Theodore Roosevelt and the “Tiller of the Soil”
The summer of 1886 on the Northern High Plains was marked by scorching heat and a prolonged drought that left the grasslands parched and denuded. The ensuing winter proved to be one of the most brutal on record, with Arctic cold and layers of snow and ice that buried what little forage remained on the prairie. The northern range, overstocked with cattle, could not sustain its livestock and the ensuing die-off devastated the ranches of those who had fueled the last cattle boom of the Nineteenth Century. One of those ranchers was Theodore Roosevelt, whose experience in the Badlands of western North Dakota from 1883 to 1887 informed his policy choices and his knowledge of the challenges facing farmers and ranchers in the American West during his presidency.
Roosevelt’s presidency between 1901 and 1909 brought a range of benefits and support to American farmers, whom Roosevelt referred to as “tillers of the soil.” The Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902, which provided for a series of dams and irrigation canals in the arid states of the West, garnered Roosevelt’s support precisely because he knew firsthand the importance of securing water needed to sustain agriculture in areas where annual rainfall was limited. Three million acres of land came under cultivation from this initiative. Roosevelt knew that passage in 1906 of the Pure Food and Drug Act and legislation providing for federal oversight of meatpacking operations not only protected consumers but insured that stock growers and farmers would not be punished because of the carelessness of the companies that processed their products. In 1908, the last full year of his presidency, Roosevelt created the Country Life Commission to study the life and conditions of the nation’s farmers rather than their crops.
Roosevelt benefitted from the steady hand of Iowa’s James Wilson, who headed the Department of Agriculture for the entirety of Roosevelt’s term, and who still holds the record as the longest serving cabinet officer in American history (1897-1913). Roosevelt, in keeping with long-standing Republican policy, largely maintained the tariffs that protected the nation’s farmers from overseas competition. Roosevelt’s close friendship with famed journalist William Allen White of Kansas kept him well informed on the political and economic conditions prevalent in the nation’s heartland. Increases in the number of farms, land values and crop prices marked Roosevelt’s tenure and no doubt contributed to his overwhelming election victory in 1904.
When addressing crowds of farmers, as he did innumerable times during his western tour of 1903, Roosevelt couldn’t help but applaud them for raising something other than wheat and cattle: “But of all your crops I like the children best,” he stated. With six children of his own, Roosevelt relied on the forty-seven acres of farmland surrounding his Long Island, New York home, Sagamore Hill, to supply his table. As the nation’s foremost proponent and practitioner of what he called “the strenuous life,” it should come as no surprise to learn that Roosevelt would help with the summer ritual of gathering hay. Through the years Roosevelt enjoyed the harvest of Sagamore Hill’s farm, as witnessed by his increasing resemblance to the stuffed teddy bears created in his honor.
Although Roosevelt’s presidency is most associated with his “big stick” naval diplomacy and his unprecedented conservation achievements (setting aside 230 million acres of national parks, monuments and forests), his administration did undertake sincere efforts to expand the ranks of farmers in the West, secure markets and raise awareness of the everyday challenges faced by the tillers of the soil.
A graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead and the University of Notre Dame, Duane Jundt is a historian and former college professor who lives amidst the rolling corn and soybean fields of northwest Iowa. A frequent speaker at state and national parks and nature centers, he is a member of the Advisory Board of the Theodore Roosevelt Association and one of the authors of Theodore Roosevelt, Naturalist in the Arena (University of Nebraska Press, 2020).