In 1920 there were 543,000 people in the state, putting us at 39th in the country.
By 1960 we had 674,767 people, putting us at 41st. By 1980 we’d fall to 44th. We remain there still.
It was the 1960 Census that showed more Montanans in cities than rural areas for the first time.
“Ever since the collapse of homesteading in 1920,” historian Michael P. Malone tells us, “the state’s rural areas have sadly watched their populations melt away.”
From 1960 to 1970, forty of the fifty-six counties in Montana lost population, a staggering amount.
By the 1990s, more than half of the state’s population was living in just seven counties – Yellowstone, Cascade, Missoula, Silver Bow, Flathead, Lewis and Clark, and Gallatin.
In 1960 Montana had 674,767 people split nearly evenly between urban and rural areas. By 1990 Montana had 799,065 people, with 56% living in urban areas and 44% living rurally.
During those 30 years Montana saw her population grow by over 124,000, with 90% of that growth happening in the urban areas. Real estate values of Montana farms went from $35 an acre in 1960 to $222 in 1990, an increase of 634%.
Irrigated land in the country was 25.6 million acres in 1950, a far cry from the 14 million the nation had known 20 years before. In 1930 farmers had made up 21% of the labor force but by 1950 they only made up 12%.
Farmers were declining in number and people were moving off of the land. Rural areas were losing population as family members that would have once stayed to work on the farm moved away.
In previous decades they’d been content to work in town. Now they were moving to nearby cities or even across the country, looking for new opportunities.
In 1985 the Milwaukee Road closed, one of the state’s major railroads. “Its depots became restaurants,” historian David Emmons tells us, “also since failed.”
This had a dramatic effect on the eastern portion of the state, as Emmons notes:
“Between 1960 and 1970, thirty-nine of Montana’s fifty-six counties lost population. Most of those thirty-nine were in the wheat and cattle country in the eastern part of the state. All told, the rural farm population fell from 175,707 in 1940 to 88,460 in 1970 to under 80,000 in 1990.”
We also know that rural counties cost more to govern. In 1981-82 it cost $745 per capita to administer to the population’s needs in counties with less than 2,000 people and just $293 for counties with more than 100,000 people.
The Effect of Schools on the Rural Mindset
This system said that from now on all Montana’s children would be educated, regardless of where they lived or if that particular county was doing well enough to create the tax money to fund the educations of its young.
“By passing the law,” Malone writes, “Montana committed itself to underwriting the education of all its needy children,” and this system is still in place today.
Montanans might have been committed to education, but they bridled at its costs. A large part of this cost was the number of schools and the number of school districts. Montana’s long distances could be blamed for this.
While it’s true there were twenty-four school dormitories in Montana in 1920 for school children that lived too far from school, just 239 students lived in them.
Because Montana’s population was so spread out, schools would have to be too, and that drove up costs, something that drove down the available money in a farmer’s pocket.
The trend to shutter school districts and close schools became frustrated by the teacher unions in the state. Despite the lack of demand for their services, these unions were not going to allow anything that might erode their power to come about.
Ironically, this intransigent attitude did more to cement the idea into the minds of rural residents that school districts and teachers unions were bad than anything else.
After all, when you see your taxes going to something that’s clearly unnecessary – and any drive down the modern roads past the small school tells you that – what are you supposed to think?
Many rural residents started to think of mismanagement and government waste, and they were quick to tell anyone their thoughts. In a state where distances are long and conversation short, topics quickly move from the weather to the nature of politics and taxes and money.
Montanans are quick to listen to such, eager to hear if their own concerns are being voiced. When they are, and they invariably are between neighbors on back roads when they pull over and roll down windows, they’re also quick to nod their head and put in an approving ‘uh-huh’ or ‘aye.’
This emboldens speakers to speak more, and that’s how politics in rural areas goes from leaning toward a New Deal liberalism to a strong state’s rights conservatism.
Perhaps it’s not always in their best interests, but then Washington wasn’t always working in their best interests as the decades wore on.
By 1970 Montana had reduced its total number of school districts to 740, of which 574 were elementary school districts and 166 were high school districts.
By 1990 there were just 374 elementary districts, a rate of decline of 10 a year for two decades. It took a century, but Montana’s schools were finally decreasing in number.
Mental Health Aspects of Rural Counties
Carl F. Kraenzel did several studies on the affects of Montana’s rural isolation on individuals in a report called “Extra-Ordinary Individualism as a Social Cost Related to Mental Illness” in 1958.
Kraenzel worked with another man named A’Delbert Samson and put out another report called “Mental Illness in Montana,” issued in the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin.
Both reports make it clear that rural areas can be problematic. When they studied patients at the state’s mental health hospital in Warm Springs, they concluded that “the open country areas contributed considerably more to the hospital population than the other areas of the state.”
Furthermore, they concluded that eastern Montana’s low population counts have led to “social disorganization” that has “contributed to the creation of mental health problems and complicated the treatment process.”
So what do these mental health problems look like, exactly? Kraenzel describes a common Montanan with a mental health issue as:
“His aggressive acquisitiveness, his inability to delegate responsibility and authority, his lack of regard for others, including even his own children, his domineering manner with family and all others, his hanging–on and demanding the help of his family without regard for their needs, his refusal to discuss problems or even recognize problems, his apparent inability to consider anyone and to serve only his own interest to acquire – all these seem to be extra-ordinary in degree.”
The people that live in those communities are characterized as lacking opportunities in a new world that requires them to dramatically readjust “to meet new technological developments.”
Coupled with “out-migration” of many friends, family and community members, and these individuals develop a level of “personal disorganization.”
On top of this, “individuals unable to cope with their situation had little opportunity to receive professional help.”
The Mill: A Serious Tax Burden for Rural Counties
When a county or a school decides to put forth a mill levy to raise additional money for a building or prolonged government services, that $1,930 is taken into account.
A mill is worth one-tenth of a cent. So if you had $50,000 in property you’d pay $1.93 extra that year for a new mill levy.
That’s just not going to get a local government or a school very far, now is it?
That’s why you often see several mills bundled together. For instance, if there were 40 mills then that $1.93 would turn into $77.20 very fast. And don’t forget you still have to pay your usual $1,930.
Plus, many Montanans have more than $50,000 in property.
If they had a $200,000 home, for instance, then their annual tax burden jumps to $7,720 and that one extra mill levy comes out to $7.72. If we go with the 40 mills, however, that extra tax that year comes to $308.80.
Another factor is a well-off, populous county vs. a poor, rural county, for they nearly always break down that way. People in poorer counties often have to pay three times as much for mill levies than do those in rich counties.
Over time this has bred resentment for taxes in the rural areas and that’s been reflected in the legislature’s makeup, something that leads to fewer taxes, fewer government services, and an overall continuation of the vicious and downward cycle that so many Montana counties have been on for decades now.
You can understand why seniors and those on fixed incomes dread the Montana property tax and absolutely abhor any kind of property tax increase.
We discussed all this in my last two books on Montana history…as the 16 people that bought those books know.