact of this financial trouble on Montana is detailed in a report published by George Mason University in 2013.

While the panic severely affected Montana, there is little information on its impact in Central Montana.

The Montana Historical Society has records for only four banks in Montana during this period so it is difficult to tell the impact of the 1893 panic on our area.

There is much more information on the next big boom and bust – caused by the influx of  homesteaders.  Ben Steel, a Billings artist, once told a Lewistown audience his family just up and walked away from their homestead near Roundup.  They walked all the way to Billings where Ben's father got a job.

Several banks were operating by the time of  Lewistown and Fergus County's greatest boom .  The homestead boom got its start in the late 19th century but was given a boost by the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909, which allowed larger homesteads. In 1912, the act was amended to reduce the time needed to prove up property and it allowed the owner to be away for five months.

The impact of these decisions is discussed by George Mueller in an essay published in the Dissly book.

Mueller said that by 1910 there were at least a dozen land offices in Lewistown promoting homesteading. Between 1900 and 1920, almost six million acres were settled in the district.  In 1917, the United States entered World War I and farm prices skyrocketed.  But by that year, the boom was subsiding in Lewistown, Mueller said.

Things only got worse.  By 1920, Central Montana was in a severe drought. Mueller said that in 1924, all Lewistown banks failed.  To their credit, he said, Basin State Bank at Stanford and First National Bank (now Farmers State Bank) of Denton remained open. 

 

According to Murray, the moisture did not return in sufficient quantity for good crops until the late 1930s.  Murray's family lost their farm.

“My grandfather, Thomas R. Murray, had immigrated from Scotland and in 1883, he homesteaded near Hobson.  He kept adding more and more land in hopes of having enough acreage for his four sons,” Murray said.

Then came the grasshoppers and the drought and the senior Murray gave up.  In 1924, he moved to Moore, and later to Lewistown.

Ted Murray's father, Joseph A. Murray, and two brothers stayed on the farm trying to make a go of it, said Murray.  But Meadowbrook Farm, as it was called, was taken by the bank in the late 1920s. Murray's father was so distressed  he would never go back, his son said.

In the 1930s, the older Murray men worked wherever they could find a job, even with the Works Project Administration (WPA).  Joseph Murray worked for Fergus County until 1943, when the family moved to Great Falls for two years during World War II.

Ted Murray remembers those years when his mother sewed patches on patches and there would sometimes be as many as six kids in a bunk bed. 

“I always wondered how my mother fed all those people,” said Murray.  “We had uncles who would bring us chickens and meat and spuds.  In those days, everyone helped everyone else.

“Nobody had any money.  We didn't go anywhere.  A big trip was out to the White Dairy on Joyland Road.”

Hard times continued following the 1920 drought and the mid-1920s bank failures.  In 1929, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression set it. Murray and others say the turn around did not occur until the late 1930s and early 1940s.

While the 1930s were hard times, many who lived through them said they thought it was normal for people not to have money.  Those who managed to hang onto their farms were better off than many city dwellers because farmers could raise huge gardens and they had meat from beef, pork and chickens. They had eggs, milk, butter and cheese.

As the late Tony Arthur, who grew up on a farm near Winifred, put it, “We didn't have much, but we ate good.”

Although Murray was too young to remember the homestead bust, he was in Lewistown for the next big boom – the Boeing boom.  It began in 1960 and hit its peak in 1961 and 1962, according to the Roberta Donovan's book, “The First Hundred Years.-- A History of Lewistown, Montana.” Boeing and its contractors were here to build missile silos around the area and put missiles in them.

Murray maintains there never was a “bust” after that boom.  But by the late 1960s, things had returned to normal in Lewistown.

“I was selling cars during the Boeing boom and I never made so much money before or since,” said Murray.  “The finance company would finance anyone wanting to buy a car.”

He explained that although the Boeing contractor left, Boeing itself and the U. S. Air Force came and the good times continued.  Then the Air Force built a radar station on Judith Peak and that helped the economy. 

The Donovan book said of a total work force employed on the Minuteman Missile project, 3,100 people, 640 were Boeing employees.

There have been minor booms and busts since 1900, ones in 1907 and 1914.  And then, from 1999 to 2007, Central Montana experienced a drought although it was not too severe. There was a national recession in 2008-2009, when the housing market collapsed.  But it is difficult to tell what impact this had locally.

Murray isn't too worried about the empty storefronts on Main Street.  He agrees with Duane Ferdinand, city planner, who noted that people are buying on the Internet.  So retailers will have to change their way of thinking, Murray said.

“We'll probably always have some empty store fronts, but we'll fill some of them.  The new art district may help with that,” Murray said.  “We also are fortunate to have big companies here like Century, Spika, Hi Heat and others who are big employers.

“ At the moment we have more jobs than workers.  That's not a recession,” Murray said.

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