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100 Years: A History of the Land and its People

Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota celebrate Centennials during 1989.

August 1, 1989

100 Years: A History of the Land and its People

Three states in the Federal Reserve's Ninth District—Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota—celebrate their centennials during 1989.

The history of these three states, like most of the Upper Midwest, is as much a history of the land as it is a recollection of people, places and events.

Today, while the Ninth District's western states commemorate 100 years of statehood, they also look warily to the next 100. Although the world may always need grain, timber, minerals and oil, the states have learned that markets are fickle, and today's boom could be tomorrow's bust. Likewise, when the states celebrate their bicentennials in 2089, their economic condition may well depend on how successfully they have diversified from their land-based origins.

As the Bismarck (N.D.) Tribune editorialized on the occasion of the state's 50th anniversary, with words also applicable to Montana and South Dakota:

"On anniversaries such as this, it is the custom to dwell fulsomely on the glories and triumphs, to ignore the problems and handicaps. But to do so now would be to display either ignorance or cowardice. Our past shows much of which to be proud—and some things for which we need to apologize. But the future will be what we make it ...

"We want no more ghost towns, no more villages slowly slipping into decay. We want no more abandoned homesteads. We want a reasonable opportunity for our children. For too many of those 50 years we have been exporting our population. Children have been forced into the larger communities elsewhere to seek opportunity. We must give them their chance at home ...

"We need larger and more prosperous cities and towns. We can have them if we will.

"We need opportunity for our youth. It lies at hand, waiting to be developed."

Though 50 years old, those words could have been written today.

To appreciate the current challenges facing Montana and the Dakotas, it is important to understand the past. This summer, a symposium entitled "Centennial West"—sponsored by the Montana Historical Society and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities—was held in Billings, Mont., highlighting the centennials of six northern-tier states (Washington, Idaho and Wyoming also celebrate their centennials this year). Essays were presented by state historians focusing on the history, literature and art of those states. Following are excerpts of the essays for Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.

(The Region would like to thank the Montana Historical Society for permission to reprint the essays. The symposium will be repeated at selected locations in the three states between September and November. Call the Montana Historical Society at 406-444-4789 for more information.)