This year MSU Extension joins its counterparts across the country in celebrating the 100th birthday of Extension. From its beginnings, Extension has been intertwined with the histories of many Montana families. This is the story of one of them.
With just a dollar in his pocket and hunger burning in his belly, John Herzog made a decision that would alter the future of his family and help transform the plains of eastern Montana.
It was 1911, and Herzog, who immigrated to the United States from Switzerland, was headed West searching for opportunity.
Standing in the bustling streets of Miles City, nearly 1,000 miles short of his planned destination on the Washington coast, Herzog figured he had enough money for a room or for a meal. The grumbling in his stomach was relentless. He knew he might find a livery stable to sleep in for free. He chose breakfast.
Located near the intersection of the Tongue and Yellowstone Rivers, Miles City was, at the time, a busy transportation hub servicing competing railroads, a ferry and the well-known Glendive-Jordan Trail. Soldiers from nearby Fort Keogh, cattle ranchers and sheepherders lured by promises of grass-filled plains, and merchants operating shops, eateries and saloons, joined adventurers and entrepreneurs in the young community.
This was the backdrop as Herzog, a German-speaking native of Switzerland, sat in a restaurant and pondered what to do next. After cleaning his plate, he steeled his resolve and decided to be successful right there.
Herzog spent the next years feeding cattle at a local dairy, saving all he could. In 1915, in partnership with his brothers, Carl and Fritz, who had followed him from Switzerland, he purchased a ranch, and soon after purchased the Miles City Dairy, including a herd of more than 80 Holstein cows.
The Herzogs were officially in business.
Parents, Johannes and Anna, and two younger brothers, Rudolph and Theodore, soon followed. In 1919, John traveled to Schenectady, N.Y., to marry Elsa Eichenberger, whose family had also emigrated from Switzerland. They returned to Miles City where they would raise eight children. The opportunities were numerous, but the learning curve was steep.
The Extension Service begins in Custer County
At the same time John Herzog was establishing himself and his family in Custer County, what would be MSU Extension was also beginning to take shape.
The Agricultural College of the State of Montana had been launched in Bozeman in 1893. The Agricultural Experiment Station, which became a major division of the college, was established in the same year. On the national front, Congress worked to populate the West by offering free land through a series of Homestead Acts. Scientists at the college and with the Experiment Station conducted research into the issues facing rural Montanans, but the timely delivery of education related to that research was complicated by the enormity of the state and related communication challenges.
Settlers needed short, practical classes to teach them the latest techniques in agriculture, as well as how to improve their nutrition, build more comfortable homes, cultivate gardens and govern their expanding communities. Experiment Station staff was inundated with training and education requests while also charged with conducting meaningful research.
In response to requests of the state’s people, in 1913 the Montana Legislature created the Extension Department in the Division of Agriculture at what was then called Montana College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in Bozeman. The next year, on May 8, 1914, the U.S. Congress followed suit and passed the Smith-Lever Act, creating the Federal Extension Service. The act brought together national, state and county governments, as well as industry-related organizations, agricultural leaders and the people of the land to offer the largest outreach education program ever created. With it came assistance for families like the Herzogs in Miles City.
Wilson rises to top in Extension
In many ways, Miles City was at the heart of what was happening with Extension in Montana. M. L. Wilson, often recognized as the first Extension agent in Montana, was quickly dispatched from Bozeman to cover Custer and Dawson counties. At the time, this territory included roughly 40,000 square miles, more than 25 million acres. He was told by Fred S. Cooley, the first Extension director, that “your office will be chiefly under your hat.” And it was. Wilson spent most of his time with the people in fields and homes and town hall buildings. He offered wide-ranging bulletins and trainings on topics that included farm finance, rodent extermination, boys and girls club work, horticulture, livestock, crops, working farm associations and more. He established demonstration farms and worked tirelessly on questions of farm management and organization.
He was well suited to the challenge. A visionary who would rise quickly up the ranks of the organization, Wilson became the county agent leader in September 1914 and director of the newly formed Department of Agricultural Economics at MSC in 1925. In 1933, he left Montana for Washington D.C. and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. By 1940 he was the director of the Federal Extension Service. The impact he had on national agricultural policy was immense and formed some of the foundation of American agriculture that still exists today.
Herzogs and Extension work together
Meanwhile, the Herzog family and Extension worked side by side with their Custer County neighbors to help the community survive the tough times and even thrive. By the 1930s, John and his brother Carl provided leadership for several boards and committees.
From 1933–1936, drought was pervasive and with it came swarms of insects, threatening the entire agriculture industry. Ralph Mercer, Extension agronomist, described it like this: “Dust covered the sun for hours at a time. The grasshoppers and Mormon crickets by the millions were with us…and after finishing the crops, they worked on hoe handles, fence posts and buildings…Grass was gone, water holes dried up and every morning the sun came up hotter and brighter than before.”
Extension mobilized to coordinate available resources and to educate and inform farmers how to combat the insects. In 1933 alone, more than 500 meetings were held, and Extension trained 1,239 leaders, including the Herzogs, to extend the reach of information. Extension home demonstration agents also were deployed. They provided programming for the family that included canning and preserving foods, caring for poultry and eggs, prolonging the use of clothing and spending wisely.
During this time, and long after, John Herzog was deeply involved with projects related to irrigation and water reservoir development. Encouraged by Extension to think proactively and manage resources for expected cycles of drought, Herzog became an active member on the T-Y (Tongue-Yellowstone) Irrigation Board. He would serve on the board from 1932–1963. Beginning in 1936, he hosted Extension irrigation projects on his land. He later represented Montana on the Yellowstone River Compact Commission. Through the years, both John and Carl also worked with Extension and Fort Keogh on developing feed lots and feed lot systems.
Extension played a major role in informing the public and organizing efforts in support of World War II. In 1942, Montana Extension trained 2,356 men and 128 women to be community leaders that the Civilian Defense Commission then commissioned. They were trained to reach 90 percent of Montanans within a day or two’s drive and were critical to explaining price control, rationing programs and production goals.
Demand for Montana crops, livestock and industrial products skyrocketed. At the same time, more than 16 percent of the state’s population left to serve the war effort. Labor shortages were extreme. Thousands of German prisoners of war were transported to Montana, and many landed in Miles City. Extension was charged with putting them to work. Due to his command of the German language and respected position in the community, John Herzog became president of the Custer County Farm Labor Organization. He led training exercises and oversaw the deployment of prisoners of war to area farms to help with harvest.
The role of county Extension agents shifted significantly following the war. In 1946 Director Robert Tootell reported that “the dividing line between town and country was disappearing at a rapid rate.”
Agricultural efficiencies as a result of machinery and improved techniques made it possible for fewer people to work more land. Communities grew as families moved into towns to take advantage of education and services. Though agricultural work continued and remained a strong priority, Extension priorities expanded to include things like rural electrification and housing safety, as people updated homes and businesses with plumbing and electricity, and communities organized telephone cooperatives. Extension, organized on the county level, proved again that it was uniquely positioned to adapt to meet the needs of the people, while offering the latest research and science-based information.
In 1967, Paul Herzog took over the family ranch for his father, John. Paul and his wife, Myrtle, whose family homesteaded in nearby Ismay, raised nine children, putting all of them through 4-H. They continue to run the original ranch. Their daughter, Lori Linger, and her husband, Pat, run a cow-calf operation in the area, leasing grazing land from Paul and Myrtle. Two other children, Dan and Ted, and their families, also continue to live and work in Custer County.
Today, MSU Extension continues to be an active part of Custer County and the Miles City community. County agents Tara Andrews and Mike Schuldt conduct programs ranging from weed control and livestock quality assurance to food safety and preservation and financial planning to 4-H youth development. They participate on community boards and facilitate partnerships with various organizations.
John’s grandson, Ted Herzog, lives with his wife, Jodi, and three children on the original ranch. Both help support Paul and Myrtle, who are now 80 and still live on the property. Ted serves as chairman of the Livestock Committee and superintendent of swine livestock at the Custer County Fair. He works with Extension on questions related to crop rotation, animals on his dad’s grazing land and succession planning. Jodi supports all three kids with their 4-H projects and sports and school activities.
Ted credits his mother for the Herzog kids’ involvement with Extension. She was a committed 4-H leader for more than 25 years, putting him and his eight siblings through the program and instilling in them a commitment to civic duty.
“She not only raised us, but she also took in high school students from outlying areas who had a long commute into the local school,” Ted said. “In all, we figure about 30 different kids lived with us during the school week while we were growing up.”
That attitude of helping out when needed has been a fundamental part of the Herzog family and of MSU Extension for a century.
“I can’t imagine not having Extension,” said Ted. “There is always going to be a need. And there are always going to be people, like my family, who are willing to help out.” ■