Dakota Datebook

Purebred Bulls from James J. Hill

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Today marks the death date of James J. Hill, the railway magnate who took a great interest in building up North Dakota. He died in 1916. One of the ways he helped the state develop was by promoting diversification on farms. Wheat had been the foundation of Dakota agriculture, and Dakota wheat flowed to flour mills on Hill’s Great Northern Railway, bringing great wealth to President Hill.

But Jim Hill told North Dakota’s farmers that they needed to diversify – to plant other crops that could replenish the soil; and to raise cattle and hogs and other livestock for the manure to fertilize fields. Hill believed that cultivating a single crop was “like trying to play the fiddle on one string . . . the music is not very good.”

In an 1885 letter to O.C. Carpenter of Inkster, James J. Hill wrote: “I do not believe that the farmers of North Dakota are doing the best thing for themselves by growing wheat exclusively” and he told Carpenter of his plan to distribute “one hundred thoroughbred bulls” in the region “with the idea of helping those who are unable to help themselves.”

Hill sent agents to Scotland to buy the very best Angus and Shorthorn bull-calves and shipped them to selected farmers to improve the quality of livestock in the Northwest. Among those in the Red River Valley who got a bull in June of 1885 was James E. Sullivan. Farmer Sullivan accepted the gift of a shorthorn bull named “Front Rank,” a one-year old, born in Scotland in 1884. Sullivan could have the bull, free of charge, for a “period of four years,” so the bull would father calves for a high-quality beef bloodline. All that Farmer Sullivan had to do was to “carefully attend” to the health and feeding of the high-class bull.

President Hill offered to give ten bulls to Traill County farmers that same year. How well did Mr. Hill’s bull distribution program work out? Well, he ended the free bulls program in 1890, because of the “ingratitude shown by the farmers generally,” for most of the bulls were sold and butchered and eaten when the farmers had a bad crop year.

Nonetheless, the purebred bulls that James J. Hill “sent out among the farmers” in the 1880s was a noble effort that “greatly increased the quality and value” of the beef cattle in North Dakota . . . and that’s ‘no bull.’


Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

SOURCES: Hill’s death on May 29, 1916:”J. J. Hill is Sinking; Death may be Soon, Report from Bedside,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, May 29, 1916, p. 1; “Death of James J. Hill Removes Financier, Builder of Railroads and Master Mind in Development of the Great Northwest Empire,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, May 30, 1916, p. 4.

Sullivan in Grand Forks Herald, June 26, 1885.

“Grand B.B. Distribution” Grand Forks Herald, June 20, 1885.

“Editorial Notes,” Grand Forks Herald, January 31, 1885.

“Business Men Enjoy Steaks of Blooded Steer,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, March 8, 1914, p. 1.

“James J. Hill Offers Some Good Advice To Ward County Farmers,” Ward County Reporter, September 30, 1909, p. 4.

“James J. Hill to O.C. Carpenter, Inkster, D.T.,” P.M. & M.RY Letterbook, 8, (2/14/1885-6/15/1888), p. 71, in James J. Hill Papers, James J. Hill Reference Library, St. Paul, MN.

“Lewis Bond to James J. Hill,” General Correspondence by Date, 28 December 1899, in James J. Hill Papers, James J. Hill Reference Library, St. Paul, MN.

“Bulls—Toomey to Anton Ziebl,” General Correspondence, 15 February 1899, in James J. Hill Papers, James J. Hill Reference Library, St. Paul, MN.


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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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