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Magnificent Failure: A Portrait of the Western Homestead Era Paperback – February 20, 2002

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 200 pages
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press; 1 edition (February 20, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0804738874
  • ISBN-13: 978-0804738873
  • Product Dimensions: 10.5 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,651,240 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"The photos of homestead landscapes on these pages—structures, implements, fields, haystacks—speak of the work, hopes, and drought-battered lives of thousands of families."—Utah Historial Quartery

"Campbell gives us glimpses into real western history that is just beyond the fence line north of the highway or just three miles down a dusty back road, and he brings it to life so that we may all participate."—The Chronicles of Oklahoma

"A trained archaeologist and a gifted photographer, Campbell masterfully observes the materials the homesteaders left behind."—New Mexico Historical Review

"The book is a 'two thumbs up' and should have a place on your American history reference shelf."—North Dakota History

From the Inside Flap

In words that are as clean and precise as his haunting, starkly beautiful photographs, the author vividly recreates the life and times of the Western Homestead Era, that period beginning around 1885 when the prairie lands lying westward from the longitude of the western Dakotas became available to pioneering farmers. Some 70 black-and-white duotone photographs, with detailed captions, record the bleak landscapes and the abandoned farms, outbuildings, farm implements, and hand tools that are mute testimonies to the failed hopes of several million families who settled on these arid and semi-arid lands.
The author explains how their failure resulted from a deadly combination of natural and economic causes. Neither the federal government nor the homesteaders themselves were aware that some of the western homestead land was so dry that artificial irrigation often was required. But irrigation was unavailable to most of these farms, and many thousands of them failed within a few years. On most of the homestead lands, however, dry farming—by which crops are watered by falling rain and snow—permitted the newcomers to plant and reap a variety of crops. For several decades, these regions produced flourishing farms, towns, railroad lines, and dirt and gravel roads.
Meanwhile, and again unanticipated by both government and the prospering farmers, the climate of these productive regions was becoming increasingly dry. This was the natural phenomenon that culminated in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, which was coincidentally accompanied by the Great Depression. Crops went begging for lack of water, banks closed, railroads were abandoned, and the formerly prosperous homesteaders went broke by the several millions.
Historians of the Western United States have largely ignored the homesteaders. There is little romance in farming, especially when compared with that attached to cowboys, Indians, explorers, and fur traders. Still, the homesteaders were heroes in their own right. Theirs was the last great endeavor in the opening of the West, and this book, with its moving text, historical introduction, and stunning photographs, tells their story.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Ronald Scheer on June 8, 2003
Format: Paperback
This fine book of black and white photography and accompanying text portrays a period of Western development that flourished in the early 20th century and then died with the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. The author, an archaeologist by profession, has taken his camera to the states in the western Great Plains and the Great Basin of the Northwest and photographed the remains of homesteads that were once part of a thriving dry-land farming economy. There are photographs of abandoned farm houses, barns, schools, post offices, hotels, cemeteries, farm machinery and vehicles, and he has written a lengthy account of the period, based on research and personal interviews with descendants of homesteaders.
Today, where once stood prosperous farming communities joined by a network of roads and railways and served by a scattering of rural towns, fulfilling Thomas Jefferson's dream of a nation of small farmers, there is thinly populated ranchland, large hay fields, and expansive wheat growing operations. After decades of unusually high rainfall, these regions have returned to their normal arid conditions, which are unsuitable for dry-land farming. In some places, the prairie grass has reclaimed the land, obliterating evidence that the earth here was ever tilled. Only a few abandoned structures remain.
Campbell's photographs are fascinating and haunting. In many of them the vast sky looms overhead. Often in the distance there is a range of mountains, sometimes snow covered. The sunlight is bright and the shadows deep; the only signs of life are the grass and occasional trees. In all of them, the details are crisply focused, and where the landscape is flat and open, everything is sharply clear right to the horizon. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the West, images of the plains, and the history of homesteading.
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Format: Paperback
A range of collections, from those strong in Western history and culture to arts libraries featuring regional photographic histories, will find MAGNIFICENT FAILURE: A PORTRAIT OF THE WESTERN HOMESTEAD ERA to be a striking collection of black and white portraits documenting early buildings, tools, and equipment of the period beginning around 1885, when pioneers tackled homesteading west of the Dakotas. Some 70 duotone photos with captains record outbuildings, abandoned farms, and the failure of early homesteading in this powerful testimonial.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Robin Benson on May 3, 2008
Format: Paperback
I don't thinks it's too often that you'll come across a book that delivers just what it says it will. John Campbell has achieved this perfectly with his first class text and photos. As a work by a professional archaeologist this could have been the predictable dry words and dull photos that would nevertheless have been subject accurate but fortunately the wonderful images with their complete captions work so well.

Campbell makes the story of the seven million Homesteaders really come alive in the first four chapters. The following seventy photos (in 175 screen) reinforce many of the points with detailed captions and nicely these include a touch of humor here and there. The photos show dilapidated houses, barns and other buildings, household and agricultural implements, rusting farm machinery and vehicles. So many of the exterior shots show buildings just sitting on the empty Plains which to the Homesteaders must have seemed a daunting environment, not only to work but also to bring a family up in.

I think this is a wonderful book of an overlooked part of American history and the only thing that could have made it better for me would be a really classy art paper and finer screen to reproduce these remarkable photos.

***FOR AN INSIDE LOOK click 'customer images' under the cover.
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