Dakota Datebook

Thomas D. Campbell

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Archibald Macleish once wrote, “The impact of Tom Campbell upon the grasslands of the Great Plains was the impact of the American passion for power, speed and the predictable machine.” Macleish was referring to Thomas D. Campbell, born in Grand Forks on February 19th, 1882. Campbell’s parents were wheat farmers, and it was in this field, so to speak, that Campbell earned the title of Wheat King. Campbell was farming and managing his family’s 4,000-acre farm by the time he was seventeen. In those days, it wasn’t all that common for farmers to go to college, and those who did usually attended the ND Agricultural College in Fargo. Not so with Tom Campbell; he went to school in his hometown, earning a masters degree in engineering from UND by the time he was 22. He then did some post-graduate work at Cornell University but didn’t finish until after World War I; he got his doctoral degree in engineering from the University of Southern California in 1929. During the war, Campbell served as a researcher of Native American lands for the U.S. Department of Interior. The war economy was causing food shortages, and Campbell became interested in leasing tribal lands that could be converted for growing crops. Campbell had been fascinated with machinery since childhood, and took his vision of large-scale mechanized farming to Washington, D.C. There, he persuaded federal officials to help him lease land on the Ft. Peck and Crow Indian Reservations in Montana. A group of New York financiers, led by J.P. Morgan, gave him a two million dollar loan, which he used to buy fifty plows, sixty seed drills and dozens of trucks and wagons. He also bought thirty-four Altman Taylor 35-horsepower tractors; each weighed 26,000-pounds, had 8-foot-high steel wheels, and could pull a plow, a disc, a seed drill, and a packer all at the same time. By 1919, Campbell had 45,000 acres under cultivation on the Crow Reservation near Hardin, but drought and low wheat prices scared off his New York backers. However, Campbell didn’t give up. Doing business as the Montana Farming Corporation, he kept plowing up more ground, and by the mid-1920s, Campbell had the world’s largest privately run wheat farm. From north to south, it stretched 42 miles, encompassing nearly 100,000 acres. Campbell had 250 men working for him, but it wasn’t until rain returned to Montana that the operation began turning a profit. An active republican, Campbell became an advisor to the U.S. government regarding land potential in the Southwest – New York industrialist John J. Raskob had partnered with Campbell to buy 400,000 acres of land in New Mexico in the 1930s and ‘40s. Campbell also researched Alaska’s strategic potential for the Secretary of Defense and served as an agricultural advisor for officials in Russia, Great Britain, France and the U.S. Campbell also stayed connected with the military throughout his life, rising to the rank of Brigadier General in the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II. At the time of his death, he was a General in the Air Force Reserves. Thomas Campbell died on this date in 1966 at the age of 84. One of his final requests was that his childhood home be saved and dedicated to the memory of pioneer women, in particular his mother, Almira Richards Campbell. The house is on the National Historic Register and can be toured on the grounds of the Grand Forks County Historical Society.


Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm


(Sources: Thomas D. Campbell Papers, Center for Southwest Research, General Library, University of New Mexico; Don Spritzer, 100 Most Influential Montanans of the Century (number 28), The Missoulian, 1999; Grand Forks County Historical Society) –


This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

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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