Yellowstone County MTGenWeb

Yellowstone County Biographies

Thomas D. Campbell

[Campbell Farming Corporation-Hardin, MT]


Revised 20 June 2001c


Thomas Campbell was born in a North Dakota sod hut in1882, son of a Scottish farmer who came to America (via Canada) to introduce steam power farming to the Red River Valley area. This method of farming so intrigued Thomas that he set a goal to become the biggest farmer in the valley using that concept. A goal that he exceeded. He earned both a bachelor and master degree from the University of North Dakota, studied for a year at Cornell, and obtained a doctorate of engineering from USC. He was six feet tall and greatly respected by all. He was a general in WWII and received the Legion of Merit in 1945 for originating the “fire bomb” used by the military in Japan. He is noted for having sold a million-dollar wheat crop in 1924.

He married Bess Bull, daughter of the ‘Cream of Wheat’ founder, and took her to California in 1912 for health reasons.  There he grew beans and did construction work to earn a living. He planned to enlist in WWI, and was asked to grow wheat on the coast of Africa to help support the war effort. He countered with an offer to grow wheat on Indian Reservation land instead, and was offered a ten-year option for Montana and Wyoming farming. He was to be paid 1/10th of the crop for the first five years, then 1/5th for the remaining years. Campbell met with J. P. Morgan and secured a $2,000,000 loan to start farming 200,000 acres on the Crow Indian Reservation north of the Big Horn River. He purchased more than 300 farm machines and 500 plow bottoms, including ten trucks, 33 tractors, 10 binders, and 100 wagons to haul grain.

In 1917 he broke 7,000 acres, had 50,000 acres cultivated by 1920, and soon thereafter had 95,000 acres plowed. He planted only half of the land at any one time. The harvest was typically 55-bushels per acre during the early years with a 15-inch annual rainfall. He attributed his success to the sequencing of fallow and planting. The money garnered from J. P. Morgan represented ‘Eastern’ money, and the investors wanted out after WWI was over. This allowed Thomas to gain control of the capital stock, and had 50,000 acres planted. Crews were working 16-hour days plowing, discing, and planting. His workers received bonuses during harvest time. He once reaped 700,000 bushels in 114 days, had 35 bushels per acre from 20,000 acres in 1957, and in 1958, he reaped 510,000 bushels. Being under government contract, he received hefty checks for his effort. In 1954, he received $430,691. Not all years were so good. Between 1929 and 1934, he lost $600,000.  He was a life-long Republican, excepting when wheat sold for $0.14 per bushel during those years.  He was then a New Dealer.

Thomas advised two presidents on adopting a two-price wheat policy, giving full parity on domestic sales and letting growers take their own chances in the foreign market. He asked President Eisenhower to have the government place liens on lands of any farmer not using conservative practices. He made frequent trips to Russia as a consultant in the ‘Five Year Plan’ following WWI. Russian agricultural experts visited him in 1929, and again in August 1958. In 1958, he was using 50 combines and 65 trucks to harvest 60,000 bushels of wheat per day. In 1941, he went to England to assist their government mechanize farms and increase production. He joined the Air Corps in WWII as a colonel, and for 4-1/2 years served in the maintenance and operation of ground vehicles at the personal request of General George C. Marshall. He rose to Brigadier General, and later received appointment as a reserve officer on the general staff working as a liaison officer in Washington, D. C. for the Air Force commanders in four theatres of operation.

In the mid 1940’s Thomas obtained 512,000 acres of sagebrush and mesquite land near Albuquerque, NM to further assist in the war effort. Here he provided the capital, while sheepherders and cattlemen provided time and labor on a 50-50 basis. Later, after the war, he procured war surplus machinery and opened the first cement plant in the area, operated by service veterans on a profit-sharing basis.

During a Presidential inaugural in Washington in 1953, a radio announcer at first failed to recognize the name Thomas Campbell, who had earlier admitted to being the world’s largest wheat grower. When he told the announcer that he farmed 85,000 acres in Montana, the man was without words!


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Katy Hestand
Yellowstone County Coordinator

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