May 24, 2018

Campbell Farming Co. and the "Wheat King of the World"

by Kelly Burton, Film Archivist



Machinery in the Campbell Farming Co. fields (collection PAc 91-86)
The life of agriculturalist Thomas D. Campbell was largely defined by the merging of farming practices with those of large-scale business. Born in Grand Forks, North Dakota, Campbell applied his engineering education to the mechanizing of a 95,000-acre wheat farm on land leased from the Crow and Fort Peck reservations in Montana. As special adviser to the Soviet government in 1929, he assisted in the agricultural development of 10 million acres as part of Joseph Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan. Campbell subsequently served as a farming advisor to the British government and to the French government in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. He entered the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel in World War II at the age of sixty and was later named as a permanent brigadier general of the honorary U.S. Army Reserve by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Montana historian Joseph Kinsey Howard described Campbell as the “acknowledged ‘wheat king of the world’ and one of the most theatrical figures in public life” in 1949, stating that “praise and castigation have been equally intemperate and few have been able to make sense out of his complex character.” (1)



Thomas Campbell (left) greeting a farm visitor at the train station (collection PAc 91-86)
As a pioneer of industrialized corporate farming in the early decades of the twentieth century, Thomas Campbell distinguished his Hardin, Montana farming business by producing more wheat than any other. He expressed his approach to agriculture in the June 1928 issue of The Magazine of Business: “Farming should be considered as a manufacturing business, with a proper record of costs and a constant endeavor to reduce these costs. (2) There is no doubt but that the greatest industrial opportunity in the United States today is in agriculture and the biggest opportunity for the technical college man is in agricultural engineering. Some day there will be a farming organization comparable in size to United States Steel or General Motors, for food is the most necessary commodity of all.” (3)


Battling a straw stack fire at Campbell Farming Co. (collection PAc 91-86)
 The films that comprise the Montana Historical Society’s Campbell Farming Co. collection were shot between the mid-1920s and the early-1930s, and they demonstrate what Campbell considered one of his major contributions to industrial agriculture: the windrow method of harvesting. Doug Edwards, a Campbell Fellow researching in the MHS Archives, described Campbell’s orchestration of large-scale activities for the cameras: “The sequence of starting the combines, cutting the grain, and making a turn gives the impression of manufacturing precision: the farm as a factory. Campbell’s use of the movies to advertise his farming operations demonstrates his ability as a promoter. The ‘enginemen’ operated the tractors and combines in precise sequence for the cameraman, and Campbell had the cameraman focus on specific steps of the operation when he demonstrated his windrow method.” (4) In addition to recording harvesting activities, the films show other day-to-day operations such as the modification and repairing machinery in the company shop and battling the occasional fire in the farm’s straw stacks. Campbell can be seen throughout these films, greeting guests at the nearby Montana train station, eating lunch with his field crew, and traveling around the farm in his Stutz-Bearcat convertible.


Farmers in Russia (collection PAc91-86)
 While the primary function of the Campbell Farming Co. films was the promotion of industrialized and mechanized agricultural practices, Campbell also used the motion picture camera to document more personal moments with his wife and children. His daughters can be seen enjoying several outdoor activities in these reels, riding horses on their father’s Montana farm and visiting what is presumably the Columbia Gardens amusement park in Butte. Several members of the Campbell family also accompany the agriculturalist on his return consultation trip to Russia in 1930. Footage from this excursion shows the family making the ocean voyage, visiting various ports of call, and engaging with locals as they travel to farm sites across the Soviet Union.


Campbell's daughters on the Campbell Farming Co. property (collection PAc 91-86)
The Campbell Farming Co. films were donated to the Montana Historical Society by Phoebe Knapp Warren, Thomas Campbell’s granddaughter, on September 4, 1991. Originally shot by both Campbell and a larger production crew on 35mm cellulose nitrate film, the deteriorating and hazardous reels were transferred to new polyester stock in the late 1990s with the help of a Cultural/Aesthetic Project grant funded by the Montana Cultural Trust Fund. VHS copies of the films were created during the transfer to new stock, and these cassettes are available for viewing in the Historical Society’s Research Center.

Film production assistant with Campbell (front, center) and his work crew (collection PAc 91-86)

  1.  Joseph Kinsey Howard, “Tom Campbell: Farmer of Two Continents,’ Harper’s Magazine, March 1949: 56.
  2. Thomas D. Campbell, “What the Farmer Really Needs,” The Magazine of Business, June 1928: 725.
  3. Ibid. 752.
  4. MHS vertical file, Campbell Farms.


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