Abstract: Sodbusting and Trust Building: Flax and Linseed Oil in Canada and the United States, 1860-1930

Joshua MacFadyen


An increase in postbellum paint consumption was responsible for the expansion of linseed oil production and the flax seed cultivation so central to it. Flax was a sodbusting crop, and from 1860 to 1920 the center of production moved steadily toward the northern Great Plains and Canadian prairies. Fearing that flax cultivation would leave the Northwest entirely, a group of linseed oil crushers led by National Lead, Rockefeller's American Linseed Oil, and what would become Archer-Daniels-Midland campaigned to "save the flax crop." Plant pathologists at North Dakota Agricultural College had recently discovered a fungus that was literally at the root of flax's dislocation, and the linseed oil crushers helped them distribute their findings and develop resistant strains. Scientific discoveries helped overcome environmental constraints, yet even elaborate propaganda could not keep Northwest farmers growing flax when prices were low and disease was high. The trusts and other integrated enterprises were likely aware of this; the real return for their investment in flax science was information about the conditions, yield, and location of the Northwest flax crop.