Rural Infrastructure and Dalrymple Farms

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Photographs: North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies

In order of appearance: sh2012P039, US Indexed County Land Ownership Maps (, rs000976, rs005651, rs000630014, rs005710, rs000988, rs005655, rs005650, shA4263, rsL00007, rsL00008

Narration: Laura Egland

Shanty Claims

Image of a tar paper shack with people in front of it. There are four women, one is holding a pail, another is holding a broom. There are three men, one is crouched down with a small child, and another in seated in a buggy harnessed to a horse. There are six young children, one is seated in a chair, and three are holding onto puppies. Behind the buggy is a sod building.
[rs000832 – North Dakota State Univeristy Archives]

Shanties were the next standard of living for small-scale farmers in the Red River Valley area. Claim shanties were also a new trend in living structures because they were essentially mobile homes. Because of their mobility, settlers would be able to live for an extended period of time to claim land and move to claim more when they had reached the time limit.

Because the railroad reached the settlers on a frequent basic materials such as tar paper, and lumber arrived frequently. These materials were available to the settlers to build claim shanties. This was the beginning of frame shelter building, after sod homes,  in the rural Fargo area. Claim shanty farmers continuously populated the area between 1870-1885.[1]

Shanties were built directly on dirt ground with no foundation. “Shanty walls consisted of studs, horizontal boxing, and a layer of tarpaper held on with lath.”[2] Shanty shacks were a nicer seeming housing structure but were hardly a match for North Dakota weather. The shanties were difficult to keep warm in the winter and acted as hot boxes in the summer. [3]Tar paper was often used on shanty shacks or as temporary structures of their own. It was a waterproof tar/paper mixture that acted as a shelter sealant for shanty structures of simply temporary tar paper shacks. Once shanty farmers earned enough capital in the area they were about to begin constructing wood frame houses.

Jenna Clawson, Digital History

[1]  Dalrymple, John S. “Setting for Dalrymple’s Bonanza”, Oliver Dalrymple and His Bonanza 1984 , p. 129.

[2] Czajka, Christopher. “The Little Old Shanty on the Claim: Creating a Home on the Frontier” Public Prairie.

[3] Ibid.

Sod Homes

While large-scale farming was the major goal of the Northern Pacific Railroad and its successors, small scale-farming was in full swing. Immigrants and settlers from other parts of the Eastern United States moved westward to claim land along the Northern Pacific way. Many of the smaller farmers who came to the Red River Valley claimed land and built sod homes. Resources in the Red River Valley were sparse on the open frontier and sod was one of the only readily-available building resources for people, mostly immigrants, with limited income.

Because the first settlers claimed the limited land by the river, the flood of settlers that came later were reliant on the prairie and used sod as their primary building material. Sod houses were built by plowing up segments of prairie held together by the system of roots from the prairie. The roots of grasses and other plants would hold the sod strips together. Through stacking and molding these strips, walls were built up to create a one roomed home. The walls of an average sod home would have been about five feet to seven feet tall. “The first block of sod was laid grass side down…Subsequent blocks were also laid grass side down and the grass acted as a sealant…to seal sod to sod.”[1] Generally, when people were building sod houses they would stick together beams and rails with mud, grass, bison hair, etc., and lay it across the roof before covering it in sod.[2] Many family members could live in one sod home that averaged 12×20 feet in size.[3] In order to expand a sod home after it has been built, lean-tos were often added as extra rooms.[4]

Railroad expansion in this era also meant that more materials arrived daily for settlers in the area. Sod homes were a stable enough structure for families to survive and it was a form of building that was familiar to immigrants and other settlers alike. People began to abandon sod homes, however, for structures such as a claim shanties or tar paper shacks.

– Jenna Clawson, Digital History, 2012

[1] Bachelor, Rosemary. E. “Sod Houses of Pioneers on the Prairie” Suite 101, American History, 2009.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Midwest Historical and Genealogical Register, North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies (NDIRS), Vol. 24, No. 2, 1989.

[4] Bachelor, Rosemary. E. “Sod Houses of Pioneers on the Prairie” Suite 101, American History, 2009.

Oliver Dalrymple

Oliver Dalrymple poses for a formal portrait wearing a dark suit and tie. 1880s
[sh2012P039: North Dakota State University]

One of the most well-known Bonanza farmers in the area during the late nineteenth century is Oliver Dalrymple. Dalrymple owned his own land and managed large-scale farms in the area. He is known as one of the most successful wheat farm growers of the area. He established the first large-scale farm in the Red River Valley. He helped draw population into Fargo as his farms required laborers.

In order to sell the land in large quantities and to maximize profits, the railroad advertised land to people of great wealth. General George W. Cass and Benjamin P. Cheney purchased land in 1874 approximately twenty miles west of Fargo.[1] There were ten sections purchased with their bonds ($110) that resulted in 11,520 acres.[2] After establishing the first large-scale land ownership in the Red River Valley, a successful wheat grower was needed to make the area one of success.[3] Oliver Dalrymple was selected to manage Cass-Chaney Bonanza.

After a successful bout of farming and when the “capital investment was returned from profits” the farm land was divided 50-50. Cass, Cheney, Grandin, and Dalrymple owned 69,000 acres of land near Fargo.[4] Dalrymple’s bonanza farm attracted many immigrants, laborers and workers to the area, and Oliver decided to rapidly expand his enterprise beyond the initial acreage.

Successful bonanza farms, like Dalrymple’s, often absorbed smaller farms around them as time went on. A typical bonanza farm included many workers, cooks, managers, and more. A typical workers chart is as follows: April, 150 men, seeding. May1 – July15th 20-50 men, Preparation. July15 – 30, 100 men, Haying. August1 – September 15, 250 men Harvest. September 15 – November 1, 75 men, Plowing. November 1 – April 1, 10 men, Maintenance.[5]

His specific bonanza farm consisted of at least three managers plus himself to run his bonanza farm business successfully.[6] Dalrymple was a successful bonanza farmer here after and it is noted that he even received a visit from President Hayes in 1879 during one of the finest harvests.[7]

-Jenna Clawson, Digital History 2012

[1] Dalrymple, John S. “Setting for Dalrymple’s Bonanza”,  Oliver Dalrymple and His Bonanza 1984 , p. 7.

[2] Coulter, NDSHS, Collections, Vol. III p. 570.

[3] Dalrymple, John S. “Setting for Dalrymple’s Bonanza”,  Oliver Dalrymple and His Bonanza 1984 , p. 8.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dalrymple, John S. “Life of a Bonanza Laborer”, Oliver Dalrymple and His Bonanza 1984 , p.139.

[6]  Dalrymple, John Stewart. Oliver Dalrymple, Bonanza Farmer ,  Minneapolis 1960, p.46.

[7] Ibid, p. 44.

Bonanza Farming West of Fargo

Dalrymple Farm: 1870s crew and house.
Twenty-six men, two women, and one child in front of a one and a half story, wood frame house. Agriculture, work life on a typical Bonanza Farm.
[rs005651: North Dakota State University Archives]

Wood frame houses in the rural area are most prominently known to have existed on large-scale bonanza farms. Beginning in 1875, these farms were acquired through railroad bonds

One of the most widely known bonanza farmers in the area during the late 1800s was Oliver Dalrymple, who owned his land and also managed other large-scale farms in the area. He is known as one of the most successful wheat farm growers of the area. He established the first large-scale farm in the Red River Valley and was highly successful.

When Dalrymple moved to North Dakota with his family, there was no available housing. His family survived in makeshift housing, and he eventually built a wood frame house. After Dalrymple was financially stable and ready to permanently settle in the area, he built another wood frame house. “Various additions of dubious architectural value” were added to the sturdy wooden frame house over the years.[1]

Accessible water was one of Dalrymple’s goals for the rural house. He sunk 30-foot wells around the house and drinking water was available. The Dalrymple household relied on rainwater barrels and coulees for water supply in the wetter seasons.[2]

Farm Hands, Dalrymple Farm
Between 1877-1889
Group of field workers posing for this picture in front of a barn at the Dalrymple Farm.
[shA4263 : North Dakota State University Archives]

In the photograph, a harvest group is shown in front of a wooden barn at Dalrymple farm in the late 1800s. The hired help stayed in barracks, but these would often be overrun with bedbugs. Often a better choice for the men was often to bunk in the barns.

Dalrymple had at least three managers plus himself to run his bonanza farm business successfully.[3] His success even brought him a visit from President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1879 during one of the finest harvests.[4]

-Jenna Clawson, Digital History 2012


More than twelve self-binder harvesting machines each pulled by four horses at the Dalrymple bonanza farm in the 1877 harvest. Bundles of wheat lay in field behind the horse-drawn binders. Two men standing to left side of print, and another on horseback watching.
[rs000989: North Dakota State University Archives]


[1] Dalrymple, John Stewart. Oliver Dalrymple, Bonanza Farmer ,  Minneapolis 1960, p.24.

[2] Ibid.

[3]  Ibid, p.46.

[4] Ibid, p. 44.